Originally published on July 25, 2016,  The Hindu

Afghan Ambassador S.A. Abdali on the perception that India holds back on bilateral moves on account of Pakistan

India needs to correct the perception that it is too worried about Pakistan’s backlash to assist Afghanistan in defence cooperation, says the Afghan Ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, who has just published a book, Afghanistan-Pakistan-India: A Paradigm Shift (Pentagon Press), on the region. Excerpts from an interview:

It is very unusual, even unprecedented, for a sitting Ambassador to write a book about the issues which confront him on a daily basis. What prompted you to do so?

I knew all along that this was a very unusual thing I am doing, but [I did so] because we are in very unusual circumstances… the region, the country, all of us are in a very precarious situation. Therefore, one should do precarious stuff in order to achieve a goal and find a solution to a problem that we are all trying our best to solve. Secondly, we are facing another problem as a region: we count too much on outsiders to find a solution for us. We ask the Indian media too: why do you use foreign sources for our stories? So, I thought, let’s begin whatever we do in our little capacity here.

You say that you don’t see any good future for the country and the region unless India and Pakistan are able to resolve their differences. Is it just about India and Pakistan getting together?

The existing paradigm is detrimental to the interests, whether it is of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or India, or the wider region, and that is why I have suggested a paradigm shift. For example, let us take Russia. What hasn’t Russia done to Afghanistan? It invaded Afghanistan, and today we are friends. This is because they are responding with the cooperation we are seeking from them, they are responding to our interests. So this is an example that no one should fear either from Afghanistan or from any other country whatever that country has done in the past. We must put the past behind and move forward.

Recently, the former chief of Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, Rahmatullah Nabil, released documents showing links between the Pakistani military and the Haqqani group and the Taliban. How do you move on if you are speaking with Pakistan on the one hand while it might be acting against you militarily on the other?

I think there is no dispute over the ground realities which are doublespeak, which is saying one thing and doing something else. The thing is we have to think about is how we can work together to change what it is today. Whatever documents you have seen leaked in the media, although they have not been authenticated, didn’t surprise me at all because I know that’s what’s been going on for many years.

You’re essentially saying Pakistan controls the Taliban. In your book you have called it a policy of self-immolation. Can you explain this?

It is something like self-demolition. If you see the use of terrorism, if this had been useful for some in the past. Today it is not that useful. It is, at the same time, inflicting a cost on the perpetrator as well. It is not merely the victim who is being affected by terrorism being exported. It is also the places where terrorism is nurtured, indoctrinated, financed, and supported. Therefore, I have been sincere in whatever I have written about Pakistan — that we don’t want any neighbour, including Pakistan, to be in trouble.

Isn’t that repeating the same narrative we’ve heard for 15-20 years that if Pakistan changes its behaviour, we might see a difference in the region?

I think this repetition will not last for long because you can see now that the whole world is fed up with things. You recently witnessed for the first time the U.S. Congress hearing (on Pakistan being a friend or foe)… So we hope that the narrative that has been there for decades is not going to be acceptable for the region, for Afghanistan and the international community — and Pakistan will change it, for the sake of themselves, the world community, and Afghanistan.

India shares all of Afghanistan’s concerns when it comes to terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s soil. Yet, you say that India has followed a policy of ‘Pakistan First’ when it comes to the relationship.

I put this on purpose because at times I have felt that there is a perception [in Afghanistan] that India may not go that far when it comes to Afghanistan’s quest for certain things, including defence. To be frank, at times requests have been delayed for too long, and then ultimately some perception was created that India doesn’t do it [because of] neighbours like Pakistan. I hope that this perception is addressed by the cooperation that is required between our two governments in various fields including defence cooperation. We also, at the same time, understand India’s limits in whatever capacity it can help Afghanistan. But we are extremely grateful, India has done a lot. We know it’s a donor country. It has done things which one could never believe it could do with Afghanistan. The last two visits of the Prime Minister were received very well in Afghanistan — the Salma Dam, the Parliament building, and many new projects that are in the pipeline.

