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How India should handle the Ghani visit

By M K Bhadrakumar
April 27, 2015 12:11 IST
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The India-Afghanistan relationship does not have to be a template of each country’s relations with Pakistan, and Delhi will do well to leave it to Ghani to redefine the parameters of Afghanistan’s security cooperation with India. A zero-sum mindset can only exacerbate regional tensions, says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

The good thing about the seven long months that Ashraf Ghani took after taking office as the president of Afghanistan to hop across from Kabul to New Delhi for a friendly chat with the Indian leadership is that it provided a much-needed respite for both capitals to stand back, take a deep breath and reflect over the bilateral relationship.

The heart of the matter is that during the later years of Hamid Karzai’s presidency -- precisely, through his second term -- the two countries drew exceptionally close within the framework of a sense of exasperation bordering on despair to give back to Pakistan in the same coin what the two countries had been receiving for years, if not decades.

If for Kabul it was a case of patience wearing out, for Delhi it was a sense of some quiet satisfaction and natural justice only that Pakistan was also finally facing the blowback from the terrorist groups that it had nurtured, trained and deployed in the neighbouring countries as instruments of policy.

Therefore, what can be said with near-certainty is that when Ghani arrives in Delhi on Monday, the security cooperation between the two countries will get rebooted. Ghani’s priorities toward Pakistan are vastly different from his predecessor’s.

On its part, Pakistan, which had played a significant part in its own way in Ghani’s victory in the presidential election last year, also views the present government in Kabul far more sympathetically.

As a result, the climate of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan has significantly improved in the period since Ghani took office.

The Afghan-Pak relations, admittedly, remain still very tenuous and the accumulated trust deficit cannot easily be dispersed, but it appears that a major effort is being made by both sides to keep tensions under check and to be more responsive to each other’s concerns than it has been for a long time.

From the Indian viewpoint, the core issue is the stabilisation of the Afghan situation and it cannot but appreciate that the improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relationship is a pre-requisite in this direction.

Delhi, therefore, ought to welcome Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan and hope that they will bear fruit in a near future.

On its part, India should do nothing that might even remotely upset the delicate equilibrium that has come to be in the equations between Kabul and Islamabad.

If the Afghan-Pakistan cogitations ultimately reach nowhere, it should not be on account of any lapses on India’s part. That is the absolute bottom line.

The Afghans have always regarded their relations with Pakistan as by far the most critical template of their foreign policies. There are no surprises here.

Equally, Afghans will always view India as a “balancer” and they are adept at networking with Delhi to the extent that they need at any given time.

Over the past several decades, Kabul has perfected the art of calibrating its diplomacy toward Islamabad and Delhi and to develop synergy out of it to its advantage.  Make no mistake about it; nor harbour any illusions on that score.

No doubt, Karzai had his compulsions to draw closer to India during his second term, once his equations with Washington began deteriorating and Pakistan turned hostile toward him.

In the present circumstances, therefore, Delhi will do well to leave it to Ghani to redefine the parameters of Afghanistan’s security cooperation with India. A zero-sum mindset can only exacerbate regional tensions.

After all, India is the last major regional capital that Ghani is visiting -- with the exception of Moscow -- and these past seven months of regional diplomacy would have given Ghani a sound awareness of India’s importance as a partner country and what India can do for his country’s reconstruction and security intrinsically and in relative terms.

India must trust his judgement and his good intentions as he navigates his country through a very difficult period in its history, beset with existential problems.

The seven months of the Ghani presidency overlaps with the 11 months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in office. It is seldom that in inter-State relations such an opportunity to make a new beginning, to bring to bear new thinking, becomes available.

Both leaders are well placed, therefore, to address the Afghan-Indian relationship with a fresh look and uncluttered mind.

The fact of the matter is that the India-Afghanistan relationship does not have to be a template of each country’s relations with Pakistan.

Or, to put it differently, the quality of that relationship -- its verve, its swagger -- does not have to reflect their respective ties with Pakistan. It has an intrinsic worth and a vast, largely untapped potential of its own.

It is useful to recall that India and Afghanistan have had a profound relationship much, much before Pakistan was born. There is no match for the vast reservoir of goodwill that Afghan people feel toward India.

Suffice it to say, India-Afghanistan cooperation and friendly ties have a raison d’etre of their own.

However, the current history shows that, unfortunately, Afghanistan has been turned into a turf of India-Pakistan rivalry, which the two countries could have done without.

Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan are no less legitimate or compelling than those of India’s in Nepal or Bhutan. This is one thing.

