“The Heart of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged” says the foreign minister
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Dec 15
The bonhomie from freshly resuscitated India-Pakistan relations, and from Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s arrival in Islamabad to attend the fifth Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan, could not hide the deep schisms that remain between New Delhi and Islamabad.
On Wednesday, Swaraj called on Pakistan to permit Indian goods to be transported overland to Afghanistan from the Attari-Wagah border near Amritsar, a facility that Pakistan has consistently denied India.
The bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA), which came into effect in June 2011, allows Afghan trucks to carry Afghan products to the Attari-Wagah border. Afghan exports to India are exempt from all duties.
Both Kabul and New Delhi have repeatedly called on Islamabad to allow Indian goods and humanitarian aid to be transported through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Islamabad, wary about Indian influence in Afghanistan, has not relented.
“If Afghan trucks could carry Indian products to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia, that would be the best way to make trucking from Afghanistan cost-effective and viable, and bestow benefits to the whole region”, Swaraj told the conference.
“The ‘Heart’ of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged”, she stated.
Swaraj also served a reminder that India could access Afghanistan via other routes, particularly the deep-water Chabahar port that India and Iran are developing jointly. “India is also working with Afghanistan and Iran to develop trilateral transit. Participation in development of the Chahbahar Port will augment our connectivity with Afghanistan and beyond”, she said.
In a reference to Pakistan-based terrorism roiling Afghanistan, Swaraj said: “It is also the collective duty of all of us to ensure that the forces of terrorism and extremism do not find sanctuaries and safe havens in any name, form or manifestation. We, in Afghanistan’s proximity, have a particular responsibility in this regard.”
Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, was more circumspect in raising the issue of cross-border terrorism. He lauded the Pakistan Army’s counter-terror offensive along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but said this had "created unintended consequences, bringing about the displacement of a significant number of these (terrorist) groups onto our soil.”
Amidst the swordplay over Afghanistan, Swaraj also struck a conciliatory note. “Let me take this opportunity to extend our hand to Pakistan as well. It is time that we display the maturity and self-confidence to do business with each other and strengthen regional trade and cooperation. The entire world is waiting and rooting for a change. Let us not disappoint them”, she said.
Swaraj stated, “India is prepared to move our cooperation at a pace which Pakistan is comfortable with.”
Reminding Pakistan that New Delhi and Kabul are about to operationalise a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which Pakistan has consistently viewed as a threat, Swaraj stated: “India is ready to work with Afghanistan to strengthen its defensive capability.”
Last month, Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar handed New Delhi a “wish list” of military equipment that Kabul wanted from India. This includes, for the first time, offensive heavy weaponry, including four Russian-built Mi-25 attack helicopters.
The Heart of Asia Conference (or Istanbul Process) brings together the foreign ministers of 14 countries in a regional initiative to tackle Afghanistan’s political, security and economic problems. Conceived by Turkey, the first Heart of Asia conference was held in Istanbul in November 2011.
That was followed by a second conference in Kabul in 2012; the third in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2013; and the fourth in Beijing, China in 2014. Next year, the sixth Heart of Asia Conference is scheduled at New Delhi.
Meanwhile, key security decisions on Afghanistan, especially funding for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are taken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Funding till 2017 is already tied up. In July 2016 in Warsaw, NATO will discuss finance, training and support to Afghan security forces for the period 2018-20.
Simultaneously, civilian developmental assistance for Afghanistan will be discussed and arranged in October 2016 in Brussels.
On the sidelines of the conference in Islamabad, Swaraj also called on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.