Recently, the former envoy from the U.S., Zalmay Khalilzad, said that if Afghanistan needs more security, it may be time for India to step in. Is that something the Afghan government feels is needed?

Afghanistan is fortunately building its own capacity, its own Army. As you know, troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan based on the Afghan capacity that we’re building in Afghanistan. So India’s assistance in Afghanistan is of course clear, but we don’t need boots on the ground. Of course, we don’t want to bring back boots from outside. We need to strengthen our own boots, and we’re doing it right now.

H.E. Dr. Shaida Mohammad Abdali spoke at the inauguration of the conference and exhibition on ‘Made in Afghanistan’ on July 19, 2016 in New Delhi.

Originally published ,  Diplomatist

 

With an imminent pull out of Western troops in 2014 from Afghanistan, and no financial aid, technical assistance and military support to bank upon, Afghan political landscape is set to change. In an interview with Diplomatist’s Editor-at-Large Alankar Srivastava, H.E. Mr Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Ambassador of Afghanistan to India shares his vision on furthering the bilateral cooperation between the two countries

 

‘India has no Exit Policy in Afghanistan’

Q. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was among the SAARC countries’ leaders invited at the swearing-in ceremony of PM Narendra Modi, which is a reflection of the importance the new Indian government attaches to Afghanistan. How does Afghanistan intend to engage with India under Modi?

A. Afghanistan has been engaged with India as an important neighbour, a time-tested friend, and by the new bilateral instrument, an important partner in the region. The relation between India and Afghanistan are old and deep-rooted that transcends the political changes occurring in two countries, including the change of governments. It is a relationship that is derived more from people-to-people contact than a government-to-government.

The Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and India is a reflection of the sort of unique relationship which provides a legal framework for a deeper and more extensive cooperation in the areas of shared interest, which the two steadfast friendly countries have decided to enhance. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Afghanistan will seek to further strengthen the areas of cooperation that the two governments regard as priority and key to achieving the shared goals, including security and economic growth.

Q. There are deep and historical ties that exist between the two countries. How do you think India and Afghanistan can build upon it?

A. As I elaborated in my answer to your first question, there is a great scope and solid foundation for an enhanced India – Afghanistan partnership. The stakes are much high for both India and Afghanistan to engage in a more strategic manner to respond to the evolving risky situation affecting the two countries, as well as the region as a whole. Given the geostrategic location of Afghanistan and India, the two can play a critical role, not only to address their own common problems, but also contribute to resolving the overall regional problems.

Q. Can you elaborate on the potential of the trilateral instrument signed between Afghanistan, Iran and India on Chabahar Port, which is referred as a game changer in the region?

A. I fully concur with the observation that the Chabahar transit trade agreement is going to be a game changer in the region. Despite this region’s immense economic potential, it is yet the least developed and least connected region in the world. It is precisely because we haven’t utilised this region’s great economic potential for collective regional economic development.

Given the obstacles in place, Afghanistan and India have reasonable scale of trade. The total annual trade currently stands at nearly $600-700 million. However, the potential of trade between the two countries is manifold of what it is right now. The new transit route through the Chabahar Port is envisioned to cut short the current route and enhance the current bilateral trade to the best of potential of both countries, and to facilitate smooth transit of Indian goods to the countries beyond Afghanistan.

It will unlock the underutilised great economic and trade potential between the two regions, and beyond.

Q. What steps you think are crucial for further strengthening bilateral cooperation between India and Afghanistan?

A. Afghanistan and India have a comprehensive strategic partnership document that underscores cooperation in economic, security, defence, political, social and cultural areas. We have made good progress so far in implementing key provisions of the agreement, but much remains to be done to achieve the key objectives of our strategic partnership agreement. We must enhance our cooperation in all areas, mainly in the security and defence sectors so that we can ensure the key ‘public good’ – that is security for our people. India and Afghanistan have common security problems that get aspiration from the same sources outside our borders. Thus, taking practical steps in ensuring preventive measures against activities of radicalised groups and ensuring comprehensive defence of the lives of our people, our shared interests and our boundaries would inevitably further strengthen the existing cooperation between our two countries.

