Can President Ghani allay New Delhi’s concerns over Kabul’s growing proximity with Islamabad?

Syed Zafar Mehdi

President Ashraf Ghani, leading a delegation of senior national unity government (NUG) officials, is leaving for two-day visit to India late on Monday.

The much-anticipated visit to India comes barely a week after President Ghani’stwo-day visit to Iran, another important country in the region.

President Ghani has started an engagement process with regional countries to strengthen regional cooperation and work together for peace and stability in the region.

At the London Conference on Afghanistan in December 2014, President Ghani said his government bats for regional cooperation. “We have started an active engagement with our neighbors and we are very pleased with the nature of the dialogue,” he said.

Ajmal Obaid Abidy, spokesman in presidential palace, said President Ghani will meet senior political leadership in New Delhi and discuss issues of mutual interest.

Among the topics to figure prominently in the talks, according to insiders, include bilateral trade, peace process, defense cooperation and cooperation in the areas of education and healthcare.

Among the topics to figure prominently in the talks, according to insiders, include bilateral trade, peace process, defense cooperation and cooperation in the areas of education and healthcare

India, which is a key regional player, is expected to play a pivotal role in facilitating peace in Afghanistan and the region at a time when the security situation in this war-ravaged country is deteriorating alarmingly.

There has a spate of attacks in Afghanistan in recent weeks and Taliban on Friday officially announced their spring offensive, which means a long season of war and violence.

Currently, fierce armed clashes are underway in some southern provinces where armed insurgents have managed to gain foothold with the help of Islamic State (IS) group.

President Ghani, according to sources in the presidential palace, will seek New Delhi’s support for Afghan government’s peace process and counter-terrorism operations.

The leaders of the two countries are also expected to discuss the deal between India, Iran and Afghanistan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar, which will bolster India’s economic ties with landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Political observers and policy makers in New Delhi, however, have been feeling uneasy after President Ghani chose to visit Pakistan, India’s estranged neighbor, before visiting India

India, which has been a key strategic ally of Afghanistan since the fall of Taliban in 2001, has committed 2 billion USD for reconstruction efforts in the country.

India is building the new parliament building in Kabul, has built an agricultural university in Kandahar and invested massively in many road construction projects.

Indian companies led by state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd. and NMDC Ltd have committed to invest 10.7 billion USD in Hajigak mine in central Bamyan province, which is the largest iron oxide deposit in Afghanistan. The project, however, has failed to kick off owing to security concerns and other technical issues.

In 2011, the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement during the tenure of former president Hamid Karzai, who played an instrumental role in strengthening ties between the two countries, especially towards the latter part of his tenure.

As per the agreement, India pledged to “assisting, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for Afghan national security forces”.

Mr. Karzai had also made a request for lethal arms and helicopters from India, which President Ghani recently annulled following India’s indifferent response.

President Ghani during his visit to Islamabad late last year pledged to strengthen ties with Pakistan and sought Islamabad’s support to Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process

Political observers and policy makers in New Delhi, however, have been feeling uneasy and edgy after President Ghani chose to visit Pakistan, India’s estranged neighbor, before visiting India.

President Ghani’s recent peace overtures to Pakistan have also ruffled a few feathers in New Delhi, who see it as a shift in new government’s foreign policy, ostensibly tilted in favor of Pakistan.

Since the change of guard in Kabul, senior political and security leaders including Pakistan’s chief of army and ISI chief have visited Kabul and pledged to launch coordinated counter-terrorism operations.

President Ghani during his visit to Islamabad late last year pledged to strengthen ties with Pakistan and sought Islamabad’s support to Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.

Pakistan has also looked keen to bury the hatchet and develop closer ties with the national unity government (NUG) in Kabul.

During the previous government headed by Hamid Karzai, the relations between the two countries were marked by mistrust and hostility.

Karzai government had close relations with Pakistan’s Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the initial years. But, in 2006, he accused the Pakistani government of interfering in Afghanistan.

That was perhaps the beginning of political and diplomatic wars between the friends-turned-foes.

During the latter part of President Karzai’s tenure, the bickering turned ugly. Afghan government accused Pakistan of surreptitiously sponsoring terrorism on this side of Durand Line, a claim Pakistan dismissed precipitously.

The challenge for President Ghani, according to regional observers, is to keep both the estranged South Asian neighbors in good humor

The change of guard in Kabul late last year inspired hope that the fractured ties with the Pakistan may be amended. During election campaign, President Ashraf Ghani vowed to pursue the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process and seek the support of political and military leadership in Pakistan.

