Ghani’s criticism of Pakistan affirms India’s portrayal of Islamabad
There were both unpleasant and constructive aspects to the Heart of Asia conference which concluded in Amritsar on Sunday. Like any multilateral meeting hosted by South Asian countries, the event was marred by needless India-Pakistan theatre. Advance speculation whether there will be bilateral talks during the meeting usually sucks the oxygen out of the event well before it starts.
What follows usually are public recriminations and micro acts of tension for the media to amplify. So this time national security adviser Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs adviser to Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, walked together briefly but did not have a meeting. One can understand the awkwardness between the two sides since Indian and Pakistani troops are currently exchanging heavy fire at the border. But what was the need to put up Mr Aziz in a different hotel apart from the rest of the delegates? Pakistan has also claimed that Mr Aziz was denied visits by guests and that he was prevented from talking to the Press and visiting the Golden Temple on security grounds. Such tactics, if true, are embarrassing and are needless as India is anyway handily winning the argument on terrorism with Pakistan on the international stage.
The conference was redeemed, fittingly, by the forceful comments by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. Thanking Pakistan for pledging $500 million assistance for Afghanistan reconstruction, Mr Ghani directly addressed Mr Aziz and told him “the money can very well be used for containing extremism”. In tweets later Mr Ghani lauded India’s impressive support and said political violence and terrorism are the heart of Afghanistan’s problems.
He said military operations in Pakistan “brought a major but selective displacement of the Pakistani extremist networks & their allies on to Afghanistan” and that despite intense engagement with Pakistan “the undeclared war not only has not abated but intensified”. This is a stinging rebuke from the head of state of a country that Pakistan views as its strategic depth. Mr Ghani chose to make such a statement in front of several countries and international organisations, effectively to drive home the message abroad that Islamabad yet again stands in the way of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Pakistan will feel that it is still not without options. It retains influence over Taliban groups, which have outlasted Nato troops and forced a stalemate in Afghanistan, and it is part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group on Afghanistan that includes China and the US.
But as the world braces for a President Donald Trump who may be better disposed towards India while inheriting Washington’s scepticism about Pakistan, Islamabad will need to come to terms with the implications of Mr Ghani’s stern message.
Pakistan can yet damage Afghanistan and China will provide it cover as its “all-weather friend” but frustrating a respected figure like Mr Ghani will make India’s portrayal of Islamabad resonate even more among the international community.