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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 21, May 15, 2010

India Closes Ranks with Hamid Karzai

Friday 21 May 2010, by M K Bhadrakumar

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent visit to New Delhi lasting two days took place at a defining moment in the Afghan civil war. Karzai is about to embark on a crucial peace and reconciliation project. He just completed talks in three important regional capitals—Islamabad, Tehran and Beijing—explaining his strategy, for the success of which he needs the understanding from the regional powers. Tehran and Beijing were forthcoming in their support of the Afghan Government whereas Islamabad views him as a rival claimant to piloting the peace process.

Secondly, “Afghanistan” is set to surge to the centre-stage. The Foreign Minister-level meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), held in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, on April 23, officially set in motion a process to roll back the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan. While this would be a natural process and not a “run for the exit”, as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it, the political reality is that the Western allies have reached agreement on the basic guidelines for commencing the hand-over of responsibility for security to the Afghan forces on a case-by-case basis within this year. The international conference, slated to be held in Kabul in June, will further “tweak” the NATO’s approach. Karzai formally invited India to take part in the conference.

The talks in Delhi made it quite clear that India will remain an effective partner for the Afghan Government in the difficult period ahead no matter the vicissitudes of the United States’ AfPak diplomacy; the worsening security situation inside Afghanistan; the Pakistani military’s undisguised power projection for “strategic depth”; and, least of all, the physical threat from Pakistani agents to the Indian presence in Afghanistan.

PM Manmohan Singh summed up that his discussions with Karzai were “extremely productive”. New Delhi underlined their strategic character by including Defence Minister A.K. Antony in the Indian delegation at the talks. Dr Singh pointedly articulated India’s “deep admiration” for Karzai’s “courageous leadership in difficult times”, probably administering a word of advice to the Barack Obama Administration to have a sense of proportions in judging the highly complex Afghan political situation. Broadly speaking, the consistent Indian viewpoint has been that there is an organic linkage between creating an enabling security environment and setting high yardsticks about an expansion of the footprint of the Afghan Government or its accelerated progress on governance issues.

Interestingly, a lowering of the anti-Karzai rhetoric and grandstanding is of late visible in certain quarters within the Obama Adminis-tration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conspi-cuously voiced a rethink recently. The big question, however, is: how far down the ladder would Ms Clinton’s fair-minded estimation trickle down? New Delhi would very much hope that her helpful words translate as US policies on the ground in the aftermath of Karzai’s visit to Washington on May 10-14—although a systematic Pakistani attempt to queer the pitch of the visit is already afoot.

Two topics dominated Karzai’s talks in New Delhi—placing India’s development and strategic partnership with Afghanistan within the “Afghanisation” process and, secondly, India’s perspectives on the “reintegration” and reconci-liation of the Taliban. Dr Singh said: “India is ready to augment its assistance for capacity building and for its skills and human resource development to help strengthen public institutions in Afghanistan.”

India’s assistance for Afghanistan already touches a massive figure of $ 1.3 billion. India can train Afghan specialists in various fields, provide training and equipment to the Afghan Army and cooperate in a range of counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic activities. However, New Delhi would be aware that any military deployment in Afghanistan is bound to be a potentially exhausting military mission and needs to be avoided. The Indian stance is strikingly similar to that of Russia or China, which also refuse to get militarily involved in Afghanistan. The challenge facing Indian diplomacy will be to figure out how economic expansion can be the key element of India’s security strategy in Afghanistan. Arguably, emulating China’s model, which places emphasis on making investments in resource-based projects, will be a step forward for India. This could be done in collaboration with Afghan partners.

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Without doubt, Karzai’s visit helped to further refine the Indian thinking apropos the contours of an Afghan settlement. The Indian thinking rests on the following assessments.

One, India regards the forthcoming jirga (tribal assembly) in May in Kabul and the Afghan parliamentary elections in September to be “important milestones”. New Delhi agrees with Karzai’s stance that in order for these processes to be legitimate and enduring, they should be Afghan-led.