Q. Security has been an overriding concern when it comes to engagement with Afghanistan. How is your government addressing these concerns?

A.In the context of security, Afghanistan has been playing its role to the best of its capability. The world is convinced about the fact that insecurity in Afghanistan is an external element victimising the lives of Afghans, posing a great challenge to the country’s progress and undermining the achievements we have had in promoting democracy, impeding the process of building democratic institutions, and affecting the day-to-day lives of our people.

Needless to recall where Afghanistan began its journey 13 years ago, the country, in cooperation with the international community, has come a long way. The progress included the rebuilding of the national security forces of the country. Being the direct victim of this external phenomenon, Afghanistan has heavily engaged in defending the nation against the threats posed by extremism and radicalisation across the borders of the country.

Convinced that the issue of insecurity cannot be solved solely through military action, the Afghan government engaged in reconciliation and reintegration process with the armed opposition groups including the Afghan Taliban. To prevent the spread of radicalisation, the government of Afghanistan has taken many short, medium and long term measures including raising awareness against radicalism in the remotest villages of the country, providing livelihood and employment opportunities, vocational courses and workshops, promoting education through building schools and universities, as well as granting scholarships for the qualified school graduates.

In so far as the external element of insecurity is concerned, the Afghan government has been engaged in many political processes at the regional level and with international allies. It has also engaged bilaterally with the countries in the region through various mechanisms.

Afghanistan has not hesitated to address the issue of insecurity through any means possible. Our close friendly countries are convinced that Afghanistan has done its best to overcome the challenge and that the country is fighting a regional war.

In order to address this concern more affectively, we continue to ask our international allies including India to offer our security forces their assistance in better training, and military equipment.

Q. There has been a long standing demand from Afghanistan that India must step up military aid and deliver lethal and non-lethal weapons. How feasible is that given the delicate geopolitical situation of the region?

A. Well, first of all let me reiterate that India and Afghanistan are two sovereign and independent nations which decide what is in their best national interests. On our part, Afghanistan, against all odds, decided to sign its first strategic partnership agreement with India in 2011. Therefore, no party or factor, in any respect including defence, should dictate our bilateral cooperation.

Afghanistan and the region can no longer afford to be the victim of what is deemed as delicate geo-politic. Unlike elsewhere, politics in our region is shaped by zero-sum games and short sighted agendas. Therefore, our region has been a victim of what could serve as its great potential. The weapons are not to target a third party, but to defend the realisation of our shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity. They are to enable our security forces to defend their share of responsibility, to help realise regional stability and major economic projects, which remain far from being implemented due to the security situation. I believe it is a legitimate demand for a legitimate cause, and it is feasible if we base our policies on the interests and concerns of our region.

We are happy that India, in line with the strategic partnership agreement, has pledged to assist Afghanistan in the security and defence sector within its own security and defence limits. As recognised, peace and stability in Afghanistan has a significant impact on the security situation in India and in the region; it is a collective responsibility of all peace loving nations in the region, Including India to assist Afghanistan in strengthening its security and defence institutions for safer and secure Afghanistan, and safer and secure region.

Q. You recently remarked that Afghanistan is fighting a war that is not entirely its own, but the region’s. Can you foresee countries like India, Pakistan, China coming together in order to bring stability and peace in Afghanistan? A. Absolutely, the war in Afghanistan is much more to do with the region than Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been the direct victim of extremism in the region, but on the other hand it appears that it is no longer the sole victim of the phenomenon. Look at the formation of various radicalised groups under various names and agendas in all these countries you mentioned. Therefore, I believe it is upon the key regional players to help bring peace and stability in Afghanistan, and by extension to the entire region. Afghanistan has repeatedly voiced its support of the roles of all the regional cooperation mechanisms including SAARC and the Istanbul Process, among others.

