There  is no major take-away from President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s first state visit to India, which ended on Wednesday. No bilateral agreements were signed nor was there any movement on the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement on cooperation on a wide variety of areas. This has disappointed many strategists who hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be much more  assertive about about defence ties with Afghanistan.

But Delhi knows the perils of close military engagement in that volatile nation. The Narendra Modi government is well aware that Ghani needs the space to work out a peace deal with the Taliban. If President Hamid Karzai’s successor believes that Pakistan can get the one-eyed Mullah Omar and members of the "Quetta shura’’ to the table for talks, Delhi has no problems. It is important to ensure there is a political settlement in Afghanistan, and if Pakistan or China can help, so be it.

"The bottom line for India, is to have a stable and peaceful Afghanistan,’’ said  Jayant Prasad,  Indian ambassador to Kabul from 2008-2010. "How best this is worked out is for the elected government of Afghanistan to decide. We are here to help in whichever way President Ghani and his team wants.  If the President thinks that the Pakistan army and its spy agency can help the process of reconciliation, so be it. An unstable Afghanistan, is a threat to peace in the region.

Unprecedented step

Soon after taking office, Ashraf Ghani reversed Karzai’s anti-Pakistan policy. He not just visited Islamabad, but took the unprecedented step of calling on Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif at his headquarters in Rawalpindi. The new President is still hopeful that Pakistan can deliver on its promises to defang the Taliban.

Officials recall that President Karzai too relied heavily on Pakistan at the beginning of his presidency. But very soon he changed his opinion as the Pakistan army continued to play its double-game of pretending to support the Afghan government even as it continued to back the Taliban. In the end Karzai, became a bitter critic of Pakistan and turned to India for support.

Keeping all this in mind, India is willing to wait patiently. "We are not going to ask President Ghani to choose between India and Pakistan like a petulant lover," said Dilip Sinha a former foreign service officer, who had handled the Pakistan desk in South Block. "As a sovereign nation Afghanistan’s leaders have every right to befriend whichever country they want."

President Ghani’s visit to Delhi was basically to get to know the Indian leadership. He had also been criticised by those close to former president Hamid Karzai for not coming here having already gone to Pakistan, China and the US.

China's role

Since Ghani took over in September 2014, India’s clout has diminished considerably in Afghanistan. Pakistan a naturally a major stakeholder in Afghanistan now. What is more, China which so far had shown little interest in the land-locked country is now actively involved with its affairs. China has invested in the copper mines in Afghanistan. But more important to Indian strategists is the fact that Beijing now wants to play a political role too.

A Taliban delegation headed by Qari Din Muhammod Hanif, (who is from the Taliban office in Qatar) was hosted in China last October. They were there ahead of Ghani’s visit in November, leading to speculation that China may broker talks between the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators. So far there is no sign of talks, with Taliban fighters continuing to attack the Afghan army, police and officials.

In the late 1990’s when  Russia, India and Iran had come together to support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, China had kept aloof. The decision to review its Afghan policy is basically linked to fears of Islamic terrorists in its Xinjianj province. China knows that with the withdrawal of US forces,  chances of Afghanistan plunging into chaos is extremely high. An unstable Afghanistan will help jihadi forces across the region.

"India is comfortable with China’s involvement in Afghanistan," Sinha explained. "China and India share similar views about the need to stabilise Afghanistan."  Beijing wants to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a haven for anti-Chinese extremists.

Close links

India has always had close historical and cultural links with Afghanistan but never been a strategic  player  there. This  is not about to change despite the urgings of hard-liners who want to project India’s might in the neighbourhood. Let Pakistan and China try to fix Afghanistan, is the attitude. India must focus on its soft power and continue to work for the people of Afghanistan. That has played great dividends.

India was hated in Afghanistan when Russians troops were in the country. The US and Pakistan ruled the roost.  After the Taliban was ousted from Kabul, India  built its bridges with the people step by step. India’s $ 2.2 billion aid to Afghanistan is not the largest aid package. Yet India for once has spent its money wisely and done work which touches people’s daily lives: Water supply, transmission lines, roads, agriculture, a children’s hospital, scholarships for study in India, training of officials and helping to build institutions. The overhead costs of India built projects are not wasted in paying huge expat salaries to staff, as the Western nations do, but go directly for the work at hand.

All this has changed the image of the ugly Indian. New Delhi should just concentrate on the development and institution building in Afghanistan and leave the US, and neighbours Pakistan and China to deal with the more complex issues of getting the Taliban round for peace talks.