At the SAARC Summit, he vowed to not allow his country become the battleground for a proxy war between India and Pakistan.

President Ghani said Afghanistan will not endanger regional security and is committed to promote and strengthen the cooperation between the SAARC member countries. Without mentioning any country, he said state sponsorship of non-state actors could have “blowback effects”.

Meanwhile, President Ghani’s first visit to India assumes significance not only from the perspective of Indo-Afghan relations but also how he manages to allay New Delhi’s concerns over Kabul’s growing proximity towards Islamabad.

According to reports, President Ghani is keen on expanding economic ties with India, and his busy itinerary also includes an interaction with Indian businessmen.

President Ghani has on many occasions expressed optimism that in next 25 years Asia will become the largest continental economy.

“What happened in the United States in 1869 when the continental railroads were integrated is very likely to happen in Asia in the next 25 years,” he said during his recent visit to the U.S.

Afghanistan, he said, wants to become a transit country for transport, for power transmission, for gas pipelines, and for fiber optics.

His two-visit day to New Delhi will be keenly followed by analysts and policy makers not only in Kabul and New Delhi but also in Islamabad.

The challenge for President Ghani, according to regional observers, is to keep both the estranged South Asian neighbors in good humor.



“Iran needs strong and stable Afghanistan for a host of reasons”


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Sayyed Mohammad Marandi is the Professor of North American Studies and Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran. In an interview with Afghan Zariza, he talks about Iran-Afghan relations and what it means for peace, security and economic prosperity in the region.

President Hamid Karzai rebuffed the U.S. by refusing to sign the US-Afghan security agreement before elections, but he and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani agreed in principle to start negotiations on the economic and security ‘pact of friendship’. Do you think the change of guard in Kabul will have any bearing on the fate of proposed Iran-Afghanistan agreement?
A. Afghanistan-Iran relations are extremely important because the two countries are neighbors and if there is any sort of instability in one country, it will have an adverse effect on the other. There is ample evidence indicating that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia supported the rise of the Taliban before September 2001, partially in order to destabilize Iran’s eastern borders.

The two countries have many cultural similarities and for the most part they share the same language. Therefore, I find it hard to imagine that the future administration in Kabul would want to shift away from Tehran. Both the countries need each other at this juncture.

Majority of international forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year. What is the role Iran, as a neighor, can play post 2014 in terms of strengthening security and facilitating peace process in this war-weary country?
A. Iran needs a strong and stable Afghanistan for a host of reasons. Not only is it important to prevent the return of the forces of extremism and other perversions of religion, but it is also necessary for a successful and strong fight against drug lords. Afghanistan is a market for Iranian agricultural, industrial as well as cultural products and it is also an important transit route for Iran. Therefore, Iran is already talking to its partners in Afghanistan, China, India and Russia in order to strengthen the process of peace and stability in Afghanistan in the coming years.

The withdrawal of international forces provides important opportunities for the country and if the new Pakistani administration can distance itself from Saudi inspired Takfiri ideology, bringing about stability to the country would be much easier and everyone would reap the benefits.

The trade between two countries increased from 50 million USD in 2006 to 2.2 billion USD in 2012. Do you think Iran has become important for land-locked Afghanistan because it offers safe passage to Afghan exporters, unlike the risk-prone route through Pakistan?
A. The borders between Iran and Afghanistan are much safer and the infrastructure is much better. However, in addition, Iran is wealthier and has a much more developed industry and as a result it has much more to offer the country in this regard.

Why is the government of Iran opposed to the bilateral security agreement between Kabul and Washington and the continuing presence of U.S. troops in the country?
A. Iran believes that the U.S. has always been a part of the problem. In the 1980s’, they allowed extremist ideologies to thrive through Saudi petrodollars and subsequently, after facing blowback on September 11, 2001, the American government made things much worse by occupying the country, humiliating the Afghan people, and committing atrocities against innocent people.

The only way to bring stability to the country is for foreign forces to leave and for regional countries to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and to work together, especially with the Afghan government, to help heal the many wounds inflicted on the people of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Iran share deep historical, cultural and linguistic links. But the relations between the two neighbors have been marked by a certain degree of acrimony in recent times. What reasons do you attribute to that?
A. I do not believe that there are any serious problems that cannot be dealt with and resolved. Iranians recognize that Afghans have played a very important role in Iran’s economic progress and although the situation for Afghans in Iran is far from ideal, it is far better than in Pakistan.