Secondly, at the end of the day, terrorism is a common threat to India and Pakistan and no matter Pakistan’s past dalliances with militant or extremist groups India cannot and should not follow the neighbour’s misguided footsteps.

Thirdly, India needs to “upgrade” its assessment of the Taliban. By now it should be abundantly clear that fighting and decimating an insurgency that undoubtedly enjoys a high degree of popular support will remain an elusive goal and the continued foreign occupation of Afghanistan on that pretext can only lead to resistance from the people.

This is already happening against the backdrop of the US moves to set up permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The Taliban appear to be mutating and vicious terrorist groups are contesting for space.

Regrettably, however, India has remained ambivalent about the open-ended US occupation of Afghanistan. It is evident that unless the US vacates its occupation, no settlement is possible.

As a major regional power with close and friendly relations with both Afghanistan and the US, India should bring this topic to the discussion table. It brooks no delays.

There is added urgency insofar as it is a matter of time before the deepening chill in the US-Russia relations and the intensifying rivalry between the US and China will spill over into the Afghan theatre -- that is, if the evidence of that happening does not exist already.

Simply put, as time passes and as the US presses ahead with its containment strategies toward Russia and China, Afghanistan (and Central Asia) faces the danger of becoming a “hotbed” of big-power rivalries, which in turn will only further complicate the search for a settlement in that country.

There is a broad international consensus prevailing today in the international community that any peace process should be Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. But the ground reality is that the US is controlling and micromanaging the process, which in turn inhibits Pakistan from exploring the full potential to work with Ghani directly to kick-start peace talks.

Indeed, the trust deficit in the US-Pakistan relations impedes an Afghan settlement. The Taliban, too, remain adamant that so long as the US troops remain in Afghanistan, they will refuse to talk peace.

Ghani’s strong pleas during his recent trip to the US for long-term military cooperation between the two countries have only sent the Taliban’s back up.

Meanwhile, the appearance of a few isolated elements here and there in the Hindu Kush, professing affinity with the Islamic State, should not become an alibi for perpetuating the US military presence in Afghanistan.

Taking all factors into account, therefore, India has a lead role cut out for it to work toward promoting a regional initiative for peace in Afghanistan.

In this context, the induction of India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as full members augurs well for such a regional initiative on the Afghan problem.

The SCO provides a readymade forum to establish direct contacts between the two militaries and security and intelligence establishments of India and Pakistan on a regular, “uninterruptable” basis.

Such a thing had never been possible so far in the relations between the two neighbouring countries for the past 67 years.

At the very minimum, the opportunity should be used to develop mutual confidence in agreeing that the stabilisation of Afghanistan is in the common interest of India and Pakistan and that an unstable Afghanistan will remain a revolving door of regional and international terrorism.   

Finally, Ghani’s visit is a splendid opportunity to clear up the cobwebs that accumulated through the past year or so. It was most unfortunate that a perception gained ground within Afghanistan and abroad that Ghani was not India’s “hot favourite” as a presidential candidate in the election last year.

In the interest of a transparent relationship with Ghani, which is crucially important, the Indian leadership should catch the bull by its horns and make it clear beyond any doubt that the bedrock of the relationship has always been between the friendship between the two nations and that India genuinely wants the national unity government and the Afghan leadership to succeed.

Delhi acted thoughtfully by inviting Rula Saade Ghani to visit India, including to places outside Delhi. The Ghani couple makes a rare combination at the leadership level not only in regional politics but also in Afghan history.

It is a engaging sight for Indians, too, that two accomplished intellectuals with cosmopolitan outlook have dedicated themselves to modernise their deeply conservative country -- and for one of them it also happens to be an adopted country -- whose ideas of modernity can be found both inspiring and incendiary, given the cultural ethos of their land.

Their journey is in many ways a replica of India’s journey, too, through its history and politics. In fact, it is a never-ending journey for such ancient lands as India and Afghanistan.

To my mind, the respect and understanding India and its people will show to the Ghani couple will be unique in this region, and it is bound to make a big impression on them as they get to know us better and better.

Relationships born out of mutual respect, unalloyed sincerity and directness and transparency have always been an integral part of Afghan culture.

In a nutshell, the salience of Ghani’s visit is already pre-determined with Rula Saade’s arrival in India ahead of her husband. It should be that an excellent chemistry is established at the personal level between the two leaderships.

If that can be accomplished, as it will inevitably happen in these couple of days, the reset of the India-Afghanistan relationship will also have taken place.

Image: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. 

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