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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 20, May 9, 2015

Afghan Test Case

Saturday 9 May 2015, by Uttam Sen

The Afghan President, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s mindfulness of India in his country’s scheme of things could well have been distilled in the interview he gave a leading Indian daily. Creating the right of way by road for goods from Kabul past the Wagah checkpost to India and beyond and vice versa to Central Asia is probably a former technocrat’s most vivid statement of intent. If and when he has his way, Afghan goods trucks will be rumbling down to Kolkata and Chittagong. The stabilisation of western and Central Asia would make the trail a life-giving one, mostly along a road built by Sher Shah Suri. For the record, Ghani also sought Indian commercial investment.

If, in addition, Pakistan inks the Motor Vehicles Agreement, which other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members have signed, it would create a “revolution” on South Asian roads and constitute a step towards reviving a natural economic region crucially dependent on the free flow of goods and people. Ghani demonstrated a certain resolve in invoking the equal transit principle of the Afghan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) to drive home his point. India seeks inclusion in the APTTA. Pakistani resilience is more likely now than before, given the fresh lease of life it has received from China. Its economy is reportedly already showing signs of buoyancy.

The goods transit issue appears to be a test case which could set the tone both for cleaning up the region and putting it on a viable growth trajectory. Talks between the Afghan Taliban and his government bear testimony to his endeavour to rope in terrorism, the former’s centrality to the Pakistani conundrum being well-known. Ghani drew a distinction between the Islamic state and Al-Qaeda on the one hand, and the homegrown Taliban on the other. The former were global terror outfits out to destroy the sovereign state, whereas the latter could come to the table and discuss constructive ways of working with the people. The process seems to be on just as much as the international war on terror.

If the new-found Afghan assertiveness stays as even-handed as Ghani’s statements, it will not only allay Indian fears of being crowded out but pave the way to a future in which a robust Afghanistan puts its house in order without fear or favour. A former anthropologist who worked at the World Bank is at the centre of a Chinese thrust to make Afghanistan (together with Pakistan) a global investment hub. It will lead to a re-invented trade route to Europe. This would have sounded fanciful without the ready resources at China’s disposal. The blending, or juxtaposition, of disparate but powerful forces can create space for other nation-states.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.