The escalation of violence along with a multilateral security-centric foreign policy doctrine of the National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan have brought up new regional players in the Afghan security arena, shifting the calculus of war and peace in the country to a new level.
The post-combat era of NATO-ISAF cemented the ground for Afghanistan to approach regional influential players including China, Russia, Pakistan and now India to engage favorably in supporting Afghanistan’s security establishment through various means including selling and donating weapons, heavy artilleries and ammunitions.
While NATO allies of Afghanistan including the United States have welcomed regional security support to Kabul, the nature of the engagements bring many questions about management of the conflicting interests of these players in Afghanistan’s stabilization and security.
Nicholson’s India bid
General John Nicholson, commander of the NATO led Resolute Support (RS) mission in Afghanistan has recently urged New Delhi to engage more in equipping Afghanistan’s air force. The latest demand comes after a while since India provided Afghanistan with four Mi25 helicopters in December 2015, which are now deployed in ground battles across Afghanistan.
“I know that the Afghan authorities have requested more. There is an immediate need for more. If they get these helicopters they will get into the fight soon,” Nicolson said in New Delhi addressing the media during his recent official visit.
India has engaged in security affairs of Afghanistan after the NATO-led combat mission ended in December 2014. While previously New Delhi was only providing civilian aid assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the latest ‘security-economic’ centric strategy of India has been hailed highly in Kabul.
The NUG National Security Advisor Hanif Amtar has been actively engaged with his Indian counterpart on the nature of military assistance New Delhi could provide to Afghanistan. Mr. Amtar was the key figure responsible for negotiating and receiving Indian helicopters.
While General Nicholson was straightforward in demanding more Indian military assistance with a particular focus on equipping Afghan air force, he also stressed on the need for equipping Afghanistan with air force maintenance for its Russian-made air power.
India has been engaged in Afghanistan closely for over three decades now. The nature of Indian engagement in Afghanistan has varied time-to-time but India’s support to ruling government has been the only common factor in India’s official Afghanistan policy. The only time, India remained highly against the ruling regime in Afghanistan was during the Taliban reign of power. That time, India was supporting the Northern Alliance and the Islamic State of Afghanistan chaired by head of the state, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The Indian policy of reconstruction and humanitarian engagement initiated in late 2001. Until December 2014, when NATO-led ISAF mission ended, India’s main goal was to be among top six donors for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It donated more than 2 billion US dollar. During this period, India remained hesitant in providing military assistance to Afghanistan. The only security-centric mutual cooperation of New Delhi and Kabul was focused on capacity building of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). India was one of the host-nations to nearly 3000 Afghan security cadets who received security and military trainings.
Many in Kabul term the Indian capacity-building assistance of ANDSF as a soft-security engagement. However, India’s soft engagements proved to be disconcerting for many in the neighboring Pakistan, where policy elites had expressed their displeasure directly and indirectly about India’s growing presence in Afghanistan.
While Pakistan may have been concerned about Kabul-Delhi relations, the fact is that former president Hamid Karzai had a balancing view of building relations with the two nations. Karzai was always cautious in paying equal attention to Islamabad and New Delhi and that more or less manifested in nearly equal trips he had made to these countries during his presidency. But it was, however, clear that Afghanistan was critical of Pakistan’s policies, accusing Islamabad of harboring terrorists and insurgents who were actively targeting government and non-government institutions across the country.
These accusations went further changing into serious debates and a hegemonic discourse in the United States and European countries which claimed, “directly or indirectly Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence was linked to supporting terrorism in UK, Iraq and Afghanistan.” But Islamabad has always stressed on being supportive of stability in Afghanistan and talked of ending the so-called blame game between the two nations while raising its concerns of India’s influence in Afghanistan.
With all the concerns raised by Islamabad, India continued with its reconstruction-centric strategy donating financial assistance to short-term and long-term projects, some of which were inaugurated during the National Unity Government of Afghanistan. The most notable strategic initiatives of India have been construction of new Parliament building, Zaranj-Delaram highway, Salma Dam and most recently, tripartite agreement and strategic investment in building and operationalizing Chabahar port which are hailed by the political elites and economic community in Kabul. Moreover, the Chabahar project has been considered and termed among the top five projects that can change the destiny of Afghanistan.
At the same time, while winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, India’s strategy of soft-engagement was noticed by the US as a contributing factor to stabilization of the country. In cables later leaked by the Guardian, the US embassy in Kabul in 2007 has detailed recommendations to Washington on why to consider India’s soft engagement as a productive support to stability of Afghanistan.
But in 2014, the new government in Kabul drafted a foreign policy doctrine in which special focus was paid to confidence-building measures (CBMs) with regional countries which were considered as spoilers of the game, or controllers of the Taliban. President Ghani’s policy of engagement, negotiations and confidence building with Pakistan somewhat sidelined India. Despite this seemingly uneasy development, India continued its economic and soft-engagement relations with Afghanistan.
The bonhomie with Pakistan
Around two months after taking office, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani made his third foreign visit to Pakistan. His first two trips were to Saudi Arabia and China. On November 14, 2014, president Ghani arrived in Islamabad on a two days visit regarded as fence-mending mission, in the hope of changing the destiny of his war-torn and conflict ridden country. Among others, he even visited GHQ in Rawalpindi meeting General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, an official who was in no way matching the rank of the president of Afghanistan, in hope of building bridges and changing perceptions of a transformed relationship of the two conflicting neighbors.
President Ghani stayed for two days in Pakistan, met senior officials, received military and security briefings and even used cricket diplomacy to show his goodwill and sent a relatively strong and clear message about his honesty and strategic foreign policy shift towards Islamabad.
