Posts Tagged ‘Ashraf Ghani’

This article was originally published in DailyO on December 3, 2016 here.

The holy city of Amritsar is all set to host the sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference over this weekend, where representatives from over 40 countries are congregating to discuss and deliberate upon issues of peace, prosperity and progress of the nation which lies at the “heart” of Asia – Afghanistan.

Launched in 2011, the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process was established as a platform to address regional issues, encouraging security, political and economic cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours.

The countries in the grouping include India, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and the Central Asian neighbours of Afghanistan. Those playing a supportive role in the initiative include US, Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Egypt, Australia, among others.

The previous ministerial conference was held in 2015 in Islamabad which was attended by India’s external affairs ministerSushma Swaraj. This time around, as Swaraj is not keeping well, India would be represented by finance minister Arun Jaitley, who would also be the co-chair of the conference, along with Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani.

Prime Minister Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would inaugurate the ministerial conference on Sunday, December 4, a day after the bilateral meeting that is scheduled for Saturday.

The theme of the event, “Addressing challenges and achieving prosperity” is indicative and alludes to the kind of issues that would be at the forefront of the deliberations – terrorism and development.

The long drawn war that the Afghan forces are fighting against the Taliban needs support wherever it can come from. Emanating out of the Pakistani deep state – the military and ISI nexus – and executed on the ground by its subsidiaries such as the Taliban, terrorism continues to derail the Afghan development and rebuilding efforts.

Despite calls from neighbours to mend its ways, Pakistan is unwilling to let go of its “strategic assets” – in the form of various terrorist groups – any time soon, despite all the rhetoric that they support a stable Afghanistan. Violence continues to wreck people’s lives and Afghan blood is spilt every single day.

Terrorism has not only crippled Afghanistan and destabilised the region, but has also consistently displayed disdain for external players. The attack on German Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif last month and the American University in Kabul in August 2016 are two recent examples.

Speaking a joint press conference with the MEA on Novermber 30, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, said that terrorism is the “greatest threat to this region”. He expressed hope that the Heart of Asia conference will adopt the Regional Counter Terrorism framework, drafted by Afghanistan and circulated among the members. This would be a useful step towards increasing the heat on Pakistan and hold it accountable for state-sponsored terrorism.

India must make full use of the opportunity and expose Pakistan’s terrorist designs. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s de-facto minister of foreign affairs who will be attending the meet, must be delivered the message loud and clear that Pakistan’s use of terrorism as state policy will only lead to its diplomatic isolation. With the conference taking place just days after the Nagrota terror attack, it is well timed for a diplomatic offensive on Pakistan.

But terrorism is not the only way by which Pakistan is undermining Afghan interests. Economic development of Afghanistan is heavily dependent on connectivity. Here again, Pakistan has been exploiting its location and has left no stone unturned to create hurdles for its neighbour.

Pakistan refuses to allow Afghan trucks, which carry goods from Afghanistan to the Wagah border in Pakistan, to carry back products from India to Afghanistan. Even the goods that the Afghan trucks bring have to be offloaded at Wagah and reloaded again on other vehicles, to be brought into India.

By denying transit, Pakistan is severely hurting the economic interests of ordinary Afghans. Any talk about Afghanistan’s development cannot ignore this tragedy, perpetuated by the Pakistani establishment.

The Chahbahar route, facilitated by the India-Afghanistan-Iran trilateral, thankfully overcomes this land challenge. It is being called the “game-changer” of the fortunes of the region and rightly so. It establishes a permanent alternative to the land route, boosting prospects for greater trade and connectivity between Afghanistan and India.

Afghan Ambassador has further spoken of “offering” this opportunity for well-meaning countries, inviting them to come forward and connect with Afghanistan.

Connectivity, therefore, is going to be a matter of great importance as countries deliberate on economic cooperation with Afghanistan.

The location of the Heart of Asia conference couldn’t have been more pertinent. Amritsar, which has historically been a stop on the old Grand Trunk road that uninterruptedly connected Bengal to Kabul and beyond, is symbolic of the potential of connectivity that exists in this part of the world.

