After months of political uncertainty because of a flawed and fraudulent election, a national unity government was formed in Afghanistan on September 29 with Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. Many leaders of regional and Western countries participated in their oath-taking ceremony. Vice President Hamid Ansari represented India at the event.
The new Afghan government is based on an extra-constitutional and unstable arrangement, almost completely worked out by the US, which had, for many years, wanted Ghani to succeed Hamid Karzai as president. The US objective is to ensure that the Afghan political system does not collapse and the security forces do not split as it withdraws from the country.
Afghanistan faces immense political, security and economic challenges. The country’s politics will remain fraught as it will not be easy to reconcile the differences between Ghani and Abdullah, or between their supporters. Their first challenge is cabinet-formation and the appointment of senior officials. While these are works in progress, Ghani has begun to take important initiatives, especially related to foreign and security affairs. His approach is a significant departure from then president Karzai’s post-2009 tactics. However, similarities can be discerned between Ghani’s present attempts and those of Karzai in the first few years of his presidency, specifically between 2002 and 2005. During this period, Karzai did all that was possible to woo Pakistan and his relations with the US were strong. It is clear that Ghani is preparing to tread the same path with Pakistan, but he is seeking to place it within a conceptual framework.
In a speech at the Heart of Asia conference in Beijing last week, Ghani said there were five important “circles” for bringing peace to Afghanistan. The first circle consisted of Afghanistan’s six neighbours. The rest, in descending order of importance, were Islamic countries, Western states including the US, Asian countries and international institutions. It is significant that while India was the first country with which Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement, in Ghani’s foreign policy priorities, it has been relegated to the fourth group of countries. There have also been reports that the new Afghan government has signalled that arms supplies from India should be put on hold.
It is expected that Ghani will visit Pakistan shortly. Significantly, Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif visited Kabul on November 6. He renewed the offer of providing military training, which Karzai, to Pakistan’s chagrin, consistently refused. There is no doubt that Pakistan holds the key to peace and stability in Afghanistan. It controls the Taliban, which is a great and growing security threat to the future of the country. Ghani, like Karzai, wants Pakistan to pressure the Taliban to engage in a reconciliation process with the Afghan authorities. The fact is that the Taliban has shown no indication of its willingness to share power in Kabul as it is wedded to the re-establishment of its Islamic emirate. Yet Ghani will certainly persevere with Pakistan, despite the misgivings of the Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups about the Taliban.
Ghani is aware that Pakistan wants to limit India’s role in Afghanistan. It is likely that this will be conveyed to him in Islamabad. How will he react? His Beijing speech indicated a desire for India to continue assisting Afghanistan in its economic development but not in the security sector. This marks a clear departure from the decision taken by Karzai around 2005: that India was an indispensable partner in security. This is also reminiscent of the 1990s, when India was kept out of all international peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s veto. The last time India was not invited to an international conference on Afghanistan was in 2009. It was not invited by Turkey at Pakistan’s insistence.
In late October, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Afghanistan to establish contact with the new government. He met both Ghani and Abdullah, apart from holding talks with his counterpart, Hanif Atmar, a close confidant of Ghani. No account of Doval’s meetings has been made public. Were Ghani, Abdullah and Atmar all on the same page on the direction and content of India-Afghanistan ties, especially regarding security and defence?
This is an important issue because over the past year, Pakistan has made consistent efforts to reach out to all segments of Afghan political opinion, including Tajik and Hazara leaders, while many of them have felt ignored by India. The fact is that India was so heavily invested in Karzai that it overlooked its old and established ties with them. It is important for India to strengthen its contacts with all sections of the Afghan government for it is now virtually a transitional one. The arrangement on which it is based requires a constitutional amendment to establish the post of an executive prime minister in a presidential system. This could reopen issues relating to the nature of political authority itself.
India’s Afghan relations are entering a very complex phase. They will have to be handled astutely, otherwise our national and strategic interests will be damaged.
The writer, a retired diplomat, was India’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005