Q. The recent presidential elections made it amply clear that Afghans are willing to exercise their civil rights for a stable and sustainable future. What steps the government has taken to keep the momentum going?

A. Afghanistan has been in the process of experimenting the institutionalisation of democracy since 2001. The country has made tremendous progress in democratisation, but establishing a full-fledged democracy with effective supporting institutions is still a work in progress. The Afghan government has made sincere effort in achieving the level of awareness among the people of the country. Afghans have realised that it is their individual exercise of rights that shape their future, and demonstrated their full faith in respecting a democratic order in their country. The viabrant civil society along with the exercise of freedom of expression in the country stands unique in the entire region. Afghans, today, have access to all the social media available as well as independent media outlets, including over 40 TV channels which enjoy free air.

The new government in Afghanistan mandated by the people’s vote will remain committed to sustaining the democratic gains of the last 13 years, and consolidating them further into a more solid democratic system in the country.

Q. List out the investment opportunities in Afghanistan, which the Indian government and private sector can tap into?

A. Afghanistan has numerous economic opportunities. It has the most business/investor friendly environment throughout the region with reasonably higher profitability margins. That is why we have established the Afghan Investment Support Agency (AISA) as a one-stop shop to encourage regional and global businesses to make the first move and earn hand-out profits in our virgin markets. We have also introduced and begun implementing an Investment Incentive Policy, which focusses on developing five key sectors, including industry, construction, export promotion, agriculture and mining.

The Investment Incentive Policy provides special privileges such as extensive tax holidays for first movers, during and after the transition process to be completed by the end of this year.

Other major investment opportunities include the sectors of healthcare, minerals, agriculture/agribusiness, infrastructure, energy/minerals, transportation/logistics, aviation, banking, textiles, renewable energy, cement industry, telecommunications, entertainment, services, financial consulting, legal consulting, and computer software.

Q. Since India does not have a refugee policy and mostly deals on an ad hoc basis, has there been, if any, discussions regarding the issue of Afghan refugees between the two countries?

A. Afghanistan has become home once again for all Afghans wherever they had taken refuge to, following the Soviets’ invasion and the subsequent civil and other imposed wars. Millions have returned home since 2001 and others are in the process of returning. We want all Afghans to return to their home and partake in the reconstruction of their motherland. However, we are grateful to India for its liberal visa regime towards Afghans who visit India frequently, and for accepting a large number of Afghans residing in India. They consider India as their second home and expect the same for our Indian friends in Afghanistan. We are committed to encourage more people-to-people contact, which is an integral part of our strategic partnership agreement.

Q. With the pull out of Western troops in 2014, what expectations Afghanistan has from India as far as threat of terrorism is concerned? A. As you know India has asserted repeatedly that it has no exit policy in Afghanistan. It is based on the fact that the two are bound to stay together. Terrorism is a common problem to India and Afghanistan. Therefore, we expect the Indian government to engage proactively now, and together with Afghanistan and in collaboration with other terrorism-affected nations, foster a joint and more robust counter-terrorism strategy to ensure peace and stability in our two countries and in the region as a whole.

Originally published on June 07, 2016,  Afghan Tribune

 

Abdali: Regional integration can bring enduring peace

abdali-basharmal-afghantribuneThe Afghan Tribune’s Editor-in-Chief Khan Wali Khan Basharmal has arranged an interview with the Ambassador of Afghanistan to India. Ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali’s national and international analyses and interviews are noted for their well thought out approach to the diplomatic problems afflicting Afghanistan. He is widely considered to be key in his understanding of the threats to diplomatic and the political, security and strategic stability of Afghanistan. His vital role in signing Chabahar Port project is widely appreciated within and out of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Tribune:

Congratulations are in order for the success of the work you have put in furthering the recently signed trilateral agreement between Afghanistan, India, and Iran to develop the port of Chabahar, which when completed will help to realize the potential of the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram road built by India at great cost in both money and lives in order to link the port with Afghanistan’s 2200-km Ring Road and the 16 provinces it serves.  This ambitious project should vastly improve the movement of goods between Afghanistan and South Asia as well as to the markets of the Middle East and Europe, and has been said to be more important to Afghanistan than to any other nation.  What is your assessment of the project’s implications with respect to the outlook for the Afghan economy in both the near and distant future?

dsc04014Thank you! We are extremely delighted that the Chabahar agreement, after being in the negotiations for more than a decade has been finally signed. It is a momentous feat for not just the three signatory countries, but the entire region.