It actually sends out a message to Pakistan, which has been the main roadblock and deal breaker when it comes to regional integration.

This article was  originally published in DailyO (online opinion platform of India Today group) on September 21, 2016 here.

The recent visit of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to New Delhi, where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saw a slew of agreements and exchanges. Some of the major ones were agreements on extradition, mutual legal assistance treaty and outer space.

Both leaders flagged the issue of terrorism and agreed that it is the single biggest threat to peace, stability and progress in the region and beyond. They reaffirmed their resolve to counter terrorism and strengthen security and defence cooperation.

PM Modi pledged that India would allocate a sum of $1 billion for Afghanistan’s capacity building in areas of education, health, agriculture, skill development, women empowerment, energy, infrastructure, and strengthening of democratic institutions.

He also proposed to supply world class and affordable medicines and cooperation in solar energy through mutually agreed instruments.

Ghani comes full circle

The visit comes after a series of engagements between the two leaders. Modi has visited Afghanistan twice, following Ghani’s maiden visit to New Delhi exactly a year ago.

Between the visits, they have had constant engagements, including the video conferencing during the joint inauguration of the restored Stor Palace last month (August). The relations between the sides have been on a constant upsurge after Ghani abandoned his Pakistan “tilt”.

Back in September 2014 when Ghani took charge as President in the National Unity government, he decided to actively engage Pakistan in the hope that it will help stabilise the security situation by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

But within a year Ghani realised the hollowness and deception of Pakistani assurances. The fighting season concomitant with the talks was one of the bloodiest that Afghanistan saw in years, with the Taliban even overrunning several districts.

The reports that Mullah Omar had died in April 2013 served as the last straw in making it unequivocally clear that the “peace process” was nothing but an eyewash. It was in the name of Mullah Omar, the Amir-ul-Momineen, that the talks were being held in 2015. Such was the farce during the process that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan’s ISI, even released a letter with an Eid message in the name of the long dead Mullah Omar.

Ghani, therefore, abandoned his failed outreach towards Pakistan, much to the relief of the Afghan public that was always sceptical of trusting Pakistan. The resentment against Pakistan’s terrorist designs is widespread among the Afghan civil society who look up to India as a truly reliable friend.

A retired Indian diplomat told this writer how an Afghan once remarked to him that “they [Pakistan] send terrorists to kill our people, whereas you build roads and bridges that improve our lives”. This is the general sentiment that guides the way most Afghans look at India.

The development partnership

The development partnership of India and Afghanistan has been the defining aspect of their contemporary bilateral relations. Over the last decade and more, India has heavily invested in the reconstruction and development projects inside Afghanistan, which has created immense goodwill.

The celebration on the streets by Afghan youth over the completion of the Salma Dam is a recent testimony to this. Officially called the India-Afghanistan Friendship Dam, the Rs 1,775-crore hydroelectric and irrigation dam is located on the Hari Rud River in Chishti district of Herat, and was inaugurated by PM Modi in June this year.

It was Modi’s second visit to Afghanistan after the historic Kabul visit last December that saw him inaugurate the Parliament building whose construction was also funded by India.

A number of projects in the areas of agriculture, rural development, health, education, vocational training, etc have been approved by the Indian government under the Small Development Projects (SDP) scheme. Besides these flagship initiatives, India through its state-owned and private companies has invested in a number of sectors in Afghanistan.

A consortium of six Indian companies led by Steel Authority of India had won the concession for three iron ore mines in the Hajigak region in 2011. The state owned power equipment maker BHEL commissioned two 220/20kV substations in Doshi and Charikar in January this year.

Recently, Afghanistan also invited Indian investments in the renewable energy sector, specifically off-grid renewable energy projects.

Apart from infrastructure and industrial projects, India has also been lending assistance to Afghanistan in other areas like sports.The BCCI helped provide for a “home ground” for Afghan cricket in India at the Greater Noida cricket stadium.

