(AA) – Ashraf Ghani’s highly significant visit to India gets underway on Tuesday with the new Afghan president treading a diplomatic tightrope to avoid antagonizing neighboring Pakistan.
Ghani, a former World Bank official and co-author of a globally acclaimed book on rebuilding broken states, is making his fourth foreign trip since he was elected in September, having previously visited Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Turkey.
The chronology of his tours has indicated to some political commentators in Afghanistan that the new leadership in Kabul will not be following in his predecessor’s footsteps in cozying up to India at the cost of sacrificing relations with Pakistan.
Some have even accused Ghani of adopting a policy of appeasement towards Islamabad to ease previously tense relations marked by mutual recriminations about support for cross-border militancy.
This policy “not only impedes the improvement of the security situation in Afghanistan but also seems to have caused a U-turn in Kabul’s relations with New Delhi,” wrote former Presidential Spokesman Aimal Faizi in a column for Al Jazeera.
Ghani’s significant delegation will include the army chief, national security advisor and ministers of foreign affairs, finance, petroleum and mines, public health, trade, agriculture and labor.
“India has a lot to offer to Afghanistan and Ghani would definitely like to avail as much as he can by banking on the deep-rooted and historical ties between India and Afghanistan,” Nizamuddin Katawazi, an Afghan analyst told The Anadolu Agency.
Katawazi warned, however, that caution should guide Ghani’s negotiations with India, to avoid spooking Pakistan.
“This is an evident fact that Pakistan has influence over Taliban and President Ghani and his team is hoping to utilize that influence, they would not like to jeopardize that, for sure,” said Katawazi.
He stressed as well that this trip has pivotal importance for Afghanistan’s economy, with trade and commerce related-talks and meetings likely to dominate.
The former technocrat is eager to build a self-reliant economy after decades of conflict by utilizing Afghanistan’s strategically-important geographic location and mineral wealth.
During a meeting of South Asian leaders in Nepal last November, Ghani passionately underlined the need for economic integration in the region, claiming it was a reality before the region’s colonization.
India remains behind Pakistan and Iran when it comes to trade with Afghanistan, a reality many Afghan traders argue has evolved not naturally but because of political reasons.
Khan Jaan Alakozay, a leading Afghan trader accompanying Ghani on the trip agrees, telling AA minutes before boarding the plane, that Afghanistan and other regional countries have suffered from India and Pakistan’s bitter rivalry.
“Both of them want to secure their own interests in Afghanistan at any cost but what we need to do is to safeguard our own interests,” he said.
He noted that India has been striving hard to provide Afghanistan an alternate global trade route through Iran’s southern Chabahar port, which also gives India access to energy-rich central Asia while bypassing Pakistan.
The Afghan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement allows Afghan truck drivers to take goods to India by land, through the Wagah border crossing with India. Traders complain, however, that Pakistan has hindered movement, especially for imported Indian goods.
While Pakistan’s trade minister Khurram Dastgir Khan said recently that this is caused by tense relations with India, the latter has stated its desire to join the transit agreement.
“The visionary idea of a great Afghan general who built the Grand Trunk Road 400 years ago connecting Kabul to Kolkata can once again become a reality if transit issues are resolved, both India and Afghanistan leadership are committed to this,” said a statement by the Indian embassy in Kabul last month.
Rakesh Sood, a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, said India should not be concerned about Ghani’s relations with Pakistan and China.
Writing in the Indian daily, the Hindu, Sood said India should instead focus on joining the transit agreement and expanding Iran’s Chabahar port.
“India should wish him well,” wrote Sood. “For as a proud Pashtun, and as a proud Afghan, he understands that India is a strategic partner because we share the same vision — of a stable, united, independent and democratic Afghanistan.”