Recharging relations

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Ashraf Ghani at a press conference in Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on April 29. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

General John F. Campbell, U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan, at a flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul on December 8, 2014, marking the ceremonial exit of the U.S.-NATO combat mission in the country. Photo: Massoud Hossaini/AP

Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah at a bipartisan meeting with members of the House leadership on March 25 in Washington, D.C. Photo: MARK WILSON/AFP

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s first visit to India is part of his effort to win the support of immediate neighbours to stave off the military challenge posed by the Taliban.

Ashraf Ghani came to New Delhi in the last week of April on his first visit to India after taking over as the President of Afghanistan more than seven months ago. His predecessor Hamid Karzai had nurtured close ties with India, much to the chagrin of Pakistan. Ghani, on the other hand, seems intent on charting a different path for his country taking into account the ground realities in the region. Unlike Karzai, Ghani has been reluctant to get into a tight embrace with New Delhi. During the hotly contested presidential election in 2014, India’s preferred candidate was Abdullah Abdullah, a fact that may have no doubt riled Ghani. The two signed a power-sharing agreement under which Ghani was made President and Abdullah, who reluctantly conceded defeat, was designated as the Chief Executive Officer. The political cohabitation, brokered by the United States, continues to be uneasy. In recent months, Ghani has emerged as the man calling the shots in the government.

With the bulk of the U.S. troops exiting Afghanistan in December last year, Ghani has realised that he needs the support of his immediate neighbours to stave off the military challenge posed by the Taliban. The President postponed his visit to India by a day because the Taliban had launched an offensive in Kunduz. The annual fighting season in the country has started with the winter coming to an end. The emergence of the Islamic State (I.S.) in Afghanistan has further complicated the security situation. Counter-insurgency experts agree that the I.S. has become active in some parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, having managed to attract Taliban fighters and a few tribal leaders on both sides of the border. Indian intelligence agencies have conceded that the rise of the I.S. in the region poses a threat to the country’s security.

China’s plans

China was the first country Ghani visited after assuming office, signalling the priority his government was giving to ties with Beijing. In fact, it is for the first time that China is playing an important role in the ongoing efforts to broker peace between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. China is investing heavily in its efforts to ensure a comparatively peaceful political transition in Kabul after the U.S. troops finally leave Afghan soil. Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the primary objective of China. The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan was illustrative of the importance it is giving to the region. During his visit, Xi laid the foundations of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor Project, which will allow China to directly transport goods from West Asia through a more secure and shorter land route. The Chinese government has pledged to invest $46 billion for developing the infrastructure for the project and implementing it. A 3,000-kilometre network of pipelines, roads and railways will link the Pakistani port of Gwadar to western China. Pakistan has now become a key component of China’s ambitious “new silk road” initiative. The investment pledged by China is by far the biggest Pakistan has received so far. It surpasses the $31 billion Pakistan has received from the U.S., its long-standing ally, since the latter began its “war on terror” in 2002. Most of the U.S. money, around 70 per cent, was earmarked for the Pakistan Army to ensure its commitment to U.S. policies in the region, including drone attacks on the civilian populace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China does not want Islamic radicalism to spill over to its territory from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Uighur extremists are known to be active along the Afghan-Pakistan border. In recent years, there has been a surge in terror attacks in the Uighur-dominated region of Xinjiang. China is using its considerable influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fast-track talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to reports, Beijing recently hosted a Taliban delegation. The Barack Obama administration is also not averse to the idea of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. After all, it had tried to do the same last year. The Taliban was given quasi-diplomatic status in Doha, Qatar, where it continues to function openly. The international community, barring a few holdouts like India, now believes in differentiating between the “good Taliban” and the “bad Taliban”. Sections of the “bad Taliban” seem to be now metamorphosing into the I.S.