Many of the current problems have their roots in the US-Saudi alliance against Iran. Both countries together fund a large segment of the country’s media outlets and they regularly attempt to create negative images of Iran in the minds of Afghan citizens. Many Iranians are also influenced by the highly inaccurate narrative that many Afghans in Iran are predisposed to extremist elements.

Through Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (IKRF), Iran runs an extensive network of development projects across Afghanistan. In Herat province, it has built many libraries, schools, clinics etc. Are these soft-power tactics to counter U.S. influence and win over hearts and minds of Afghan people?
A. That is obviously true, but I believe there is much more to it than just that. Iranians have a great deal of sympathy and respect for the people in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet occupation, the country was in a much better state and the people of Afghanistan lived in dignity and Iranians recognize the fact that the people of this country did not deserve this fate. These hardships were imposed upon them by external forces and powers. Iran has learned that a little support goes a long way in Afghanistan, because they are very hard workers and they know how to make a small amount of money go a long way. When provided the opportunity, the people of Afghanistan show that they have a lot to offer.

Afghanistan has just seen a historic democratic transition and President Karzai is all set to relinquish his post after 12 long years. As a foreign political observer, how do you rate his performance?
A. That is a difficult question for me to answer. However, it will be an important part of his legacy if he resists American pressure to impose a security agreement that allows American soldiers to remain in the country and to have special rights and privileges that the citizens of Afghanistan do not have. Such an agreement would be a humiliation for any people or nation with dignity, let alone the people of Afghanistan.

What makes Afghanistan an important ally for Iran?
A. It has a large Muslim population and most of them speak the same language as Iranians. The two nations share the same love for culture, literature, and poetry. Afghanistan is rich in both human and natural resources and the stronger the bonds between the two countries, the weaker the opportunity for extremists to regain a foothold in Afghanistan.

The relations between Iran and west have witnessed a shift after President Rouhani took over. What is the mood in Iran?
A. The Iranians are cautious. Most Iranians do not trust the United States, but the belief is that by carrying out the current negotiations, greater pressure is asserted on the American government. If the negotiations succeed and the United States accepts Iran’s nuclear rights then Iran wins and if the talks fail then the international community will see that the U.S. was insincere all along and that the problem has nothing to do with who is the president in Iran. This policy, along with the general decline of western powers across the globe, has strengthened Iran’s position and is also significantly weakening the U.S. imposed sanctions regime.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

“What makes me really proud as an Afghan is our art and music history”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Meena Saifi is a renowned Afghan artist based in New York. She has held and participated in art exhibitions across the world

Q. When did you leave the country and what are your earliest memories of growing up in Afghanistan?
 My family left Afghanistan in early 1990s to Pakistan, where I grew up. It was a wonderful chapter of my life. Being able to help my father Asadullah Saifi with his school Sufi Ashqari, which he built in Rawalpindi Islamabad for all those Afghan refugee children, is something I will always cherish.

I visited Kabul in 2008. One of my earliest memories is walking by one of the streets in Kabul and seeing an old man with colorful hands. With sheer innocence, I ask him, “are you an artist?” he replies, “may be”. Then I ask him if he can show me his studio. He chuckles and says he is not that rich yet, but this is his little world. He asks if I am an artist, I say I am trying to become one. He seems impressed and asks me to walk in.

When I walk through that little door, I see a huge room with thousands of art works. It was such an amazing feeling. I never thought there would be some art at that time. I ask him if all of this was his own collection since they were in different styles. He says he bought some of them from streets at very cheap price, and some he picked from trash that people had thrown away. I ask why, he says most of them are naked women, and Afghan society is largely conservative to allow such things. I ask him if he was afraid of getting into trouble for keeping those works of art, he says he loves collecting art and values talented artists. Those pieces of art had become his companions and his slice of life. That is one of my beautiful memories from those days.

Q. A large majority of Afghans are now based abroad, mostly in Europe and U.S. How difficult is the cultural adjustment, especially for someone coming from a third world country?
 Everything takes time. Adjusting and living in a different culture can be exhilarating and intellectually stimulating. From my own experience, it was pretty hard. I experienced many emotions while adapting to a foreign culture but I tried very hard to adjust and adapt. Coming here from that part of the world is a different experience. It is like day and night but you have to be ready for all those uncomfortable moments initially.

