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India, Pak, & Afghanistan Play Chinese Checkers For Peace & Trade

Peace and trade in the region are impossible without India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan making some tough choices. 

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of India & Afghanistan’s flags (background) and Afghan Taliban used for representational purposes.
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(This is Part-III of a three-part series by (retd) Additional Secretary in Cabinet Secretariat and strategic affairs expert S Ramesh to mark the resuming of India-Pakistan dialogue. You can access Part 1 here and Part II here.)

In elaborating on his ‘geo-economics’ vision at the Islamabad Security Dialogue event in March, General Qamar Javed Bajwa highlighted Pakistan taking “unprecedented steps to enhance Afghanistan's trade and connectivity by re-energising Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) and also providing access to Afghanistan to export her goods to India.

He also notably mentioned that while the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remained central to Pakistan’s vision, “only seeing Pakistan through CPEC prism is also misleading”.

Soon after his election in May 2014, one of the first initiatives Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced was the “Neighbourhood First” Policy aimed at strengthening intra- and inter-regional connectivity. One of the first challenges that came India’s way regards this policy was linked to APPTA.

What is APTTA and Why it Matters?

APTTA was a 10-year agreement which came into effect on 12 February, 2011. Under APTTA, Pakistan allowed Afghanistan to send goods to India up to the Wagah border but not up to Attari. This was a great impediment to Afghani truckers and traders. APPTA also did not permit Indian goods to be loaded onto trucks for transit to Afghanistan. Instead, Afghan trucks either had to go back empty or only carry Pakistani goods.

In November 2014, Ashraf Ghani—on his first state visit to Pakistan after being sworn in as Afghanistan’s president—visited GHQ, Rawalpindi to meet COAS Gen Raheel Sharif immediately after landing in Islamabad. Ghani had been identified as being pro-Pakistan and this unprecedented symbolism seemed to reinforce this view.

That was, however, far from true. Ghani had been interacting with Pakistani political leaders about extending APPTA to India but they indicated their helplessness and pointed Ghani towards the “khakis”. Ghani made no headway with Raheel Shariff either, which is the position even today. He was not “pro-Pakistan” after this rebuff.

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India’s Opposition to CPEC

While an India-inclusive APPTA became a non-starter, Pakistan and China were deep into their negotiations on CPEC. The project was launched on 20 April, 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signed 51 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding valued at $46 billion.

Ashraf Ghani made his first visit to New Delhi on 28 April, 2015. He had become pro-India by then and would have briefed the Indian leadership how his efforts at connectivity via APPTA had not succeeded. Possibly, Prime Minister Modi’s connectivity dream had hit its first hurdle.

By mid-2015, India’s opposition to CPEC began taking shape. At the second Raisina Dialogue held in New Delhi on 17 January, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi implicitly criticised the One Belt One Road initiative—CPEC is a part of OBOR—that regional connectivity corridors could not “override or undermine the sovereignty” of nations.

Prime Minister Modi also affirmed that his “neighbourhood-first” policy had shown results across all nations, except one. He added “India alone cannot walk the path of peace. It also has to be Pakistan’s journey to make”.

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Is Pakistan Army Now Seeing Merit in PM Modi’s Outreach?

Prime Minister Modi reiterated his vision on connectivity at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he said “Connectivity is vital. It does more than enhance trade and prosperity… we understand the benefits of connectivity..if these have to succeed, we must not only build infrastructure, we must also build bridges of trust… and for that, these initiatives must be based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability”.

Crucially, Prime Minister Modi mentioned “… contests must not turn into conflict; differences must not be allowed to become disputes”.

General Bajwa’s ISD speech seems to be echoing virtually the same sentiment, answering some of PM Modi’s concerns and expressing a willingness to play game.

Despite General Bajwa’s appeal largely directed at the West not to view Pakistan purely the CPEC lens, there is no ambiguity as things stand on the statute books that the CPEC impinges on India’s sovereignty as it passes through Gilgit Baltistan. Either Pakistan goes ahead and unilaterally alters the constitutional status of Gilgit Baltistan thus itself rendering the area as no longer ‘disputed’ or live with India’s objections pending overall negotiation/outcome of talks on J&K.

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What the US Thinks of APTTA & Afghanistan Peace Process

Apparently, in July 2010, a few months before he died, Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy, was in India and told MEA officers that “whatever India does, don’t give up on APTTA; Afghans fought too damn hard for it”.

Holbrooke contended that APTTA could well open the door for India-Pakistan-Afghanistan peace.

APTTA expired on 11 February, 2021. Both sides have now agreed for a three-month extension. Maybe, there is an opening here from Pakistan’s side of good faith.

Current US President Joe Biden and Richard Holbrooke are contemporaries. George Packer, who wrote Holbrooke's biography called 'Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century', describes their relationship as going back to the 1970s and that “they were practically the same age, similarly dominating, agreed on almost everything, and so naturally couldn’t stand each other”.

An exchange between Holbrooke and Biden appears in this biography, where in 2010 a debate over women's rights in Afghanistan led to a wider argument over why the US was there in the first place. Holbrooke wrote “Joe took the position, plain and simple, that we have to get out of Afghanistan”.

Amongst all those who were part of President Obama's 'Af-Pak' team in 2009, Biden is the last person standing. US proposals in 2021 call for a regional solution, which is what Holbrooke wanted in 2009. Holbrooke tried to bring Kashmir into this mix but India bristled and he became virtually persona non grata in New Delhi for that.

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India’s Options Going Forward

While possibly lowering its ‘strong’ opposition to CPEC, India could start looking at areas where it can begin cooperating with Pakistan or align itself closer to Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan. May be it already has: India’s Consulate in Jalalabad and Herat were closed last year. This could also be part of the agreed script.

Quite apart, this would obviously mean a choice to be made on how India views the Taliban. It is a reality that is going to emerge sooner than later either with the inclusion of the Taliban in any interim-power sharing arrangement or by them participating in any election, as counter-proposed by the Afghans, and they are in positions of power.

Can Pakistani accommodation of India on APPTA balance India on the Taliban while assuaging Afghanistan? Can India freezing objections over CPEC balance Pakistan freezing J&K ‘dispute’? Choices to be made!

India and Pakistan stand at the cusp of normalising relations. Afghanistan stares at its own destiny. For Gen Bajwa, it will mean lifting Pakistan out of the current morass it is and transforming it into a modern state. For Prime Minister Modi, true recognition as a great leader richly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, that ultimate international accolade, beckons. And former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can still get to have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul as he dreamed of in 2007.

(S Ramesh served as Additional Secretary in Cabinet Secretariat. He can be reached at @shanramesh1459. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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