By Harsh V. Pant
Despite the continuing India-Pakistan tensions and a volatile border situation where Pakistani forces continue to violate the ceasefire, Islamabad has decided to take part in the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference on Afghanistan in Amritsar, on 4 December.
The conference aims at speeding up reconstruction in war torn Afghanistan and bringing peace and normalcy to the nation.
Though in India many would be tempted to focus primarily on the visit of the Pakistani delegation, the HoA conference will see participation from around 14 countries — Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the UAE.
The HoA process, which is being supported by the wider international community, originated under the aegis of the ‘Istanbul Conference’ in November 2011.
This underscored the need for regional cooperation and confidence-building to resolve underlying problems facing Afghanistan and anchoring the state’s development in a regional environment that is stable, economically integrated and conducive to shared prosperity.
India, too, has repeatedly underscored the need for improving connectivity in the region to help Afghanistan harness its trade and transit potential.
But for Pakistan, this participation will largely be about showcasing its positive involvement in the larger regional reconstruction.
For a nation that is now more isolated than it has ever been, it is a foreign policy imperative to underline its positive role in Kabul.
The HoA conference comes at a time when Afghanistan has taken an increasingly hard-line position vis-à-vis Pakistan, and unflinchingly supported the Modi government’s agenda of envisioning regional cooperation in South Asia by marginalising Islamabad.
It was the Afghan government which first suggested that South Asian states should come together to boycott the SAARC summit in Islamabad over Pakistan’s role in “destabilising” the neighbourhood.
In his address to a joint session of Afghanistan’s two houses of parliament earlier this year, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani had threatened to lodge a formal complaint against Pakistan.
In a departure from his earlier stand, Ghani called on Pakistan to forego attempts to bring the Taliban to negotiations and take military action against the terrorist groups.
Despite Pakistan’s repeated assertions that it would go after Taliban, negotiations have repeatedly been stalled and deadly attacks in Afghanistan have increased with the Taliban carrying out their offensives.
The government in Kabul is also struggling to hold the overdue parliamentary elections this fall, amid the worsening security situation.
American commanders have asked Washington that US troop numbers remain at the current 9,800, and not drop to about 5,500 by the end of the year.
Political tensions are rising with Afghan Vice-President General Abdul Rashid Dostum accusing President Ashraf Ghani of treating him and the Afghan Uzbek minority he represents like the ‘enemy’, issuing veiled threats of violence if the situation doesn’t improve.
Dostum complained that the government wasn’t providing sufficient security assistance to northern Afghanistan to deal with the Taliban, taking a swipe at senior security officials by saying that, “leadership and management are non-existent.”
Dostum also appeared to issue a challenge to NATO countries, warning them vaguely that “another bomb might explode here, they should be wise.”
Amid all this is Pakistan, which for fear of India has continued to scuttle even those regional initiatives that seem purely commercial.
Its military-intelligence-complex has monopolised the discourse to an extent where Islamabad sees no win-win situations.
Its objective is to ensure that India doesn’t win, even if it means a loss for the entire region.
In that spirit, Pakistan has repeatedly blocked the use of its roads for trade between Afghanistan and India.
This has resulted in growing ill-will for Pakistan in Afghanistan, even as the latter’s relations with India continue to deepen.
Every day that ordinary Afghans lose opportunities for easy, direct trade with India, Pakistan generates more resentment among them.
India’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan also needs to evolve with these changing ground realities.
New Delhi has been demanding dismantling of safe havens and terror sanctuaries in the region, besides pressing for deeper engagement of various stakeholders for Kabul’s stability and security.
That is easier said than done. Indian interests are being repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan.
The attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in March this year had been the fourth such assault since 2007.
Other Indian consulates in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and the one in Kabul have also been attacked.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the new Afghan Parliament and the decision to gift Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghan forces were meant to underline India’s seriousness to preserve its equities in the troubled neighbourhood.
India has also signed a deal to develop the strategic port of Chabahar in Iran and agreed on a three-nation pact to build a transport-and-trade corridor through Afghanistan that could potentially reduce the time and cost of doing business with Central Asia and Europe.
New Delhi has so far shown an unusual tenacity in its dealings with Kabul.
It now needs to move beyond the binary of economic and military engagement and evolve a comprehensive policy which involves all dimensions of power.
Afghanistan is a tough country, and only those who are willing to fight on multiple fronts will be able to preserve their leverage.
This article originally appeared in Mail Today.