The first visit to India of new Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has achieved nothing dramatic — no agreements, no hyperboles on strategic partnership, no photo-ops worth the name. Considering how close his predecessor Hamid Karzai was to India this is a major index of new strain in ties.
That Ghani has visited India after Pakistan, China and the US is in itself a signal that the new President is charting a new course and rubbing it in that his priorities and equations are different and that he wants India at arm’s length at least for now.
Ghani is entitled to choose his friends just as much as Karzai was and his preference for Pakistan and China will be duly tested.
Predictably, for a time, Ghani would have a cosy relationship with the Pakistani establishment including the ISI and the army. His overtures to the Taliban and the “Quetta Shura” in his own country will be a test of whether he can bring durable peace to Afghanistan. But both Pakistan and the Afghan rebels will demand their pound of flesh which Ghani will not find easy to meet.
China’s investment in copper mines in Afghanistan and its new-found engagement with Kabul politically has given Beijing a new foothold in that country. But the Chinese cannot be unmindful of the fact that Islamic terrorists in its Xinjianj province pose a nuisance which could get worse if they have a truck with Afghani terror forces.
China knows that with the withdrawal of US forces, chances of Afghanistan plunging into chaos are very high. An unstable Afghanistan will help jihadi forces across the region and this needs to be factored in over the medium term.
With growing prospects of a nexus against India, this country will need to be more watchful than ever before. The Modi government would indeed be tested in how it negotiates the twists and turns in the region to its advantage with help from Washington where necessary.
If Ghani is not India’s friend in the short run it must not be its enemy at least. Indian economic aid has been a major lever in our interest and must not cease to be so. If India is to justify its new tag of being a regional power, it will have to stay relevant.