Wednesday, November 22, 2017
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. PTI

In diplomacy, the subtext is often as important as the text. As the sixth edition of the annual Heart of Asia Conference came to a close on Sunday, between the comments and declarations, the narrative and the counter-narrative, lay the contours of a new, deviatory foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


A nation's strategic affairs are usually the result of well-curated gradualism. Major shifts are rare unless there is a confluence of circumstances and a strong leadership willing to shake off hesitations of history. At the end of the two-day summit, it does appear that India is on the cusp of a bold revision. Two things are immediately clear.
One, India is no longer coy about its relationship with Afghanistan and sees the Central Asian nation as an important pivot. Two, it is fast recalibrating its historic ties with Russia. We are still a long way away from hearing the last word of an enduring strategic partnership but New Delhi is close to accepting (after staying in long denial) that the Cold War-era bonhomie with Moscow is over. Indo-Russian ties, too, have fallen prey to the sweeping currents of realignment triggered by the end of American exceptionalism and the simultaneous rise of China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. PTIPrime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani. PTI
Though major regional and global players met in Amritsar ostensibly to guide Afghanistan through its political and economic transition, in reality Heart of Asia platform was reduced to staging just another boxing bout between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan with Russia trying to play the referee and media in Islamabad and New Delhi in breathless anticipation for resumption of talks.
As if that would serve any purpose.
The way the pugilists threw their punches, it became abundantly clear that Kabul and New Delhi now see no point in downplaying the convergence of their strategic and commercial interests. In setting diplomatic niceties aside and blasting Pakistan's complicity in sponsoring terror within its borders and inflicting an "undeclared war", Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani reflected his growing frustration with a delinquent neighbour. The ferocity of his charge not only laid bare Pakistan's duplicity but also ratified New Delhi's line on cross-border terrorism.
This growing closeness stays true to a trajectory in bilateral relations that saw New Delhi supply Afghanistan with four attack helicopters, the first supply of lethal military hardware to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). As a Defenseworld.net article points out, "The first three Mi-24 gunships were delivered in December 2015, before Modi visited Kabul to inaugurate the new Parliament, constructed through India's assistance."
These Russian-made choppers are expected to aid Afghan Air Force in their battle against the Taliban who still occupy 10 percent of territory and is in direct confrontation with Afghan forces for control over another 25 percent of land. Ghani accuses Pakistan of harbouring Taliban masterminds and reiterated before a full house of foreign delegates in Amritsar that were it not been for Islamabad's duplicity, the Taliban wouldn't last even a month.
Quoting a Taliban leader, the Afghanistan President said: “As Kakazada (Mullah Rahmatullah Kakazada), one of the key figures in the Taliban movement, recently said, if they did not have sanctuary in Pakistan, they would not last a month,” according to a report in The Indian Express. In words that leave no space for ambiguity, Ghani rejected Pakistan's $500 million pledge to "rebuild Afghanistan" and asked its foreign affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz to instead use the money to "check extremism" on its soil.
Ghani didn't stop there. According to the report, he accused Pakistan of selectively displacing terror networks in North Waziristan, betraying Afghanistan's trust and inflicting on its soil a war that has grown in intensity during 2016 and has caused the highest number of civilian casualties and military-related deaths in the world.
In contrast, Ghani was effusive in his praise for India. News agency PTI quoted the Afghan President as saying that "India's assistance is transparent and with no strings attached… there are no hidden deals between India and Afghanistan." He also mentioned the "spontaneous celebrations" all over the country following the inauguration of Salma Dam by Modi during his Afghanistan visit and thanked India for further assistance of $1 billion apart from $2 billion.
Though Pakistan has long felt insecure about an India-Afghanistan axis that circumvents it and renders ineffective its geostrategic positioning, Islamabad's obstructionist policies — refusing to let Afghanistan carry on trade with India through its territory — and subversive use of terror have ironically served to catalyse the very thing it dreads. There is now an even greater likelihood — with Modi and Ghani meeting on the sidelines and agreeing on a joint air corridor to bypass Pakistan and enhance bilateral trade — that the relationship will now be taken to the next level.
A commercial-strategic tie-up with Afghanistan — whose unique position as a central Asian country that provides connectivity to several Asian and even European nations — may offer India the chance to counter China's strategic depth through the CPEC.
And in Ghani, Modi has a counterpart who's willing to take India on board. While talking later to Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu during an interview, Ghani said, "India is converging with Afghanistan. There is nothing secret. It is a transparent state to state relationship. We are driven by common goals and opportunities." He even quoted Tagore's Kabuliwala to underline the historic bond between the nations.
But while one historic bond is being revived, another one fell by the wayside. In an extraordinary manouvre that reflected the depths of disparity in which Indo-Russian ties have fallen, Vladimir Putin's envoy Zamir Kabulov rejected India and Afghainstan's criticism of Pakistan and lectured on the need to "avoid scoring brownie points" on multilateral platforms such as these.
Pakistan media expectedly went to town with Kabulov's statements but it became clear where the shoe pinches when a question was posed on the Russia-Pakistan military exercise. “India has close cooperation with the US, does Moscow complain? Then why complain about much lower level of cooperation with Pakistan,” he said.
Foreign affairs are based on narrow self-interests, not foggy sentimentality. It makes sense for Russia, whose relationship with the US is at an all-time low since the Cold War, to migrate to a more Sino-centric axis. That shouldn't discourage India from pursuing its own self-interests. In coming out in the open over its relationship with Afghanistan, Modi has taken the right step.

Courtesy: First Post 

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