The state visit to India from April 27 to 29 of the Afghan President— Ashraf Ghani— did not receive much media attention. This is in part due to the fact that India-Afghan relations have been in the doldrums since his assumption of office in September 2014 and in part because the visit did not inject any new vitality into the relationship.
Much of the fault for the downturn in India-Afghan ties may be attributed to Ashraf Ghani’s moves which are to considerable extent driven by his tilt towards Pakistan. Unlike his predecessor who had over time come to recognise that Pakistan was a part of the problem on the core issue of terrorism facing Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani has chosen to treat Pakistan as a part of the solution.
Accordingly, he has sought to cosy up to the Pakistan by visiting it in November 2014 barely two months after taking over as President, coordinating moves by it against the TTP, refraining from accusing it of the export of terror, pandering to its sensitivities by not seeking military equipment from India, acceding to its request of sending Afghan cadets to it for military training, etc. Indeed, he has gone so far as to make the ridiculous suggestion that the main purveyor of terrorism in Afghanistan is the Islamic State and not the terrorist outfits operating from Pakistan!
If this were not enoughAshraf Ghani’s visit to India comes many months after his assuming office and has been preceded by visits to China, Pakistan, USA, UK and Saudi Arabia. This is, perhaps, in keeping with his statement in Beijing in October 2014 where he placed India in the fourth of the five concentric circles of Afghanistan’s engagement way behind the countries so far visited by him.
The twenty paragraph joint statement issued during Ashraf Ghani’s visit to India is testimony to the absence of any meaningful effort to induce a qualitative upturn in the bilateral relationship. While the joint statement refers to the commitment of both countries to work to strengthen their strategic partnership and their determination to combat the scourge of terrorism this amounts to no more than lip service given that military cooperation with India is now on the backburner and that Afghanistan is seeking to develop a special relationship with Pakistan which is the fount of terror.
In concrete terms, India, apart from gifting three Cheetah helicopters promised some time back, made known its intent to support the Habibia School, over the next 10 years, the Afghan Red Crescent Society’s programme to treat Child Congenital Heart disease and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health for 5 years each. In addition, it indicated that it would extend the 1000 scholarships accorded by it annually till 2016-2017 for a further five years.
The stalemate in the relationship is reflected in the fact that not a single agreement was inked during the visit. It was, however, agreed that within three months documents relating to an extradition treaty, mutual legal assistance treaties in criminal, civil and commercial matters, agreement on transfer of sentenced persons, a motor vehicles agreement for regulation of traffic between Afghanistan and India, and an MoU on visa free entry for diplomatic passport holders, would be signed.
The only area of meaningful and visible Afghanistan-India cooperation is on the issue of transit trade where Ashraf Ghani spoke up on the need for Pakistan to permit Afghan trucks to come right up to Attari on the Indian border rather than being stopped at Wagah.
He has also been supportive of the movement of Indian goods through Pakistan. On this basis he has encouraged India’s participation in the Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan Trade and Transit Agreement negotiations with a view to promoting regional trade.
It is abundantly clear from the foregoing that the traditional warmth in India-Afghan ties which had characterised most of the Karzai years and indeed much of independent Afghanistan’s history has suffered a setback with the advent of Ashraf Ghani’s to power.
It is, of course, quite possible that Ashraf Ghani’s tilt to Pakistan may be reversed in the coming months if the latter overplays its hand and does not deliver on promoting the reconciliation being sought by the former with the Taliban. Indeed, as may be recalled Karzai too had leaned towards Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of assuming office.
Ashraf Ghani’s wooing of Pakistan as well as of China is naturally a matter of concern to India. Our great advantage, however, lies in the reality that we are both loved and respected by the Afghan people. This is as much due to our age old cultural and civilisational links with Afghanistan as well as the enormous goodwill earned by us through the wide ranging and brilliantly executed relief and developmental activities undertaken by us through the length and breadth of the country without much fanfare but directed to benefit the common man.
In the last decade alone India has been the fourth largest donor in Afghanistan investing over $2billion in a variety of developmental programmes. India will, therefore, always tend to resonate in the Afghan psyche as a friend irrespective of the predisposition of the prevailing leadership. This is something that will ultimately colour the approach of any Afghan leadership.
Notwithstanding our serious concerns about Ashraf Ghani’s dalliance with Pakistan and China we must recognise that we lack the leverages to influence the former to change tack. Accordingly, it is better to be patient rather than proactive. Sooner or later Pakistan’s overweening ambitions will cause it to overplay its hand. Its proclivity to try and create a subservient Afghanistan will lead it to adopt policies which will inevitably cause Ashraf Ghani to revisit his approach towards Pakistan. Till such time India should play it cool and keep a light foot print in Afghanistan much as is being done by the government.
Specifically, while alerting Ashraf Ghani to the dangers of playing footsy with Pakistan and turning a blind eye to its export of terror we should desist from pressuring him in any way or thrusting military assistance on him.
Even the economic cooperation programmes devised by us should be minimal and non intrusive. This is all the more so as with increasing Pakistani influence in Afghanistan Indian personnel in that country will be at greater risk.
Such programmes as we undertake in Afghanistan should henceforth be merely geared to keeping our key projects energised. This will naturally lead to a decline in our economic assistance to Afghanistan which is all to the good as it will convey our disapproval of its tilt towards Pakistan.
The writer is a former Deputy National Security Adviser, Government of India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org