The recently concluded state visit by Afghanistan President, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani fortified the long-standing Indo-Afghan relations. Buttressing Modi’s piquant call to impose sanctions on states sponsoring terror at the recent G-20 summit and the ASEAN Meet, Afghan President in the joint statement vociferously denounced the regional adversary for fomenting terror. Two years ago, newly sworn in President Ghani placed high emphasis on restoring and strengthening relations with Pakistan over the traditional ally India in anticipation of quelling the cross-border terror that threatened to descend Afghanistan into chaos. Afghan Taliban thriving on the narcotic trade, rooted in obnoxious ideology and shored up by Pakistani Military had its safe havens in Pakistan. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who stabilized the Indo-Afghan ties, Ghani went out of way to reach out to Pakistani counterparts to seek cooperation in expediting peace talks with Afghan Taliban.
India’s strategic community was sidelined during this process. In the meanwhile, Pakistan logically networked Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) for Afghanistan with US and China and deliberately eliminated India. Consequently, strategic experts declared that India has lost Afghanistan to Pakistan. But things took a dramatic turn with Afghan Taliban escalating their attacks on Afghanistan and capturing more strategically important territories like Kunduz. Aggression of Taliban reached a hilt in September 2015, following which President Ghani lambasted Pakistan for patronizing Taliban. President Ghani openly rebuked Pakistan at the joint session of Parliament after Taliban attack in April that claimed several lives and announced that Islamabad had launched an “undeclared war” on Afghanistan. Perceptibly even the fanfare about the peace talks farce too ended after killing of Mullah Mansour Akhtar in drone attack by the US in May 2015, closing all avenues for peace. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan further deteriorated with escalation of hostilities along the Torkham Gate.
Despite Afghanistan’s levitation towards Pakistan, Modi adopted a soft power approached. His visit to Kabul in December last year for the inauguration of Parliament Complex build by India and transfer of four Mi-25 attack helicopters displayed India’s commitment in upholding the Strategic Partnership agreement of 2011. India by sealing historic trilateral transit and transport agreement of Chahbahar port with Iran and Afghanistan gave needed impetus to the Indo-Afghan bilateral relations. This agreement besides addressing the constraints of a land-locked country would reduce dependability on Pakistan for transit access, infusing new hope for and economic development in Afghanistan. Later in June 2016 by inaugurating the long awaited Indo-Afghanistan Friendship Bridge (Salma Dam) at Herat, Modi consolidated bilateral ties.
President Ghani’s visit to India comes at a time when the resurgent Afghan Taliban has upped its offensive. Following intensive combing of US post 9/11, Afghan Taliban escaped into Pakistan territories and were patiently waiting to strike back. After the pull back of NATO troops in 2014, Taliban escalated attacks on Afghanistan. As per latest accounts, Taliban is now controlling three (Tarin Kot, Lashkar Gah and Kunduz) out of 34 provincial capitals. Independent sources project an even grim picture indicating that of the 398 districts of Afghanistan, 39 are controlled by Taliban and tough fight is on in 43 districts. Reports also indicate that all the government officials of the fallen districts are now fleeing the region. The unprecedented aggression of Taliban is threatening to destabilize the administration of the country (1).
Stymied by brutal terror attacks Afghanistan urged Pakistan to prevail and trample the conduits of financial resources but affirmative action was clearly absent. Meanwhile, even tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan escalated with Pakistan installing new mechanisms of surveillance at the Tokhram and Chaman border crossings and imposing sanctions on movement of men and material. Last week Ghani threatened to cut off Pakistan’s access to transit facilities to Central Asia through Afghanistan if Islamabad fails to allow the use of Wagah border for trade with India. While Pakistan obliged to allow Afghan goods to pass through the border it contested import of goods from India.
While Pakistan has little to lose considering its miniscule amounts of trade to Central Asia, stern warning from Ghani is a reflection of looming irreconcilable differences between India’s Western neighbors. Though Afghanistan and Pakistan share 2500 km open border and have close people to people contacts with large population of Pashtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both countries emerged as sparring neighbors. While India is Afghanistan’s traditional partner and both countries had cordial relations. Except for the brief Taliban regime that stormed into power in 1996, Afghan regimes always levitated towards India to seek balance as Pakistan tried to destabilize their country mercilessly. Besides Afghanistan, India also bore the brunt of state sponsored terrorism of Pakistan. However reluctant Indian leadership always preferred peace over confrontation.
Modi’s bold stance of referring to human right violations in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), Gilgit Baltistan, Baluchistan, appeals to International community to isolate states sponsoring terrorism and massive diplomatic outreach for cooperation on counter terrorism found congruence with Afghanistan’s tribulations. Moreover, deteriorating relations with Pakistan and John Kerry’s announcement of India-US-Afghanistan trilateral Dialogue for restoration of peace in Afghanistan prompted President Ghani to reach out to India. The trilateral dialogue will restart at the UN General Assembly.
Appreciating Indian efforts in restoring the Storay Palace which was jointly inaugurated on Aug 22nd by both leaders, Ghani anticipated that both countries would work towards strengthening strategic partnership and all-round cooperation. India so far extended civilian assistance through transfer of technology, scholarships, medical training, rural empowerment and was the single largest bilateral-donor in the region. Ghani during his visit sought military assistance from India to strike back at the Taliban. India responded positively and expressed willingness to train Afghan military personnel, provide second hand transport helicopters, tanks and artillery. But experts believe that military assistance to Afghanistan may not the real game changer since the sturdy military and security systems of Afghanistan under constant attacks have become inefficient over years and economic bankruptcy turned them redundant.
Also, any form of military support might buttress Afghanistan’s existing defensive mechanisms but may not help in reclaiming the areas seized by the Taliban (1). On the contrary, India and Afghanistan can collectively build up international pressure on Pakistan by referring the terror perpetrated by Rawalpindi at various multilateral forums. Reinforcing their commitment to fight terrorism, both leaders called “upon the concerned to put an end to all sponsorship, support and safe havens and sanctuaries to terrorists, including those who target Afghanistan and India”. They expressed “grave concern at continued use of terrorism” that threatens to destroy the regional stability, peace and harmony. Countries have signed agreements on extradition, mutual legal assistance and outer space cooperation. Reiterating India’s commitment of working towards a “unified, sovereign, democratic, peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan”, Modi announced $1 billion aid towards capacity building, strengthening democratic institutions, women’s empowerment, education, health and technology. India also offered to supply medicines and extend cooperation in solar energy generation. With this India has so far disbursed $3 billion developmental aid to Afghanistan becoming the largest bilateral-donor in Asia (overtaking China). Ghani before leaving New Delhi, addressed the Indian think-tank IDSA where he characteristically chided and snubbed Pakistan’s good and bad terrorist doctrine.
While India’s new avatar of bold diplomatic posturing might be a welcome development, the path of ushering Indo-Afghan relations into new realm must be tread very carefully. With the US commending India’s financial assistance and support to restore democracy in Afghanistan, Pakistan already miffed by US decision of blocking sale of F-16 and $300 million will deepen its relations with China. In the process it might lure Russia to join. Eventually this development would be viewed as a kind of proxy war between India-US and China-Pakistan in the region. With the West having retracted security forces, Pakistan refusing to act on Taliban and Afghanistan lacking the means and resources to match Taliban aggression, the long war would continue for years. The only way India and Afghanistan can exert pressure on Pakistan is by internationalizing and exposing the clandestine state sponsored terrorism patronized by Rawalpindi. Pragmatically India has embraced this new strategy. Moreover, by pledging developmental assistance India successfully ensconced itself in a propitious position.