India hosted the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference this week aimed at speeding up reconstruction in war-torn Afghanistan and bringing peace and normalcy to the nation. Though in India, the focus was primarily on a meeting between the Pakistani and Indian foreign secretaries, the HoA conference saw participation by 14 states—Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates.

The HoA process, which is being supported by the wider international community, originated under the aegis of the Istanbul Conference in November 2011, which underscored the need for regional cooperation and confidence building to resolve underlying problems facing Afghanistan and anchoring the state’s development in a regional environment that is stable, economically integrated and conducive to shared prosperity. India rightly underscored the need for improving connectivity in the region to help Afghanistan harness its trade and transit potential.

Yet, the 2016 HoA conference comes at a time when Afghanistan is once again reviewing its policy towards Pakistan. In his address to a joint session of Afghanistan’s two houses of parliament earlier this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani threatened to lodge a formal complaint against Pakistan. In a departure from his earlier stand, Ghani called on Pakistan to forego attempts to bring the Taliban to negotiations and take military action against the militant group. The Afghan president threatened, “If we do not see a change, despite our hopes and efforts for regional cooperation, we will be forced to turn to the UN Security Council and launch serious diplomatic efforts." Despite Pakistan’s repeated assertions that it would go after Taliban leaders who refused to engage in the peace process involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China, negotiations have stalled and deadly attacks in Afghanistan have increased as the Taliban carries out its spring offensive.

The government of President Ghani is struggling to hold key districts in Helmand province in the south amid a renewed Taliban offensive there. The government in Kabul is also struggling to hold overdue parliamentary elections this fall amid the worsening security situation. American commanders are asking Washington that US troop numbers remain at the current level of 9,800, and not drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year.

On 19 April, an Afghan Taliban-claimed attack against a security agency responsible for protecting senior government officials and VIPs killed 64 people and injured 347 others. Afghanistan has alleged that this deadly attack in Kabul was planned by the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Rather than engaging Pakistan, Kabul is now talking of isolating Pakistan in response. Dawa Khan Meenpal, deputy spokesperson for Ghani, recently suggested that “Pakistan is in the state of isolation. We want to use diplomatic initiative to isolate Pakistan at regional and international levels and to tell the world community where terrorists are and which country and intelligence (agency) support them."

India’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan also needs to evolve with these changing ground realities. New Delhi has been demanding dismantling of safe havens and terror sanctuaries in the region besides pressing for deeper engagement of various stakeholders for Afghanistan’s stability and security. That is easier said than done. Indian interests are being repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan. The attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in March was the fourth such attack since 2007. Other Indian consulates in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and the Indian Embassy in Kabul have also been attacked.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the new Afghan Parliament and the decision by New Delhi to gift Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghan forces were meant to underline the Indian seriousness of resolve to preserve its equity in a troubled neighbour. India also signed the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) pipeline agreement to showcase its continuing commitment to Afghanistan’s economic viability. Now, China is stepping up its military role as well. Beijing is making it clear that it wants to have deeper security ties with Afghanistan and there are plans to strengthen counter-terror and intelligence cooperation along with enhancing China’s role in the training of Afghan military and civilian personnel. China has become increasingly concerned about its extremists and separatists in Xinjiang, where violence has killed hundreds in recent years, and sees security in Afghanistan as key to stability in China. Whether India and China can cooperate in Afghanistan is anybody’s guess given China’s deepening ties with Pakistan. Though Beijing has been increasingly keen to see a political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures a stable balance of power, it is nevertheless placed well to deal with the less-than-desirable prospect of a Taliban resurgence.

New Delhi has so far shown an unusual tenacity in its dealings with Afghanistan. It now needs to move beyond the binary of economic cooperation and military engagement and evolve a comprehensive policy which involves all dimensions of power. Afghanistan is a tough country. Only those who are willing to fight on multiple fronts will be able to preserve their leverage.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London.

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