Kabul [INDIAN AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN]
Few ambassadorial residences in the world are located under a Nato helicopter flight path. But as the windows of his elegant reception room rattle from a constant stream of Black Hawks and Chinooks coming in and out of the nearby Nato-led isaf HQ in Kabul, India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Manpreet Vohra, appears unfazed. “I love it here,” he says. “Afghanistan is important for much of the world but certainly for India as [we are] neighbours.”
In a country where decades of foreign intervention has nurtured a deep suspicion of outsiders, India has cultivated a bilateral relationship where both Afghan politicians and the public alike regularly name it as their country’s closest ally. In addition to historical and cultural ties that stretch from the blown-up Bamiyan Buddhas to Afghans’ present-day enthusiasm for Bollywood, India’s popularity stems, Ambassador Vohra says, from being on the right side of history. It refused to recognise the Taliban government and declined to send military troops for the international coalition effort. India is also the fifth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan, committing more than €1.8bn since 2001.
Other countries have provided more; the US, for example, has spent more than $100bn (€88bn) in non-military aid. But India has chosen a canny mix of projects, from the pragmatic – such as the Salma Dam in Herat – to the symbolic, notably the new parliament house in Kabul and a cricket stadium in Kandahar. “One of the biggest gifts that one can give to Afghanistan is hope,” says Vohra.
While most of the world is closing its doors to Afghans, in 2015 India issued about 100,000 study, business, tourism and medical visas, cementing its stellar reputation. “They feel that we are genuine, [without] ulterior motives – as much as our common neighbour tries to say we are up to no good here,” says Vohra.
He declines to explicitly name Pakistan but India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are undoubtedly influenced by its arch-rival. Many analysts believe Pakistan has had a hand in several deadly militant attacks against India’s embassies and consulates in Afghanistan, such as one suicide attack in 2008 that killed 58 people, including the embassy’s defence attache.
Speaking to monocle just two days after another attack on its consulate in Jalalabad, Vohra says India’s policies concerning Afghanistan are not affected by the violence. “This has just been a continuation of the general intent, strategy and tactics used against India for decades now,” he says. “If the intent is to force us to cut and run, we haven’t done that.”
India’s heavily fortified embassy is in the “green zone”, surrounded by imposing blast walls. Its free yoga classes are popular with diplomats and UN workers, while the residence features a mix of Indian art and Afghan rugs.
About 70 Indian diplomats staff the embassy and four consulates. Security risks mean family can’t join officers but there are flights between Kabul and New Delhi.
The international community is increasingly impatient with Afghanistan’s slow economic and security progress, widespread corruption and dysfunctional government – though Vohra insists that some expectations are inflated.
Shades of grey
Cuba [RUSSIAN EMBASSY]
Year built: 1985
Architect: Aleksander Rochegov
This burly concrete building near Havana’s Miramar Playa was designed by Baku-born architect Aleksander Rochegov at the height of the Cold War in the late 1970s but only opened in 1985.
While other embassies occupy colonial-era palaces and belle époque mansions, this hefty constructivist form resembles a watchtower. Built at a time when the Caribbean island relied on the ussr for trade, the building asserted Moscow’s influence. Its grey forms were commonly seen in Soviet buildings of the era – concrete castles of socialist ideology built from Tbilisi to Tirana – but few of them were flanked by palm trees. Although the building has few fans, Rochegov was lauded for his work: in 1991 he received the accolade of people’s architect of the ussr.
Monocle comment: We wouldn’t be surprised if this building was spruced up: as Russia seeks to reboot its global footprint, Cuba has been on Putin’s agenda. In 2014 he agreed to write off 90 per cent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt to Russia: about $32bn (€28.4bn). He also mooted a desire to reopen a former Soviet signals intelligence base on the island at Lourdes. Meanwhile, the US embassy, a midcentury façade of Italian travertine built in 1953 by Wallace K Harrison and Max Abramovitz, is already being refitted for a new era.