Further, the Indian government approved $1 million for constructing a cricket stadium in Kandahar under the SDP scheme.

In the 12th South Asian games held in India earlier this year, India sponsored the air-travel of the 214 strong Afghan contingent, besides bearing some other expenses. The request for India’s help, reportedly made by Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, was immediately agreed to by PM Modi.

Countering terrorism emanating out of Pakistan

That the Taliban plots its attacks with Pakistan’s support is well known not just to the Afghans but to the world.

Be it infiltrating terrorists across the LoC into India, orchestrating cross-border attacks like the one in Uri this Sunday (September 18), supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan that spills Afghan blood every single day, or abusing human rights in Balochistan and PoK, Pakistan has given us umpteen reasons to call it a terrorist state.

Yet, there isn’t enough international pressure on Pakistan to rein the terrorist designs of its “deep state” – the nexus of Pak military, ISI and the various jihadi groups.

The need to diplomatically isolate Pakistan is not only in the interest of Indian or Afghan security but that of the entire South Asian region and beyond. Even Bangladesh is suffering from the nefarious designs of the Pakistani State. In December 2015, Pakistan had to recall its diplomatFarina Arshad after Bangladeshi authorities alleged her of spying and financing terrorist organisations.

The effort of globally exposing Pakistan and its terrorist activities, therefore, must be led by India together with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. When New Delhi, Kabul and Dhaka all speak in one voice, it sends across a powerful message to the international community.

One of the most laudable decisions of the Modi government’s Afghanistan policy has been its decision to donate three Mi-35 multi-role helicopters, with fourth in the pipeline. The Indian helicopters are expected to boost Afghan air power and positively impact the fight against terrorism.

The long drawn war that the Afghan forces are fighting against the Taliban needs support wherever it can come from. Towards this end, not just India but all world powers should contribute towards emboldening capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Besides the developmental agenda, forums like Heart of Asia – Istanbul Process and the trilateral such as India-US-Afghanistan consultations, to be held in New York later this month, also need to heavily focus on the security situation and means to counter the Taliban.

The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed between India and Afghanistan in 2011 provides a framework for greater defence and security cooperation, as reiterated in the recent joint statement. Herein lie the opportunities to take India-Afghan relations to the next level.

As New Delhi examines the requests made by the Afghan Army chief General Qadam Shah Shahim last month, the one thing that should not be a matter of consideration is how its decisions are perceived by Islamabad.

There is absolutely no reason for India, to the extent it is economically feasible, to shy away from supporting and working towards a stable, democratic and peaceful Afghanistan.

The article was originally published in the Swarajya magazine here on 21 August 2015. 

In the wake of the recent gruesome attacks in Afghanistan – many allegedly traced back to Pakistan, the question many in the Afghan government and civil society are asking is, has President Ghani’s outreach to Islamabad failed? And if it has, what is the alternative now – especially in dealing with the Taliban?

The recent wave of attacks in Kabul saw at least 65 people killed and hundreds severely injured. The attacks began, on August 7, with a suicide bomber detonating explosives outside the National Police Academy killing at least 27 students. Then, a truck laden with explosives blew up killing 15 people and injuring 240 in Shah Shaheed area of Kabul following which an assault on Camp Integrity, a NATO military facility, killed nine, including a US soldier. Three days later, another five people were killed and 16 others injured when a suicide bomber attacked the main entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The gruesome attacks have evoked strong reactions from the Afghan government and civil society. President Ashraf Ghani in his televised address to the nation blasted Pakistan for its role in the attacks and said, “Pakistan still remains a venue and ground for gatherings from which mercenaries send us messages of war”. In a rare public rebuke of the neighbour, Ghani slammed Pakistan for supporting the Taliban insurgents in their 14-year war against Kabul. “The last few days have shown that suicide-bomber training camps and bomb-producing factories that are killing our people are as active as before in Pakistan,” he said.

