There are good reasons why the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference, part of a 14-nation process begun in 2011 to facilitate the development and security of Afghanistan, is so named. The obvious one is geographical, as Afghanistan lies at the junction of Central, South and East Asia, and also of the ancient trading routes from China and India to Europe. Today it is also a focal point for the region’s biggest challenge of terrorism; some of the far-reaching battles against al-Qaeda, Islamic State, etc. will be decided on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan. For India, putting terror centre stage at the Heart of Asia declaration in Amritsar was thus timely and necessary. In tandem, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi focussed their concerns on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, something even Pakistan’s traditional allies at the conference, including China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey, found difficult to counter. The case Mr. Ghani made was clear: progress and development in Afghanistan are meaningless and unsustainable without peace, and peace is contingent on Pakistan ending support to terror groups such the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. He dared Pakistan to use its proposed development grant to Afghanistan to fight terror on its own soil.
However, if every window for engagement with Pakistan is closed for India and Afghanistan, the two countries must closely consider what their next step will be. A lack of engagement may, in the short term, yield some pressure on Pakistan’s leadership to act, as it did briefly after the Pathankot attack. But in the long run it may deplete the two countries of their limited leverage as Pakistan’s neighbours. It may, for all the affirmations of mutual ties, also succeed in driving more obstacles to trade between India and Afghanistan. In the past year, the cornering of Pakistan by its South Asian neighbours has only yielded deeper ties for Islamabad with Beijing and Moscow, pushed Kabul closer to Central Asia, and moved New Delhi towards multilateral groupings to the east and south. As a result, the measures India and Afghanistan have envisaged in order to avoid Pakistan, such as land trade from the Chabahar port and a dedicated air corridor between Delhi and Kabul, may prove to be insufficient by the time they are put in place, even as Afghanistan is connected more closely via a rail line from China’s Yiwu and Tehran. The Heart of Asia process thus remains critical to forging cooperation to realise Afghanistan’s potential to be a vibrant Asian “hub”.