Disillusioned by Pakistan, its Army and ISI, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani engages India again

By Sunil Raman

Amidst growing resentment among Afghans with Pakistan, the shaky government of President Ashraf Ghani has decided to engage the Indian leadership. The news of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death being kept secret by Pakistan for around five years, the spate of bombings in Kabul, and Islamabad’s failure to keep its promise on intelligence-sharing and reining in Taliban cadres has disillusioned Ghani. Reports of a Loya Jirga being called — that could lead to his ouster — have further pushed the president to look to India for assistance.

His departure from predecessor Hamid Karzai’s policy towards India saw him reach out to Pakistani generals in the hope that a give-and-take was possible. But, Pakistan’s overall strategy to secure its geopolitical objectives in the region is at odds with Kabul’s expectations. Many argue that it was naïve on Ghani’s part to have directly engaged with ISI in the hope of a solution to Afghanistan’s security concerns.

 Disillusioned by Pakistan, its Army and ISI, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani engages India again

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

His failed strategy has now forced him to engage India after flirtations with Pakistani military and ISI brought greater misery for the country. India, on its part, is quite confident about the results of such an effort. This weekend Afghan national security advisor and deputy foreign minister will be in Delhi to discuss a fast deteriorating security situation, and seek assistance.

India’s total aid package of Rs 12,800 crore ($2 billion) to the country includes the construction of the Parliament building. Besides building a dam in Herat province to generate 42 MW of electricity and constructing 218 km of road through Border Roads Organisation, India in the last five years has also given food aid of 250,000 mt of wheat. It has been helping with training programmes, scholarships and skill development too.

In the coming days, three Mi-25 attack helicopters India bought from Russia will be handed over to Afghan government. This is a departure from not providing military assistance to Afghanistan.

But, what can India do that looks beyond traditional ways of extending assistance?

India has tremendous brand equity among the people of Afghanistan. Historic ties part, Bollywood films and songs have culturally tied them with us as much as their belief that, unlike Pakistan, India seeks a stable and independent Afghanistan. India hosts thousands of Afghan refugees, patients and students in various parts of the country.

Given its landlocked status, Afghanistan is dependent on Pakistan for imports and exports. The latter is Afghanistan’s largest trading partner and the former is its second-largest export market.

The two countries initially signed the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) in 1965. In 2010, the trade agreement was altered to allow Afghan exports transit through Pakistan to the Wagah border with India, and to the seaport cities of Karachi and Gwadar. Pakistani trucks in turn are allowed to move products to all regions of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s total reported exports are currently equivalent to only five percent of total imports, with Pakistan as the largest export destination, accounting for 32.2 percent of all Afghan exports. Iran has now got closer with the access it provides to the Persian Gulf through land routes and the Chahbahar Port that India jointly helped build to end Kabul’s complete dependence on Pakistan for access to sea and rest of the global economy.

India, on the other hand, forms the second largest destination for Afghan exports despite the lack of direct transit access. Afghanistan’s requests to secure India land access through Wagah border have not been entertained by Islamabad. Pakistani 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.

With US forces drawdown, the growth of Taliban and Islamic State forces, Pakistan military squeezing Afghanistan and a government in Kabul that seems increasingly out of depth on tackling current challenges, India has an opportunity to connect directly with the people by thinking out of the box.

Here’s what India needs to consider:

-Pakistan is Afghanistan’s largest trade partner and its main market for exports

-Pakistan controls Afghanistan’s food economy, ISI controls importing/exporting companies

-Pakistan dictates prices of fruit exports from Afghanistan

-Afghan carpet industry lacks basic infrastructure to provide finished carpets and rugs. They are bought by Pakistani companies at cheap prices, finished and stamped with a ‘Made in Pakistan’ label

-The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death has made Afghans more distrustful of Pakistanis (in recent days, they even banned Pakistani medicines)

-India invested in infrastructure projects largely like roads and dams

-With a worsening security situation, the ISI is trying to stop the Afghan government from using the north to trade with CIS countries

And here are the immediate challenges:

Can the Indian government get market access to the Afghan fruit industry and dry fruit growers through chartered freight flights that help sell melons, grapes and pomegranates in cities like Delhi and Mumbai?

Can the Indian government help with technological and infrastructural support to the Afghan carpet industry so that its dependence on Pakistan for final finishing process and market reduces?

Lastly, can small Indian businesses be encouraged to set up shops in secured Special Economic Zones that Afghanistan has created in abandoned bases of US and Nato forces?

Pakistan’s military and ISI hold Afghanistan by its jugular. Most of the imports and exports from Pakistan are in the hands of ISI-controlled and ISI-sponsored companies. The Afghans have little choice.

For India, the stakes are high as years of investment in Afghanistan, both politically and financially, are threatened by increasing uncertainty and a deteriorating security situation. While India tries to build bridges with an embattled Ghani government and moves in with military assistance, it is probably time to also look at options that go beyond building roads, training, skill development and scholarships.

The writer is a former BBC journalist

Updated Date: Nov 05, 2015 15:03:24 IST