For Indian diplomats, a posting in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul is considered to be one of the most difficult because of the perilous security situation and the tension emanating from the hostility with Pakistan. Amid this, Manpreet Vohra, India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who assumed charge in January 2016, is juggling with many deadlines as India-Afghanistan relations are fast-tracked after the unfolding of US President Donald Trump’s new Afghan policy. On a short visit to Muscat to attend the Track 1.5 South Asia Security Conference organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Near East and South Asia, Ambassador Vohra spoke to Sheela Bhatt, National Affairs Editor, NewsX. Excerpts:
Q: Has India’s role increased since the announcement of United States’ new Afghan policy? Has it undergone a big change?
A: Our goal is independent and has been set by ourselves. We have been doing what we thought is needed in Afghanistan, which is economic reconstruction and development and that continues. We announced an extra billion dollars for the projects. These are now coming on stream. So we are playing our role. Everything we do in Afghanistan, is mandated by the government of Afghanistan. They choose the projects they want us to work on, and that will continue.
Q: The new Afghan policy has started a debate on Pakistan and Afghan-Pakistan relations. Invariably, in that respect, India’s role to reconstruct Afghanistan is questioned by Pakistan. So how does India see these Pakistanis concerns?
A: It is a habit of Pakistan to blame us for everything (that goes) wrong, without any evidence. Afghanistan is teaming up with foreign forces led by the US-NATO. Intelligence forces of many countries are operating there. There are thousands of soldiers and the sensitive borders. There is not a shred of evidence that India is playing a bad role in Afghanistan. This is a part of a game; they want to bring in India into everything. They want to find an excuse for whatever they are doing. They want to shift the blame from themselves to others. This is not surprising at all—sort of a Pakistani pattern for a very long time.
Q: Critics argue that it will be in India’s interest to address Pakistan’s concerns. Because once that is addressed, India’s role becomes clearer and can become bigger.
A: But anybody can understand Pakistan’s concerns—if only they are real and honest concerns. You know they allege, as one of the leaders said, recently, that the Af-Pak border is teeming with overt Indian malicious presence. There is not a shred of evidence in that allegation. What is Pakistan’s concern? They have an imagined theory of encirclement etc. Where is the Indian encirclement?
Q: Is the video tape of Kulbhushan Yadav causing any embarrassment?
A: Certainly not, because we believe it is doctored—coerced. Let them give us consular access, let them at least allow his mother to meet him. At least we will know the story, how he was abducted, what he was forced to do.
Q: Sometimes such consular access is not given, for the time being…
A: Time being? How long has it been? He has been charged, accused, convicted by the same set of people—the Pakistan army. They have become the accuser, the prosecutor, the judge and the jury. And now they will probably become the executioner too. Is that civilised? He has been sentenced to death. Why are they not allowing his mother to meet him after the death sentence was announced?
Q: What is the roadmap of India-Afghan relationship?
A: Our relationship is very close, very friendly and very constructive. We do all sorts of things for capacity building, reconstruction and in Afghanistan we will continue to play that role.
Q: India’s view, for over a decade, was that America should not make a sudden exit from Afghanistan, because it requires at this point of time, security. Terrorism is India’s concern. What’s the outlook now?
A: We believe that the Afghan defence and security forces are still not ready to take complete charge of their own country. The challenge facing them is intense; their capacities are not yet up to par. At the moment, the war on terrorism in Afghanistan requires international help and that is where the US and others come in. Please remember it is not just the US, it is the entire NATO. There are troops from 47 countries in the resolute support mission. That’s one third of the world, practically.
Q: We keep hearing about Russia and Iran’s increasing role—Russia reinventing its role. So, how do you see these actions while sitting in Kabul?
A: You know allegations fly thick and fast, between the Russians, the Americans, between Iranians and the Americans. I cannot comment upon the allegations between those countries.
Q: What is in India’s interest?
A: India’s interest is that everybody should play a constructive role. As I said earlier, there is enough space in Afghanistan and the cause of Afghanistan is strong enough for everybody to shed their differences and cooperate constructively to fix Afghanistan’s problems.
Q: India is reluctant to put its soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. That is India’s policy. But is there any pressure from the Afghans to have more “military presence”?
A: Nobody has asked us for this.
Q: Construction of dams and universities cannot get you the strategic role that India is seeking in the region.
