Need to Take a More Confident View of Kabul
Seven months into his presidency, Ashraf Ghani is finally visiting New Delhi. His perceived tilt towards Rawalpindi and Beijing in an effort to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict with Pakistan’s proxy the Afghan Taliban, including some unilateral confidence building measures to fundamentally transform Afghanistan’s traditionally strained ties with Pakistan, has probably been blown out of proportion. That it has taken so long for the new Afghan president to put India on his travel itinerary - a country which was the first to commit itself to a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan, immediately following the US/NATO decision to drawdown troops, and one which has been the largest bilateral donors from the region – has led many to speculate about the possible outcome of Ghani’s visit to New Delhi. Where exactly does India figure in Ghani’s vision of Afghanistan and what steps India need to take to secure its interests?
After being sworn-in as president in September 2014, Ghani’s first official visit was to Beijing in October and immediately thereafter to Pakistan in November. In an unprecedented move, Ghani had straightaway dashed to the Pakistan Army’s General Head Quarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi before meeting the civilian leadership in Islamabad. Ghani has since visited several other countries including the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia twice, as well as Azerbaijan, Belgium, Turkmenistan, UAE, Germany and, very recently, Iran.
Perhaps, developments taking place to the west than to the east of Afghanistan hold far greater prospects of altering the regional geo-politics. The evolving détente between Tehran and the US/West could have wider implications for the region than the Kabul-Beijing-Rawalpindi trapeze act. Washington, which has been more than keen to minimise its military footprint in Afghanistan and has far more serious concerns over developments taking place in West Asia, would be glad to let Kabul play up the Beijing-Rawalpindi axis. Ghani’s regional ventures probably have the full backing of the US. In any event, Kabul does not really have much to lose by way of reaching out to Beijing and Rawalpindi. Thus, Ghani’s visits to China and Pakistan are part of a well thought out move and should be seen in the context of several immediate and long-term challenges confronting post-ISAF Afghanistan.
Fears about the Beijing-Rawalpindi axis scripting Kabul politics and thereby causing the complete marginalisation of New Delhi in the region appear far-fetched given the political dynamics of Afghanistan. Ghani is not a political novice and is playing his cards well. He has watched Kabul politics from very close quarters since 2001, while serving as finance minister in former President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet and later as presidential candidate in the 2009 elections and thereafter as Chairman of the Afghan Transition Commission. Perhaps, New Delhi needs to more seriously assess Ghani’s personality, his thinking and his vision of Afghanistan and regional cooperation than be bogged down by the spectre of a potential nexus between Kabul and Rawalpindi, with Beijing playing the big brother in the game. There is no point debating whether New Delhi was too slow to anticipate Ghani or Ghani has moved too fast. It is clear that Ghani is not averse to taking risks and has already raised his stakes in the regional geo-politics. It is for New Delhi to decide whether it is worth being part of the new dis-order in the Af-Pak region. A more nuanced view of Afghan dynamics would be more helpful than simply being pessimistic and suspicious of Ghani’s Kabul.
Factoring in the Afghan Context
Recently, in March 2015, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah in his interactions in New Delhi, had expressed surprise, rather disappointment, at rising scepticism among a section of India’s strategic affairs community on the future trajectory of India-Afghanistan relations. Abdullah’s private visit was probably meant to prepare the ground for Ghani’s visit, which was earlier expected to take place at the end of March. Ghani’s thrust on engaging Pakistan and China as part of his effort to carve out a political space for the Taliban within the existing political and, to some extent, constitutional framework, should not have come as a surprise. One could certainly question the viability of Ghani’s diplomatic initiatives or have an opinion on its likely ultimate outcome in the light of past experience with Pakistan, but not its relevance from Kabul’s view point given the sheer magnitude of the challenge that Pakistan poses for Afghanistan.
Perhaps, what would have been more worrisome was if Ghani was not engaging Pakistan and China. The whole thing makes sense if one cares to look at the evolving scenario in the post-ISAF context. It is just not about Ghani being pro- or anti-Pakistan or Taliban. For Kabul, it is more a matter of political expediency borne out of the growing desperation over the Western drawdown. Despite more than a decade of US/NATO-led military intervention, the Haqqani-Taliban network and their various foreign allies operating from Pakistan are nowhere close to losing this war.
