Mainstream, VOL LIII No 20, May 9, 2015
Unravelling the Nuances of Ghani’s India Visit
Saturday 9 May 2015
by Raj Kumar Sharma
Afghanistan is in a state of security and economic transition, as the US-NATO forces have begun their withdrawal from the country in 2014. The President of Afghanistan, Dr Ashraf Ghani, paid his first visit to India on April 27-29, 2015, seven months after being elected as the President of the war-torn country and having already visited China, the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. New governments assumed office in both India and Afghanistan in 2014 and Ghani’s India visit was the first bilateral level engagement between the new leaders.
President Ghani has reversed Karzai’s Pakistan policy and has courted both the political and military establishment in Pakistan. During his Pakistan visit in November 2014, Ghani had even broken the protocol and met Pak Army Chief Raheel Sharif at his headquarters in Rawalpindi. He has also decided to send Afghan cadets to Pakistan for military training and allow Pakistan’s intelligence officers to interrogate detainees in Afghan detention facilities.1 In his inaugural address on September 29, 2014, Ghani had defined five circles for conducting Afghanistan’s foreign policy. The neighbouring countries were included in the first circle; Islamic world in the second circle; the US, European countries, Japan and Canada in the third circle; Asian countries in the fourth; and international organisations in the fifth circle.2 This implied that both China and Pakistan, with whom India has an ‘uneasy’ relationship, were in Afghanistan’s first circle of foreign policy while India was in the fourth circle. However, this policy also implied that India was not a neighbour of Afghanistan and the new Afghan Government recognised Pakistan’s suzerainty over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which is an integral part of India.3
Ghani has simultaneously courted China as well, as his first foreign visit was to the eastern neighbour and not the US, indicating that China would be an important stakeholder in Afghanistan’s future. China’s Silk Road initiative is already aimed at increasing its trade relations with the Central Asian republics and Europe and attracting Chinese investments could help rebuild the shattering Afghan economy.
Keeping in mind former President Hamid Karzai’s close relations with India, Ghani’s emphasis on China and Pakistan could have raised some concerns amid the Indian policy-makers. That is why it becomes important to take stock of Ghani’s India visit and cull out the nuances for projecting a potential trajectory of India-Afghanistan relations in the near future.
Ghani’s India Visit
India had gifted three multi-role Cheetal helicopters to Afghanistan just a week before Ghani’s India visit. President Ghani’s visit was delayed by a few hours due to the Taliban’s major attack in the northern province of Kunduz. He landed in India with a large contingent including the Army Chief, National Security Advisor, key Ministers including those of finance, foreign affairs, mines and petroleum, deputy of the CEO Abdullah Abdullah and other senior officials in the government.
President Ghani discussed bilateral engagement and the regional security environment with PM Narendra Modi. He met the President, Vice-President of India, External Affairs Minister, Defence Minister and some other Cabinet Ministers. He also had a business meeting with the Indian business organisations, CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM.
However, no big announcement was made during Ghani’s visit. India increased the number of educational scholarships given to Afghan students and also expanded its technical assistance programme to Afghanistan. Besides, Afghanistan sought India’s help in strengthening Afghanistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).4
There were no particular statements by the Afghan President aimed at Pakistan, especially on terrorism. However, he demanded ‘sovereign equality’ from Pakistan, asking it to open the Wagah border for trade. He even said that if the deadlock continues, Afghanistan could stop equal transit access to Pakistan trucks headed for Central Asia through Afghan territory.5
Decoding the Visit
Going by President Ghani’s efforts to buy Afghanistan’s peace and stability through Pakistan and China, the delayed visit to India was not a surprise. The lack of any big-ticket announcement shows that India looks to ‘wait and watch’ the results of Ghani’s peace overtures to Pakistan. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, too had initially tried to keep Pakistan in good humour for making his country stable but this policy did not yield the results he was looking for.
After the withdrawal of the US-NATO forces, the security situation remains fragile in Afghanistan and this has started to impact its economy. The GDP growth rate dropped drastically in 2013 to 1.9 per cent from 14.4 per cent in 2012, according to World Bank figures. Afghanistan is struggling to have a self-reliant economy as it depends on foreign aid at the moment. Fixing the economy needs a good security environment to infuse confidence in foreign investors. Ghani is trying to appease Pakistan so that the Taliban threat can be managed to improve the security scenario in Afghanistan, which will also boost its economy. In a nutshell, he is trying to ensure his country’s ‘national interest’, as states behave in international politics.
