Harsh V. Pant
India hosts the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference this week in Amritsar. It is aimed at speeding up reconstruction in war-torn Afghanistan and bringing peace and normalcy to the nation. It will see participation from 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, 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. New Delhi too has repeatedly underscored the need for improving connectivity in the region to help Afghanistan harness its trade and transit potential.
The Pakistan factor
Yet this conference comes at a time when India is looking to isolate Pakistan regionally and globally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will jointly inaugurate the ministerial deliberations and try to put up a united front vis-a-vis Pakistan. Afghanistan’s envoy to India Shaida Abdali, in a joint press conference at the Ministry of External Affairs, made it clear that terrorism is the “creation of the region and the solution lies in the region. Therefore the upcoming HoA conference is very well timed.” He went on to suggest that terror must be dealt with effectively, not only for the sake of countries such as India and Afghanistan, but also for people in the country where “terrorism is nurtured”.
Afghanistan has been reviewing its policy towards Pakistan. In his address to a joint session of Afghanistan’s parliament this year, Mr. Ghani had threatened to lodge a formal complaint against Pakistan. In a departure from his earlier stand, he called on Pakistan to forego attempts to bring the Taliban to negotiations and take military action against them. “If we do not see a change, despite our hopes and efforts for regional cooperation, we will be forced to turn to the U.N. Security Council and launch serious diplomatic efforts,” he said. Despite Pakistan’s repeated assertions that it would go after Taliban leaders who refused to engage in the peace process involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and China, negotiations have stalled and deadly attacks in Afghanistan have increased.
Mr. Ghani’s government is struggling to hold key districts and has failed to hold overdue parliamentary elections amid a worsening security situation. U.S. President Barack Obama also decided to draw down troops to 8,400 by the end of his term, a change from his initial target of 5,500, in accordance with the views of the military. It is not clear what a Trump presidency would mean for Afghanistan, but it is safe to assume that Washington now wants to reduce its stake in the country and would like the regional states to do some heavy-lifting.
India’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan has also evolved. It 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’s easier said than done. Indian interests, including its Embassy and consulates, are repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan.
Mr. Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the new parliament building last year and the decision by New Delhi to gift Mi-24 attack helicopters to Afghan forces are meant to underline India’s resolve to preserve its equities in a troubled neighbour. India also signed the TAPI pipeline agreement to showcase its continuing commitment to Afghanistan’s economic viability. China too 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, 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, and a willingness to move beyond the binary of economic cooperation and military engagement and evolve a comprehensive policy which involves all dimensions of power. This has enhanced Indian credibility in Afghanistan which 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 a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.
Harsh V. Pant