Further, Afghan government’s CEO Dr.Abdullah Abdullah, in his interaction with the council of ministers, said that elements who commit crimes in Afghanistan are being financed and armed in neighboring Pakistan. He also criticised Pakistan for not making the peace process result-oriented.

The Afghan Intelligence – National Directorate of Security (NDS) has said that specific elements within the Pakistani army were behind the deadly attacks in capital Kabul, gesturing towards the country’s military intelligence – Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The Haqqani terrorist network, nurtured by Pakistan, is also said to be involved in the attacks.

The attacks have come in just weeks after the Parliament attack in Kabul on June 22, which killed five people and injured 30 others. The NDS had reported then that the attack was masterminded by Mawlawi Shireen, the military commander of Haqqani network, allegedly with financial and logistical support provided by Bilal who is an officer of the ISI. It was also alleged that some 75 lakh of Pakistani rupees was spent on the Parliament attack.

Besides sponsoring and planning attacks inside Afghanistan, Pakistani military is also claimed to have been involved in direct attacks on the Af-Pak border, in spite of Afghanistan’s multiple protests at the diplomatic level. The border provinces of Kunar, Paktika and Nangarhar have all come under rocket and mortar attacks in the past two months, with as many as 43 missiles hitting areas in Kunar alone.

Earlier this week, Pakistani military is said to have attacked an Afghan police outpost in Narai District of Kunar resulting in atleast 13 casualties. The aggression by Pakistan Army on its Western border has been concomitant with its repeated ceasefire violations on the Eastern LoC with India. In another disturbing report, Interior Minister Noorul Haq Ullomi said that Pakistan is sending armed individuals disguised as Islamic State (IS) fighters to destabilise the country. In the worn torn country of Afghanistan, the arrival of IS has already caused great complication in the security scenario. With Pakistan trying to exploit this situation, stability in Afghanistan might become all the more elusive.

The general sentiment seems to be that Pakistan can never be trusted to bring peace. It was no surprise therefore that ever since President Ashraf Ghani reached out to Pakistan, after coming to power in September 2014, he has been coming under severe criticism at home and beyond. Civil society organisations in Afghanistan such as the Civil Movement for Social Justice have said that the government has failed to devise an effective foreign policy to deal with Pakistan. But in less than a year, Ghani seems to have finally understood why his people were never optimistic about his outreach to Pakistan as he is finally saying things which his people want him to.

Pakistan, on its part, is unwilling to let go of its ‘strategic assets’ – in the form of Taliban and other terrorist groups – any time soon, despite all the rhetoric that they support a stable Afghanistan. Despite Ghani banking nearly all his political capital on Pakistan to compel Taliban get to peace talks, Islamabad has at best responded with optics and hyperboles. Violence continues to wreck people’s lives in almost every corner of the country even as the so-called peace talks with Taliban are underway, raising fundamental questions on the effectiveness of such engagements to bring any peace. In fact this year’s fighting season has turned out to be the bloodiest ever, with the Taliban carrying out attacks and taking control of several districts even in the north.

However, with the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death creating fissures within the Taliban, Ghani has an opportunity to turn the tables. He must use this moment of epiphany to course correct his approach to Pakistan and the Taliban. With Pakistan’s unabashed involvement in multiple attacks on Afghan soil coming out to the fore, the Afghan government would do well to talk tough and put pressure, both bilaterally and internationally, on Pakistan to rein in its state and non-state actors.

Commentators in Afghanistan have urged their government to turn to the UN Security Council for redress by exposing the depth of Pakistan’s destabilising activities. The role of international community is indeed crucial if Pakistan is to be made accountable for its actions, else violence in Afghanistan would continue to wreak havoc in the region.

This article was originally published in the US-based International Policy Digest here on 4 August 2015. 

On 29 June 2015, it was the first anniversary of the establishment of a ‘caliphate’ by the Islamic State, also known as the ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh. The Islamic State today holds a territory roughly equal to the size of the UK and commands a force of 30,000 fighters, besides being a fast growing ideological brand. It collects taxes and, according to some reports, has its own currency.