Having a background in economics, there are no surprises that Ghani has been trying to attract investments for his country, especially in the hydrocarbon and mining sectors. However, it looks that his ‘Pakistan card’ has not paid off dividends, as the Taliban has already launched its nationwide ‘Operation Azm’ against the Afghan National Security Forces and heavy causalities are being reported. Pakistan has also not moved forward on Afghanistan’s main demand of handing over the Afghan Taliban leadership, most probably because Pakistan’s policy to use these leaders to destabilise Afghanistan has not changed.6
India supports Ghani’s emphasis on economy; and expressed its desire to join the successor agreement to the Afghan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement which, if realised, would allow the India-Afghanistan trade through Pakistan. India is a big market for Afghan fruits and dry fruits. India is expectedly waiting to see how the ANSF deal with the Taliban in the aftermath of the US-NATO withdrawal functions before it makes further plans to invest in the Afghan economy. Apart from seeking enhanced economic ties, Ghani also allayed concerns over his policy of circles to carry out the Afghan foreign policy.
The joint statement issued after the Modi-Ghani meeting said that India figured in four of the five ‘circles’ of Afghanistan’s foreign policy priorities. This meant that India was a part of its neighbours, the Islamic world, Asia and international organisation ‘circles’, as already explained in the article. However, Ghani mentioned the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan during his India visit. He even blamed the IS for the recent Jalalabad suicide attack that claimed 35 lives. Indian experts feel that using the name of the IS shifts focus from the Taliban-Pakistan nexus in Afghanistan, allowing them to continue their terror activities in the name of the IS.7
India remains committed to a democratic and peaceful Afghanistan. This is clear from the fact that India is the fifth largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan after the US, UK, Japan, and Germany, even though it has not been a donor-nation historically. India has given more than US $ 2 billion aid to Afghanistan for rebuilding the nation and reconstruction of projects in power, roads, agriculture, and education. India is the largest regional donor (even above China) and Afghanistan is the second largest recipient of Indian aid (after Bhutan).8
The Ghani administration, no doubt, has reversed the policies of the Karzai Government thus bringing Pakistan back into focus for achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan. India needs to make sure that its security and economic interests are not hit due this policy-change on the part of Kabul. Since all the major stakeholders in Afghanistan are trying to engage the Taliban for peace talks, realpolitik suggests that India too should have backdoor negotiations with the Taliban. Staying relevant in Afghanistan in the changing security scenario could demand some hard choices from India; because of the lack of a clear-cut Afghan policy, India has almost squandered a decade of hard work it did in Afghanistan.
However, it must be mentioned that Ghani’s current change of stance is a tactical move to ensure peace in Afghanistan. India too wants a stable and democratic Afghanistan in place. History suggests that Ghani’s Pakistan gamble is unlikely to pay off and it is a matter of time before he understands it. By that time, India would have to be patient and continue its commitment to Afghanistan’s nation-building process, as a true friend would do.
It looks that both governments have exchanged their views on the bilateral relations and the regional security scenario during President Ghani’s visit. Since both sides have some understanding of each other’s sensitivities now, the bilateral engagement is expected pick up in the coming days and move forward.
1. Aimal Faizi (2015), “Has India lost Afghanistan to Pakistan?“, Al Jazeera, April 26, Online URL: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/04/india-lost-afghanistan-pakistan-150426051958020.html
2. Vivek Katju (2015), “Ghani and India: circles of separation“, April 29, Online URL: http://www.gatewayhouse.in/ghani-and-india-circles-of-separation
3. Devirupa Mitra (2015), “Ghani Admits India Into Inner Circle, Even as Delhi Remains Sceptical of Kabul’s ISIS Claims“, April 30, Online URL: http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/Ghani-Admits-India-Into-Inner-Circle-Even-as-Delhi-Remains-Sceptical-of-Kabuls-ISIS-Claims/2015/04/30/article2789660.ece
4. Joint Statement during the State Visit of President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to India (April 28, 2015). Online URL: http://www.mea.gov.in/incoming-visit-detail.htm?25137/Joint+Statement+during+ the+ State+Visit+of+President+of+Islamic+Republic+of+ Afghanistan+to+India+April+28+2015.
5. Suhasini Haider (2015), “Pakistan must open Wagah for trade: Ghani“, April 30, Online URL: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article7155457.ece
6. Seema Sirohi (2015), “India’s game of patience with Afghanistan“, April 29, Online URL: http://www.gateway house.in/india-playing-game-of-patience-with-afghanistan/
7. Devirupa Mitra, op. cit.
8. Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza (2015), “Ghani’s India visit: A new chapter in Indo-Afghan relations?“, April 29, Online URL: http://www.indiandefencereview.com/
Raj Kumar Sharma is an UGC Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.