President Ghani's visit to India marks a radical shift in the policy of Afganistan towards India and is a game-changer in South Asia.
The President of Afghanistan, Dr. Mohammed Ashraf Ghani, paid a successful and productive two-day working visit to India on September 14-15. This was his second visit to India, the first having been in April, 2015. Ghani took more than seven months to make his first tour to India after he was sworn in as President in September, 2014. His first visit after becoming President was to China and the second to Pakistan. He travelled to USA, Iran and Saudi Arabia before heading to India. This vividly demonstrated the importance that the new dispensation accorded to China and Pakistan as compared to India in conduct of its foreign relations. In fact, India was included in the fourth concentric circle out of the five created by President Ashraf Ghani after assuming power indicating the low importance and priority that India then commanded in Afghanistan’s foreign policy matrix. Both Pakistan and China found place in the first circle.
Ghani harboured a false illusion that Pakistan will help it to restore peace and normalcy in Afghanistan. It did not take long for his hope — that Pakistan will be able to deliver Taliban to the negotiating table to come to a modus vivendi to ensure security and stability in the country — to be shattered. Also dashed to the ground was his expectation that Pakistan will ensure that Taliban does not launch attacks on Afghanistan. Matters have come to such a pass that Ghani has been forced to severely condemn and criticise Pakistan on several occasions for sheltering terrorist groups like Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network who carry out attacks against Afghanistan, resulting in huge loss of life and destruction of economic assets. According to UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, between January and June this year, 1601 civilians have been killed and 3565 wounded which is the highest level since UN began monitoring the situation in 2009.
It is in these circumstances of frustration and despair that Ghani undertook his second tour to India.
The visit took place also in the backdrop of two back to back tours by Prime Minister Modi to Kabul, the first in December 2015 to inaugurate the Parliament building, symbol of Afghan democracy, constructed by India as a gift to Afghanistan, and again in June 2016 to inaugurate the Afghanistan-India Friendship dam at Salma. Both Modi and Ghani also jointly inaugurated via video-link in August, 2016, the historic Stor palace in Kabul, site of many consequential and major events in evolution of that country, renovated and restored by India. These visits and events as well as signing of the momentous Chabahar Agreement in the presence of President Rouhani of Iran, President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Modi in May, 2016 underscore the metamorphosis in bilateral ties in recent months.
One of the primary objectives of Ghani's visit was to get more arms from India, including small weapons, spares, more attack helicopters, transport helicopters, tanks, artillery and ammunition to deal with the growing insurgency and attacks by Taliban operating from Pakistani soil. It may be recalled that just after coming to power, Ghani had withdrawn the request put in by his predecessor President Hamid Karzai for armaments from India. This was a part of Ghani’s strategy to woo Pakistan to safeguard security and stability in the country. As Ghani soon realised, this policy has come unstuck.
In pursuance of an earlier commitment, India gifted 4 MI 35 attack helicopters to Afghanistan last December which stood it in good stead in evicting Taliban militants from the northern town of Kunduz which they had forcibly occupied for two weeks earlier this year. At the end of Ghani’s visit, in response to a query, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar affirmed that positive discussions on this issue are continuing. Although no specific announcements were forthcoming during the visit, positive developments can be expected in the coming days.
The atmosphere and vibes between the two leaders were starkly different from what was witnessed during Ghani's first tour. At that time although Ghani was hosted as per diplomatic protocol, there was a certain coldness and aloofness in the reception accorded to him. It was completely different this time. Ghani was received extremely warmly and enthusiastically.
One of the critical issues discussed during the visit was the imperative need to jointly and commonly confront the challenge of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Without naming Pakistan, both countries affirmed that the phenomenon of terrorism "presented the single biggest threat to peace, stability and progress in the region and beyond. Stressing that elimination of all forms of terrorism, without any discrimination, is essential, they called upon the concerned to put an end to all sponsorship, support, safe havens and sanctuaries to terrorists, including for those who target Afghanistan and India. Both leaders reaffirmed their resolve to counter terrorism and strengthen security and defence cooperation as envisaged in the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement."
Connectivity between India and Afghanistan was another issue that garnered huge attention during the visit. The fact that Afghanistan is not able to trade directly with India through the overland route via Pakistan has been a source of considerable exasperation and pique to it. Pakistan permits Afghanistan’s products to travel by sea from Karachi and allows only fresh fruits through the Wagah-Attari border to India. Even at the Wagah border, sack loads of fresh fruits have to be off-loaded, carried manually across the border and reloaded on different vehicles on the Indian side. This leads to unnecessary delays, damage to the produce and high transportation costs. Pakistan’s continued refusal forced President Ghani to warn Pakistan a few days before embarking on his visit to India that he will forbid Pakistan’s access to Central Asian countries if Pakistan did not allow direct access to India which is its natural market for its agricultural produce and dry and fresh fruits. Completion of the Chabahar project in the coming years could prove to be a game-changer and revolutionize the strategic and economic ties between India and Afghanistan, as well as with Central Asia.
Both sides availed of the opportunity to review and draw up an ambitious future plan for Indian financial support for development of Afghan human resources. President Ghani expressed deep gratitude for India’s assistance of more than US$ 2 billion, the highest by any of Afghanistan’s neighbours, extended so far to Afghanistan to upgrade its social and physical infrastructure as well as to train and equip its cadres and professionals in different areas of economic and technical endeavour. India offered to extend an additional financial aid of USD 1 billion to further enhance and upgrade Afghanistan’s capacity and skill levels.
Prime Minister Modi reiterated: "India’s abiding support for a unified, sovereign, democratic, peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan. He conveyed India’s readiness to consider further requirements of Afghanistan for capacity and capability building in spheres such as education, health, agriculture, skill development, empowerment of women, energy, infrastructure and strengthening of democratic institutions."
India offered to supply world quality medicines at competitive rates and to support Afghanistan to develop its solar energy potential.
Three Agreements were signed between the two governments viz Extradition Treaty for repatriation of criminals and militants, on peaceful uses of outer space, and on cooperation in civil and commercial matters. These will go a long way in enhancing confidence and strengthening bilateral ties.
This was the eighth meeting between Ghani and Modi over the last 17 months and stands testimony to rapidly transforming association between the two countries. Positive discussions and atmospherics provided a huge boost to bilateral ties which neatly mesh in with the increased attention being accorded by the government to ties with Iran and Central Asia. Although somewhat late in coming, the swiftly expanding cooperation with Afghanistan is a shot in the arm for the government’s "Neighbourhood First" policy and along with the positive results of visit of Nepalese Prime Minister, will provide the government with greater confidence to deal with Pakistan, Maldives and other neighbours in a more assured and also, where required, flexible manner.
Ghani’s visit heralds a new chapter in the bilateral collaboration and sends out a strong message of the enduring and growing partnership to the region and the world.
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Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...Read More +