Weeks before his trip, he had received Pakistani senior security and military officials including the National Security Advisor and Chief of Staff of the Army in Kabul, talking of building mechanisms of cooperation on security and economic affairs with Islamabad.
Subsequently, President Ghani continued with his Pakistan-centric policy by increasing the level of bilateral engagements through unexpected but regular visits of senior security and intelligence officials of Pakistan.
As this has been drafted in his foreign policy doctrine, President Ghani had put Pakistan in the first circle of his 5- circle foreign policy, giving a priority to building confidence and investing on the two countries long-lasting relationship.
Despite all criticisms received at home, Ashraf Ghani sustained his effort in investing the entire political capital on Islamabad by sending six Afghan security cadets for trainings to Pakistan and permitting the Pakistani military to operate on Afghan soil. He even authorized cooperation with the Pakistan military in their operations against the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and reportedly authorized signing an intelligence agreement between respective intelligence agencies.
President Ghani made a trip to India seven months after taking office, eventually downgrading Kabul-New Delhi relations to a level that prompted India to announce a deferral arguing its external affairs minister was too busy to discuss the follow up strategic meetings on India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership agreement signed in 2011.
The Pakistan-centric foreign policy was costly to the Afghan president. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani lost some of his most close security aides like Rahmatullah Nabil former Director General of Afghanistan National Directorate of Intelligence (NDS) on differences about Afghanistan’s Pakistan policy.
However, all the confidence-building measures didn’t end into the long-desired peace making idea of Afghanistan through Islamabad. With Shah Shaheed attacks in Kabul, that killed and wounded more than 400 Afghan civilians, and later on the bloodiest targeting of a directorate of protection of political elites of Afghanistan, the reversal of peace talks took place and as expected, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group efforts have abruptly ended. President Ghani and Afghanistan security agencies blamed Pakistan for orchestrating these deadly attacks.
The April 2016 attack on the security directorate under the president office, changed the broader foreign policy and national security calculus of the NUG that resulted into Ashraf Ghani’s strong and critical speech in the joint sessions of the Afghan Parliament in which the president announced that his country no longer wants Pakistan to bring Taliban to the negotiating table. He even threatened to unleash diplomatic reprisals against Pakistan if it refuses to take action against the Taliban.
Though Pakistan’s favorable period in Afghanistan lasted more than a year, Islamabad failed to utilize this warmest period and didn’t even try to understand the strategic opportunity that was created in Kabul to institutionalize, strengthen and build a long-term friendly relations with Afghanistan. With recent steps taken by the National Unity Government (NUG) against Pakistan, it seems that Afghanistan is drafting a new chapter, one that strategizing isolation of Islamabad as a cradle of global terrorism and insurgency.
A transformed Ashraf Ghani
In the first steps after president Ghani’s speech at Afghan parliament’s joint session, the permanent representative of Afghanistan to the UN Security Council reported in June 2016 about Pakistan’s violations of Quad group roadmap and clearly stated that “In the past 15 years, numerous leading figures of terrorism, including the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Mullah Akhtar Mansour have lived and died in Pakistan. The fact that notorious terrorist leaders were found and killed in their safe havens (inside Pakistan) is a clear proof that the country has violated the sovereignty of other nations.”
Moreover, at the same time media outlets leaked content of a letter of president Ghani to Pakistan in which a one month deadline was given to Islamabad to take actions against the Taliban leaders and the Haqqani Network. On July 2016 at the NATO’s Warsaw summit, president Ghani asked for international isolation of Pakistan and stated that except Islamabad every regional country is cooperating with stabilization of Afghanistan, a statement that was highly welcomed at home.
With a transformed foreign policy towards Pakistan, Afghanistan has expanded a multilateral national security strategy struggling to build confidence and support base in the region. Recently, Afghanistan hailed the military helicopters from New Delhi as well as Kalashnikov Assault rifles (AK47s) from Moscow. It also has received financial pledges from China for Afghan National and Defense Security Forces (ANDSF).
It seems that after the brief bonhomie with Pakistan, India once again becomes a valued player in the strategic calculus of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. It was evident when Afghanistan was getting prepared for inauguration of Salma Dam in June 2016. President Ghani even engaged in a twitter public diplomacy, tweeting that a great nation is waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With recent changes, it seems that Afghanistan and India is getting closer as two strategic partners. Albeit, the nature of current engagements are definitely changing from the previous ‘soft-economic and financial support’ strategy to a ‘security-centric’ approach.
While it is difficult to manage individual security interests of conflicting regional players including China, India and Russia along with NATO member states in Afghanistan, the current security calculus of Afghanistan needs the broad support of any player who can contribute to stabilization of Afghanistan.
Taking this into consideration, it is believed that recent approach of US commander of resolute support in Afghanistan for more Indian cooperation primarily in equipping and building Afghan air force could mean different to Afghanistan’s security interests, given the nature of New Delhi-Washington relationship. With an emerging debate of a post-American world, Washington seems to have picked India as its strategic ally in Asia in order to balance the rising China and emerging Russia in the region. Having such a paradigm shift in the global order, if India is convinced to provide more assistance in building the capacity of Afghanistan’s airpower, the alignment and management of New Delhi along with US and NATO in Afghanistan would be a high possibility for the NUG. Nonetheless, the question remains on how robustly India would want to engage with Afghanistan’s security apparatus at this critical juncture knowing the high-level of sensitivity of Pakistan towards New Delhi, especially in matters related to Afghanistan.