Afghanistan: The Awkward Friend of Two Enemies?

India and Afghanistan are talking to each other. What results did these talks yield? Image Source: WikiCommons

Ghani and Modi have had a lot to talk about. One would presume that hours could pass by quickly when the leaders of India and Afganishtan sit and talk. Trade and investment based conversations not withstanding, ISIS and their activity on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is reportedly, a major concern for R&AW, India’s intelligence agency.India and Afghanistan have been close to each other historically(until 1992). However  but as recently as 2006 and 2014 there has been support in terms of anti-Taliban collaboration and peace/capacity building.

 The two nations share a close bond, with common heritage and common threats. The joint ownership of Mughal history and the shared grief of the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008, along with the desire to prevent more such incidences are some of the many reasons this friendship has grown, slowly but surely.

Why is this array of conversation topics important? Because the First Couple of Afghanistan were in Delhi and we thought it might be important to set context before we analyse the results of their diplomatic handling.

The elegant first lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani was in New Delhi two weeks before her husband, the President, to narrate an event on: “Gender, community and violence: changing mindsets for empowering the women of South Asia”.   Rula Ghani is one of the more visible first ladies of the country since 1920 and has been named as one of the most influential people of the world by Times Magazine. During her visit to New Delhi she praised India for being one the countries promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan, and contributing to peace building.

The Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (a women’s trade union) is working on educating more than three thousand Afghan women and helped them with micro-enterprise and skill development.She discussed how this partnership had helped with making women more industrially productive and as a result, socially proactive. As far as social impact is concerned, India has placed 1,000 Afghan students on scholarships in Indian universities. There is no doubt to say India is playing a significant role in Afghanistan.

Now the First lady came to India with her agenda. It was obvious and transparent. We believe it helped establish relations and also put nations under favourable light. Which is saying a fair bit, because both nations enjoy their fair share of disrepute from time to time.

The First Lady seems to have played her role. Image Source: Hindu Business Line

Two weeks after Rula Ghani showed her keenness for working with India, her husband President Ashraf Ghani has made his first official visit to India after almost six months in the office. President has been criticized for ignoring India as a peace partner, where Karzai administration had better relations with India.  Karzai had studied in India and in his first 5 years in office visited 4 times.

Despite India being considered a developing nation, with serious issues troubling at home, where the country itself is lacking the requisite education centric infrastructure, India has still proved that they are willing to invest in Afghanistan to build a better and safer neighbourhood, and in that way make a contribution to development of South East Asia. So far India has given direct training to Afghan armed forces, and nearly 2.4 billion USD worth of aid to Afghanistan making them Afghanistan’s 5th largest donor.

Peace in the region is fleeting again, with the Taliban attacks increasing within Afghanistan in 2015, worsened by several groups having declared loyalty to the Islamic State.  The NATO special representative for women, peace and security made it clear in Kabul last week that women are key to peace and security in Afghanistan.

Contrary to the First Lady, her husband had larger mandate and seems to have under-performed. In order to understand the context here, what is important to note is that while Karzai’s government was obviously fond of India, President Ghani and his policies seem closer to an Afghan-Pakistani partnership. India and Pakistan have an historical rivalry that goes back to the day the latter was founded and modern day India was mapped.  This rivalry has found a way to play out it’s hand in Afghanistan.

Now India-Pakistan-Afghanistan have collectively been called many things and several dangerous buzzwords have been used to refer to the international politics at play here. William Dalrymple wrote in the Guardian and the headline was “Forget Nato v the Taliban. The real Afghan fight is India v Pakistan”. He referred to it as the “Deadly Triangle” in his work with Brookings.  Catherine Putz of The Diplomat calls it “The India Pakistan Proxy War in Afghanistan”. Former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf told the Wall Street Journal that “Pakistan and India both must stay away, and not to have this kind of a proxy war going on there.”

With preferential treatment to either country directly leading to sour moods across the other, President Ghani has to play it safe and more importantly, smart. President Ghani faced challenge during his first day in India. One presumes New Delhi would like to get clarity in where Afghanistan is going with their negotiations in Pakistan.  As President Ghani’s foreign policy priority since coming to office has clearly been to engage with Pakistan, and start peace negotiations with the Taliban. Ideally, India’s support for Afghanistan’s peace building should not pose any threat to Pakistan’s resolve to help, as both countries are a part of the solution. President Ghani must once again be reminded that bringing stability to Afghanistan calls for engagement from all his citizens, and neighbours.

President Ghani has fluctuated in his stand on a partnership with India on several occasions. Late last year, there was obvious irritation with India. India had delayed the delivery of military aid. With this delay irking the government, President Ghani went ahead and shelved the request for arms aid. This year, however has seen a different President Ghani. There was talk of a stand-off with Pakistan. If Pakistan is to gain easy access to Tajikistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan must give them easy access to India.

With President Ghani’s focus on cultural ties and historical connections obvious, the mention of how Tagore’s Kabuliwalla(An old Indian story by one of the most prominent Indian authors of all time) was a soft distraction. There was talk of what the past was and what the future could be. This led to expectations.

With all eyes on the President, the pressure must have disarmed him.  No concrete bilateral deals were signed; no discussion on the Trans-Afghanistan pipeline was consolidated. President Ghani did promise Indian investors a “palace stay” and assured them that security was no longer a problem. He also talked of transport links through Pakistan, but the authors believe that the political hurdles there are a research paper for another time.

While Rula Ghani praised India for  their support in empowering Afghan women’s rights and providing education opportunities for Afghans, President Ghani came to woo investors and he may have succeeded.

It won’t work if his people are not safe. It won’t work with the ISIS and the Taliban both present.  It won’t work, if he doesn’t realize that if he can’t leverage with Pakistan and India, he must find a way to make sure that peace is initiated. He must know that trade will follow.

Samina Ansari

Samina Ansari

Editor at InPRA
Afghan-Norwegian Samina Ansari is an Intern at NATO Secretary General’s Representative for Women, Peace and Security Office. She has background in Cyber Security law, Globalization law and International-Public Management from University of Oslo, Maastricht and SciencesPo.
Samina Ansari