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Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

India should reclaim its space in Afghanistan

Ashraf Ghani's appeasement of Pakistan army has been fruitless so far

In the absence of any semblance of political order, life would be—in the evocative words of Thomas Hobbes—“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Things are hardly better, as of now, in Afghanistan. While there are reports that the currently suspended talks between the Afghanistan government and Taliban may resume in early 2016, the latter continues to march ahead in the Helmand province and the losses continue to pile up for the Afghan national security forces.

Earlier on Sunday, a statement released by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) claimed that it had foiled a suicide attack plot on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad by Taliban. The attack was supposed to coincide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kabul, which might happen later this week depending on the security clearance.

The Moscow trip of Modi, currently underway, will be dominated by headlines around defence deals and cooperation on civil nuclear energy. However, the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan will also be an important item on the agenda. Both India and Russia have a convergence of interest as far as political stability in Afghanistan is concerned. Apart from Taliban, the increasing presence of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan greatly worries both India and Russia. The latter obviously is involved in mounting an offensive against the IS in Syria.

If the visit to Kabul takes place, Modi will be inaugurating Afghanistan’s Parliament building, which is a symbolic gift from the world’s largest democracy. Dropping India’s traditional reluctance, Modi has decided to transfer four Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan. These helicopters will be crucial for providing air support to Afghan military forces in their fight against Taliban. Tracing their origins to Russia, the helicopters will be transferred only after approval from Moscow. Given that this development will not go down well with the generals in Rawalpindi, it is interesting that India has taken this decision at a time when it is seeking to mend its relations with its troublesome western neighbour.

India’s demurrals notwithstanding, the ascendancy of Ashraf Ghani to Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, was a major setback to India-Afghanistan cooperation. Hoping to appease the Pakistan army and win over peace from Taliban, Ghani did a tremendous job in unlearning all the lessons that the experience of his predecessor Hamid Karzai would have taught him. Knowing well about Beijing’s influence over Pakistan, Ghani chose China for his first foreign visit after becoming the president. And during his first official visit to Pakistan, Ghani met chief of the army staff Raheel Sharif before Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His visit to India came much later. Given the extent of Pakistan’s unpopularity in Afghanistan, Ghani also lost considerable political capital during the process.

As the talks between the Afghanistan government and Taliban started under the mediation of Pakistan and with the blessings of the US and China, India was kept away. New Delhi has been a votary of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process, which seems elusive with Rawalpindi involved. However, the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar, the leader of Taliban, threw a spanner in the process of dialogue. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the new leader of Taliban backed by the ISI, is since then fighting an internal battle to ward off challenges to his leadership. With the arrival of IS on the scene, the task of keeping the flock together has got even tougher for Mansour. Not surprisingly, he has resorted to escalation in violence to prove his credentials.

Albeit gradually, Ghani is now realizing his mistakes. National security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar and deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai made trips to India in quick succession last month to finalize the Mi-25 deal. India was the first country with which Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011. The fifth largest bilateral donor—and the largest among the non-OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries—to Afghanistan, India has a lot at stake in the future of Afghanistan. India is an inevitable partner for Afghanistan not just for cultural exchanges and building democratic institutions but for defining the contours of security arrangement as well. Modi should drive this point home with Ghani in the upcoming visit—needless to say—if it takes place.

What should be Modi’s message for Ghani during the PM’s visit to Kabul? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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