Two, these political processes can be optimal only if they go hand in hand with the international community’s long term commit-ment to stability, peace and development in Afghanistan.

Three, the deterioration in the security situation is a hard reality and it needs to be firmly tackled on a priority basis within Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan, where the syndicate of terrorist organisations and other extremist groups operating in the region enjoy support and sustenance. Towards this end, apart from the NATO’s surge, the Afghan security forces should be enlarged and developed in a professional manner and provided with adequate resources, combat equipment and enablers and training.

It would appear that Karzai allayed the Indian apprehensions regarding the strategy of “reintegration” of the Taliban. New Delhi takes a cautious view of the process since, in its view, the Taliban may exploit the political space to capture power with Pakistani support, creating a fait accompli for the region, which was how the ISI implemented a phase-by-phase agenda of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan during 1994-97. Therefore, New Delhi would expect the reintegration process to be “tackled with prudence, the benefit of hindsight, foresight and caution”. Also, New Delhi stresses that any integration process should be “inclusive and transparent”, which is predicated on the assessment that Afghanistan is a plural society and the majority opinion is not only vehemently against the Taliban’s extremist ideology but also staunchly opposes any role for the outsiders to covertly dictate peace.

Karzai shared his thinking apropos the upcoming jirga with Dr Singh and it appears that there are no serious contradictions between the two sides. Significantly, Karzai made it a point to underline “our common struggle against terrorism and extremism”. The joint settlement also underlined the two countries’ “determi-nation….to combat the forces of terrorism which pose a particular threat to the region”.

There has been a latent sense of uneasiness among sections of the Indian strategic community that Karzai appeared to be in a mood to “compromise” or “appease” the Taliban in a self-seeking manner in anticipation of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Much of this misperception stemmed from the Western propaganda—often pre-cooked in the ISI’s kitchen—intended to dissimulate or to create an impression that Karzai is raring to go to accommodate the Taliban leadership and if anything at all is holding him back, it is only Obama’s skepticism about the reconciliation strategy.

New Delhi seems to understand well enough that what is unfolding is rather a grim struggle for the control of the Afghan peace process itself. Unsurprisingly, Karzai insists on his prerogative as the elected elected head of state to lead his country’s peace process. On the contrary, the Pakistani military would like to cast Karzai as merely one of the Afghan protagonists. Ostensibly, the Pakistan military wishes to work exclusively with the US to reconcile the Taliban but in reality it wishes to seize control of the peace process or to dominate it, while extracting concessions from Washington in the form of military and economic aid. The Pakistani military banks on exploiting Obama’s haste to effect a drawdown of the US combat troops by mid-2011.

The ISI has not only shed its “strategic ambiguity” regarding its nexus with the Taliban but of late openly flaunts its influence with the hardline “Quetta Shura” and the Haqqani network, making it clear that Rawalpindi is capable of torpedoing any peace process which is left to the Afghans. Ironically, this nexus with elements expressly banned by the United Nations (at the instance of the George W. Bush Administration) ought to make Pakistan a rouge state but the US has been pragmatic about it and instead chooses to solicit the Pakistani military’s help. An added factor is that influential figures within Obama’s AfPak team who are vestiges of the Afghan jihad, enjoy old links with the Pakistani security establishment and willingly subserve the ISI’s agenda pitting Karzai as the “problem” in any national reconciliation process.

Curiously, this political theatre is unfolding against a backdrop where “almost all Afghans, including Karzai’s Pashtun supporters, the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance and even the Taliban oppose any major role for the ISI,” to quote Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani commentator, in a recent article in the Washington Post. Quite obviously, the Pakistani military’s control of the foreign and security policies is at a high level in Islamabad. New Delhi will do well to figure out that Karzai deserves all the support he needs at this juncture.

(Courtesy : The Hindu)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, now retired, was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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