Changed variables, same equation

Though no stranger to India, Ashraf Ghani will now be under scrutiny for what he says about how he visualises India-Afghanistan relations. He will be engaging with a new Indian leadership that has displayed no anxiety about the fact that he waited for six months before visiting New Delhi

The Afghanistan President, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, will be in India this week, beginning today, on his first official visit here. There has been speculation about the fact that he is visiting New Delhi after having made, ever since assuming office in late September 2014, two visits in the region, namely to China (October 2014) and also to Pakistan (November 2014), and then to the United Kingdom (December 2014), Saudi Arabia (March 2015), and the United States (March 2015). Therefore, this delay sends out its own message about a reprioritisation in Afghanistan’s foreign policy calculus about relations with India. It marks a sharp contrast to the kind of warmth that his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, displayed towards India and the comfort levels that he enjoyed with the Indian leadership, cutting across party lines.

Afghanistan’s first Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed with India in 2011 and was supported across the board in the Afghan Parliament at the time of ratification. While Dr. Ghani is no stranger to India, this time around he will be under scrutiny for what he says about how he visualises India-Afghanistan relations and, equally, what questions he chooses to sidestep. He will do well to keep in mind that he is engaging with a new Indian leadership which has adopted a more robust and active foreign policy posture and displayed no anxiety about the fact that he waited for six months before visiting New Delhi.

>Read: In step with Ghani’s Afghanistan

Trajectory of violence

Incidentally, Mr. Karzai also had his share of ups and downs with India. In the early years, he tried hard to build relations with Pakistan, confident that the U.S. would back him in this effort but became disillusioned when he discovered that it had no stomach for reining Pakistan in, even after realising that the growing Taliban insurgency had its roots across the border. The first Presidential election in Afghanistan in 2004 passed off peacefully because U.S. President George Bush had virtually read out the riot act to General Pervez Musharraf, ensuring Pakistan’s cooperation in controlling the border. But after October 2005, when the parliamentary elections were over, it was as if a tap had been turned on with the number of suicide attacks and improvised explosive device (IED) blasts skyrocketing. Between 2001 and October 2005, there had been four suicide attacks in Afghanistan; the figure jumped to 15 during the last quarter of 2005. As Gen. Musharraf candidly acknowledged in an interview a couple of months ago, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was supporting the Taliban in its efforts to destabilise Mr. Karzai’s government. Such was Gen. Musharraf’s paranoia about India’s role in Afghanistan that he once told Mr. Karzai during an official meeting that India was running more than 25 consulates in Afghanistan! Gen. Musharraf, and subsequently former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, would demand evidence from Afghanistan every time Mr. Karzai complained about the activities of the Quetta and Peshawar shuras or the Haqqani group (led by Sirajuddin Haqqani); a charade that only ended after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in 2011.

>Read: Slew of pacts under discussion ahead of Ghani visit

Internal pressures

As violence levels rose in Afghanistan, so did Western casualties. Gradually, the nature of the Pakistan Army’s double game became apparent, but by this time, Western countries had lost the appetite for their Afghan engagement and were seeking an exit. Mr. Karzai foresaw this as early as 2007. He also realised that this would leave Afghanistan at the mercy of the ISI’s manipulations and concluded that he had to engage the Taliban in a peace process. Initially, the U.S. was opposed to the idea but Mr. Karzai went ahead with the setting up of the High Peace Council in 2010. He persuaded former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani to chair it. The Council did not achieve much and the following year, Rabbani was killed in a Taliban suicide attack. Mr. Karzai wanted to control the peace process, and through the Council tried to wean away some of the Taliban commanders, but the ISI stranglehold proved to be too strong. Eventually, when the U.S. put its weight behind opening the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, to promote reconciliation, it came to the same conclusion and the process has remained stillborn.

