Can President Ghani allay New Delhi’s concerns over Kabul’s growing proximity with Islamabad?

President Ashraf Ghani, leading a delegation of senior national unity government (NUG) officials, is leaving for two-day visit to India late on Monday.

The much-anticipated visit to India comes barely a week after President Ghani’stwo-day visit to Iran, another important country in the region.

President Ghani has started an engagement process with regional countries to strengthen regional cooperation and work together for peace and stability in the region.

At the London Conference on Afghanistan in December 2014, President Ghani said his government bats for regional cooperation. “We have started an active engagement with our neighbors and we are very pleased with the nature of the dialogue,” he said.

Ajmal Obaid Abidy, spokesman in presidential palace, said President Ghani will meet senior political leadership in New Delhi and discuss issues of mutual interest.

Among the topics to figure prominently in the talks, according to insiders, include bilateral trade, peace process, defense cooperation and cooperation in the areas of education and healthcare.

Among the topics to figure prominently in the talks, according to insiders, include bilateral trade, peace process, defense cooperation and cooperation in the areas of education and healthcare

India, which is a key regional player, is expected to play a pivotal role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan and the region at a time when the security situation in this war-ravaged country is deteriorating alarmingly.

There has a spate of attacks in Afghanistan in recent weeks and Taliban on Friday officially announced their spring offensive, which means a long season of war and violence.

Currently, fierce armed clashes are underway in some southern provinces where armed insurgents have managed to gain foothold with the help of Islamic State (IS) group.

President Ghani, according to sources in the presidential palace, will seek New Delhi’s support for Afghan government’s peace process and counter-terrorism operations.

The leaders of the two countries are also expected to discuss the deal between India, Iran and Afghanistan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar, which will bolster India’s economic ties with landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Political observers and policy makers in New Delhi, however, have been feeling uneasy after President Ghani chose to visit Pakistan, India’s estranged neighbor, before visiting India

India, which has been a key strategic ally of Afghanistan since the fall of Taliban in 2001, has committed 2 billion USD for reconstruction efforts in the country. 

India is building the new parliament building in Kabul, has built an agricultural university in Kandahar and invested massively in many road construction projects.

Indian companies led by state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd. and NMDC Ltd have committed to invest 10.7 billion USD in Hajigak mine in central Bamyan province, which is the largest iron oxide deposit in Afghanistan. The project, however, has failed to kick off owing to security concerns and other technical issues.

In 2011, the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement during the tenure of former president Hamid Karzai, who played an instrumental role in strengthening ties between the two countries, especially towards the latter part of his tenure.

As per the agreement, India pledged to “assisting, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for Afghan national security forces”.

Mr. Karzai had also made a request for lethal arms and helicopters from India, which President Ghani recently annulled following India’s indifferent response.

President Ghani during his visit to Islamabad late last year pledged to strengthen ties with Pakistan and sought Islamabad’s support to Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process

Political observers and policy makers in New Delhi, however, have been feeling uneasy and edgy after President Ghani chose to visit Pakistan, India’s estranged neighbor, before visiting India.

President Ghani’s recent peace overtures to Pakistan have also ruffled a few feathers in New Delhi, who see it as a shift in new government’s foreign policy, ostensibly tilted in favor of Pakistan.

Since the change of guard in Kabul, senior political and security leaders including Pakistan’s chief of army and ISI chief have visited Kabul and pledged to launch coordinated counter-terrorism operations.

President Ghani during his visit to Islamabad late last year pledged to strengthen ties with Pakistan and sought Islamabad’s support to Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

Pakistan has also looked keen to bury the hatchet and develop closer ties with the national unity government (NUG) in Kabul.

During the previous government headed by Hamid Karzai, the relations between the two countries were marked by mistrust and hostility.

Karzai government had close relations with Pakistan's Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the initial years. But, in 2006, he accused the Pakistani government of interfering in Afghanistan.

That was perhaps the beginning of political and diplomatic wars between the friends-turned-foes.

During the latter part of President Karzai’s tenure, the bickering turned ugly. Afghan government accused Pakistan of surreptitiously sponsoring terrorism on this side of Durand Line, a claim Pakistan dismissed precipitously.

The challenge for President Ghani, according to regional observers, is to keep both the estranged South Asian neighbors in good humor

The change of guard in Kabul late last year inspired hope that the fractured ties with the Pakistan may be amended. During election campaign, President Ashraf Ghani vowed to pursue the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process and seek the support of political and military leadership in Pakistan.

At the SAARC Summit, he vowed to not allow his country become the battleground for a proxy war between India and Pakistan.

President Ghani said Afghanistan will not endanger regional security and is committed to promote and strengthen the cooperation between the SAARC member countries. Without mentioning any country, he said state sponsorship of non-state actors could have “blowback effects”.

Meanwhile, President Ghani’s first visit to India assumes significance not only from the perspective of Indo-Afghan relations but also how he manages to allay New Delhi’s concerns over Kabul’s growing proximity towards Islamabad.

According to reports, President Ghani is keen on expanding economic ties with India, and his busy itinerary also includes an interaction with Indian businessmen.

President Ghani has on many occasions expressed optimism that in next 25 years Asia will become the largest continental economy.

“What happened in the United States in 1869 when the continental railroads were integrated is very likely to happen in Asia in the next 25 years,” he said during his recent visit to the U.S.

Afghanistan, he said, wants to become a transit country for transport, for power transmission, for gas pipelines, and for fiber optics.

His two-visit day to New Delhi will be keenly followed by analysts and policy makers not only in Kabul and New Delhi but also in Islamabad.

The challenge for President Ghani, according to regional observers, is to keep both the estranged South Asian neighbors in good humor.

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