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Rising Barriers to Indian Soft Power in Afghanistan

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Over the course of last two decades, India has presented itself as a major player in Afghanistan in the realm of soft power. Through strategically investing in multi-sectorial social-economic activities, India has not just presented an alternative to the hard power tactics that Afghanistan has witnessed from Pakistan, it has also won the ‘hearts and minds’ with the ideas of nation building and cultural influence through art, culture, music, education opportunities and economic investments.  This should conclude in the verdict that India holds a key position in any engagement that focuses on Afghanistan’s future and that India can affect the course of developments keeping in view its own national interests. However, this seems far from reality as it can be argued that today India is being limited by the barriers to its soft power and thus, the fears of losing relevance in Afghanistan might be becoming a reality.

What is ‘Soft power’ and ‘Hard power ‘?

Joseph Nye defines soft power as the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment, and that a country’s soft power rests on its resources – culture, political values and foreign policies. In contrast, hard power involves the ‘ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will’. When we look at the Indian soft power context in Afghanistan, two contrasting phenomena can be observed at play today. On one hand, where India’s soft power in Afghanistan is seen as paramount by most scholars and is expected to make India a major actor in the region and thus a participant in the ongoing Afghan peace process, India found itself somehow sidelined in a process where actors like Pakistan, China, and Turkey are playing a major role who base themselves on a foundation of hard power in Afghanistan.

India’s Soft Power in Afghanistan

“Two international surveys in Afghanistan indicated that India is the most popular foreign country there- all of this without much Indian hard power on display”, noted Rani Mullen in 2015. She highlights that India in 2012-13 allocated over 2000 study and training fellowships to Afghanistan, trained a generation of civil servants and potential key-makers  and the fact that Hamid Karzai, former Afghanistan president studied in India undoubtedly enabled India to secure a close relationship with Afghanistan and an official strategic partnership, without having to flex a hard power muscle.  Further taking in account the recent Indian record, it can be said that India has been a key development partner in Afghanistan, having achieved 400 projects in 34 provinces, built over 200 schools, sponsored thousands of scholarships and supplied wheat, medical facilities and more recently, COVID aid. The construction of Afghan parliament building and the Salma dam (also revered as Afghan-India Friendship Dam), stands testimony to the Indian support towards Afghanistan’s development. It has often been highlighted that unlike other actors, India’s endeavor to help Afghanistan has no other agenda than thestability and development of Afghanistan. However, today, India finds itself restricted in leveraging its soft power in Afghanistan, due to several reasons.

The 21st Century Race for Soft Power in Afghanistan

In sphere of aid and economic assistance, which Mullen notes is one of the key soft power tools, India has found a tough competitor in China, who has deep pockets and ambitions to overshadow Indian efforts. India and China both have major geopolitical interests in Afghanistan who see Afghanistan as the gateway to an oil and resource rich Central Asia and to European markets besides the factors related to own national security due to growing extremism in the region. Both nations are now pushing hard to be the bigger stakeholder in the infrastructure and development of Afghan economy.  However, where India is finding it increasingly hard to have access to Afghanistan, and have also been ‘Dropped’ recently from Chabahar rail project (which India see as the connectivity link to Afghanistan) by Iran due to lack  of active engagement from India, China has been successful in making inroads, exemplified in the recent project of ‘Sino-Afghan Special Railway Transportation’ which links Afghanistan to China, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, thus, integrating Afghanistan into the USD 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Moving to the sphere of culture and media, India is now facing off against a rising Turkey. In his article in 2008, Shashi Tharoor had noted that the television mega-serial “ Kyu ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” had become India’s biggest asset in Afghanistan where it was watched by 94 percent of Afghans. Today, this space is dominated by Turkish media. “ Turkey’s efforts in terms of humanitarian efforts and education across the Muslim world have contributed to its rising influence on a social and cultural level, namely the global success of its soap operas”, notes Tanya Goudsouzian, a Canadian journalist covering Afghanistan for over 15 years. She emphasizes on the phenomenon that “War-weary Afghans have tuned in to Turkish dramas, which have proven to be culturally appropriate alternatives to Bollywood’s song-and-dance escapism and Hollywood’s ‘America saves the world’ propaganda.” In other opinions too, Tukey enjoys an increasingly privileged position in Afghanistan society whose troops on the group as part of NATO forces have been seen in a different light than troops from other ­countries and have not been seen as foreign invaders. In sphere of education, Turkish education is again becoming popular among Afghan families. The ethnic linkages with minorities like Uzbek minority serves as an added advantage for deepening the ties.  Further, a growing closeness with Pakistan, has helped Turkey to gain inroads and insights and thus become a major internal stakeholder in Afghanistan rather than just a friendly nation 1700 miles away.

