India has been frozen out of all the regional and international Meets held to-date on Afghanistan all over the globe and hosted by adversary states (China), countries that are ostensibly friends but act friendly only when it suits their purpose and interests (United Stateds), and states that have been steady in their friendship even if the old bonds have withered of late due to neglect or out of deliberate choice (Russia). Considering how centrally India and Afghanistan are linked by history, this freezing out of India is intolerable. But no regime has protested or, better still, shown the wit, will, and strategic imagination to be disruptive as a means of highlighting India’s interests in that country by initiating its own peace process involving not only the Kabul regime, the various factions of the Taliban, Iran, and the Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan to its north — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. This would have been a unique constellation of countries to put together and the most immediately concerned that the religious fight between moderates and Islamic hardliners in Afghanistan not spill over into their territories. Such a grouping would have put India front and centre. But when was New Delhi last really innovative in its foreign policy? When the Indian government itself considers India a secondary player in Afghanistan, it is hardly to be wondered that other countries don’t think of involving India at all. So the “Heart of Asia” Conference scheduled for Dec 2-3 in Amritsar is something of a surprise, surprise that it has happened at all and, even more, that New Delhi has allotted itself the prime role in it.
Just so we all know — “Heart of Asia” was the phrase the Pak PM Liaqat Ali Khan originally coined in 1949 as an attempt to endow Pakistan with geostrategic centrality he hoped his government could leverage in the future. This title has now been expropriated by New Delhi to fit Afghanistan — a deft little move that must have left at least some history-literate denizens in the Pakistan Foreign Office to grit their teeth and not just bear it but decide that PM Nawaz Sharif’s Foreign Affairs Adviser, Sartaj Aziz, should be the Pak rep at the Amritsar do!
The calculation appears to be that it is a way to have the so-called “composite dialogue” that functions in fits and starts, to start once more amidst the usual Indo-Pak farce — the ongoing two month old “war of befitting replies” and cross=border reciprocal threats of “surgical strikes” and worse! General Raheel Sharif, in his last week as COAS Pakistan Army, wanted to wax tough one last time, and did promising that if his forces were unleashed on a surgical strike we Indians would remember it “for generations”. This will no more make us quake in our chappals than Indian threats to do this, that or the other frightens Pakistanis.
In the event, whatever is talked about at the Amritsar Meet, the more important development would be the breaking of the ice for the umpteenth time should Aziz have some time on the sidelines with Narendra Modi, who is expected along with the Afghan President Abdul Ghani to open the conference. Official India will talk with Aziz — of that there’s little doubt. What’s up in the air is if not Modi than who? The indisposition of MEA Minister Sushma Swaraj means it will be MJ Akbar, MoS, MEA. So all the synthetic suspense in the media about whether Aziz would be issued a visa is so much diplomatic hoo-ha to create the impression that it is Islamabad that is seeking some guftgu, with Amritsar affording it cover. The fact is the Modi government too has been realizing the demerits of letting incidents on the border dictate policy (even something as heinous as the beheading of a patrolling Indian jawan in a sneak operation) rather than national interest. And Aziz’s presence offers an opportunity to gingerly open talks w/o losing face.
If the “Heart of Asia” talkathon does nothing else except mark India’s singular interest in being a party to the shaping of Afghanistan’s future, it will have done its job. With Ghani and Modi in tandem, Aziz will be remiss in his duty if he failed to communicate to his principals — Nawaz and GHQ-Rawalpindi, the depth of India’s intent to stay the course north of the Khyber Pass and be engaged with the numerous Afghan factions — both Taliban and tribal in the years to come. And its determination to supply Ghanis’s army, police, and intel the wherewithal, including heavy armaments — attack helicopters, tanks, APCs, etc. by financing the purchase of such milhardware from Russia, Ukraine, etc and transporting them via the Russian rail/road Northern Distribution Network for delivery directly to Kabul forces, as India has been doing for over a decade now. The point Aziz will hopefully take back home is that Islamabad’s efforts to take India out of the Afghan picture will simply not work, and may in fact redound to its disbenefit.
There will be some 40+ countries in Amritsar. New Delhi’s main thrust should be to weave the six countries mentioned in the lead para (above) — India, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, formally into a core group, making it pivotal to the issue of war and peace in Afghanistan and the extended region. Call this collection Core Group-6 (CG-6). Pakistan, after due consideration, should at best be accorded “observer” status. China, US, and Russia should likewise be kept as outside players looking in, not permitted entry. If India holds strong and true, this core group will too. If New Delhi vacillates in the face of US eagerness to influence the proceedings, then the whole thing will be another hopeless diplomatic boondoggle, prospectively achieving nothing.
With President Donald Trump running the show in a retrenching America post-January 20, 2017, and keen to get the 10,000-strong US Special Forces out of Afghanistan soonest, the CG-6 will naturally acquire salience. Assuming the Indian government has the vision and the stamina to see this thing through, it will have to guard against Washington pressuring New Delhi to exclude Iran from the CG-6 or curtail its role in it. The US has no real stake in Afghanistan and cannot, and should not, be allowed to screw things up by imposing its distant agenda on the countries in the region. Tehran is important to India and Afghanistan, even if it rubs the US the wrong way — but that is America’s lookout, not our concern.