The sixth Heart of Asia (HoA) Conference was held in Amritsar on 3rd and 4th December 2016, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani inaugurating the ministerial deliberations. Representatives from the fourteen member countries, among others, participated in the conference. They reviewed the progress in the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, which was established in 2011 in Turkey to provide a platform to discuss regional issues, with special focus on the post-Taliban reconstruction work in Afghanistan.
The conference took place at a time when Afghanistan faces the resurgence of the Taliban. Recent reports have revealed that the Taliban controls more territorial area of Afghanistan today than in 2001 and continues to enjoy full backup of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. At the same time, India-Pakistan relations have also been tense in the wake of the attack in Nagrota amongst other such terror attacks. Consequently, the issue of terrorism naturally emerged as one of the most discussed aspects of the conference. This became much evident during the inaugural session when both Prime Minister Modi and President Ghani lamented Pakistan for its involvement in exporting terrorism into India and Afghanistan and later this sentiment also reflected in the declarations.
While speaking in the conference, Prime Minister Modi asked to “demonstrate strong collective will to defeat terror networks that cause bloodshed and spread fear,” President Ghani charged Pakistan with launching “an undeclared war” on his country by covertly supporting several terror networks, including the Taliban . He said that, “There should be an Asian or international regime, whatever is acceptable to Pakistan… in place to verify frontier activities and terrorist operations.” He further said that without peace any amount of assistance would not meet the needs of his people and thus the $500 million pledged by Pakistan could be used for tackling terrorism.
President Ghani’s scathing attack on Pakistan exposed Pakistan’s continued support to terrorist organisations in Afghanistan and also assumed huge significance in the wake of India’s efforts to isolate Pakistan at the regional and international levels. While SAARC countries including Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh had decided not to participate in the November annual summit soon after India’s decision to stay away from the summit in the wake of the September 2016 Uri attack, and New Delhi had strongly raised Pakistan’s dubious role on the counter-terrorism front at the G20 and BRICS meetings in September in China and in Goa in October respectively, the HoA has further helped corner Pakistan. This is evident from the fact that the Pakistani delegation failed to prevent the Amritsar declarations from mentioning the names of the Pakistani Army-created terrorist organisations including Taliban, Islamic State/Daesh and its affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and other foreign terrorist fighters, which are involved in spreading terror in Afghanistan.
Another important aspect of the HoA was the Indian government’s decision to host the conference in Amritsar. In this regard, while one factor has been the Modi government’s policy to organise foreign affairs related conferences/summits in other parts of the country, another reason was to bring to the notice of the member countries about the important role of Amritsar in building regional connectivity among Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and how Pakistan’s hostile attitude to not allow Indian trucks with goods to pass through its territory to Afghanistan, which was hampering regional connectivity in south Asia and beyond.
The conference also became important to understand the deepening bilateral ties between India and Afghanistan, especially over the last two years. Prime Minister Modi has so far visited Afghanistan twice. to inaugurate the new Afghanistan Parliament in 2015 and to inaugurate the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (Salma Dam) June 2016. In a big move, India has for the first time provided Afghanistan with fourth Mi-35 multi-role helicopters. This in turn would enhance Afghanistan’s military prowess. India’s signing of the TAPI pipeline agreement and the mention of an agreement among India, Iran and Afghanistan on developing the Chabahar port is a big move towards promoting Afghanistan’s economic development and regional connectivity.
Of course, scaling up the strategic partnership signed between the two countries has not taken place in a vacuum. Remember, when the National Unity Government came to power in September 2014, President Ghani focused on improving ties with Pakistan with the hope that this would help stabilise the security situation in Afghanistan. However, the NUG failed to achieve the expected result from its reoriented Pakistan policy. Consequently, President Ghani visited India in 2015 with the aim of sustaining India’s continued involvement in the reconstruction work and security of Afghanistan. The Modi government responded favourably to Ghani’s move to maximise India’s interests. As India has already invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan, one of its main priorities is to ensure that the democratically elected government would strengthen its hold in the country. The resurgence of the Taliban not only poses security threats to Afghanistan, but it would also increase India’s security concerns. Given the strategic location of Afghanistan connecting Central Asia and beyond, and the increasing interests of Pakistan and China in this country, it is necessary for New Delhi to enhance ties with Kabul. The US’ questioning Pakistan’s commitment to fight against terrorism, especially after the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour on its soil and India and the US have revived the trilateral engagement with Kabul, which aims at fostering stability of Afghanistan. These and other developments have also facilitated a strong bound between India and Afghanistan.
With Prime Minister Modi extending all the possible support to an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled process, the Heart of Asia Conference can possibly prove to be instrumental in stablising Afghanistan and expanding the relationship between the two countries, among other things.