What’s Ahead?

It can be argued that gains from India’s soft power in Afghanistan remains a case of unrealized potential due to the absence of credible hard power. Kabir Taneja, fellow at the Observer Research Foundation notes that India’s position of goodwill in Afghanistan, gained due to a non-interventionist approach also limits India’s aspirations of becoming a superpower, as there is little point to soft power if one cannot back it with hard power to protect their interests . In the era of peace process, Indian soft power is now pitted against the hard power elements of Pakistan which is pro-Taliban, and China, who uses soft power as a direct extension of its hard power, then there is Turkey, who might be on its way to replace India in the realm of media content through its rising popularity among the Muslim world. In this situation, Indian policymakers have their work cut-out which is to think about the relevance of Indian soft power without a support of hard power tools to decide both short-term and long-term plans in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. It will be imperative to not only recalculate the tools used for deploying soft power, but also to figure out India’s own rule in regional geopolitics if it wants to continue a soft power approach sans hard power credibility on ground.

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Diplomacy

International Relations Amid the Pandemic

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We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.

At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?

COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.

At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.

The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.

Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.

Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.

In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.

Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.

Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.

Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.

However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.

Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.

From our partner RIAC

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Diplomacy

Relevance of the Soft Power in Modern World

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In modern days, the relevance of Soft Power has increased manifolds. At times, the COIVD-19 has hooked the whole human race; this concept has further come into the limelight. The term, Soft Power was coined by the American Scientist Joseph Nye. Soft Power is the ability of a country to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion. By tapping the tool of Soft Power, a country can earn respect and elevate its global position. Hard Power cannot be exercised exceeding a territory, and if any country follows this suit, its image is tarnished globally. However, it is Soft Power that can boost the perception and create a niche of a nation. Soft Power is regarded as the essential factor of the overall strength of a country. It can increase the adhesion and the determination of the people in a realm to shape the foreign relations of any nation. Nye held that the Soft Power arsenal would include culture, political values, and foreign policy.

