India recalibrates position as Ghani courts Pakistan

Amid shifting geopolitical dynamics, India is playing hardball in Afghanistan, writes Harsh Pant

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is trying to build a stable and prosperous country. Wakil Kohsar / AFP
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When representatives from 30 countries and 40 international organisations met in Kabul to tackle the challenges of building a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan after years of conflict, India opted to send a junior bureaucrat rather than a minister.

The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan has rejected suggestions that New Delhi’s low-profile representation at the sixth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on September 4 and 5 reflected a strategic shift in relations with Kabul.

However, India’s decision not to revive the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2011 is being viewed as a sign of New Delhi’s displeasure over the Afghan unity government's outreach to Pakistan at the cost of Indian interests.

This shift comes at a time when regional realities in South Asia are becoming curiouser by the day. Pakistan continues to insist that it is ready to facilitate the revival of stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Pakistan's national security adviser Sartaj Aziz met Afghan president Ashraf Ghani last week to "restore trust and confidence between the two countries", but it is unlikely to placate the growing anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan.

Tensions are rising between Afghanistan and Pakistan with the latter even summoning the Afghan envoy regarding the Afghan leadership’s blaming of Pakistan for a recent wave of violence.

The activities of the Taliban have continued along southern and northern borders of the country, including through bomb attacks in Kandahar, which climaxed in the massive bomb blast that devastated state buildings in the capital, Kabul, and killed tens of people last month.

Just hours after a suicide attack killed five people at Kabul’s international airport last month, Mr Ghani blamed Pakistan for the violence that swept Afghanistan leaving scores dead in a matter of days.

The president said: “We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory,” and “the incidents of the past two months in general, and the recent days in particular, show that the suicide training camps and the bomb-making facilities used to target and murder our innocent people still operate, as in the past, in Pakistan”.

This was a significant departure for a supposedly pro-Pakistan Afghan leader.

The office of Afghanistan’s chief executive has also urged Pakistan to tackle terrorist sanctuaries in its territory – warning that if it doesn’t, Afghanistan will. A high-powered Afghan delegation has visited Pakistan to demand action against Taliban forces using Pakistan as a haven from which to direct attacks in Afghanistan. Their demands included the arrest and expulsion of Taliban leaders from Pakistan as well as the cessation of the treatment of Taliban forces in Pakistani hospitals.

The US national security adviser, Susan Rice, was also recently in Pakistan, where she extended an invitation to prime minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Washington but also made it clear that the militant attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan were “absolutely unacceptable”. She called for a crackdown on militant groups including the Haqqani Network.

The United States has told Pakistan that it will not certify to Congress that Pakistan's counterterrorism operations in North Waziristan have damaged the Haqqani Network, thereby blocking the disbursement of money from the Coalition Support Fund.

Meanwhile, the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founding leader, has thrown the organisation’s leadership into turmoil and led to open feuding among its senior management.

Scores of Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes over the appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour as the successor to Mullah Omar. His appointment angered Mullah Omar’s family and many senior members of the Quetta Shura, the inner circle at the top of the Taliban. And now the new Taliban leader has reportedly deployed hundreds of fighters to Zabul province to fight forces loyal to Mullah Mansour Dadullah, who has publicly refused to pledge allegiance to Mullah Mansour.

The silence over Mullah Omar’s death for years and now its inability to control the shenanigans within the Taliban has once again exposed the hollowness of Pakistani claims of being an honest broker in bringing the Taliban and the Afghan government together.

As Mr Ghani’s disillusion with Pakistan sets in, New Delhi is probably making it clear that while it has equities to preserve in Afghanistan, it is in no particular hurry to come to Mr Ghani’s rescue.

Narendra Modi’s government is different from its predecessors in that it seems more than willing to play hardball in foreign policy. If Mr Ghani has been lukewarm to India so far, the Modi government also seems to have decided that it will take its own time to warm up to the new Mr Ghani, who appears to be belatedly counting the costs of his Pakistan tilt.

Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College, London