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Resuming talks and Afghanistan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be the first Indian head of state to visit Pakistan in 12 years. He will make his way to Islamabad to attend the SAARC Summit later next year. The disclosure of Modi’s visit was made by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj here in yet another indicator of a positive turn in bilateral ties. On the sidelines of the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference, Swaraj also met Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, laying the groundwork for Modi’s visit to Islamabad later next year. The last Indian Prime Minister to visit Pakistan was Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004 to attend the SAARC summit and hold talks with then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Two years into office and Prime Minister Modi has the opportunity to relive Vajpayee’s legacy of improving Indo-Pak ties. However, it is imperative to present a little context before we get into the significance of this latest announcement. 

When Prime Minister Modi took office, he had espoused a new doctrine for India’s foreign policy, which was aptly called the “neighbourhood-first”. The doctrine, suffice to say, has witnessed mixed results in the past 18 months. Back in July 2014, it began with a ceremonial bang. Modi had invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony. Subsequently, in July 2015, both leaders met again 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. 

Unfortunately, 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 kindly to this perceived capitulation. The military-intelligence establishment made its voice heard when Islamabad went back on the joint statement.  

Moreover, just as the proposed NSA-level talks between the two nations was about to get underway earlier this year, the Modi government decided to call it off. The Indian government had protested against the Pakistan High Commissioner’s plan to hold discussions with Kashmiri separatist leaders in New Delhi. It is another matter that these separatists are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. However, everything changed on the sidelines of the Paris climate summit, where Sharif and Modi met for a few minutes, rekindling hopes for a resumption of the composite dialogue process.  The meeting was soon followed by yet another heartening development. At a quite meeting in Bangkok, the National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan discussed peace and security, terrorism and issues pertaining to Kashmir. It is not unfair to suggest that both Beijing and Washington have prodded both sides to resume talks.  

If normalization of relations between India and Pakistan is on the agenda, it is imperative to ask what’s changed in the past year. We are now going to resume talks with Pakistan when the objective conditions have hardly changed. Firing across the Line of Control continues unabated. The Pakistani intelligence establishment still funds militant groups and counterfeit currency continues to make its way from across the border. Some would argue that both sides have treated peace talks as an end in itself. Although there is some truth to the above criticism, there is a larger context at play. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is in Islamabad to attend the “Heart of Asia” conference, where leaders from the region and the international community will discuss Afghanistan’s future. Both sides have often espoused divergent policies on the war-torn nation. 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 long-standing goal of ending the war in Afghanistan by the end of his term. The recent attack on the Kandahar airport by the Afghan Taliban is a testament to its strength. Therefore, all the big talk of enhancing Afghanistan’s economic potential remains bunkum with the current war between the Afghan army and Taliban showing no signs of abating. 
Pakistan has continuously pushed for a dialogue between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. However, according to Praveen Swami, a veteran Indian journalist on strategic and international affairs, “The elephant in the room is Pakistan which, though it has swept out anti-Islamabad jihadists from North Waziristan, has shown no similar resolve to act against the anti-Kabul Taliban and its jihadist affiliate, the Haqqani network. Key leaders of the insurgency continue to openly operate out of Pakistan, despite its promises to shut their networks down.” Therefore, it is crucial that India’s voice be heard at the table of any major conference on Afghanistan’s future, where Pakistan is  a major presence. Moreover, Kabul, after a brief period of tilting away from India after Hamid Karzai’s departure, has opened its lines of communication with New Delhi again. The geopolitical importance of Afghanistan to India cannot be further overstated. 

Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad is, therefore, indicative of the Modi government’s decision to participate in this crucial conversation on Afghanistan. Besides issues pertaining to internal and external security, India 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. It is, however, difficult to see anything concrete come out of the ‘Heart of Asia’ summit. Nonetheless, it is important that India finds a place for itself in the Afghanistan conversation. More importantly, it is imperative that both India and Pakistan resume the composite dialogue process with concrete aims and objectives.
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