After the Cold War, many nations pumped billions of dollars into Soft Power initiatives, and the US mastered this concept. The US has sailed on the waters of Soft Power by harnessing the tool of media, politics, and economic aid. The US boasts globally recognized brands and companies, Hollywood, and its quest for democratic evangelization. Through movies, the US has disseminated its culture worldwide. American movies are viewed by a massive audience worldwide. The promotion of the US culture through films is a phenomenon (culture imperialism) where the US subtly wants to dominate the world by spreading its culture. Through Hollywood films, the US has an aspiration to influence the world by using Soft Power tools. Hollywood is considered as the pioneer of fashion, and people across the globe imitate and adopt things from Hollywood to their daily life. Such cultural export lure foreign nations to fantasize about the US as a pillar of Soft Power. Educational exchange programs, earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti, famine relief in Africa stand as the best example of the US initiatives of Soft Power. Now, the American political and cultural appeal is so extensive that the majority of international institutions reflect US interests. The US, however, witnessed a drop from 1st place to 6th on the Global Soft Power Index. This wane can be attributed to the attack on the US Capitol Hill sparked by former US President Donald Trump. In addition, his dubious decisions also hold responsibilities that curtailed the US soft power image, that is, particularly the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Beijing is leaving no stone unturned to ace this area. China, rich in culture and traditional philosophy, boasts abundant sources of Soft Power. China is contemplating and exploring an innovative strategy in its rise in international politics. There have been notable elements in the Chinese diplomatic practice, including softer rhetoric, promotion of its culture abroad, economic diplomacy, and image building. Beijing, amid an ongoing pandemic, has extended vaccine help to 80 countries. Such initiative taken by China has elevated its worth globally during difficult times of the pandemic. According to the Global Soft Power index 2021, China stands in the 8th slot. China is an old civilization with a rich culture. China has stressed culture as a crucial source of Soft Power. In a bid to enhance its cultural dominance, Beijing has built many Confucius Institutes overseas. However, this has not been whole-heartedly embraced by the Chinese neighbors due to territorial disputes on the South China Sea. Moreover, International Order, dominated by the West, is wary of Beijing. China’s authoritarian political system is not welcomed in Western democracies. Therefore, China finds it hard to generate Soft Power in democracies. In recent times, Beijing has witnessed tremendous extension in its economy; thus, it focuses on harnessing economic tools to advance its Soft Power. Consequently, Beijing has driven its focus on geoeconomics to accelerate its Soft Power.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, in this sphere, finds itself in a very infirm position -securing 63rd position in the Global Soft Power Index. In comparison with Pakistan, India boasts a lot of Soft Power by achieving the 36th position in the Global Soft Power Index. Its movies, yoga, and classical and popular dance and music have uplifted the Indian soft image. In the promotion of the Indian Soft Power Image, Bollywood plays a leading role and it stretches beyond India. Bollywood has been projected as a great Soft Power tool for India. Bollywood stars are admired globally. For instance, Shahrukh Khan, known as Baadshah of Bollywood, has a fan following across the world. Through its Cinema, India has attracted the attention of the world. Indian movies have recognition in the world and helped India earn billions of dollars. However, the Modi government has curtailed the freedom of Bollywood. Filmmakers claim that their movies are victim of censorship. Moreover, the anti-Muslim narrative has triggered in India, which has tarnished the Indian image of secular country and eventually splashing the Indian Soft image. Protests of farmers, revocation of article 370 in Kashmir, and the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) have degraded the Indian Soft Power.

Pakistan is not in the tier of the countries acing the Soft Power notion. In Pakistan, expressions of Soft Power, like spiritualism, tourism, cinema, literature, cricket, and handicrafts, are untapped. Pakistan is on the list of those countries having immense tourism potential and its culture is its strength. Unfortunately, no concrete steps are taken to promote the Pakistani culture and tourism. The Pakistani movies are stuck in advancing Pakistan’s narrative worldwide due to lack of the interest of successive governments in this sphere. In addition, these movies lack suitable content, that’s why people prefer watching Bollywood or Hollywood movies. It is the job of the government to harness the expressions of Soft Power. Through movies and soap operas, we can disseminate our culture, push our narrative, and promote our tourism. Government-sponsored campaigns on electronic media can help greatly in this sphere. Apart from the role of government, this necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders, including artists, entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, and civil society.

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Diplomacy

Planetary Drought of Leadership

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The Tokyo Olympic Games, just concluded, were a spectacular success and grateful thanks are owed to our Japanese hosts to make this event so, at a time when we were in the middle of a global pandemic. There were many doubts expressed beforehand by many people over the Games going ahead during the pandemic, but the precautionary measures put in place were well handled and not obtrusive. 

