BACKGROUND: President Ghani’s visit to Delhi on April 28-29 was his first to India since he was sworn in as Afghanistan’s president in late September. While it took him seven months to visit India, he visited Pakistan twice in the same period. Pakistan was the destination of his second state visit after assuming the presidency, the first being China. Some analysts in Delhi have interpreted this as signaling India’s falling priority on Afghanistan’s foreign policy radar, and have described Ghani as pro-Pakistan.
Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was seen as pro-India. He was often openly hostile to Pakistan, even accusing its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of masterminding terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. Ghani’s approach to Pakistan has been conciliatory so far. It is believed that his overtures are aimed at winning Pakistan’s support for Afghan reconciliation. He has sent Afghan army officials for training in Pakistan’s military academies and responded positively to Islamabad’s request for military operations against Pakistan Taliban hideouts in eastern Afghanistan. His government has arrested several suspected Pakistan Taliban fighters on Pakistan’s request and has allowed ISI officials to interrogate terrorists in Afghan jails.
Ghani is hoping that Pakistan will respond to his overtures by using its influence over the Afghan Taliban to nudge it to the negotiation table. He has roped in China too to facilitate the talks and to participate in Afghanistan’s economic development. The influence of Pakistan and China in Afghanistan has grown remarkably in recent months.
India’s profile in Afghanistan grew in the wake of the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, through major contributions to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. India has funded infrastructure, health, education and capacity-building projects to the tune of US$ 2 billion, making it the sixth largest donor in the war-torn country. In 2011, the two countries signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement.
However, in recent months India appears to be losing ground in Afghanistan, raising the question whether Ghani is tilting towards Pakistan and China. In November, he shelved a request made by Karzai for military aid from India, a decision ostensibly made under pressure from Pakistan. Is Ghani’s warming to Pakistan and China putting the close Delhi-Kabul relationship built during Karzai’s presidency in jeopardy?
IMPLICATIONS: Ghani’s visit to India may not have produced grand outcomes – no agreements were signed – but it signaled that his wooing of Pakistan notwithstanding, Kabul and Delhi remain on the same page on economic issues. The two countries share a vision for regional trade.
During the visit, India and Afghanistan decided to sign within the next three months an extradition treaty, a mutual legal assistance treaty, an agreement on the transfer of sentenced persons, a bilateral motor vehicles treaty and a consular pact for diplomatic passport holders. The proposed pacts may not be as headline-grabbing as lucrative defense deals. But they are important. Take the proposed motor vehicles agreement, for instance, which aims at facilitating the entry of Afghan and Indian vehicles into each other’s territory. If it materializes, it has the potential to transform regional trade; goods from Kolkata could travel overland to Kabul and beyond to Central Asia and vice versa. South Asia’s trade with Central Asia could grow manifold.
However, the India-Afghanistan motor vehicles treaty seems a non-starter. It can work only if Pakistan is also a part of the agreement, as it is the shortest overland route between India and Afghanistan. But Islamabad is reluctant. At the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit at Kathmandu in November last year, it was the only member-state to hold out on signing the SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement.
At present, Pakistan permits Afghan trucks carrying goods for India only up to its last checkpoint at Wagah near the India-Pakistan border, and not to the Indian checkpoint at Attari, which is situated less than a kilometer away. During Ghani’s visit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India is ready to receive Afghan trucks at Attari. Will Pakistan respond positively?
Ghani has made his impatience, even anger, with Pakistan’s obstructionist attitude to regional trade quite clear. In an interview to The Hindu he called on Islamabad to allow direct trade with India via the Wagah border, warning that if it did not do so, his government would not “provide equal transit access to Central Asia [for Pakistani trucks].” It is a violation of “sovereign equality”, he said, drawing attention to the “national treatment” clause in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement, 2011, which provides both countries with equal access up to each other’s national borders.
India need not worry over Ghani’s outreach to Pakistan. Reconciliation in Afghanistan is important. An end to the turbulence there is essential not just for the Afghan people but to the entire region. Stability there is essential for the security of India’s investments in Afghanistan, for the realization of its trade and other ambitions in Afghanistan as well as Central Asia.
If China and Pakistan can help bring the Taliban to agree to a negotiated settlement of the conflict, India should welcome it as it could pave the way for India playing a larger role in Central Asia. It is true that Ghani was late in coming to India but if he was busy visiting China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the U.S. and the UK – all countries whose backing he needs to push Islamabad to mend its ways – India should not be unduly anxious.
CONCLUSIONS: Rather than feeling insecure with the recent Kabul-Islamabad rapprochement, India should wish Ghani well in his outreach to Pakistan. The Afghan president is testing the waters on how to go about the peace process and Delhi must be patient. His visit to India should have allayed anxieties in Delhi that the Kabul-Delhi bond has enough substance to hold it together.
Meanwhile, India must press ahead with its plans for trade with Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar. It has dragged its feet on this option for far too long. Accelerating this Afghan-Iran-India venture will open up the full potential of regional and inter-regional trade. Drawing China into this project will, in fact, put pressure on Pakistan to fix its short-sighted vision.
Image Attribution: Scott Sutherland & Wikimedia Commons