After his trip to Beijing, Ghani visited Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the U.S. and Iran. His visit to Pakistan seems to have resulted in a sea change in bilateral relations. The adversarial nature of the relations, during the Karzai era, now seems to be a thing of the past. During the visit, Ghani praised the Pakistan Army’s counterterrorism efforts. He took the unprecedented step of visiting its headquarters in Rawalpindi where he held talks with the Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif. Afghanistan’s decision to not avail itself of India’s offer to supply heavy weapons has been appreciated in Pakistan.

In his speech at the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Kathmandu, Ghani said that his country should not be used as a stage for proxy wars between regional powers. For the first time, Afghan Army officers are being sent to Pakistani military institutions for training. According to reports, Pakistani officials are now allowed to interrogate suspected terrorists in Afghan jails. Unlike his predecessor, Ghani is not accusing Pakistan of supporting cross-border terrorism. His priority is to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. He knows that the Pakistani intelligence services are capable of persuading important sections of the Taliban to start talks. The Taliban has been saying for some time now that it is amenable to talks, but only after all the foreign troops have left Afghanistan.

Ghani is aware that the Afghan Army is not in a position to defend the country on its own as yet though it has been doing much of the fighting since the beginning of the year. During his visit to Washington in March, Ghani urged the U.S. government to keep some of its troops in Afghanistan, citing the threat posed by the I.S. as one of the reasons for his request. At present, there are around 10,000 U.S. troops. By the end of the year, their numbers are supposed to be halved.

India, a major donor

It is not that the U.S. needs much encouragement to stay on. It was Karzai’s reluctance to sign a Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. that led to tensions with the Obama administration. Almost immediately after taking office, Ghani signed an agreement with the U.S. for stationing a small contingent of U.S. troops beyond 2015. The U.S. has been continuing with its air assaults on Taliban targets.

According to a recent report in The New York Times, the top U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, justified the targeting of Taliban fighters posing a threat to either U.S. or Afghan troops. According to the report, Gen. Campbell meets Ghani every day and he “has in many ways outsourced much of the running of the war to General Campbell”. Afghanistan has been without a Minister of Defence since Ghani took over the presidency.

In New Delhi, Ghani reaffirmed his commitment to the strategic agreement signed between the two countries in 2011, though there were no new announcements on the steps being taken to strengthen it. India did hand over three helicopters to Afghanistan before Ghani arrived. He emphasised the need for regional cooperation in fighting terrorism. He thanked the Indian government for its continuing support and aid to Afghanistan. India is among the major international donors to Afghanistan, having contributed over $2 billion.

The joint statement released during the visit reaffirmed the commitment of the two governments “to the full implementation of the strategic partnership objectives”. Ghani invited Indian companies to invest in Afghanistan. “We see the Indian private sector as a key partner in transforming Afghanistan from an area shadowed by conflict to a hub—where goods, ideas, people flow in all directions,” Ghani told Indian businessmen in New Delhi. He said his country was blessed with significant mineral deposits, including lithium and oil. Indian industry was also urged to invest in the hydroelectric and petrochemical sectors, which Ghani said had a big potential.

China has invested heavily in the exploitation of copper mines in Afghanistan and has emerged as the top investor in the country. The Afghan leader said he would insist that Pakistan allow the transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan. Only Afghan goods are allowed to be trucked up to the Wagah border crossing on the Pakistani side of the border with India. Ghani said that if Pakistan did not relent on the issue, his government would stop the transit of Pakistani exports to Central Asia passing through Afghan territory.

There is a lot of goodwill for India among ordinary Afghans. India’s “soft power” diplomacy will continue to pay dividends. It has expended its $2 billion in aid on the construction of hospitals, schools and roads and institution building. Every government in Kabul since the 1950s invariably had problems with Islamabad in the long run. Pakistan has a tendency to view Afghanistan as its backyard and has tended to interfere in its domestic affairs. Then there is the question of the border. Many Afghans still refuse to accept the “Durand Line” demarcated by the British in the 19th century as the boundary between the two countries.