For anyone who had the opportunity to watch the Games via TV they must have been struck by the wonderful sportsmanship and friendship shown by the competitors of all nations taking part, whatever race and ethnicity. It prompted me to think and ask why the countries of the world cannot exercise some of the same degree of friendship when dealing with one another rather than push forward with agendas that are antagonistic. The world holds a number of dysfunctional states as well as oppressive dictatorships where the resident population is subjected to mental as well as physical torture. Belarus is a typical example, where the leader of the country stole the election to give himself yet another term, and quashes any dissent, with some paying the ultimate price. He has the arrogance to divert a commercial flight so that he can arrest someone who opposes him and then beats him up, before parading him in front of the cameras to say an apology, which everyone can see was forced out of him. 

The Middle East is a complex problem and has been for centuries, the home of some of the oldest civilisations and the divergent monotheistic religions, which add a complicating factor. It surprisingly has been relatively quiet for the last period. Until the next flare up.

Myanmar has also been quiet, or so it seems. The military patrols across the country, particularly in states that offer some resistance and tough guerrilla opposition. The military behave badly, continuing the practice of killing, rape and pillage if not total destruction of small communities which cannot offer any resistance. Corruption is thriving. The military government have ‘promised’ fresh elections next February, 6 months hence, but it is most unlikely that these will be ‘fair and free’. The troubled conditions will continue. It will be an issue of continuing concern for ASEAN and more widely. A recent visit for a documentary had to be carried out illegally in case the military had discovered that the local people had been welcoming and helpful. The repercussions would have been appalling.

The latest situation that has arisen is the Afghanistan blitz takeover by the Taliban, a medieval group promoting the fundamental sharia doctrine, which is out of date and treats women as ‘non-persons’. They have also harboured terrorists, one group pulling off the infamous 2001, 9/11 strike on the NY Twin Towers, which awakened the US to take strong retaliatory action in Afghanistan, and forcing the Taliban out for 20 years. Their 5-year, 1996-2001, rule of Afghanistan was brought to a close after the NY happening, when the US with Allied forces took charge and ousted them. 

But now the Taliban are back following a direct meeting with the then president Trump in 2017, no Afghan government present, and they saw him coming! Shades of North Korea. He said he would withdraw completely without proper assurances, leaving the country’s development less than half finished. President Joseph Biden completed the task of withdrawal, somewhat hasty, upsetting nearly all Americans in the process. The British were caught flat-footed and there is considerable anger expressed by MPs, not least because they realise that they no longer have the ability to resolve such issues themselves. They feel embarrassed and rightly so.

As one of the Afghan luminaries and most quoted intellectuals, prof. Djawed Sangdel, reminds us: “Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Even Alexander the Macedonian realised – 2,300 years ago – ‘it is easy to enter the country, but lethal when exiting it’. This especially if you do not respect domestic realities.” Indeed, the situation on the ground is chaotic.

The leader, Ashraf Ghani, of the weak ‘legal’ government has fled, not without rumours about bags full of cash, and that is one reason that the country has not progressed as well as it should, endemic corruption. Women, quite rightly, are fearful, as to what lies in store, as the Taliban’s record on treatment of them is brutal. They have promised to give emancipation within sharia law – which in their case was the combination of twisted and oversimplified Islamic teachings with the tribal nomadic pre-Islamic culture of the central Asian hights.

Looking at the country as a whole, one worries about its future; the Taliban have no track record of governing a country, particularly not one as complex as Afghanistan. They would have to greatly modify their approach to life, separate religion from state (affairs). However, there are credible doubts; once more the Northern Alliance will get together and the country will lapse into civil war. Will the Chinese see an opportunity and risk what others have failed to do? My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan.

In reviewing the past few decades, it would seem that western led democracies, when they have engaged with a country, which is in trouble, have only entered it without full humanitarian understanding of the problems and not sought a proper sustainable solution. Inevitably it takes longer than one thinks, and there are not strong enough safeguards put in to avoid financial losses to development projects, sometimes major.

The UN has a major part to play, but one must ask if today’s remit is fit for purpose, or should they be reviewed, and the countries that make up the UN should look at and ask themselves if they are fair in what they give and expect, not just monetarily.

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