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During his mid-September visit to New Delhi, Afghan President Ghani signed a range of agreements covering extradition, mutual legal assistance and even space cooperation. However, the most telling moment of his trip may have come during an address at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, where he praised Fighting to the End: the Pakistan Army’s Way of War, a book by Georgetown professor C Christine Fair, as the best exposition of the Pakistani military establishment’s philosophy. Fair’s book, spotted in the hands of Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar last summer, characterised Pakistan as a ‘purely greedy state, driven by ideological motives’. She also warned that ‘military defeat short of nuclear emasculation is not likely to convince the Pakistan Army that its goals are unreasonable’. This evidently now chimes with the opinions of Afghanistan’s President; ‘Pakistan is a revisionist state’, echoed Ghani at IDSA, ‘every defeat is celebrated as victory’.
But, if the Afghan leader is a convert to these ideas, it’s a far cry from his fulsome words about Pakistan, uttered at Rawalpindi’s General Headquarters in November 2014. While Ghani’s election earlier that year halted a decade-long improvement in Indo–Afghan ties, marked by a strategic partnership in 2011, it did lead to limited diplomacy between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban – backed by the US and China.
However, all that fell apart as the Taliban withdrew from talks, the insurgency worsened, and large attacks hit Kabul. In April this year, a disillusioned Ghani told a joint session of parliament that he had abandoned hope that Pakistan would deliver the Taliban to the table. ‘We want to use diplomatic initiative to isolate Pakistan at regional and international levels’, declared his spokesman, ‘and to tell the world community where terrorists are’.
That initiative is now pulling Kabul and New Delhi back together. India, blaming Pakistan for growing unrest in Kashmir, has mounted a counterattack by publicising Pakistani human rights abuses in the latter’s insurgency-hit province of Balochistan.
During his latest trip to New Delhi, Ghani publicly reinforced this Indian strategy, demanding that Baloch violence ‘needs to be covered’. This came on the same day that Indian diplomats were denouncing ‘authoritarian’ Pakistan’s human rights record in Balochistan at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In light of the major cross-border attack on an Indian military base in Kashmir on 18 September – the bloodiest such incident in decades – India is likely to double down on this strategy of internationalising Balochistan as a pressure point.
A second prong of this diplomatic offensive involves Iran. In recent weeks Ghani has complained of Pakistani restrictions on Afghan trade with India, which is governed by a complex transit agreement. ‘With Chabahar the monopoly will end’, warned Ghani in Delhi, referring to the Iranian port where India has been involved for over a decade. That involvement stalled with international sanctions on Iran, but in May this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ghani, and Iran’s President Hassan Rohani signed a trilateral agreement to accelerate the project. It has not escaped Pakistan’s notice that Chabahar is located in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, neighbouring Pakistan’s own Balochistan province, and is just 170 km from the port of Gwadar, the jewel of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Apart from the broader implications of Indian access to Afghanistan and a deeper alignment between all three of Pakistan’s neighbours, Chabahar will generate opportunities for India in terms of intelligence collection and activity, as do its Iranian-based consulates at Bandar Abbas further west and Zahedan to the north. And, while the scale of purported Indian and Afghan cooperation against Pakistan is undoubtedly exaggerated, we have seen Afghanistan willing to take unusual risks: just recall the recruitment of Pakistani Taliban leader Latif Mehsud by Afghan intelligence three years ago.
The third prong in this current diplomatic offensive concerns the old question of Indian arms for Afghanistan. Last year, India reversed its policy by handing over several attack helicopters to boost Afghanistan’s ailing airpower. The transfer of a major offensive platform was a milestone in defence cooperation, and a clear indication of the Modi government’s willingness to take greater risks in asserting Indian influence in Afghanistan. Last month, Afghan Army chief General Qadam Shah Shahim visited New Delhi to ask for more attack and transport helicopters, tanks, artillery and ammunition.
This visit was significant because it came just weeks after a visit from General John Nicholson Jr, commander of US forces in Afghanistan as well as of NATO’s mission in the country. In 2009, the then-top US general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, wrote that ‘while Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures’. This was an accurate message, if phrased in terms that were discordant to Indian ears. But seven years on, Nicholson struck a very different tone. ‘The US favours India’s military support to Afghanistan,’ he declared, noting ‘an immediate need for more’ helicopters.
More broadly, both India and Afghanistan will be buoyed by hopes that the congressional mood on Pakistan is shifting, as evidenced by the decision to block funding for F-16 sales and the subsequent decision not to pay $300 million in US ‘reimbursements’ to the Pakistani military.
So, what does this all mean? Ghani is turning to India because his relationship with Pakistan is breaking down, which, in turn, is because Islamabad has neither reined in the insurgency nor compelled insurgents to negotiate with the Afghan authorities. India cannot do either of these things, nor heal the widening rifts within Afghanistan’s dysfunctional National Unity Government), where ‘Chief Executive’ Abdullah Abdullah, who was long perceived to be close to India, has condemned Ghani as ‘not fit for the presidency’. Political tensions escalated through August, while former President Hamid Karzai hovers as a spectre at the feast. Reforms due for this month are unlikely to happen, though international donors, who are due to meet in Brussels on 4–5 October, have no desire to see the unity government fall apart.
Among other crises, the capitals of both Uruzgan and Helmand province are under siege by insurgents. Five of the latter’s fourteen districts are Taliban-held, despite US forces having been thrown back into direct combat.
A handful of Indian helicopters – indeed, even a phalanx of new tanks – will not overturn these broader trends in India’s favour.
The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi meeting the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, in Tehran, Iran, in May 2016. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.