The South Asia Channel

President Ghani: Stuck Between India and Pakistan

President Ghani: Stuck Between India and Pakistan

For Afghan leaders, balancing the country’s regional foreign policy between India and Pakistan has never been an easy task. President Ashraf Ghani learned this the hard way when, in February, he attempted to improve Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan. Some argued that it signified a shift in the leadership’s view towards its nuclear-armed neighbor, while others said it had the potential to make New Delhi reconsider its strategic relations with Afghanistan.

Regardless of which side is right, traditional AfPak relations cannot be defined as two friendly nations living side by side. When Ghani assumed office in 2014, he had the option to either maintain the status quo and take no interest in improving relations with Pakistan, or to extend — yet again — an offer of peace and cooperation. His actions signify that he has chosen the latter.

Ghani’s decision last month to send Afghan cadets to Pakistan for military training and to coordinate and authorize joint military operations between the two countries sparked suspicions among some Afghans. The wounds of shelling in Kunar province by the Pakistani army were still fresh in people’s minds, when suddenly the government’s policy changed. It was an unprecedented decision by the president and, according to some analysts and government officials I spoke to, a risky shift in Afghan foreign policy. Trusting Pakistan — a neighbor long accused by Afghan leaders of destabilizing the country — at such a strategic level, while they haven’t taken any solid steps to prove their mutual commitment for peace in Afghanistan, stems from weak calculations by the National Unity Government.

Critics of Ghani’s decision cite Pakistan’s continued effort to destabilize the region, support Taliban fighters, and offer safe heavens to Taliban leaders as the main reasons for their disapproval. In a recent interview with the Guardian, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf admitted that, under his leadership, the Afghan government was snubbed by Islamabad because of its close cooperation with India. He added that the country’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency had even cultivated and supported the Taliban after their defeat in 2001.

After Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, visited Kabul last month, Ghani announced that Pakistan was unconditionally ready to cooperate with Afghanistan in bringing the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table. “[D]iscreet negotiations are scheduled for March 2015 and general negotiation will be followed in the upcoming months,” said a source present at a private gathering of Afghan media representatives that was organized by Ghani. (The fact that this statement originated in a meeting with the Pakistani army chief and not the Pakistani civilian government is an indication of Pakistan’s commitment to this effort.) Yet this is only the first step towards building a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence between the two countries. For this relationship to work, Pakistan must prove that it is a trustworthy ally, capable of fulfilling its promises to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, deny sanctuaries to terrorist groups, and not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

Indo-Afghan ties, on the other hand, are far stronger than the new AfPak relationship. Over the past 13 years, as Pakistan attempted to destabilize Afghanistan, India did the opposite, contributing over $2 billion dollars to Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts. And cooperation at the strategic and security levels is immense. “Bilateral intelligence sharing [has continued] between [the] two states for the past several years,” said a senior official at the Afghan National Directorate of Security who spoke with me on condition of anonymity. The official added that intelligence sharing with Pakistan has been different: “We provided solid intelligence to Pakistanis regarding the whereabouts of [the] Taliban and insurgents for many years; it was either neglected or mysteriously passed to [them] before any action was taken by [the] Pakistanis.” Education and commerce are other areas where India and Afghanistan have formed strong ties; conversely, Pakistan has yet to fully implement the APTTA (Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement).

As a long-standing Afghan ally, India has legitimate concerns over the sudden shift in Ghani’s foreign policy toward Pakistan. Improved relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan will allow the latter to implement its policy of “bleeding India through a thousand cuts” by moving troops from the Afghan border to the Line of Control with India. These Pakistani troops will be a distraction for Indian forces, reducing their ability to prevent insurgents from crossing the border. In addition, thousands of Indian citizens are currently involved in development projects across Afghanistan. The safety of those citizens will become a major concern for New Delhi.

The fate of billions of dollars in reconstruction and development aid to Afghanistan is also important. Indian generosity was coupled with a long-term strategic objective to keep Afghanistan on its side. This calculation may change, however, if AfPak relations take a positive turn.

On the other hand, India should not feel that its relationship with Afghanistan is threatened by this development. There has been no breakthrough in the AfPak relationship yet; such a transformation will require years of trust-building to fix decades of suspicion.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images