Throughout the past one year or more, IS has shown no hesitation in aggressive expansion – in terms of capturing territory on the ground, inspiring terrorism, and spreading its ideology across the world through a well-funded web and social media campaign. According to the 2014 Global Terrorism Index, it is one of the few terrorist groups that are responsible for the majority of death and destruction caused by terrorism in the past year. It has attracted youth from over 100 countries to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria, and inspired several other terrorist groups to swear allegiance to it including those which were previously associated with the Al-Qaeda. It has claimed attacks in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, as well as the recent bombing of a Shiite mosque in Kuwait and the concomitant ‘lone wolf’ attacks in Tunisia and France. Further, IS has threatened those Islamic organisations which it feels have not been stringent enough in their religious enforcement, such as Hamas in Palestine.

It is not hard, therefore, to predict similar gains for IS in the war torn Afghanistan. To those young Taliban fighters who may be disillusioned or marginalised by their leadership, IS offers a new brand of extremism. The Islamic State thus wasted no time before it begun tapping into this potential in Afghanistan, just as it did elsewhere. In December 2014, the group made it clear that it would expand into the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In January this year, it was declared that the IS will establish the Khorasan province in the region as part of its larger caliphate. It even announced the leadership that would take the movement forward.

There have been several incidents involving the IS-affiliated militants in Afghanistan, who have been fighting against both the Afghan security forces and the Afghan Taliban, since the Khorasan declaration. The eastern Nangarhar province has emerged as the hotbed of Islamic State’s activity, where there have been heavy clashes between the Taliban and IS-affiliated militants. On June 16, the Taliban in a letter addressed to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned IS to stay out of Afghanistan. It insisted that that the jihad against the Americans and their allies must be conducted under “one flag and one leadership” and urged IS to stop recruiting in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has also been taking note of IS related activity. President Ghani has constantly articulated, especially during his foreign visits, the need to check the rise of IS in Afghanistan. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) formed a Special Force to exclusively combat IS and has seen at least some successes since then. The US’s drone strikes have also been successful in targeting and killing IS commanders and fighters.

But with the weakening of Taliban following the confirmation of ‘Amir-ul Momineen’ Mullah Omar’s death, IS has got an opportunity to bounce back. While Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor has been declared as the new supreme leader of Taliban, a section within the Taliban wants Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqoob to be the successor instead. This growing rift between the Taliban cadres might lead to a breakup of the group which would allow the Islamic State to re-launch itself among the young Taliban fighters and carve out its own sphere of influence in the region. The IS has in fact alreadyclaimed a breakthrough in its efforts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Their spokesman for Khorasan province has claimed that pledges of allegiance to Islamic State are taking place across the country.

The Islamic State’s trajectory in Afghanistan would be clearer once the current fighting season ends and different parties of the conflict take stock of the damage suffered and gains made. However, if the recent trends are any indicators of the future, the security situation in Afghanistan is headed to take a complicated turn that would further test the resolve and already dwindling resources of the Afghan government and security forces.

The outreach to Pakistan that President Ghani embarked upon after coming to power has clearly paid no dividends, at least until now. Pakistan is unwilling to let go of its ‘strategic assets’ – in the form of various terrorist groups – any time soon, despite all the rhetoric that they support a stable Afghanistan. Violence continues to wreck people’s lives in almost every corner of the country even as the so called talks with Taliban are underway, raising fundamental questions on the effectiveness of such engagements to bring any peace. In fact this year’s fighting season has turned out to be the bloodiest ever, with the Taliban carrying out attacks and taking control of several districts even in the north. Stepping into such turmoil is another deadly player, the Islamic State.

Saddled with challenges of corruption, illicit drug trade, illegal mining and pending electoral reforms, besides the rapidly deteriorating security situation across the country, the Afghan Unity government is finding it increasingly difficult to meet any of its objectives.