The South Asia Channel
Ghani’s Pivot Away From Pakistan
Reaching out to India may bring immediate benefits for Afghanistan, but will weakening ties with Pakistan be the cost?
Frustrated by Pakistan’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has decided to stealfrom former president Hamid Karzai’s playbook, and cozy up to India. One potential consequence? Weakening ties with Pakistan, ties that are likely necessary for peace in the region.
On Nov. 7, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Ghani’s National Security Adviser, visited New Delhi to secure the delivery of four Mi-25 attack helicopters to support the struggling Afghan security forces — a move likely to irk Pakistan. Further, Deputy Afghan Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai said on Nov. 19 that Atmar provided his Indian counterpart with a military equipment “wish list” at a recent defense cooperation meeting. The delivery of the Russian-built attack helicopters represents India’s first attempt to provide sophisticated weaponry to Afghanistan since the two countries signed a strategic partnership in 2011. In addition to the helicopter request, Afghanistan submitted a proposal for Afghan Special Forces to receive training in India.
Ghani’s push to seek assistance from India comes at a time of increased strain and tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan — a situation reminiscent of Karzai’s gambit in 2014 to seek out India’s support.
In 2014, at the tail end of his time in office, Karzai reached out to India after failing to convince Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Reeling from a failed 2013 summit in Brussels between Secretary of State John Kerry and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, then the Chief of Staff of Pakistan’s army, Karzai requested the sale of 105-mm howitzer artillery pieces and medium-lift transport helicopters from India to assist Afghan forces in casualty evacuation operations.
Only a few months later, President Ghani switched gears. He opened his administration with hopes of renewed relations with Pakistan, including the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to share intelligence, a controversial move that received considerable backlash from former Karzai staff and Afghan citizens.
The initial attempts to heal the rift between Pakistan and Afghanistan appeared to be paying dividends on July 8, 2015 in Islamabad, Pakistan, at the opening of the first public peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government. But after the revelations of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death two years earlier and collapse of the peace talks, relations went south, with accusations that Pakistan leaked the news of Omar’s death to stymie peace efforts. Following the collapse of these negotiations, the fractious Taliban movement, under the leadership of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, made impressive territorial gains, sacking Kunduz on Sep. 28 and taking over large swaths of territory in northern Helmand province including Musa Qala and now Zad.
Ghani’s discontent with Pakistan increased following this year’s brutal spring and summer fighting seasons, which witnessed a record number of Afghan and civilian casualties, coupled with the fall of Kunduz, the first major provincial capital since the Taliban’s overthrow during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
The October 2015 announcement that a Pakistani operative was the focus of U.S. airstrikes on the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facility in Kunduz only widened the rift between Pakistan and Afghanistan, lowering expectations for any future reconciliation between the Taliban and Kabul. American intelligence analysts had tracked an alleged Pakistani operative to the MSF facility, believing this individual was working for Pakistani intelligence and coordinating battlefield efforts for the Taliban in Kunduz. Pakistan has staunchly denied any involvement in the Kunduz operation, rejecting accusations linking its government to direct aid of the Taliban.
No longer willing to rely on Pakistan to end its interventionist policy in Afghanistan, Ghani has decided to revive his predecessor’s strategy and approach Pakistan’s longtime foe, India. It is anyone’s guess whether Ghani’s bold move will pay off, though it is sure to generate anxiety in Pakistan.
But Islamabad has failed to grasp what Afghanistan stands to gain from a stronger relationship with India.
For Kabul, the benefits of strengthened ties between Afghanistan and India go well beyond military hardware. Afghanistan provides India access to Iran’s port of Chabahar, providing India with a direct route to Central Asian markets and facilitating North-South transit trade throughout the region, creating “the Asian roundabout, a key hub of in the revival of the Silk road[sic],” as Ghani said at the BRICS Summit in Ufa, Russia, earlier this year. Strengthening trade ties with Afghanistan allows India to project economic power in the region and demonstrate that its foreign policy is not dictated by Pakistan and China.
By granting India access to the port of Chabahar and the Delaram-Zaranj road, which connects the Afghan-Iranian border town Zaranj to major Afghan roads, Afghanistan offers it an alternative to the Gwader port, a mere 72 km (44 miles) away but under the control of China and Pakistan. It also provides India with a surveillance post to monitor Chinese and Pakistani warships in the region.
India and Afghanistan will have to gauge whether the cost-benefit analysis of drawing closer will be worthwhile in the long run. Cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is vital to achieving peace in the region. India has suffered heavily for interfering in the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, as evidenced by the 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that left 54 dead.
Afghanistan must also be careful of possible responsive Pakistani actions. An October 2015 Congressional Research Service report supports Afghanistan’s claim that Pakistan interferes with Afghan internal affairs and supports proxy elements fighting an undeclared war against Afghanistan. The report states that Pakistan’s objectives in Afghanistan seek to utilize militant groups to counter Indian influence and create strategic in-roads for Pakistan.
Increasingly, Congress and the Obama administration are validating Afghan claims that Pakistan supports militant groups inside Afghanistan. Washington is growing weary of the Islamabad government and its repeated overtures to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Prior to the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this fall, the White House levied threats to pull its financial assistance to the Pakistani military. However, senior American officials reported prior to the prime minister’s visit that the United States would sell Pakistan eight F-16 fighter jets to assist in its counterterrorism efforts, highlighting the regional importance of Pakistan to the United States, and its understanding of Pakistan’s vital role in the Afghan peace process.
It is too soon to tell if Ghani’s India gamble will pay off, though the pressure on Pakistan to change course has certainly been ramped up. With Pakistan’s recent move to invite India’s foreign minister to attend a regional conference on Afghanistan next month, Pakistan is surely feeling the heat.