Much like his predecessor Hamid Karzai, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has begun his tenure with a serious effort to mend fences with Pakistan. Relations between the two countries, which share close ethnic, religious and economic ties, have been marred by mistrust and hostility. To prepare the ground, Ghani visited Pakistan’s patron Saudi Arabia and sought advice, if not intercession, concerning Pakistan.
In Beijing, he sought increased Chinese involvement in stabilising the economic and security situation. On his insistence, the Pakistan army chief and DG (ISI) separately visited him in Kabul. On his maiden trip to Pakistan as head of state, Ghani’s first port of call was the Army GHQ, where substantive discussions were held, not in Islamabad, from where the lameduck civilian government operates.
Ghani has concluded there can be no peace in Afghanistan without the blessings of Pakistan’s military establishment. But on what terms will he bring peace?
The GHQ, which calls the shots on Pakistan-Afghan matters, has always believed in interventionist policies. With the impending exit of US-led forces, the Pakistan army claims the right to shape Afghanistan’s political transition. It senses an opportunity to achieve its objective of strategic depth. It also supports Afghan proxies and provides a base for the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Hizb-e-Islami to operate out of Pakistan. It has scuttled all efforts by Afghanistan to reach out to the Taliban, arresting and eliminating those inclined to respond to Kabul’s overtures.
The GHQ is unlikely to change. In its operations in North Waziristan, the Pakistan army has not moved against groups that it uses as instruments of State policy. Ghani is seen as speaking from a weak position but he does not have the mandate to prostrate before Pakistan. The Taliban too would not want to play second fiddle to him. They see an opportunity with the departure of foreign troops and are escalating violence.
So should India worry? Well, one cannot ignore that Ghani’s pitch is publicly to Rawalpindi, not Islamabad. Pakistan has quickly promised to raise, train and equip a brigade in the Afghan National Army. Ghani has relegated India to the role of a supporting actor, with the lead conceded to Pakistan.
It would be no better for India if Ghani’s initiative failed to achieve a quiet border. This would mean a deterioration in the security situation in Afghan provinces bordering FATA and Kyber Pakhtunkhwa. These are the areas where India-specific terrorist groups established bases in the 1990s. Given the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s links with the Haqqani network, the formation of an Indian-led al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and the appeal of ISIS, there would be clear and present danger to Indian interests. Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad would become vulnerable. With the Afghan border having been secured by its proxies, the Pakistan army would be able to divert energies and resources to the border with India. Jammu and Kashmir would be the first to feel the heat. Proposals such as road transit to Afghanistan through Pakistan would then be abandoned.
India should leverage its goodwill and mobilise assets who would react against both appeasement of Pakistan or its escalation of violence. The Hazaras and Tajiks who back Ghani’s rival, Abdullah Abdullah, would be natural allies but extricating Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum from Turkey’s grip would require some doing, given his antipathy to Mohammed Ata, the Tajik strongman and his rival. India needs to reach out to Pashtuns above all.
China has on and off sought intelligence cooperation to deal with Uighur militants and escalating violence in Xinjiang. However, its track record in Afghanistan is unremarkable. It obtained mining concessions but is yet to exploit them. Its contribution to development is meagre and is unlikely to involve itself in stabilising the security situation. China’s involvement in Afghanistan, however, may not be to India’s disadvantage.
Iran, wary of a resurgent Sunni Taliban, is a potential ally even if it takes some effort to convince Washington about giving Iran space in Afghanistan. Iran’s involvement will invite a Saudi reaction, drawing in the attendant problem of Sunni radicalism. Nevertheless, Tehran needs to be mobilised. Development of the Chabahar port, linking it to the Zaranj-Delaram road built by India, should be expedited to provide Afghanistan access to the sea.
There is also an opportunity with Russia. Isolated by the West over Ukraine, Moscow has already knocked on Beijing’s doors. It has reason to be concerned with the concentration of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants on Afghanistan’s borders. Afghanistan would have figured during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi, but Moscow may have little enthusiasm for a proactive role owing to its economic woes.
The US thus remains the key to India’s interests in Afghanistan. While it cannot now be persuaded to reinforce its remaining military presence, signing and ratification of the bilateral security agreement and President Barack Obama’s approval for US’ military missions against the Taliban are welcome. America’s mistrust of Pakistan continues but Washington needs to be persuaded to withhold Coalition Support Funds to make the GHQ fall in line. Obama’s forthcoming visit to Delhi provides the right opportunity.
India today is in a better position to deal with the situation in Afghanistan than at any time since the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s. It cannot afford to ignore developments in what has been called as the ‘gateway to Central and South Asia’ situated on ‘the highway of conquest’.
What India needs to overcome is a trust deficit. Doubts have emerged over New Delhi’s credibility as a reliable partner. Its inability to arrange supplies and spares for the Afghan National Army (ANA) contributed to the belief that on critical issues India hesitates to act. With the decisiveness Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown on security matters doubts on this score can be removed.
Amitabh Mathur is former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat
The views expressed by the author are personal