Ghani’s regional diplomacy, thus, has to be seen within the following context. Firstly, his is a post-ISAF government, which no longer would have the assured support of 100,000 plus Western troops. Secondly, the US-led ‘war on terror’ may have receded but not the ‘terror of war’ from Afghanistan. A continuing threat from across the Durand Line would further weaken Kabul and divert the scarce resources available. And, thirdly, unlike Karzai, Ghani is heading a ‘national unity government’ which has introduced a new element, a rather more complex one, in the fragmented polity of the country. The unity government which was put in place with American and UN mediation in September 2014 is operating in a different environment and perhaps needed to (re-)prioritise its foreign policy based on its own assessment of immediate and long-term challenges and how best to deal with them. To regard this as a major shift in Kabul’s strategic thinking would be premature at this stage. Meanwhile, the Taliban have opened up several fronts including in relatively stable and remote areas in the north and have just announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive. The growing appeal of the ISIS among possibly marginalised elements within various Islamist militant groups active in the region could further complicate the security environment.
It is pertinent here to question the very value and merit of looking at India-Afghanistan relations through the narrow prism of Kabul’s evolving yet uncertain relations with Pakistan, or merely in terms of the frequency and order of high-level visits from Kabul to New Delhi. Though the priority accorded to another country in a country’s foreign policy is certainly reflected in the frequency and the level at which the exchange of visits is taking place, at the same time one also needs to be cautious about drawing inferences or rushing to conclusions when it comes to bilateral ties that are as multi-faceted as between India and Afghanistan. The inherent resilience in India-Afghanistan relations perhaps calls for exercising patience and providing space to the new government in Kabul as it struggles to adjust or adapt itself to specific local and external challenges. Kabul and New Delhi have, to an extent, institutionalised their multi-track diplomacy, and consultations and interactions are on at different levels.
During his March 2015 visit to New Delhi, Abdullah had acknowledged Afghanistan’s limitations vis-à-vis Pakistan in terms of not being able to change the nature of politics or alter the balance of power within Pakistan. But at the same time, he also pointed to the imperative of identifying areas where the two countries can cooperate. Both Abdullah and Ghani have indicated that Pakistan’s resolve to fight terrorism will be tested in the coming months. Therefore, should Rawalpindi fail to seize the opportunity, it might not take long for Kabul to decide on its next course of action for the very reason it chose to prioritise its ties with Pakistan.
Abdullah had also asserted during his visit that the ‘Islamic Republic’ of Afghanistan is a much bigger reality than Mullah Omar being ‘Amir-ul Momineen’ or the ‘Islamic Emirate’ of Afghanistan as espoused by the Taliban. The Afghan people have endorsed a ‘Republican’ as opposed to ‘Talibanised’ Afghanistan and this is something that is non-negotiable.
Need to Take a More Confident View
When President Ghani visits, New Delhi should be very keen on further enhancing its own understanding of the evolving nuances of his foreign and regional policies including his idea of political reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. Ghani on his part is likely to emphasise the need for India’s sustained assistance and investment in his country’s social and economic sectors. There are already reports of possible understanding on a motor vehicle agreement (which could not be signed during the last SAARC Summit in November 2014), mutual legal assistance treaty and providing a home ground for the Afghan cricket team.
It would be interesting to see how Ghani seeks to connect himself and his newly appointed cabinet with the Indian establishment. Ghani is aware that his ongoing effort to redefine relations with Rawalpindi, with Beijing mediating between the two, is being closely watched in New Delhi. The issue of supply of arms for the Afghan army by India, which Ghani is said to have put on hold, is not likely to be high on his agenda, though New Delhi might expect greater clarity on the issue. Meanwhile, three Cheetal Helicopters have already been delivered to Kabul earlier this month. Discussion at some level on further assistance to the Afghan armed forces cannot be altogether ruled out even though it does not seem to fit into Ghani’s scheme of things, as of now. Ghani is likely to be more interested in getting a sense of New Delhi’s approach towards Pakistan. The two countries are also likely to exchange views on broader issues such as the crises in Yemen and Iraq including the potential threat from the ISIS to regional security.
While reiterating its continuing commitment to Afghan reconstruction and expressing support for Kabul’s ongoing diplomatic initiatives, including the push for reconciliation with the Taliban, New Delhi must emphasise the need to preserve the fundamental character and democratic spirit of the Afghan Constitution. New Delhi must also try to gauge Ghani’s commitment towards improving connectivity by pushing Pakistan to further expand the scope of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement to include India, and his ideas on strengthening wider regional transportation networks particularly the India-Afghanistan-Iran trilateral transit agreement which would provide Afghanistan access to the Chabahar Port as an alternative to Pakistani ports.
India has to take a long-term view of several developments taking place beyond its north-western frontier and accordingly weigh options available to it. Afghanistan meanwhile will continue to change in response to various shifts taking place both within and around it. Perhaps, a more confident view of bilateral ties would be far more helpful when President Ghani visits New Delhi. Kabul too could come clear on its expectations from New Delhi as it struggles to enter a ‘decade of transformation’.
The Author is an Associate Fellow at Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA)
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