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Decoding the visits to Kabul, Lahore

Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Pakistan in 12 years on Friday. After addressing the Afghan Parliament in Kabul earlier in the day, Prime Minister Modi caught everyone by surprise by making a quick pit stop at Lahore. If normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan is on the agenda, it is imperative to ask what’s changed in the past year. Pakistan still believes that the Kashmir issue is the root cause of all the terrorism in the entire region. Firing across the Line of Control continues unabated. The Pakistani intelligence establishment continues to fund militant groups and counterfeit currency continues to make its way from across the border. Pakistan is going ahead with the development of miniaturised nuclear weapons for battlefield use. It has not yet granted India the Most Favoured Nation status for better trade relations. Some would argue that both sides have treated peace talks as an end in itself.  Since Independence, the relationship between India and Pakistan has been one of deep mistrust. If New Delhi wants to achieve any tangible results, Pakistan military is probably the only institution that matters. Modi’s counterpart in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, plays only a marginal role in the formulation and implementation of Islamabad’s India policy. The proof lies in the outcome of the Ufa agreement that both Sharif and Modi had signed in July 2015. Both leaders had met in Ufa, Russia, at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. The meeting produced a joint statement, which made no reference to the Kashmir issue. Spin doctors in the Modi government had mistakenly presented the joint statement as a great victory for New Delhi and a capitulation on Islamabad’s part. It goes without saying that the highly influential Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment did not take too kindly to this perceived capitulation. The military-intelligence establishment made its voice heard when Islamabad went back on the joint statement. Therefore, it is imperative to ask whether the Pakistan military and intelligence are ready to change their position on India as a permanent enemy. There is nothing to suggest that its attitude to India has changed. It continues to pursue a low-intensity war across the border against India. While its military and intelligence establishment battle the Pakistani Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba continues to receive support as in the past. Suffice to say, there is nothing wrong in the resumption of peace talks. However, the composite dialogue process must produce tangible outcomes. Without the acquiescence of Pakistan Army, any tangible results seem unlikely.  

Prime Minister Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan has caught all the media attention. On the same day, however, Modi had addressed the Afghan Parliament in Kabul after inaugurating its swanky new building that was built by India at a cost of $90 million. In a veiled remark against Pakistan, the Indian Prime Minister said that Afghanistan will succeed only when terrorism no longer flows across the border and when nurseries and sanctuaries of terrorism are shut. Declaring that India is in Afghanistan to contribute not to compete, to lay the foundations of future and not light the flame of conflict, Modi also said terror and violence cannot be the instrument to shape the future of the strife-torn country or dictate the choices its people make. In his nearly 40-minute address, Modi also made a veiled reference to Pakistan’s reservations about Indian involvement in Afghanistan. “There are some who did not want us to be here. There were those who saw sinister designs in our presence here,” he said.” There are others who were uneasy at the strength of our partnership. Some even tried to discourage us.” In Pakistan, India’s role in Afghanistan is viewed with great suspicion. Hardline elements in the Pakistani military establishment see Afghanistan as their backyard.  Moreover, they have accused India’s intelligence agencies of aiding anti-Pakistan activities in Afghanistan. Although some have seen Modi’s visit to Lahore as an assurance that India wants peace and stability in the region, and is not trying to use Kabul against Islamabad, one is not sure how much truck it will hold with the Pakistani military establishment.

Fourteen years after the US invasion, Afghanistan continues to stand on one knee. In terms most economic and other human development indicators, the war-torn nation stands at the bottom of the pile. The US-backed regime propped up in Kabul has been unable to establish its authority with the Taliban still running wild. In fact, the situation has turned so dire that US President Barack Obama had to abandon his longstanding goal of ending the war in Afghanistan by the end of his term.  Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, backed by the US, had heavily invested on talks with the Taliban to end the long-standing civil strife. And Islamabad was crucial to this peace process since the Afghan Taliban operates from Pakistan. It would be fair to suggest that the dialogue process has achieved nothing. Bitter fighting has ensued in key provinces of Afghanistan, including Helmand and Kunduz, and the Afghan army is not equipped to defeat the Taliban. According to Praveen Swami, a veteran Indian journalist on strategic affairs, “Instead of compelling the Taliban leadership to talk, it’s (Pakistan) allowed their largest offensive in years to surge forward. In effect, it’s stringing Afghanistan along, until the Taliban bring the government to its knees. Islamabad’s compulsions are simple. Pakistan can’t risk the Afghan Taliban joining hands with the Pakistani Taliban networks and the Islamic State led by Khan Saeed, who want to overthrow the government. That could end in a war larger than the Pakistan army is prepared to fight. It is simply in no position, therefore, to restrain the Taliban.”

Where does India fit in the midst of all this fighting? Although India has given Kabul ground-attack helicopters, with second-hand tanks, armoured transport vehicles and artillery in the pipeline, it is clearly not enough to diffuse the Taliban threat. Without getting itself directly involved in the war, the Indian government must play a constructive role in convincing other regional and international powers to aid Kabul in defeating the Taliban. That is the real challenge.  Besides issues pertaining to internal and external security, India also has a lot of economic interests in the country. In the aftermath of the US invasion, the Salma Dam in Herat, which was constructed by India, stands as one of the few key infrastructure projects to have been completed. Moreover, both India and China have proposed to build a series of gas pipelines cutting across the country, besides developing its mineral resources.
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