Q. As an Afghan living and working abroad, have you faced any stereotype, prejudice or racism?
 To be honest, not that much, I have to say there are good and bad elements everywhere. I was questioned a lot about my religion. The moment they would find out I am from Afghanistan, they would start grilling. It is baffling why they would want to know about my religious beliefs.

Q. When you come across news reports about suicide attacks, violence against women and children in your home country, how do you react?
It is always heartbreaking to get such news from my country or anywhere, especially when it comes to children.
We are all humans, we are here for each other; we have to stop killing each other and stop unleashing terror on each other. We all have the right to freedom and liberty. These incidents can have deep psychological impact on those who are at the receiving end, and some of them are even forced to resort to extreme measures out of sheer desperation and disillusionment.

Coming here from that part of the world is a different experience. It is like day and night but you have to be ready for all those uncomfortable moments initially.

Q. Do you believe the Afghans who are settled abroad should return home and help in rebuilding their country especially with the political and security transition happening now?
 Yes, of course, if they are well educated and in a position to contribute to their home country. We all owe it to Afghanistan and I personally believe knowledge is the key to bring peace wherever you go.

Q. Tell us a bit about the work you do? When did your affair with art begin?
 I am an artist. I love painting in different styles, in different mediums. I get inspired by the world around. There is no word to describe the beauty of this world. Smiling faces, of course women, poetry, music, birds, artists, personalities, musicians, almost everything inspires me. Watercolor is my favorite when I am working on canvas.

Every time I use watercolor, I go into a different world where it is just me and my art. I love the way watercolors surprise me with a new dramatic color when two different colors meet. My father was a calligraphic artist; I used to help him in coloring his calligraphy work. I remember painting and drawing when I was barely five. It was always a part of me, part of my being, and part of my life.

Q. As they say, you can take the person out of country, but you cannot country out of the person. What is the one thing that makes you proud as an Afghan?
 There is a lot to be proud of but the one thing that makes me really proud is our art and music history.


From eradication to interdiction: Evolution of counternarcotics policy

Syed Zafar Mehdi

With the security situation deteriorating and the international community getting ready to bid adieu, will the opium economy scale new heights or die a silent death?

Notwithstanding the strenuous efforts by government and the international community to dissuade farmers in Afghanistan from opium plantation, the year 2013 again proved to be a damp squib, as the fields growing poppies in the country alarmingly increased to 209,000 hectares, according to UN’s Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2013, conducted in collaboration with Ministry of Counter Narcotics, Afghan government. Afghanistan continues to be the world’s top opium producer, and interestingly the area covered by the opium in Afghanistan equals to the total area of Mauritius.

“This is the third consecutive year of increase in poppy cultivation,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Afghanistan Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. According to UN officials, the poppy farming is unlikely to drop before the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and it might only get worse after that.

The question hovering on everyone’s mind, however, is: Who benefits most from this opium cultivation and why the government efforts to curb it have proved a disaster? How will this burgeoning poppy economy play out after the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of this year?

With the security situation rapidly deteriorating and the international forces getting ready to bid adieu to the beleaguered country, the opium producers and their backers are making merry. Opium fields in Afghanistan are the main sources of revenue to power lords and source of sustenance to poor farmers. According to UNODC-Ministry of Counter Narcotics 2013 survey, there was 36 percent increase in the area under opium cultivation in 2013. The opium production went up to 5,500 tonnes, registering 49 percent jump from 2012. Faryab and Balkh, the two provinces that had been declared poppy-free went back to square one.

With the security situation rapidly deteriorating and the international forces getting ready to bid adieu to the beleaguered country, the opium producers and their backers are making merry

“The prime factors responsible for this jump in opium cultivation are insecurity and poverty,” says Abdul Qayoom Samer, Spokesman for Ministry of Counter Narcotics. He says there is a strong network of insurgents and International drug mafia in Afghanistan. “The increase in opium cultivation is basically in the five southern provinces of country including Helmand and Kandahar, which are infested with these elements.”

The staggering value of opium makes it alluring to farmers who have to support their large families. According to experts, the increase in value of opium in 2012 was one of the prime factors behind the boost in opium cultivation in 2013, mostly in southern and western parts of Afghanistan. “The farmers were definitely encouraged by the jump in opium prices in 2012, which resulted in the increace of 36 percent in opium cultivation in 2013,” says Mohammad Hashim, social activist. The grinding web of poverty in these provinces is also a big factor for them to cultivate poppy, says Mr. Samer.

