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29 April 2015, Gateway House

India’s game of patience with Afghanistan

Afghanistan president Ghani has placed his eggs in the Pakistani basket and is waiting to see whether its actions match the plentiful words. However, New Delhi knows it enjoys a depth of support in Afghan society and can bide its time while Ghani tests the waters, as he will likely reach the same conclusions as most others

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with the warmth befitting an old friend without betraying any hint that the guest was late in coming.

In showing understanding and patience, India has treated Ghani’s visit at the right pitch – confident and accommodating of a leader who is searching for options.

New Delhi knows it enjoys a depth of support among different sections of Afghan society after a decade of sustained and productive engagement that can’t be negated by old meddlers and new entrants on the scene whom Ghani is currently testing.

Many worry that Ghani visited Pakistan, China, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United States before coming to India and that he had de-prioritized New Delhi in his voyage of discovery. Was it merely tactical or was it strategic?

Ghani is testing Pakistan and waiting to see whether its actions match the plentiful words. He is trying what his predecessor Hamid Karzai tried – nodding in Pakistan’s direction in the hope that the blowback, which today threatens Pakistan itself, would change Rawalpindi’s calculations enough to work toward a genuine rapprochement.

Karzai was bitterly disappointed to discover that Pakistan’s real game was to keep Afghanistan unstable by harbouring the Afghan Taliban leadership and using them as a lever of power. He was doubly upset at the Americans’ inability or unwillingness to end the game.

Ghani must conduct his own experiment, find his own results and draw his own conclusions. He is not the first or the only leader to mix up hope and policy on Pakistan – a string of American presidents have done it for decades.

The United States and China have blessed Ghani’s endeavours to give Pakistan what it wants and build Islamabad’s confidence to act more normal, a project if it succeeds, would certainly be welcomed by all in South Asia.

To show good faith and start with a clean slate with Pakistan, Ghani even broke with protocol and took the unprecedented step to call on Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, during his visit last November. There have been several back-and-forth visits since then, including one by ISI director-general, Rizwan Akhtar, to Kabul.

It would be fair to ask whether this enhanced engagement has amounted to something significant in real terms. Some Afghans are already questioning why Ghani put so many eggs in the Pakistan basket and played all his cards up front.

He has taken action against the Pakistan Taliban or the TTP, closed down its sanctuaries on the Af-Pak border and even handed over militants wanted by Rawalpindi. But he hasn’t got much in return.

Apart from a change in Pakistan’s rhetoric, which has U.S. and British analysts enthralled once again, and a decision to stop cross-border clashes, Pakistan has not moved on Kabul’s core demand of handing over the Afghan Taliban leadership.

Why? Most likely because Rawalpindi’s strategy of using the Afghan Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan has not changed. Taliban leaders and military commanders continue to live safely in Pakistani cities, drinking tea and planning the next offensive.

The Haqqani Network (HQN), the military wing of the Afghan Taliban, has not been banned, no matter the semantics around the process. In fact, its fighters are coming back “home” to North Waziristan hiding amidst Pakistanis returning to their villages after the much-hyped Zarb-e-Azb operation.

According to a report last month by Radio Free Europe, ISI handlers have told the HQN commanders that they are free to move around the seven FATA districts but must not engage with Al-Qaeda and TTP operatives.

Pakistan’s public commitment to act against all terrorists and drop its policy of protecting the “good” Taliban and attacking only the “bad” Taliban does not meet the credibility test when seen against evidence on the ground.

Khaled Nadiri, an Afghan American analyst, wrote recently that the policy hurts Pakistan itself.  “Many sections of Afghan society view the Pakistan establishment with suspicion because of its past and present connections to groups that have employed significant levels of discriminate and indiscriminate violence against Afghan civilians.”

“By allowing the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s urban centers and more remote border areas, Islamabad has created the space for more violent and inward-looking forms of militancy to expand within Pakistan, threatening its domestic and external security,” he wrote in Lawfare, a website devoted to national security and legal issues.

Zarb-e-Azb, which was meant to break the back of the circus of insurgents nursed by Pakistan, is seen by many US academics as largely theatre and an exercise to appease international opinion. It targeted the TTP or the “bad” Taliban (those who threaten the Pakistani state) but not the “good” Afghan Taliban (those who threaten Afghanistan).

So far no action has been taken against the Peshawar- and Quetta-based Afghan militant leaders. If the Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex meant business, they would put pressure on the leadership and consider deporting some to Afghanistan to force a compromise.

Meanwhile, Ghani is under growing pressure to show results. He knows he doesn’t have much time. He has already been accused of being naïve vis-à-vis Pakistan. The summer months will test his Pakistan policy as the fighting season continues. Pakistan is clearly pushing him to the limits to see how much it can force its terms on Kabul.

The Pakistan army’s dream “solution” is to have its proxies control the border provinces in Afghanistan either through accommodation or by fiat. This would allow Rawalpindi to exercise power in Kabul and the ISI to use the territory to locate anti-India groups there.

An interesting wrinkle in the Afghanistan-Pakistan equation is China’s attempt to play a bigger role. If history is any indication, China is likely to extract more realistic promises from Pakistan on curbing militancy in exchange for the $46 billion investment in an economic corridor than its other patron, the United States.

Given the scenario, India can bide its time and let Ghani test the waters with Pakistan, the troublesome neighbor that torments both Kabul and New Delhi. Likely he will reach the same conclusions as most others.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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