Stability tops agenda as India readies to host Afghan President

Stanly Johny Chennai | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on April 26, 2015

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Countries may explore a new defence mechanism to increase capacity building for Afghan forces, says experts

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s much-awaited visit to India from Monday is expected to broaden economic and security cooperation between the two countries even as New Delhi remains wary of China’s growing influence in the war-ravaged nation.

Ghani, who became the President last year in bitterly contested elections, is visiting India during April 27-28.

A host of issues ranging from regional stability, reconstruction of Afghanistan and bilateral security cooperation are likely to top the agenda when Ghani meets Prime Minister Modi on the first day of his trip, say experts.

“Ghani is likely to emphasise the need for India’s sustained assistance and engagement in the development of his country’s social and economic sectors. It would be interesting to see how the President would seek to connect himself and his government with the Indian establishment,” says Vishal Chandra, Associate Fellow focussed on Afghanistan at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Constancy & stability

New Delhi has maintained close ties with post-Taliban Afghanistan.

India is the fifth largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan after the US, the UK, Japan and Germany (with commitments totalling $2 billion).

“The main driver of Indian policy is a desire for constancy in Afghanistan for the regional stability of South Asia,” says Sukanya Natarajan, a Research Associate with Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Both countries had signed a partnership agreement in 2011 that calls for India “assisting, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for Afghan national security forces.”

Natarajan, who coordinates a project on South Asia at the New Delhi-based CPR, says it’s time for expanding the scope of this partnership.

The countries “are expected to explore a new defence mechanism to increase capacity building for Afghan armed forces during Ghani’s visit.”

She also believes both Prime Minister Modi and President Ghani would reach a motor vehicle agreement, which would be a step forward in South Asian nations’ pursuit for “greater regional connectivity”.

The agreement, originally proposed at the SAARC level, aims to ensure free movement of commercial vehicles across South Asia.

It was expected to be reached at the last SAARC summit in November 2014 in Kathmandu, but was shelved following resistance from Pakistan.

India would seek to send out a message to Pakistan by entering a bilateral motor vehicle agreement with Afghanistan, adds Natarajan.

However, all is not rosy about Indo-Afghan cooperation.

The China clouds

The summit is happening after the Afghan government recently rejected an Indian offer for arms. Besides, Ghani is perceived to be following a different foreign policy from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

Under Ghani, Afghanistan is pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban, improved ties with Pakistan and greater cooperation with China.

Recently, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China had held a “trilateral dialogue” in which Beijing announced plans to provide grants worth $300 million over the next three years to Kabul.

It’s also to be noted that President Ghani is visiting India after travelling to China, Pakistan, US and Iran.

Should India be worried about Ghani’s multi-directional foreign policy? Aryaman Bhatnagar, Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, doesn’t think so.

“Afghanistan’s improving ties with Pakistan and China might be a matter of concern for the Indian government. But at this point of time, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s at the expense of India.”

What’s more important is the constructive role India is playing in the country.

“In the past 13-14 years, India has played a more constructive role in Afghanistan than Pakistan. Though New Delhi could not translate its developmental activities into political capital, it has demonstrated that it’s capable of playing a constructive role in Afghanistan. Ghani, being a realist, must know that India is a force Kabul can’t ignore,” he adds.

From Afghanistan’s point of view, improving ties with China and Pakistan is a natural course of action.

“China has the capacity to invest in Afghanistan. And relations with Pakistan are also important considering the country’s close ties with Taliban and the Haqqani network,” he adds, explaining the rationale of Ghani’s foreign policy.

Regional stability

What India should do? “It should continue commitment to Afghan reconstruction and express support for Kabul’s ongoing diplomatic initiatives, while emphasising the need to preserve the democratic spirit of the Afghan Constitution,” adds IDSA’s Chandra, who’s written a book on Afghanistan: The Unfinished War in Afghanistan: 2001-2014.

Agrees Natarajan: “Democracy and development are the key instruments to ensure that Afghanistan becomes a source of regional stability of South Asia.”

Published on April 26, 2015
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