Can Modi use Lahore visit bonhomie to give a push to India-Afghanistan ties?
Modi arrived in Kabul when a shaky government headed by President Ghani has realised that its time might be running out after its overzealous outreach to Pakistan.
By Sunil Raman
Prime Minster Narendra Modi inaugurated the India-built Afghanistan Parliament building in Kabul amidst reports of creeping Taliban control over parts of the country including a district in Helmand Province,and and President Ashraf Ghani hoping to sign peace with “pro-peace” Taliban factions in 2016.
Modi arrived in Kabul when a shaky government headed by President Ghani has realised that its time might be running out after its overzealous outreach to Pakistan failed to bring desired results and the security situation in Afghanistan gets serious day by day.
Unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, who never minced words about Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation and named India as a friend, Ghani soon after coming to power in 2014 went out of his way to woo Pakistan. Such was his outreach to the Pakistani military that he visited even the defence ministry in Pakistan and met the Army Chief.
He ignored India and on its part, New Delhi decided to ignore him as well. While India continued with its investments to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure it maintained its distance from Ghani.
Until April, when President Ghani decided to turn his attention towards India and made an official where Modi like his predecessors reiterated India’s commitment to help rebuild Afghanistan. Apart from infrastructure development India views expansion of trade as an essential ingredient to link Afghanistan with India and Central Asia, and thereby also reduce the landlocked country’s complete dependence on Pakistan. India suggested that it be made a part of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement, an idea that has been voiced now by President Ghani on different platforms.
Ghani adopted Hamid Karzai’s line on India’s significant play only after a spate of terror strikes in Kabul, and after reports that Pakistan had held back news of Mullah Omar’s death for five years. Growing resentment of Pakistan and its military’s proxy role has caused quite a lot of anger on the streets of Kabul. The Afghan president has understood that abandoning Hamid Karzai’s approach to Pakistan made little headway and getting India into the picture was essential for transforming Afghanistan’s future.
At the same time Ghani has announced that "serious" reconciliation talks with pro-peace Taliban factions will begin “very soon” with the goal of reaching an agreement. Attempts in the past started in Islamabad and Beijing failed to move forward but the widening presence and influence of Taliban in the country requires an urgent rethink on how to engage Taliban groups amenable to talk to Kabul.
In this background, Prime Minister Modi made a major pitch in Kabul to revitalise India’s historic and cultural links with Afghanistan and its people, and seek greater participation in its economic future. Membership of APTTA signed between Afghanistan and Pakistan with nudging from the US in 2010 is one such major groupinng.
India’s eagerness to become a part of APTTA at ‘Heart of Asia’ conference added to Pakistan’s suspicion and its officials have briefed their local media about their reluctance to agree to Sushma Swaraj’s suggestion.
India-Afghanistan bilateral trade is at $683 million ($474 million exports and $209 million imports by India). India, on the other hand, forms the second largest destination for Afghan exports despite the lack of direct transit access. Pakistan industry fears that Indian goods might get smuggled in large quantities impacting its businesses apart from the military’s inherent policy to deny India greater presence in a country that it sees as giving it strategic depth.
Since the conclusion of the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference the Afghan government has forced Pakistan to agree to a review of APTTA in March 2016, quoting rules that have governed the agreement since it was signed in 2010. But, the Ghani government realizes its limited leverage with Pakistan on the issue due to its land locked status. While forcing Pakistan to agree to a review of APTTA next year, Afghanistan has conceded a long standing demand and announced a one year multiple entry visa for its businessmen.
At present, all Afghan trucks with goods have to terminate their journey at Attari they are not allowed by drive some distance away to Wagah on the Pakistan-border. These trucks then have to return empty to Afghanistan. Whereas, if they were allowed to offload goods meant for India at Wagah border and return loaded with goods from India that could be taken to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia, it would transform businesses and economies of all – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – an idea that Pakistan refuses to entertain.
Pakistan’s generals would not allow India to gain a foothold in Afghanistan through APTTA and fear longterm consequences of such a move on their entrenched interests in that country.
Modi’s stopover in Pakistan has naturally attracted much attention and media scrutiny but, whether he can gently get Nawaz Sharif’s support for his plan to sew up commercial connectivity between the three will be watched closely in the coming months.
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