President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has just concluded a long-awaited visit to India. It was successful, hit all the right notes, had a good deal of substance, reaffirmed the traditional friendship, and yet left the foreign affairs pundits wondering how best to assess its significance.
The former President, Mr Karzai, had carved out a special place for himself in India; he had been in exile here, had studied in Shimla, was clearly at home in India and worked assiduously to strengthen the relationship. Making common cause with India was a major plank of his strategy for stability and progress at home, and that too at a critical period when US-led international support was being reduced while the threat of insurgency remained unabated. Pakistan’s role was frequently criticized by him and decried on account of meddling in Afghan affairs by Pak intelligence agencies. A prime theme in Afghan diplomacy was to bring international pressure on Pakistan to mend its ways, to which, of course, as a fellow victim of Pak-supported violence, India was very responsive.
The threat of violence and terror continues but President Ghani’s effort to contain the trouble shows some important differences from his predecessor. Partly this is no doubt because the situation itself has evolved and last year’s strategies need to be amended in the light of changing realities, most important being the progressive US withdrawal which has left a greater burden on Afghanistan itself.
In these circumstances,Mr Ghani has made readjustments suited to the needs of the times, including a renewed quest for dialogue with the Taliban insurgents despite the many earlier failures to develop meaningful exchanges with them. What form dialogue could take is not clear but it would require a measure of mutual understanding between Kabul and Islamabad, which could be why Mr Ghani has been so active in his dealings with Pakistan and why the tone and maybe the structure of the exchanges between these two virtually conjoined neighbours is rather different from what it was in the earlier era.
To be noted, too, is that policy initiative lies with Mr Ghani more than anyone else. International intervention in Afghanistan yielded only indifferent success, and now it would seem that, maybe out of necessity, Kabul has taken the reins in its own hands. So far, it has maintained a steady course and pursued a consistent goal. In dealing with the dangers at home – which are far from settled – it has set out on a fresh range of neighbourhood options, not with the immediate Pakistani neighbour alone but also with the more distant China.
Mr Ghani has visited that country, even before he came to India, which shows that he regards it as one of the key factors in his effort to establish a ring of peace and reconciliation around his country. Economic relations between Afghanistan and the advancing Chinese super power are of course important, but for the present matters of peace and reconciliation have taken priority.
It is thus a significantly altered regional perspective that President Ghani brought with him to Delhi. Over the previous few years the defence and security links between India and Afghanistan have grown considerably, with India offering training and other facilities; but this aspect of their ties did not become the main focus of the visit. Agreements on transfer of defence hardware existed before Mr Ghani but had not been properly implemented for a variety of reasons; it was only now, to mark the Afghan President’s visit that final arrangements for handing over three helicopters were made.
This was perhaps the most substantive outcome even though it can be regarded as a relatively limited gesture, albeit one with considerable practical value. Apart from the helicopters, there was not a great deal of material substance to record, neither was there the usual list of varied agreements on diverse matters that often marks such occasions. By that measure, it would be seen as a low-key affair that did not add a great deal to India-Afghan relations. But Mr Ghani’s is a distinctive new voice in South Asia. His country is in the vortex of the troubles that beset the region and he has been in search for better ways of dealing with them. There is every expectation that his visit to New Delhi will lead to progressive expansion of ties in many fields, which is what the leaders indicated after their talks.
The Pakistan factor cannot be set aside in any discussion of India-Afghan relations, as has been evident from the start. Pakistan has always sought to minimize the ties between these two of its neighbours, using the advantage of its geographical location to act as a brake on India-Afghan linkages, especially in trade and economic affairs. Being landlocked, Afghanistan has to depend on Karachi port as its main access to the world, and more than once it has been blocked as a result of a downturn in ties.
In the last few years, ever since the USA established itself in Afghanistan, the supply route for US forces across Pakistan has been the main focus of attention but Afghanistan has its own interest in maintenance of overland access, unrelated to the supply problems of foreign troops. Afghan traders have an old established presence in many parts of North India but they have been losing out owing to the interruption of the normal ways of moving their goods to the Indian market. This is an issue that was raised forcefully in New Delhi by Mr Ghani.
In his meetings in India, including those with the media, he complained about the treatment meted out to Afghan transit goods, demanding equal treatment under the relevant Pak-Afghan agreements. At present, Afghan goods, mainly perishable items like fresh fruits, have to be unloaded at the border and taken across in head loads to Indian vehicles for onward transportation to the wholesale markets. Mr Ghani sought an end to this primitive way of handling the traffic, which is expensive and inefficient, and, in further discrimination, does not apply equally to Pakistani goods. Maybe Mr Ghani’s vigorous representations will have some effect and serve to restore Indo-Afghan trade to the higher levels of the past.
Mr Ghani’s representations on this issue could have a wider, region-wide effect. Easing of present constraints on movement of goods within the region is sorely needed and has held back the regional economic integration strongly advocated by several multinational bodies, including SAARC. Afghanistan has now taken the lead and could be an important voice in opening the region to more effective integration. The more active role it would appear to have assumed is all to the good and should be welcomed. (The Statesmen)