Modi’s Lahore trip irked Afghanistan

Americans are not winning in Afghanistan. But the US and Russia are in talks with the Taliban. US sanctions for trade with Iran kick in from November. India’s stakes are getting higher


Ashis Ray

In his interaction with media at the working lunch hosted by Indian Journalists’ Association (Europe) during his August visit to London, Rahul Gandhi made a point, which had previously not appeared to have been aired publicly.

He said Narendra Modi’s sudden, unannounced stop in Lahore in December 2015, his grinning embrace of Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister, had not only taken the Afghan government by surprise – for he flew directly from Kabul to the Pakistani city – but actually annoyed it.

It may be recalled there were two kinds of reactions to Modi’s action. One was praise for what a section of pundits described as an out-of-the-box move. The other was criticism for a step undertaken without any preparation and when Pakistani provocation in terms of attacks on Indian military installations was ongoing.

The latter was brushed aside by Modi’s toadies as overreaction. The matter that Rahul raised did not seem to have been highlighted in the wall-to-wall discourses on the subject at the time or subsequently.

Afghanistan considers itself to be an ally of India and believes the feeling is mutual. The Afghans have a problem with Pakistan as much as New Delhi does. Unity and coordination in tackling the issue have been the bedrock of IndoAfghan relations. For Modi, not to inform authorities in Kabul about his plans was looked upon as insulting to a friendly country, especially if you are flying from its soil to a third country perceived as being troublesome to both.

As one would expect, the Afghan government has not publicly expressed its disappointment. But it is reliably gathered that it conveyed its surprise at being kept in the dark about Modi’s plans, particularly since he had embarked on a scathing attack on Pakistan in a speech at Kabul just before his departure for Lahore. Therefore, for him to soon after hug Sharif as if he was a long-lost friend emitted contradictory signals and left Afghan officials wondering whether Modi was sincere towards Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was, in fact, back on the agenda at an international seminar in London hosted by The Democracy Forum. Christine Fair, Associate Professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, said she only had contempt for those who respect the role of the Pakistan army in that country. Professional armies do not stage coups or run countries from behind the scenes, she added. She described British forces fighting the Taliban when they were based in Helmand as the “height of cynicism” as they knew fully well Pakistan was behind the Taliban.

It is now well-known that Trump is searching for an exit from Afghanistan. Fair claimed the US administration is peddling a “blatant canard” that its soldiers are winning against the Taliban.

Indeed, the ground situation has been further complicated by the entry into the fray of armed extremists owing allegiance to Islamic State. However, talks have been taking place between US officials and the Taliban; and Russia has also engaged with the Taliban.

The truth is, though, that 17 years of America’s carrot-andstick policy have been futile. One can only hope Trump’s tenure will be short-lived and the heat also being felt by India vis-à-vis its economic ties with Iran (crude imports, for instance, are in jeopardy) will not result in sanctions from the US. This is important, because Pakistan’s virtual monopoly on surface communication with Afghanistan as well as airspace access to a certain extent can only be offset by the Indianbuilt Chabahar port in Iran. Fair feels Trump’s hostility puts the utilisation of Chabahar at risk.

Pakistan has taken advantage of it being a geographical barrier between Afghanistan and India to minimise trade between the two allies. Chabahar will circumvent this hurdle. India has over the years rendered extraordinary assistance to Afghanistan. But continuing in this vein is as far as it should go.

It is unacceptable that India has been kept out of the Afghan peace process as a result of the big powers pandering to Pakistan’s red line.

It is unlikely the Taliban will listen to India or agree to its mediation given the anti-Muslim image New Delhi has created of itself under Modi. Nonetheless, India has the right to be present at any negotiations to find a solution to a friendly SAARC member’s intractable circumstances.

Note: This article was updated at 9.27 am on Oct 8 to reflect a change in the headline

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Published: 08 Oct 2018, 8:56 AM