According to information from Ministry of Anti Narcotics, an astounding 89 percent of total opium production in 2013 was reported from nine provinces in southern and western Afghanistan. Helmand province continued to be the major poppy-cultivating province with 34 percent cultivation, followed by Kandahar with 16 percent. In the eastern part of country, which accounts for mere 9 percent of total opium cultivation, Nangarhar recorded fivefold increase and Laghman saw increase by 41 percent. In the northeast region, Badakhshan witnessed an increase in poppy cultivation by 23 percent.

Evolution of anti-narcotics policy

At a time when opium economy is on rise, the counternarcotics policies of Afghan government and international community have assumed critical importance, not only for curbing the cultivation of opium but also for security and rule of law in the country. Much to the chagrin of those leading the anti narcotics movement, the counternarcotics policies have failed to bring down the illicit economy of opium in the country.

“When the international forces intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, their single point agenda was to oust Taliban and facilitate transition from anarchy to democracy,” says Nawaz Noorani, a political analyst. “Counternarcotics did not figure prominently on their agenda.” In 2002, UK’s assistance mission in Afghanistan was entrusted with a task of eradicating narcotics. They started warily, with ‘compensated eradication’ program, under which the farmers who voluntarily eradicated the poppies got compensation. But, it was hindered by corruption and abandoned midway. The ‘eradication’ program was followed by ‘interdiction’ program in 2004, and it was targeted largely against small dealers while the big fishes sitting atop the illicit trade were left untouched.

“There was a calculated shift in the counternarcotics policies adopted by U.S. in 2009, when Obama administration made a big gamble, which has only proved a disaster,” says Mr. Noorani. The shift was from the 30-year old policy of eradication or annihilation to interdiction or prohibition. Eradication policy of counternarcotics, which was applied for 30 years, was based on force, where officials used to forcibly eradicate the illicit crops. On the other hand, interdiction policy, adopted in 2009, exhorted opium producers and traffickers to shun the practice.

There was a calculated shift in the counternarcotics policies adopted by U.S. in 2009, when Obama administration made a big gamble, which has only proved a disaster

“The policy of eradication only helps drug producers and traffickers as they benefit from huge stockpiles of poppy that they sell at a staggering price because of increased demand,” says Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The two main elements of interdiction policy in Afghanistan has been interdiction of drug traffickers and rural development. The idea is to deprive armed insurgents weapons, money and drugs and force them to retreat. Thousands of interdiction raids have been carried out and tons of opium has been seized, yet the cultivation and trafficking has not stopped.

There was a calculated shift in the counternarcotics policies adopted by U.S. in 2009, when Obama administration made a big gamble, which has only proved a disaster 

A report by Center for International Cooperation (CIC) challenged this assumption. “Current counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan is financially benefiting – rather than hurting – insurgents,” it says. The policy should be refocused to discriminate against illegal armed groups and corrupt officials in enforcement, it suggests.

The U.S. policy encompasses the counternarcotics ‘alternative livelihood’ program. In 2009, the then Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal distributed free wheat seeds to discourage farmers from cultivating poppy. The program clicked and was extended to other provinces as well. “Alternative livelihood programs are an essential component of the overall counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan,” read the 2010 report by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

Scenario post 2014

At a panel discussion held by International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and U.S. Institute of Peace on U.S. counternarcotics policies in July last year, the former Minister of Counter Narcotics Zarar Ahmad Muqbel emphasized on having a ‘long-term, balanced and comprehensive approach’ to the challenge of combating drugs in Afghanistan and draw direct link between narcotics and insurgency. “The narcotics of all forms are a serious threat to the peace and security of Afghanistan,” he noted.

With the change of guard in Kabul now, followed by the withdrawal of international forces, the concerns over the effectiveness of current counternarcotics policy have gained ground. The latest reports about cultivation of opium touching a new high in 2013 and 2014 are signs of what lies ahead. Experts fear the lack of security might make ground fertile for the return of large-scale opium trade. However, it will depend on the effectiveness of Afghan security forces.

Mr. Samer, however, sees no direct connection between counter-insurgency and opium cultivation. “I do not think the withdrawal of foreign forces will affect the opium business,” he says. “But, there is a possibility of security situation deteriorating after 2014, and insecurity is linked to opium, so there is an indirect link.”

(First published in Afghan Zariza)