India must regain lost clout
Harsh V Pant
Welcoming Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in India this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined that “the relationship between India and Afghanistan is not just between two countries or governments. It is a timeless link of human hearts.” With that spirit, Modi made it clear that India would support Afghanistan’s security forces and open the Attari check-post in Punjab to Afghan trucks in order to increase trade between the two countries. Modi stated: “India will walk shoulder to shoulder with you and the Afghan people in a mission of global importance.”
Ghani stated that the “shadow of terror haunts our children, women and youth, terror must be confronted and overcome. Terror cannot be classified into good or bad… We are determined to change regional nature of cooperation.” In addition to proclaiming India’s support for Afghanistan’s security forces, Modi announced that India is “prepared to join the successor agreement to Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement” which will “re-establish one of the oldest trading routes of South Asia.”
But even as the Afghan President is welcome in India, there is a sense that New Delhi is fast losing its carefully
nurtured decade-old clout in Afghanistan. Compared to his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani has been lukewarm to India. His visit to Delhi comes long after his outreach to Pakistan and China, both of whom seem more firmly embedded in the peace overtures to the Taliban than India.
Ghani has been to Pakistan twice and the Afghan army chief recently attended the passing out parade at Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul. The Ghani government has also been keen to see China take a more active role in the reconciliation process. India stands isolated with many in the country wondering whatever happened to the much-hyped Delhi-Kabul strategic partnership.
It is not that Delhi has not been active. Soon after the Modi government came to office in India, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Afghanistan in September 2014 to underscore India’s commitment to remain engaged in the country’s reconstruction activities in a significant way.
Describing India as Afghanistan’s first strategic partner, Swaraj suggested that Delhi would always share the Afghan people’s vision of a “strong” and “prosperous” Afghanistan. Delhi has conveyed to the Ghani government in strong terms that India is there to stay in Afghanistan even after the western troops have left.
The Modi government is keen to expand its security profile in Afghanistan and has provided Kabul with military jeeps, choppers and automated weapons in a bid to strengthen the army as a first step in that direction. It has also, after years of dilly-dallying under the previous government, taken a decision to invest $ 85.21 million in developing the strategically important Chabahar port in Iran, allowing India to circumvent Pakistan and open up a route to landlocked Afghanistan.
But where Delhi was preoccupied internally over the last few years with a weak government unable to make up its mind on substantive defence engagement with Kabul, other actors, and China in particular, decided to step up their role. Ghani has lost no time in reaching out to China which he visited in October 2014 when China hosted a conference to discuss peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Ghani called on the Taliban to join and enter Afghan dialogue, and China echoed Ghani’s call, urging groups to “lay aside former enmity and join the political reconciliation process.”
There was high-flying rhetoric as Ghani said his country viewed China “as a strategic partner, in the short term, medium term, long term and very long term.” President Xi reciprocated by hailing Ghani as an old friend of the Chinese people with whom China is prepared to work towards “a new era of co-operation,” and “to take development to a new high.” Despite China’s concerns that a deteriorating security situation could threaten greater investment, it agreed to give Afghanistan $327 million in aid over the next three years – $81.8 million in 2014 and the remaining sum between 2015-2017. More significantly, China also agreed to act as a mediator between Afghanistan and Pakistan while Ghani pledged to help China fight its own Islamic militants.