Due to various reasons, we have not been able to convert proximity into connectivity. As a result, the region is least integrated and an enormous proportion of the South and Central Asia’s trade potential remains unexplored.

We are hopeful, that the Chabahar agreement would act as a game-changer and help to reap benefits of geographical contiguity, scale economies, regional production networks and spur economic growth in the entire region.

The port would provide Afghanistan an alternate access to a sea port and would considerably boost the country’s connectivity with the regional and international markets. As you have rightly mentioned, using the Zaranj – Delaram highway built by India in 2009, the port could be accessed by the major cities of Afghanistan; for instance Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif, via the garland road network.

It would help to build economic stability and generate employment opportunities in Afghanistan and thus, create constituencies of peace.  It would have a spiraling impact on regional trade and commerce, strengthen people-to-people connects in the region.

The Afghan Tribune: 

The Hajigak iron oxide deposit in Bamyan Province is Asia’s largest untapped iron ore resource.  It consists of high-grade ore and includes an unusual component of niobium, a soft metal used in the production of superconducting steel.  In 2011 a consortium of six Indian companies, led by the Steel Authority of India (SAIL), won a concession for three mines in the region.  An Indian investment of some $10.8 billion USD has been envisaged for building steel and power plants to accompany the mining operations, but concerns about security, along with a recession-hit industry, have reportedly put a hitch in the implementation of these plans. The Taliban, possibly incited by Pakistan’s ISI, expressed its opposition to increased Indian influence in Afghanistan in the form of attacks on their highway construction crews in 2009, resulting in the loss of some 130 Indian lives.  Furthermore, it has been reported that the Taliban has taken control of much of the Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway.  Yet In a statement you made to The Hindu in February of 2015, you indicated that security concerns should not be a relevant factor when it comes to the Hajigak project.  Can you elucidate?

afganYou would appreciate that a project of the magnitude and scale of Hajigak has to go through several stages. The new Mining law passed by our Government has made easier for the Indian companies to operate. Moreover, we are working on evacuation issues, building rail links, working out logistics and sorting out technical issues.

The Afghan Tribune:  

Do you foresee ways in which the Chabahar project will benefit Afghanistan other than in the obvious economic ones?

Chabahar project would lead to economic prosperity and regional cooperation, which would, in turn, help to build constituencies of peace and would stabilize the region. It would promote deeper people-to-people connects in the region.

It could act as a model for regional cooperation and could help to build larger consensus to cooperate and collaborate on various regional projects, and in the long run, help to realise Afghanistan’s potential not only as a “link” connecting various regions contributing only as a transit route, but also as a possible driver of economic growth in the region by capitalizing on its energy, mineral and the development of its human resources.

The Afghan Tribune:  

Besides access to Afghanistan and Iran, the planned International North-South Transport Corridor road system via the Iranian Balochistan Port of Chabahar will not only connect India to Russia but, passing through Afghanistan, provide an alternative cargo route for the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan that may minimize distances and costs as opposed to their utilizing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the Pakistani Balochistan Port of Gwadar.  This sets up the potential for a competitive conflict of interests between India and Iran on the one hand and China and Pakistan on the other.  Of course, the initiative for the Chabahar Port project was instanced by Pakistan’s refusal to allow Indian goods transit by land to points north.  Wouldn’t the interests of all parties be better served by mutual cooperation and coordinated economic development?

Afghanistan has always nurtured the vision that regional integration alone can bring enduring peace, development and prosperity for the region, and stand committed to this goal.

