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Stepping out of Pakistan's shadow

Shamil Shams, Waslat Hasrat-NazimiSeptember 14, 2016

For decades, Afghanistan has been relying economically and militarily on neighboring Pakistan. But Afghan President Ghani wants to break this dependence by bolstering ties with India, where he is on a two-day visit.

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi (R), shakes hand with the Afghan President, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani during a meeting in New Delhi, India, 28 April 2015 (Photo: EPA/STR)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is on a two-day visit to New Delhi to boost bilateral ties that have been improving for quite some time. On Wednesday, Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again urged Pakistan to end "all sponsorship of terrorism." Both Kabul and New Delhi complain that terrorists with sanctuaries in Pakistan are creating unrest on their soil, an allegation Islamabad denies.

India has maintained close ties with Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. It is one of Afghanistan's major donors, underwriting an array of development projects in the impoverished nation.

On Wednesday, September 14, India offered a fresh one billion dollars (890 million euros) in aid to Kabul for building capacity in education, health, agriculture, energy and infrastructure, said a joint statement by Modi and Ghani.

The two leaders also pledged to speed up the implementation of an agreement between New Delhi, Tehran and Kabul to develop the Chabahar port in Iran. They said the project was vital for both India and Afghanistan as it would increase connectivity within the region. India also plans to use the Chabahar port for trade with Afghanistan in the absence of a land route through Pakistan.

Iran Rohani, Modi und Ghani in Teheran
Ghani and Modi want to speed up work at Iran's Chahabar portImage: IRNA

Afghanistan-India military ties

Since Modi took power in India two years ago, the Afghan-India ties have also expanded to cover defense and security agreements. India has already donated four multirole Mi-25 helicopters to Afghanistan and more defense deals are in the pipeline. India also trains hundreds of Afghan soldiers each year in its military academy.

Islamabad is skeptical of these growing Indian-Afghan relations and feels that a pro-Indian government across its western border in Kabul imperils its strategic goals.

But Afghan President Ghani has made it clear that he wants to break his country's dependence on Pakistan. Not only the Afghan government feels that Pakistan's civilian and military establishments haven't done much to rein in militant Islamists, it also accuses its neighbor of pursuing a well-planned strategy to push pro-Islamabad groups into power in Afghanistan.

Can India replace Pakistan?

But it's unclear if Afghanistan can really afford this gamble. "Closer ties with India could be helpful for Afghanistan's economy but, at the same time, it might create new security challenges for the country," Sayed Mahdi Manadi, a Kabul University lecturer, told DW.

"Economically, India will continue to be an important partner for Kabul, but I would like to stress that New Delhi cannot replace Islamabad as Afghanistan shares a long border with Pakistan. Geographically, it is tied up with Pakistan in the south," Manadi added.

The expert says that President Ghani should improve ties with India as it benefits Kabul to have access to the Indian market. At the same time, India, too, profits from cordial ties with Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is India's gateway to Central Asia. It can also be a market for Indian products, therefore, I believe India wants a stable Afghanistan," he underlined.

But Manadi believes that irking both Islamabad and the Taliban by getting closer to New Delhi would create problems for Kabul.

Spike in terror attacks

Some observers believe Afghanistan's increasingly close ties with India are a reason for the recent uptick in violence.

On September 5, twin blasts carried out by the Taliban insurgent group followed by an 11-hour standoff with Afghan security forces killed at least 41 people, including senior government officials, and left over 100 people wounded. And a couple of weeks earlier, 16 people lost their lives when militants stormed the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

Violence has never been absent in the Afghan capital, and the recent incidents are just another episode of suicide attacks and bombings that have rocked the city. Still, the increasing brutality and high number of casualties have left many Afghans shaken.

Afghan policemen inspect the site of a blast in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on Sept. 8, 2016 (Photo: Imago/Xinhua)
Some analysts say that Afghanistan's increasingly close ties with India are a reason for the uptick in violenceImage: Imago/Xinhua

In its first public response to Indian military aid, the Taliban recently urged New Delhi to stop giving defense equipment to the Afghan government, condemning it as a "clear hostility" towards the war-ravaged nation.

"We call on India to stop exporting items of killing and destruction to Afghanistan and to stop efforts of prolonging the lifespan of this corrupt regime with its military aid," Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a statement released on September 4.

Siegfried O. Wolf, a South Asia analyst at the University of Heidelberg, believes that the recent Taliban statements show that the jihadists are identifying India not only as a partner of US interests in Afghanistan but also as an increasing successor in military terms and subsequently as a primary target.

"As such, the last Taliban attacks in Kabul are not only directed against the Afghan government but are also a signal towards New Delhi to stay out of the country, that India - like the US - is identified as hostile foreign influence," he told DW.

Normalization of relations

Both New Delhi and Islamabad have wrestled for influence in Kabul in recent decades. But the strengthening of ties between New Delhi and Kabul has sparked fears of a possible proxy war in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan, a historic backer of the Taliban.

Gen Raheel Sharif Pakistan Army chief in a meeting with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan
Islamabad is skeptical of growing Indian-Afghan relationsImage: ARG

Experts say that Afghanistan and Pakistan have to cooperate regionally and work towards a normalization of their bilateral relations.

If the two countries fail to improve their relations, they will face not only economic disaster but also armed conflict, Wolf said.

Against this backdrop, Afghans are increasingly concerned about the severe impact the geopolitical struggle involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is having on their lives and security.

Additional reporting by Masood Saifullah.