>Read: India’s Afghan dilemma

Unlike his predecessor, Dr. Ghani is more of a technocrat rather than a politician. As Finance Minister during President Karzai’s first term, Dr. Ghani conceptualised the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), a local community-led development programme. Incidentally, this highly successful scheme was ably implemented by Mohammad Hanif Atmar who is now Dr. Ghani’s National Security Adviser. Unlike Mr. Karzai who could spend hours interacting closely with tribal leaders, Dr. Ghani is more at home with policy wonks, graphs and power point displays and hardly tolerates dissent. Second, he is a man in a hurry. He knows that his election was a contested one. His legitimacy rests on the tenuous compromise of a National Unity Government, backed by the U.S.’s heavy diplomatic lifting, with presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah reluctantly accepting the newly created post of a Chief Executive Officer. On September 21, 2014, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan had merely announced the end of the election process and declared Dr. Ghani the President but voting results were withheld with no mention being made about the internationally monitored comprehensive audit of all the ballots. Power sharing between the President and the CEO has not happened leading to strains within the political system and delaying cabinet formation and crucial administrative appointments. This is why both leaders undertook a joint visit to the U.S. last month. Dr. Ghani also realises that the U.S. is headed for elections in 2016 and while he was able to persuade U.S. President Barack Obama to maintain the current U.S. troop presence of nearly 10,000 till end-2016, there is uncertainty about the U.S. and Western role and commitment, post-2016.

Dr. Ghani is under pressure to conclude a peace process with the Taliban and get some investment into the Afghan economy so that economic growth, which has declined from nine per cent annually, during the last decade, to two per cent is resumed. He is all too aware of Pakistan’s ability to play the role of “spoiler” and has tried hard to start on a clean slate with Pakistan. To demonstrate his goodwill, he made it a point to call on Gen. Raheel Sharif at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, in 2014, in a notable departure from protocol. In December last year, Latif Mehsud, a senior Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander, who was held in Bagram, Afghanistan, was handed over to the Pakistani authorities. TTP infiltration across the Durand Line has been blocked by strengthening Afghan Army deployments in provinces like Kunar and Nuristan. Also, for the first time, six Afghan cadets are training at the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul. But, so far, there is little to show for it. The Taliban has launched the spring offensive by declaring its ‘Operation Azm’. A deadly suicide attack in Jalalabad, Pakistan, claimed more than 30 civilian lives on April 18. On April 10, an Afghan Army outpost in Badakhshan was overrun by militants who beheaded eight soldiers. The brutality has led to speculation about whether these incidents might be the handiwork of the Islamic State (IS) making forays into the Afghan theatre or by yet another militant group incubated in the AfPak nursery under a different name.

Looking to China

In addition to wooing the Pakistan Army, Dr. Ghani is also trying to get China to invest in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Given the uncertainty about sustained Western financial support, if the Chinese can be tempted to invest as part of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, it could even generate pressure on the ISI to enable a meaningful peace process with the Taliban to move forward. The announcements made during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Pakistan, in April, about projects worth $46 billion being launched around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, coupled with Gen. Sharif’s statement that a dedicated division could be raised to ensure security for the Chinese-aided projects would have sounded encouraging to Dr. Ghani.

Engaging with India

India need not feel unduly concerned about Dr. Ghani testing his Pakistan-China project. This does not diminish the wealth of goodwill built up over the past decade with all sections of the Afghan community covering countrywide economic cooperation projects, infrastructure, health, nutrition, institution building, human resource development and industry. This cooperation should be expanded provided security is managed. Dr. Ghani’s desire not to purchase military hardware from India is not a rebuff, for India’s capabilities to provide lethal military hardware are extremely limited. Instead, we should urge Dr. Ghani to use his influence to open up transit through Pakistan for India-Afghan trade so that Afghan farmers can rediscover their traditional markets for fruit and dry fruits. Today, the Afghan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) is seen as a barrier because of delays at the borders, restrictions on vehicles, and Afghan trucks having to return empty as they are barred from picking up Indian goods! At the same time, India needs to accelerate the expansion of the Chabahar port on the Iranian coast which provides an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Even as Dr. Ghani clears the air about his agenda, India should wish him well, for as a proud Pashtun, and as a proud Afghan, he understands that India is a strategic partner because we share the same vision — of a stable, united, independent and democratic Afghanistan where all its ethnic groups live and prosper together.

* The article has been corrected for a factual error.

( Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Afghanistan. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com )

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 1:40:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/ashraf-ghani-india-visit-changed-variables-same-equation/article7143735.ece

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