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Mainstream, VOL L, No 50, December 1, 2012

Afghanistan: Karzai Visit - Looming Danger

Monday 3 December 2012, by Mahendra Ved

In the months that he survived the exit of the Russian forces from his country, Afghanistan’s former slain President Najibullah would visit New Delhi to seek support and succour from India that was itself left ‘friendless’ when the Soviet Union collapsed.

There was little the government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao could do to help him, being itself hit by a serious economic crisis and militarily by insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir after Pakistan diverted the Mujahideen returning from Afghanistan to the Valley.

Forsaken by friends, targeted by the West that saw its victory in the fall of the Soviet Union and let down by the United Nations that failed to enforce its own truce and transition arrangement in Kabul, Najibullah eventually fell to the Taliban bullets, to be hung by the lamp post, not far away from his UN office compound.
Will President Hamid Karzai who was in New Delhi last month, meet a fate similar to that of Najibullah?

Will history repeat itself, and to what extent, as the United States and the NATO forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending a military presence that has been the longest in US history and highly unpopular because of its enormous cost in blood and treasure?

The role of the UN, incidentally, is minimal. So, Karzai or anyone cannot look up to the world body.

The re-election of President Barack Obama ensures—not that Mitt Romney, his rival would have done any better—that the US will with-draw its combat troops even before the present deadline of December 2014. But that is easier said than done.
There is a broad agreement between Washington and Kabul on the “enduing presence” of US troops in the war-ravaged country; this by itself would not be enough. This is clear from the present ground reality that is bound to worsen as the troops’ withdrawal attains momentum next year.

The US/NATO, it seems, are preparing for a victory-less withdrawal. The Taliban are recove-ring new areas, even in the north that were earlier under Karzai’s iffy control.

On the other hand, there is no agreement among all major powers and regional stake-holders to ensure that the post-US Afghanistan would be a peaceful, stable and united country free from foreign interference in its internal affairs.

Should the Americans leave behind an Afghanistan that is once again torn by a civil war, it would be an act of great betrayal of not just the luckless Afghanis but also of the entire region that could then go up in flames.

There continues to be much confusion about international efforts both to ensure a viable and lasting peace in Afghanistan and reconciliation among the country’s different ethnicities.

Although Pushtoons are the largest and dominant group, the total number of minorities such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras put together exceeds them.
With Pakistan’s unconcealed support to the Pushtuns, Afghanistan is hurtling back to square one.

IT is clear that the US and Pakistan shall continue to blow hot and cold, but both cannot do without each other. The US is heavily dependent upon Pakistan even for its withdrawal process and must keep it on the right side for allowing even a semblance of stability in Kabul.

And Pakistan remains hell-bent on preventing any role for India; that is at the core of its Afghanistan strategy post-US withdrawal.

That being the case, India will never be allowed a role beyond working and investing in development work. Nothing remotely military, or that which gives India any toe-hold will be allowed.

Even the development work is unlikely to be smooth. With the US/NATO forces still present, Indian interests have been targeted with impunity by the forces led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network, both of which remain avowedly anti-India. They come handy for Pakistan’s ISI and for the Pakistani Taliban.
Hence, although Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with India, even as he did with the US, India’s role shall remain marginal and under constant pressure.

Some work has been done under the SPA that provides for expanding and streamlining the training of the Afghan National Army because the Afghans are unhappy with the existing NATO-dominated arrangements. But in strategic terms, it is marginal.

It is thus understandable that during visit to India Karzai devoted a lot of his time and energy on appealing to Indian industry and business to invest in his country in areas such as mines, fertilisers, youth affairs and small development projects.
He is hopeful because of India’s past record, particularly in the last decade, when it built schools, hospitals, and the splendid parliamentary building in Kabul. It has also given that country a $ 2 billion credit and a lot of other help. India is indeed the world’s fifth largest bilateral donor to the land of the Afghans.

During the Karazai visit, the two governments have signed four memorandums of under-standing and several agreements for cooperation in the development of coal and mineral resources, implementation of small business projects, educational and vocational institutions.

In his interview with The Times of India during the visit, Karzai talked of India having “a massive role in Afghanistan and region in bringing education, services to Afghanistan, institutio-nalising state structures, training Afghan forces, police, playing the role of a country whose presence in Afghanistan is a great factor of stabilisation and prosperity.”

On India having a role in security matters, he clearly laid it down: “In training us better. Coordinating on all security issues. By fighting together against extremism and terrorism.”

The task is by no means small. But it is even more risky. Besides the ground reality, there is the risk of being seen as an American ally. And Americans are not popular among the Afghan people.

Karzai has his task cut out for him. Under the Afghan Constitution he cannot seek re-election because he has already completed his two terms. Indeed, he is the first President to do so.

In the last election he had sadly rigged the poll. This horrendous mistake must not be made a second time if Afghanistan has to have a future.

It remains to be seen who succeeds Karzai, if at all he holds the election and does not seek re-election, not permitted under the Constitution. There is no indication if he has a proxy or a nominee. There is nothing by way of a second line of leadership under Karzai. Indeed, some of his Ministers, former warlords, have begun rallying their forces to defend themselves—a clear lack of confidence in the government of which they are a part.

Afghanistan may be heading for another round of free-for-all. A point to ponder is whether India has cultivated people other than Karzai. It was left friendless when Najibullah was ousted and again when the Taliban captured power. A third such development would mean India’s efforts and investment in the last decade being totally wasted. This is a prospect New Delhi should do everything to avoid.

The author is a senior journalist and keen observer of developments in India’s neighbourhood, notably Afghanistan.

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