A: What makes you think we are seeking any strategic role in the region?
Q: Then what is India up to?
A: We are just helping Afghans because they need help.
Q: Then how will you consolidate and move further?
A: India-Afghanistan relationship is so close. Consolidation would mean there is some fragmentation, but there isn’t any.
Q: How do you see the Taliban issue, the talks with the Taliban leaders and giving them more power?
A: Look, we agree with the rest of the international community that there must be peace talks and negotiations and reconciliations in Afghanistan. For that, of course, we say in the international community that the talks must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Now, at the end of it, I don’t see how anyone can pre-judge it, because it is for the Afghans to decide; and the Afghans were sitting on the negotiating table to reach an end. Afghans will decide on what terms it will be, what the contours will be.
Q: What will be the trajectory like?
A: I cannot say. You know peace talks anywhere in the world take a long time. Yes, Parliamentary elections are supposed to be held next year in Afghanistan..
Q: How do you see the pre-election scenario?
A: If you mean whether Taliban will enter the election fray, I don’t see that. There is just not enough time for that to happen.
Q: Is Taliban a growing force or a receding force?
A: We see that Taliban has made significant gains in the last couple of years. What we are told is that post the announcement of the US strategy, there has been a dramatic reduction in violence. But we do not know whether that will be temporary or whether it is something sustainable.
Q: How do you see China’s interest in Afghanistan, currently?
A: China’s interest, unfortunately, seems to be a little knitted towards what seems to be their own problem, which seems to be the presence of ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) militants. That seems to be their main concern about terrorism. We do not see (in them) the larger concern that all terrorism should stop in Afghanistan. We do not see China telling Pakistan sufficiently about it…We would like China to have a look at the larger terrorist problem and not just the ETIM problem.
Q: Pakistan media claims frequently that India’s aim is to capture Afghanistan’s businesses and trade, mining and resources.
A: Why should that be a concern? What is the problem in that? If we are able to win a contract or two or ten, in comparison to other countries, why should it be of concern to anyone?
Q: It’s a business rivalry, no?
A: I cannot answer for them. These questions you need to direct to them. We do not see it as adversarial or as a competition. The impediment in our trade is land access. It is a problem, so recently we found a solution to this strategic problem by starting an air cargo corridor, so that has helped.
Q: Air cargo is there and the Chabahar option is also there.
A: Yes, that is also there. Chabahar is already a working port and we are going to bring in shipments of wheat very soon.
Q: India’s Afghanistan policy saw ten years of leadership of Manmohan Singh. In the last three years, Narendra Modi has come to power. How do you see the difference between two regimes?
A: Well I haven’t served in Afghanistan when the UPA government was there, but there are no fundamental policy changes. If anything, PM Modi has taken a very close personal interest in India-Afghanistan relations and Afghanistan’s problems. And it is this Prime Minister who announced an additional $1 billion assistance for Afghanistan.
Q: India Pakistan relations at this point of time are low because of the Kashmir activity. There is hyper activity at the borders. It is argued by peacemakers that if Pakistan is feeling pressured on both borders the insecurity in the region will increase.
A: But we cannot work on the basis of imaginary threats. You know, Pakistan has nothing to fear from India on its western border. There is this bogey that Pakistan raises, to justify whatever it is doing in Afghanistan or anywhere else. It finds justification for its activities and actions. We have no such interest in threatening Pakistan at all, even on the eastern border. Our problem with Pakistan is the terrorism launched against us. If that is taken out of the situation, everything is possible.
Q: When will Afghanistan see peace?
A: I am a born optimist and some recent events seem to suggest that some powerful members of the international community wish to see a change, wish to see this terrorism defeated, wish to see the state support and external sanctuaries eliminated. If that is carried to its logical conclusion, we could have better results. I don’t see things on the ground changing, but these are early days still.
I won’t say there are green shoots because it is too early, but a major country (the US), which has influence over Pakistan and has decided that it must be made to change its behaviour, that itself is promising. The biggest transformation within Afghanistan could be the effects of the new US policy because it is a focused policy, it has identified the problem very clearly and it has demanded a solution equally clearly.
Q: The Indian approach is that if Pakistan subsides on the border, the Afghan problem will diminish.
A: I am being honest. The biggest driver of the conflict in Afghanistan are the Pakistanis with their support to the sanctuaries and terrorists.