DURING President Ashraf Ghani’s maiden state visit to New Delhi, the traditional bonhomie — tempered by realism though — was in evidence. India offered the visiting leader military and economic help to offset what it perceives as the growing clout of Pakistan and its all-weather friend China in Afghanistan.
Seven months after taking office, Ghani shared with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee his vision for taking the Indo-Afghan partnership to new heights. At the same time, he adroitly assuaged concerns in Delhi about Kabul’s tilt towards Islamabad and Beijing.
To put a resilient face on bilateral relations, India announced delivering multi-role Cheetal helicopters to Afghan forces shortly before the visit. But the choppers were handed over after Delhi had rejected Kabul’s demand for military transport assistance. The Afghan leader has since withdrawn his predecessor’s request for military hardware.
As characterised by the president, Indo-Afghan ties are rooted in many commonalities and “a million memories”. In consonance with their strategic partnership deal, India agreed to keep providing capacity-building support for Afghan forces.
Ashraf Ghani has refused to take sides in regional power games.
On balance, the three-day presidential trip is reflective of a subtle recalibration of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. It also indicates a marked departure from ex-president Hamid Karzai’s extraordinary conviviality with Indian leaders. An Indian-educated Pakhtun from Kandahar province, Karzai put all his eggs in one basket: he did win hearts and minds in India, but alienated his immediate neighbours — notably Pakistan and Iran. He tended to blame all of Afghanistan’s woes on the two nations, perhaps to please the Indians.
Unlike the erratic ex-president, Ghani has refused taking sides in regional power struggles. He sees domestic insecurity as a proxy war fuelled by India’s increasing intelligence presence in the country. Islamabad has long accused Delhi of using Afghan soil to foment trouble in Balochistan and KP.
Although Pakistan’s complaints in this regard cut little ice with Karzai, his successor has exhibited genuine willingness to address the problem. He has been engaged with Islamabad and Beijing to jump-start stalled peace talks with the Taliban.
He is averse to political brinkmanship and instead advocates a regional approach towards stability. Despite calls from hawks within his administration not to rely on Pakistan as an honest peace-broker, the president continues to pursue a long-elusive rapprochement. He does not seem to buy the notion that India has lost its ground in Afghanistan due to his policy shift.
Indubitably, India’s assistance to Afghanistan over the past decade has been focused on education, agriculture, institution-building, infrastructure development and reconstruction. The fifth largest donor, India has already given Afghanistan more than $2.2 billion in aid for a variety of projects.
In addition to offering thousands of scholarships to Afghan students and training grants to civil servants, India has made significant investments in power projects, the Hajigak iron-ore mine and facilitating Afghan-Iran trade links. Welcome as it is, this aid should not be misconstrued by India as a tool of influencing Afghanistan’s foreign policy.
Recent developments, including the prospect of a deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, are expected to unlock a slew of possibilities for Afghanistan, whose economic landscape will transform significantly with the development of trade routes through Iran and Pakistan.
In the emerging scenario, India would never like to be left out of the loop in terms of trade and political clout with Afghanistan. As America’s role is fast shrinking, China, Pakistan and Iran are understandably pushing for sway in the region. All South Asian actors are required to grasp the contours of the changing world.
For stability in South Asia, Indian policymakers will have to rethink their anti-Pakistan stance, expand trade links with Iran in defiance of US sanctions, stop opposing China’s rise as a regional powerhouse and extend a helping hand to Afghanistan. Speeding up expansion of the Chabahar port on the Iranian coast, an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, will immeasurably benefit the impoverished nation.
Only through honest regional cooperation, can violent extremism be defeated. With collective efforts, the country can be converted into a roundabout where ideas, people and goods come from South Asia to Central Asia. But the idea of an economically integrated Asia is largely predicated on hope.
Since late 2001, the world has poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan to underwrite the Karzai administration, but many officials siphoned off much of the aid to purchase homes in Dubai. Appreciative of donor fatigue, Ghani has fired 62 generals and centralised billions of dollars in procurement deals under his purview. Everyone knows graft has to be banished to make Afghanistan an Asian hub crossed by pipelines, railroads and modern telecom services.
The writer is a Kabul-based Pakistani journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2015