Most observers in India and many abroad were a little peeved at President Ashraf Ghani’s gesture of visiting Pakistan and then China before any other countries, immediately on assumption of the Presidency of Afghanistan. Former President Ahmad Karzai, on an early visit to India immediately after relinquishing his long held appointment made efforts at assuaging feelings in New Delhi by declaring that sequencing of visits of the new President to various capitals in no way reflected the priorities that Afghanistan maintained in its perception of importance of those countries. What became a major point of discussion was the visit of Ashraf Ghani to the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) to meet General Raheel Sharif, surely a departure from any known protocol. However, it did indicate the manner in which Ghani perceived the conflict in his country. After a full round robin of visits to various countries including China, UK, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Ghani has stepped into India’s capital full seven months after he assumed office. Should we remain peeved or elated or simply be pragmatic and realistic?
Ghani has in no way ever displayed an anti-India bias or not recognized India’s diplomatic, economic and social role in the stabilization of his country. It seems he just decided on his priorities and perceived that without Pakistan’s cooperation there could be no peace in Afghanistan. Knowing fully well that his predecessor’s priorities were different he possibly studied the progressive dynamics of the situation over the last few years and realized that India’s soft power and economic role would continue unimpeded because of its interests involved and measured the fact that India did not share a boundary with Afghanistan; India would not, as much as it could not, play a military or proactive diplomatic role. It was Pakistan, with its major involvement since the Seventies, the existence of its Deep State which ran its regional strategic affairs extra constitutionally, and relationships it enjoyed with the Taliban and the Haqqani Group that held the strings. He realized that the US too wanted an Indian role but a quiet one; a Pakistani role for the US was inevitable given the manner the two ran the affairs for close to 15 years. What about China? Ashraf Ghani must have contemplated hard about getting to New Delhi before Beijing. What would have driven him to Beijing first? That is a simple one. With the Americans increasingly reluctant to pull their weight and in state of confusion, their influence over Pakistan would also dilute; as it is, it never was so effective right through the 15 years, Bush’s threats of returning it to the Stone Age notwithstanding. To balance Pakistan and rein it in, prevent it seeking rapprochement with the Taliban behind his back Ashraf Ghani chose to give Beijing status near equivalent to Islamabad. This was a display of realpolitik at its best. Karzai’s predictability and his known pro-Indian bias were restricting Ashraf Ghani’s options of seeking fresh and untried equations and methods. China is the power on the upswing; it has made known its desire to see peace in Afghanistan in order to exploit the stakes it is seeking in the latter’s mineral belt, many of them already secured. Afghanistan’s proximity to China’s emerging New Silk Route demands the settlement of the conflict and return to stability. Obviously China’s stakes are high and particularly in balancing Pakistan and ensuring that its role remains rooted to China’s interests which are in sync with those of Ashraf Ghani. Of course, it is well known that as an official of the World Bank for 11 years, he had frequently dealt with the Chinese. 327 Million US$ in aid was not a bad beginning in terms of what resulted from the visit, after all he would need almost 8 Bn US$ annually to effectively run his country. But then wouldn’t there be a sentiment for democratic principles, for the closeness of the Afghan people to the land of Gandhi and years of relationship with India which included one of the rare examples of equation with the state and the nation; after all China is no democracy and doesn’t even pretend to be one; worse Pakistan is a democracy with an asterisk, its powerful Deep State overseeing its strategic interests. Given Ashraf Ghani’s realpolitik and pragmatism one cannot blame him for making his choice. He had to get on board the one organization which if upset could go far beyond the barriers of any norms to secure its awkward interests in his country and that would have meant a virtual civil war. The Pakistan Army and the overall security establishment have their hands too deeply immersed in Afghanistan. They are paranoid about the possibility of India and its intelligence agencies finding even more influence than they already have. Imagined ghosts of Indian interference in Baluchistan through the Afghanistan route give those sleepless nights. “Sending Afghan cadets for military training to Pakistan, allowing Pakistani intelligence officers to interrogate detainees in Afghan detention facilities, conducting military operations on Afghan soil at the request of Pakistan’s military, are but a few examples”, said Aimal Faizi, the former spokesman for Ahmad Karzai, referring to the approvals Ashraf Ghani gave to his Pakistani hosts.
It is not important whether Ashraf Ghani chose to go to Saudi Arabia, Iran, US or any other countries also before embarking on a visit to New Delhi. It is now more important to see what he says in New Delhi.
From India’s side the peeved observers have remained in that state; it is difficult to accept that years of painstaking effort has come to naught. However, that would be the worst way of looking at the emerging situation. Given the fact that our government has not reacted with any knee jerk responses is reflective of its maturity. Even those who have been involved in the evolution of India’s Afghanistan policy have not written off India’s role. I couldn’t agree more with my colleague Jayant Prasad, former Ambassador in Kabul, when he wrote – “Ghani is an Afghan patriot and will do what is best for his country. His objective-to establish a stable, strong, sovereign Afghanistan-is what India also wants. He must have space to achieve it in accord with his own strategy. India will continue its partnership for human resource development and institution building, and stand ready to support Afghanistan in a manner to be determined by its people and government”.
Sensible pragmatism, and even more when he says – “It is just as well that officials in both Kabul and New Delhi decided against a hurried, pre-SAARC summit passing-through visit by Ghani and opted instead for a well-prepared state visit in early summer. By then India will have a clearer view of the ground situation and adjust its policy accordingly. India, as much as the international community, needs the longue durÃ©e in Afghanistan-patience, perseverance and long-term engagement”.
Early summer has arrived and Ashraf Ghani is in New Delhi. What are the prime takeaways for both sides that can be expected? New Delhi has its symbolics right; three Cheetah helicopters were finding their way to Kabul even as the Afghan President was putting together the last punctuations for his talks at New Delhi; perhaps commitments towards a longstanding Afghan demand for military hardware. Primarily, both sides should be looking at ensuring that there is no climb down from the levels of ongoing cooperation, notwithstanding the upgrading of Pakistan’s involvement. In fact, with a perceived lower role in conflict management India’s task should be to engage on the economic and social front even more vigorously, as suggested by Dr Radha Kumar in her seminal piece in the Times of India 27 Apr. The Chah Bahar route must be pursued and The Afghan President can play a positive role in that by making it an India – Iran – Afghanistan joint interest. There are far too many things happening in this part of the world for India to feel peeved in any way simply by being upstaged in the priority accorded by the Afghan President towards the stabilization efforts. It must be remembered that in the long run it is enduring socio – economic relationships which persist and India’s record on that front cannot in any way be downplayed by Afghanistan’s new establishment. You can trust the current Government of India to play the optics well and that itself is important to internationally send home the message that nothing has been lost in the India – Afghanistan relationship under President Ashraf Ghani.
(Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain is an ex General Officer Commanding of two of India’s premier Corps, the Bhopal based 21 Corps and Srinagar based 15 Corps. He is a keen observer of events in South and West Asia and is currently associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group)