Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Kabul this morning for an unannounced but widely anticipated Christmas visit to the Afghan capital. The Hindu had reported earlier this week, that the visit would go through but needed a last minute security clearance given a spate of attacks in the past few days.
On Monday, NDS (Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security) said they had intercepted a Taliban suicide bomber who had planned an attack at the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, and last week, two suspected ISIS terrorists with 30kg of explosives, also planning an attack there, heightening the concerns.
>During his visit today, the Prime Minister would unveil two of India’s most important initiatives in Afghanistan during the short visit: the inauguration of the parliament building, and handing over ceremony for four Mi-25 attack helicopters. Mr. Modi was greeted at the Kabul airport by Afghan NSA Hanif Atmar, who had visited Delhi last month, and was returning after his two day visit to Moscow. He is expected to return to Delhi this evening.
Mr. Modi’s visit to Afghanistan is his first after becoming Prime Minister. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited Kabul last in 2011, and had also visited in 2005. Mr. Modi had been invited during >Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to India in April this year. "I look very much forward to receiving you in Kabul and I hope you will not only come to inaugurate the parliament (building) but also visit the Bamiyan Valley and some of our other sites,” President Ghani had said at the time.
Officials described the parliament building as “a symbol of India’s support to Afghanistan’s democracy and civil reconstruction support”. The helicopters are an equally symbolic gesture, as they denote a shift in India’s position on supplying ‘offensive’ equipment. Three of the helicopters have already reached Kabul, while the last is expected to be dispatched in the next few days.
The parliament building, that was started in 2009 has missed its completion deadlines at least 3 times since 2011, and >has gone over-budget by double the original costing of $45 million. Even so, along with the $300 million Salma dam project in Heart province that was started in 2006 and is expected to be completed next year, they have generated much goodwill amongst locals. When the Salma dam ( >called the India-Afghanistan friendship dam ) reached a critical filling point in July 2015, thousands of Afghans carried a 100 m long Indian tricolour as a gesture of gratitude.
However, India-Afghanistan relations took a turn for the worse shortly after, especially when the Ghani government attempted to enter an MoU between its intelligence agency the NDS and Pakistan’s ISI, and then India was cut out of Afghanistan talks with the Taliban leadership held in Pakistan. In the past few months, however, Afghanistan’s government has tried to reach out to India once again.
Two visits, first by NSA Hanif Atmar followed by the deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, set the tone to bring the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the two countries back on track. For its part, India has shed its earlier hesitation on only giving Afghanistan non-lethal assistance like transport vehicles, and training. Given concerns of a harsh reaction from Pakistan and Pakistan based groups like the LeT, India has balanced its public statements, and the new détente between India and Pakistan may go a long way in helping India assist Afghanistan as well.
In her speech in Islamabad earlier this month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had also pitched for an opening of the truck transit route from Afghanistan to India. “India is prepared to move our cooperation at a pace which Pakistan is comfortable with. But today, let us at least resolve to help Afghanistan – in the best traditions of good neighbourliness – through more effective transit arrangements,” Ms Swaraj had said.