Will Ghani’s Visit Today Spark a New India-Afghan Equation?
In the light of Afghan Prez Ashraf Ghani’s impending visit, Uday Bhaskar ruminates on the possibilities it throws up.
Stakes Behind the Ghani Visit
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – who assumed office in September 2014 after a bitterly contested election – will arrive in Delhi late Monday on a two day visit. In the light of this impending visit, some empirical facts provide useful context. The first is that India is the seventh country that Ghani is visiting – after China, Pakistan, Iran and the USA amongst others. The second is the terror attack in Jalalabad on 18th April that killed scores of innocents and injured hundreds of Afghan citizens.
These two facts would suggest that for the new Afghan President India is of lesser importance and that the Ghani government is still unable to deal with the complex security challenges facing the war-torn nation and ensure well-being of its citizens.
But this does not capture the contradictory nuances that characterize Afghanistan and President Ghani. It is worth remembering that any Afghan leader will have to prioritise Kabul’s relations with Pakistan which has been deeply involved in a malignant manner in the affairs of its neighbour since the Soviet occupation of 1979.
The Pakistan Dynamics
Over the last four decades, an anomalous situation has developed: while Rawalpindi (GHQ of the Pak Army) has sought ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and nurtured religious radicalism, almost three million Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan. The jihad terror machinery has engulfed many parts of Pakistan, all the way to distant Karachi.
President Ghani is keen to arrive at a modus-vivendi with the Pakistan army – which is why on his visit to that country – his first stop was Rawalpindi where he met with the Pakistan Army Chief.
Stabilising the internal dynamic in Afghanistan (which means arriving at some kind of rapprochement with the political factions opposed to what the Afghan constitution embodies) is an objective that eluded Ghani’s predecessor – Hamid Karzai. Despite setbacks, all the major neighbours of Afghanistan and its principal external donors led by the USA are stakeholders in rebuilding what was destroyed by some of them – first in 1979 and then in late 2001.
Way Forward for Ghani and Modi
India has been playing a valuable development role and has a political, societal and strategic relevance for Kabul. Both President Ghani and PM Modi represent a new political transition in their respective countries and have to balance short-term possibilities with a long-term vision to further their national interests.
The current visit is expected to lead to agreements on transport and connectivity whereby Afghan goods and produce can come up to the Pakistan-India border and return with Indian goods. An extradition treaty, mutual legal assistance and a review of the existing infrastructure and educational programmes may be on the cards.
Indian military assistance to Afghanistan has been a contentious issue since the Karzai years and Delhi has been constrained due to the Pakistan factor. Rawalpindi has sought to minimize India’s contribution and the US orientation has been more empathetic to an exaggerated Pakistani anxiety.
However, in a significant development – in the run-up to the Ghani visit, Delhi has supplied three Indian built light helicopters to Kabul and this may be the beginning of a more sustained military and security cooperation framework.
A Bigger India-Afghan Picture
Relevant to both India and Afghanistan is the changing geo-political context leading to a reduction of US-led Western presence and the rise of the Chinese in the region. Concurrently, the Iranian role in the geo-politics and geo-economics of southern Asia will shape the India-Afghan bilateral, while the possibility of a sea link from India to Iran leading onwards by road-rail to Afghanistan and Central Asia opens up many mutually beneficial possibilities.
The challenge for the first Ghani-Modi summit meeting is to manage the immediate dissonances over Pakistan and work towards the ultimate objective of improving the socio-economic condition of their respective citizens.
And for the Modi government that will soon complete one year in office – the ability to meaningfully deliver on the ground, that which has been promised at the summit level will be on test.
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