Comment

The full circle of reason

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.   | Photo Credit: POOL

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Its faith in Pakistan as an interlocutor for peace shaken, Afghanistan opts for a tighter embrace of its old ally India.

If any proof were needed of the dramatic course correction under way in Afghanistan’s foreign policy, then President Ashraf Ghani could not have given us a better example on his >second official visit to New Delhi . There were agreements on extradition, mutual legal assistance, and even space cooperation. But the most telling moment of the trip was none of these things. Nor was it India’s announcement of $1 billion in aid. Rather, it was Mr. Ghani’s address at the think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) where he praised C. Christine Fair’s book, Fighting to the End: the Pakistan Army’s Way of War, as the best exposition of the Pakistani military establishment’s philosophy. Ms. Fair’s book, spotted in the arms of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar last summer, characterised Pakistan as a “purely greedy state, driven by ideological motives”. “Military defeat short of nuclear emasculation,” she warned, “is not likely to convince the Pakistan Army that its goals are unreasonable.” “Pakistan is a revisionist state,” echoed Mr. Ghani at IDSA, “every defeat is celebrated as victory.”

Realignments over time

If the Afghan President is a convert to these ideas, it is a far cry from his fulsome words at Rawalpindi’s General Headquarters in November 2014. Mr. Ghani’s election earlier that year halted a decade-long improvement in Indo-Afghan ties, notably with the landmark strategic partnership of 2011, and led to a period of frenzied diplomacy between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban. That process, nurtured by the U.S. and China, withered in the heat of the Taliban’s relentless advance over the past year. Peace talks fell apart, the city of Kunduz fell to insurgents last September, and a series of large attacks hit Kabul.

The turning point came in April when a disillusioned Mr. Ghani told a joint session of parliament that he had abandoned hope that Pakistan would deliver the Taliban to the table. He has kept up this tone. Last week, Mr. Ghani sternly warned Pakistan that if it continued to restrict >Afghan trade with India , Kabul would consider blocking Pakistan’s own access to Central Asia. It was a hollow threat, given the small volume of Pakistani trade that flows that way, but it followed clashes and troop build-ups at the Torkham and Chaman border crossings earlier in the summer.

This diplomatic initiative is now pressing Kabul and New Delhi back together, potentially breathing new life into the strategic partnership signed five years ago. During his trip, Mr. Ghani publicly reinforced India’s new approach to Balochistan, demanding that “this violence needs to be covered.” Though it was an afterthought to a line on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it is hard to imagine this was anything other than a carefully planned barb. It came on the very same day Indian diplomats were denouncing “authoritarian Pakistan’s human rights record in Balochistan at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, several thousand miles away.

A second prong of this diplomatic offensive involves Iran. “Why are we concerned that [Pakistan] can block two great nations from trade,” asked Mr. Ghani. “With Chabahar the monopoly will end.” India has been involved in Iran’s Chabahar port for well over a decade, motivated by the promise of access to Afghanistan, but development stalled as sanctions on Iran intensified, Tehran’s attention was absorbed in the Levant, and Pakistan-Iran relations improved. Then in May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr. Ghani, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani signed a trilateral agreement to accelerate the project. Apart from the broader strategic implications of Indian access to Afghanistan and a deeper alignment between all three of Pakistan’s neighbours, Chabahar will generate Indian opportunities for intelligence collection and activity, as at Bandar Abbas further west and Zahedan to the north.

Turning to India

The third prong concerns the old question of Indian arms for Afghanistan. It is by now well known that Mr. Ghani suspended a long-standing request for Indian weaponry in late 2014, to lubricate his abortive outreach to Pakistan. But a year later, India handed over several attack helicopters to boost Afghanistan’s ailing airpower. Last month, Afghan Army chief General Qadam Shah Shahim >visited New Delhi to present the old wish list , including more attack helicopters, transport helicopters, tanks, artillery, and ammunition. I would be surprised if we did not see a breakthrough very shortly indeed.

This visit was specially important because it came just weeks after one from General John Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and NATO’s mission in the country. In 2009, the U.S.’s then top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, famously wrote that “while Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures”. Seven years on, Gen. Nicholson struck a very different tone. “The U.S. favours India’s military support to Afghanistan,” he declared, noting “an immediate need for more” helicopters. More broadly, both India and Afghanistan will be buoyed by hopes that the Congressional mood on Pakistan is shifting, as evidenced by the decision to block funding for F-16 sales and $300 million of funds earlier this summer. Looming U.S. elections may also point to a course correction. “I and others thought we could not trust Pakistan,” wrote Hilary Clinton bitterly in her 2014 memoirs, pointing out that she viewed the relationship as “strictly transactional”.

The question is what all this adds up to. Mr. Ghani is turning to India because his relationship with Pakistan is breaking down. It is breaking down because Pakistan has neither reined in the insurgency nor compelled the Taliban to negotiate. India cannot do either of these things, nor heal the widening rifts within Afghanistan’s dysfunctional National Unity Government. “Chief Executive” Abdullah Abdullah, who was long perceived to be close to India, has condemned Mr. Ghani as “not fit for the presidency”. Political tensions escalated through August, while former President Hamid Karzai hovers as a spectre at the feast. Reforms due for this month are unlikely to happen, though international donors, who meet in Brussels on October 4-5, have no desire to see the unity government fall apart. Among other crises, the capitals of both Uruzgan and Helmand province are under siege by insurgents. Five of the latter’s 14 districts are Taliban-held, despite U.S. forces having been thrown back into direct combat. A handful of Indian helicopters — indeed, even a phalanx of new tanks — will not stop the rot within.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London

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