By M Reyaz

Will Dr Ashraf Ghani and Narendra Modi be able to re-ignite the old spark in the relationship between Afghanistan and India? The normally warm bilateral equations between the countries have witnessed a bit of chill sneaking in over the last year. Experts hope the meeting between Afghanistan’s President Ghani and Prime Minister Modi would undo that. Ghani arrives in Delhi on Monday.

The last decade saw a close alliance evolving between outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, who had developed the relationship started on strong footing by the last NDA government. India had committed to $2 billion towards rebuilding the war torn nation. The fruits of years of cooperation yielded immense goodwill for India. Karzai had famously called India a ‘great friend’, while in the same breath termed Pakistan, its ‘twin brother’.

Over the last 12 months, however, bilateral relationship between two ‘great-friends’ does not appear to be as cordial, largely due to the ‘twin brother’; as Indo-Pak has its own share of long standing hostilities. Many experts, including William Dalrymple, have tried to reduce the crisis in Afghanistan to the narrow prism of Indo-Pak proxy war. In fact, in February, earlier this year, former Pakistani President Parvez Musharraf had echoed this sentiment, while blaming Karzai for his tilt towards Delhi that, according to him, was damaging Pakistan’s interest.

India has refused to be drawn into this conflict though and has in fact been very cautious to not alienate its western neighbour and hence resisted the consistent requests from Kabul for more active support in its fight against terrorism. Despite signing the Strategic treaty with Afghanistan in 2011, India has hence largely remained confined to goodwill missions – scholarships to Afghan students, building hospital, university, parliament, hydro-power plants, etc – besides training a limited number of Afghan forces. Kabul seems to be particularly frustrated with India’s reluctance at playing more pro-active role.

File image of Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. ReutersFile image of Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

File image of Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

Earlier this month, India’s ambassador to Kabul Amar Sinha accepted to certain extent that “India-Pakistan war is somehow getting reflected in Afghanistan,” but clarified that it is a “myth” that they are fighting proxy wars, in an interview to Afghanistan’s Tolo News. Stressing on the confidence Delhi had gained in Afghanistan in over a decade, he further said that while Taliban is the proxy for Pakistan, India’s proxy are “Afghan people and the Afghan government.”

As Dr Ghani sought to realign Kabul’s relations with its neighbours since he came to power last year after hectic negotiations with his rival turned partner Dr Abdullah Abdulla, his moves towards Pakistan have been seen with scepticism in Delhi. What has added to India’s worries is the rising stake of China in Afghanistan. Beijing already has huge investments in the Pakistan as well as the Central Asian countries and it is eyeing to fill the vacuum being created with US withdrawal. China is also playing a greater role in Kabul’s negotiations with the Taliban. Dr Ghani hopes to buy peace with Taliban with its overtures to Pakistan and direct support from Beijing.

When Afghanistan’s CEO Dr Abdullah Abdullah was in Delhi last month to participate in the India Today Conclave, senior journalist Karan Thapar devoted much of the time of his interaction on two issues: the unique unity government structure in Kabul and its increasing proximity with Islamabad that has coincided with not as smooth relations with New Delhi.

Afghanistan too realises Delhi’s concern. M Ashraf Haidari, Afghanistan’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India, tweeted on Saturday: “Afghanistan’s only Afghans’ “turf”. We’re as sovereign as anyone else. Only way forward for all’s “win-win.” Quit the 19th century mindset.”

As the academician-turned-technocrat turned President, Dr Ghani reaches Delhi finally after about seven months in office, it is believed, he will regain the lost ground. Bilateral relations, Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), enhancing military cooperation’s, seeking cricket ground, etc are on the card.

On its part, Delhi too appears to be playing by the rules of realpolitik as it gears up to cooperate at certain levels while simultaneously competing with China in Afghanistan. It also needs to realise that in the long run, it will need to seek Pakistan’s cooperation whether it is for transit trade or practically forgotten TAPI pipeline, that will be mutually beneficial not only for Afghanistan and India, but for Islamabad as well.

Once Iran’s Chahabar port opens up, India can trade with Afghanistan via Iran that will open Central Asia for it as well. Steep rise in terror attacks in Afghanistan may justify Delhi’s stand of against Taliban and give Delhi upper hand as terrorism from across the border remains India’s main concern.

When PM Modi had briefly met Dr Ghani in Kathmandu last November on the sidelines of the SARCC summit, he had reiterated India’s commitment to strengthening bilateral relations.

When Dr Ghani finally meets Modi on April 28, India will deliver three advanced country- built Cheetal helicopters, something that the Afghan National Army (ANA) desperately needs. Cricket diplomacy too may see some progress as Delhi is likely to offer one of its grounds to the very promising Afghan cricket team. This will not only provide them with better infrastructure but will give them more exposure, and perhaps few slots in the future IPL. Delhi might announce some enhanced packages like Modi had done when he visited Bhutan and security cooperation too may increase.

Modi has shown great zeal and enthusiasm in forging better international relations, however, Af-Pak has tested even the United States’ patience and it will be interesting to see if his charisma will work with the western neighbours too. It would be premature, however, to say that India has lost to Pakistan, for Delhi’s deepest asset in Afghanistan is the goodwill it has earned over the years.

(M Reyaz is a Delhi based Journalist and a Research Scholar at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. He tweets at @journalistreyaz )

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Afghanistan Prez’s India visit: Can Modi-Ghani bring back the old spark in Indo-Afghan relations?