Afghanistan’s president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani's working visit to India is taking place at a time when the Taliban has been stepping up attacks across the country and Kabul’s relationship with Pakistan is becoming increasingly bitter. As Afghanistan faces threats from the Taliban and as foreign secretary S Jaishankar put it, those "on the east" of the country, there were expectations that India would provide more helicopters and other military hardware.
But there was no direct reference to military aid though during talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ghani; terrorism was on top of the agenda.
Although Pakistan was not mentioned by name, the reference in the joint statement issued after the talks, was obvious.
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.
The two leaders discussed the regional situation and expressed grave concern at continued use of terrorism and violence in the region for achieving political objectives. They agreed that this phenomenon presented the single biggest threat to peace, stability and progress in the region and beyond.
Ghani arrived on Wednesday morning and met with Modi for consultations on bilateral and regional issues. The disussions carried on over a working lunch at Hyderabad House. Briefing reporters after the talks, Jaishankar said that the talks were warm as the two leaders who have met eight times so far have a level of "ease and comfort" with each other. Their countries also share "strategic convergence" and much of this is because of the threat both India and Afghanistan face from terrorism emanating from the region.
One billion dollars
New Delhi announced another billion dollars of aid for future development assistance. The projects have not yet been identified but the funds will be used for schemes that will touch the lives of the common citizen. India’s developmental assistance to Afghanistan, amounting to over $2 billion in the past, has been warmly appreciated by the people of Afghanistan.
Three agreements were signed during the visit, including an MoU on peaceful uses of outer space, which could give information for agriculture and weather patterns to farmers, an agreement on cooperation in civil and commercial matters and an extradition treaty.
India had promised to provide 1.7 lakh tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan to ease the shortage the country was facing. However Pakistan has so far not allowed the wheat to transit through. Delhi, which also provides substantial amounts of medicine and other pharmaceutical products to Afghanistan, hopes to increase the number of flights from India. These will help to transport medicine. The transit issue came up during talks between the two leaders and with it the need to make the Chabahar port link operational as quickly as possible. India and Afghanistan will also cooperate in solar energy.
Joining the Dots:
Although few details were shared about defence cooperation, Jaishankar referred to the joint statement and asked reporters to "join the dots" when asked about defence ties: "Both leaders reaffirmed their resolve to counter terrorism and strengthen security and defence cooperation as envisaged in the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement." He said capacity building, security and defence cooperation are the dots that need to be linked.
He also pointed to the recent visit of Afghanistan’s chief of general staff to India. Clearly the government does not want to spell it all out at the moment. It is likely that more attack helicopters will be provided. Three were given before Modi’s visit to Kabul in December last year. India has two sets of trilaterals with Afghanistan. One is between India, Iran and Afghanistan the other is between India, US and Afghanistan. In these trilaterals, both economic, political and the changing security situation are discussed.
India was the first country with which Afghanistan had signed a defence pact, called a strategic partnership agreement, in October 2011 during former president Hameed Karzai’s tenure. Pakistan was opposed to extending the Indian footprint in Afghanistan and was especially wary of military ties. Even Karzai, a leader who did some blunt talking to Pakistan, was cautious after signing the deal with India. He told reporters in Delhi "This strategic partnership is not directed against any country, this is to support Afghanistan." And what surprised all was his reference to Pakistan as a 'twin brother'.
Apart from taking in Afghan officers for training in India’s defence colleges, there was little more to the defence partnership. The UPA government did not provide the helicopters and other defence equipment that Karzai needed at that time. The US and Nato allies were at that time backing Pakistan in the hope that Islamabad would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The West encouraged and praised India for its development work in Afghanistan, but New Delhi was not encouraged to do any more, because of Pakistan’s strong objections. Disillusionment with Pakistan and the Taliban’s reluctance to come for talks has changed the situation on the ground.
India under Modi is likely to be much more willing to give the Afghan National Army a helping hand with equipment.