In April 2015, when the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made his maiden visit to India since assuming office in late 2014, many in India were at unease. That Ghani departed from his predecessor’s choices and visited New Delhi much after his official trips to Islamabad and Beijing raised several doubts in India. While this chronology of events does have the potential to unnerve India, there are some issues that need to be studied objectively and without jumping to conclusions.
Ghani’s Increasing Closeness with Pakistan and China
Soon after assuming office, President Ghani visited Pakistan and China, signaling a dramatic shift in Kabul’s foreign policy. Afghanistan and Pakistan have collaborated on security cooperation across their shared borders since 2014. In fact, as recently as mid-May, the security agencies of the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) under which Pakistan will train and equip Afghan intelligence officers, conduct joint operations, and the two countries will work together in interrogating terror suspects.The Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval allegedly critisised this MoU – an unnecessary move that only makes India appear thoroughly insecure. Alternately, he could have kept himself from expressing his displeasure publicly.
Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif has visited Afghanistan at least thrice in less than six months; and Afghan army cadets have been undergoing training in Pakistan since February 2015. China, stepping away from its usual reluctance to be drawn into internal issues of other countries, has expressed active interest in the Afghan peace process. In fact, in October 2014, it even offered to set up a platform to bring the Afghan government and the Taliban for discussions. As recently as 25 May 2015, Mohammad Stanekzai, the chief of the Afghan High Peace Council met former Taliban leaders to negotiate peace, in a meeting organised by Pakistan in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China. Additionally, India’s aid package to Afghanistan worth $2 billion appears to have fallen pale in front of China’s paltry $327 million.
While these events may seem worrying for India (that feels it is losing out in Afghanistan), New Delhi may not need to fear the worst. Although recent developments make India understandably uneasy, viewed from Kabul’s lens, Afghanistan’s current trajectory does not seem out of place.
Have Afghanistan’s Priorities Changed?
Afghanistan shares a long international border with Pakistan and a short border with China. Regardless of their stance on insurgency in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s role in it, Afghanistan cannot change its geographic location, and therefore has to make sure the problem is resolved at the source.
Additionally, Ghani has five years of a government cobbled together (with much difficulty) to prove himself and to bring about the changes he promised while electioneering. This, coupled with the United States’ going to polls in 2016 to elect the next president means he has until mid-2016 to cross the longest yards vis-à-vis his agendas. Ghani’s choices insofar indicate that he is attempting to rein in regional players to ensure that Afghanistan’s journey to normalcy, which is taking baby steps at the moment, isn’t scuttled in the face of regional instability. Involving Pakistan in the peace process and making them a stakeholder in Afghanistan’s stability is therefore more a matter of geopolitical calculation as compared to shifting loyalties. And this time, the overtures seem to be bearing fruit (although the sincerity of the same is yet to be tested): Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif criticised the Afghan Taliban’s actions and called it ”terrorism,” an unprecedented move by a high level Pakistani minister, especially while visiting the country.
China’s role is important in this issue for two reasons: the economy and security. Beijing, which already has some investments in Afghanistan, has the potential to invest more and could therefore prove useful as a potential investor in Afghanistan.
If Ghani’s 2008 book, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, co-authored with Clare Lockhart, is any precedent, one can expect a similar trajectory to continue. Among other things, the book argues that trade, however small or large in scale, is important, especially due to the platforms it provides for interaction between local communities and regional or international actors.
How Can India Cope with the Evolving Afghan Dynamic?
Ideally, Ghani’s India visit should be seen as an indication that while Kabul continues to value its relationship with New Delhi, in the same measure, it has also chosen to place emphasis on other bilateral relationships its deems important for Afghanistan; and, as a sovereign country, Kabul has the right to do so. Instead of viewing this development as a decline in India’s importance in the eyes of the Afghans, New Delhi would do well to view it as a relative rise in the significance of other regional players for Afghanistan. However, this does not automatically mean India should simply pump more money in, or for that matter stray away from its policy of supporting an ”Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” process.
Does India Need to Worry? How must India Proceed?
Yes and no. India would do well to remember that soft power and goodwill are factors that will continue only if there is continued interaction on that front. New Delhi has indeed done quite a bit over the years, but circumstances today demand innovation in strategy. This innovation may not only be in New Delhi’s involvements inside Afghanistan. Instead, India would do well to formulate a comprehensive regional strategy wherein it makes every legitimate state player a stakeholder in its initiatives – big or small – while also coming to terms with the rapidly evolving regional geopolitical and geo-economic scenarios. A strong and responsible regional strategy will encompass good and sustainable relations with all of India’s neighbours and create a web of mutual interdependency. Thus, a regional strategy can also serve as an umbrella strategy for India’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policies. This will not only be useful for India’s Afghanistan policy, but if dealt with well, it could also be productive vis-à-vis an improved India-Pakistan bilateral relationship, whatever the level.
However, when it comes to its Afghan policy vis-à-vis the country’s domestic aspects, New Delhi would benefit greatly by not altering its support to an ”Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” process. Meddling in Kabul’s policymaking and other domestic tangles could be detrimental to the gains New Delhi has painstakingly earned over the years.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisations she is affiliated to.