Afghan President Mohammed Ashraf Ghani is as different from his predecessor Hamid Karzai as chalk is from cheese. Ghani, an ex-old World Bank staffer and longtime resident of Washington, DC suburbs is in the American mould — at ease with straight talk and strong free market beliefs,but is in a new game of managing a unity govt and a cabinet of his adversaries, like Abdullah Abdullah and the Tajik warlord Colonel Abdul Rashid Dostum in an Afghanistan sans a large US military presence but enough drone-attack capability to kill-off Taliban leadership ranks to be decisive.
So, naturally Ghanis has to juggle and keep many more balls in the air. Dostum oversaw the Northern Alliance’s ferocious fight against the Soviet occupation troops in the ’80s, with the star turn provided by the Lion of Panjshir — Ahmed Shah Masood, and during the one-eyed Mullah’s Omar’s reign in Kabul, kept the north-eastern part of Afghanistan out of the Taliban government’s clutches. He is Ghani’s First Vice President. Abdullah, Karzai’s preferred successor, controls the interior ministry. Both Abdullah and Dostum are old and trusted friends of India.
Ghani is trying to solidify bridges to Delhi but is keen to revive his country’s relations with Pakistan as a practical necessity — all seaward Afghan trade transits Pak territory, and also to correct an all too obvious pro-India tilt of Karzai — a JNU product. In the neighbourhood there’s also China flashing its money power and securing mining concessions (nickel, etc) and running extraction industries in the Hajigak region and elsewhere. If Ghani cannot do without China’s money, it cannot afford to alienate India either for two reasons — one India provides a counterpoise to China, and two, Delhi has long cultivated sections of Afghan Taliban with generous handouts of funds and material goods. These India-friendly Taliban are accused by Islamabad of crossing the Durand Line to wreck havoc in Waziristan and attack Paki targets on Afghan soil in the manner Pak-patronised Taliban attack Indian interests and diplomatic missions in that country. It is a standoff. But India can at any time if not tip the balance within the Afghan Taliban, then skew the tribal dynamic to ensure there’s no internal peace.
The question is can Ghani get India to back off without economically disengaging from his country which has benefited from development and infrastructure aid, such as the Delaram-Zaranj highway that the heroin traffickers and the Afghan Taliban they are close to are hugely thankful for? Soon after assuming presidency, Ghani announced with great ceremony that he had cancelled Indian aid involving heavy military hardware, like tanks. He did this to gain credibility with the Nawaz Sharif regime. This was a signal departure, considering India had over the years arranged to pay arms companies in the Ukraine in particular to secretly ship overland to Afghanistan artillery, tanks, helicopters, etc. Such military assistance allowed Karzai to keep the Taliban at bay. Ghanis’s ostensibly turning against Indian arms aid
served India’s purpose however. These deadly armaments killed India-friendly Taliban as well and this was resented by our well-wishers. And so the arms ban had, as it were, dual purpose and both Kabul and Delhi agreed on Ghanis’s announcement that initially pleased Pakistan. To firm up his Pak links,
Ghani also announced that more Afghan National Army officers would go for training to Pakistan and, a little later, declared that an enlarged Afghan officer contingent was headed for military training in India. The proportion of the Pak-trained and Indian-trained officers in ANA will decide over time which way the Afghan military eventually tilts and how that will affect relations with India and Pakistan.
The facts are these: India retains close links to a powerful section of the Taliban, and can create trouble for Pakistan in Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Balochistan. It has far-flung consulates in Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-sharif, places where Pakistan too has its consulates. It retains its intimate relations with Dostum and the Tajik faction, which positively impacts India’s ties with Takjikistan. India remains close to the nationalist Pakhtun element loyal to Abdullah/Karzai. And its has commercial iron mining interests in Afghanistan, and burgeoning development aid programmes. India is cooperating with Iran, even as Taliban attacks across the western border have agitated Tehran, creating a common cause fro Delhi and Iran to band together. And finally, Ghani’s publicly asking India to desist from sending it military equipment doesn’t mean Afghanistan won’t accept such hardware as is required by Kabul, such as the three Cheetal helicopters (derived from the French Aerospatiale Lama) in Kabul whose transfer will be announced after his meeting with Modi, with Delhi taking care to see that these weapons platforms are minus weapons lest they be turned against friendly Afghan Taliban by ANA..