Our Government has taken a slew of measures to create a conducive business environment and promote regional cooperation and integration.

In January 2016, we got accession to WTO, after 11 years of negotiation. We are active members of various regional associations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).

We are working to revive the Silk route and the Lapis Lazulli route and to realise regional projects, among others, such as the Chabahar agreement, the Five Nations Railway; the Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan Railway; the TAPI gas pipeline; CASA-1000 and the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TU-TAP) Energy Project.

Going forth, we intend to develop the Chabahar port as an international trade and transit hub. Far from being a substitute, it would act as a complementing route to other sub-regional networks. Other countries are most welcome to join the pact.

Furthermore, we would like to exploit multimodal linkages along various regional transit and trade corridors, such as the Trans-Asian Railway and the Asian Highway networks and interconnections with International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway, Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), CAREC, Bangladesh-Bhutan-Indian-Nepal (BBIN) network, India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway and other important sub-regional corridors.

The Afghan Tribune:

It has been suggested that a joint India-Pakistan undertaking to improve Afghanistan’s damaged and outdated irrigation systems might not only lead to a possible water-sharing agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan but relieve pressure on the Indus Water Treaty and concomitant friction between India and Pakistan. Since all Pakistan’s major rivers flow from Kashmir, diversification of Pakistan’s water sources would enable it to reduce its reliance on Kashmir, allowing it to approach the issue more flexible and hence pave the way for a resolution of the conflict. What is your take on this suggestion?

Well, it is a very technical issue that needs to be studied thoroughly by technical experts before replying to your question. However, it is indeed a conflict-prone issue.  There are different ways how this issue has been dealt with such as people-centric river basin management and etc. In view of water being vital for our nations due to livelihood and agrarian demands, effective management of this problem requires close cooperation. We need to share experiences, best practices, encourage joint initiatives on watershed management, increasing the efficiency of irrigation and water use, development of technologies, sustainable agriculture practices, and institutional arrangements to manage food shortages as well as natural disasters.

The Afghan Tribune:  

China has made significant investments in Afghanistan.  In 2008 a Chinese mining consortium bought a 30-year lease on the Mes Aynak copper deposits, possibly the largest in the world with a possible $100 billion USD worth of copper, for some $3 billion USD; in 2011 the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) acquired the rights to three oil blocks in northwestern Afghanistan and expects to make an initial investment of $400 million USD to develop them.  Should China continue to invest in Afghanistan’s mineral resources and the roads and railways necessary to extract them, it is reasonable to expect they will enjoin Pakistan to protect these interests and not allow the Taliban to disrupt their operations.  That the Chinese are training a first batch of about 300 Afghan policemen evidences their taking Afghanistan’s security interests to heart.  While this could be a positive impetus for peace prospects in Afghanistan, it is reported that Indian officials view these developments with some foreboding, but also that secret talks have taken place between Indian and Chinese officials to discuss their mutual concerns in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of western forces.  How optimistic are you about such developments?

Beijing and Delhi, being Asia’s emerging superpowers with growing influence in international affairs, could play an imperative role in rebuilding Afghanistan through economic opportunities, foreign investment and transit potential. China has backed India’s membership in SCO. China had hosted the Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference in 2014, while India would be hosting this year’s meeting later this year in December.

We have very intense strategic cooperation and economic ties with both India and China. We should look at trilateral cooperation to stabilize the region and harness the regional economic potential.

The Afghan Tribune:  

Finally, to sound something of a personal note, you earned an M.A. in Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University of the United States.   Has your experience with the U.S. given you any particular insights into America’s involvement with Afghanistan over the past several decades?  And do you have any suggestions for what role America should play in the South Asian region over the next couple of decades?

  • Curb terrorist outfits in the region
  • Promote regional economic integration by supporting region-wide projects for economic development, energy transfers, and trans-border transportation corridors.
  • Support transregional infrastructure projects
  • Help accelerate the process of regional economic integration by offering preferential tariffs to goods produced across borders in South Asia, and encourage investments by its companies on the Subcontinent