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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 24, June 1, 2013

Karzai Visit: India’s Dilemma

Saturday 1 June 2013, by Mahendra Ved

Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, is a man in a hurry. He has one year left in office and he cannot seek a third term. He wants to leave “a legacy of democracy” before he quits.

But he fears an onslaught from the Taliban, operating from across the border in Quetta once the NATO forces leave by the end of 2014.

They are backed by Pakistan. Indeed, the Taliban leadership is called the “Quetta Shoora”.

Battling detractors at home and critics in the West who are sustaining his security and his economy, but who also fly drone aircraft killing innocent Afghan civilians, Karzai is comfortable coming to India. After all, he earned his graduation in Shimla.

His India visits are like many of his predecessors, including Najibullah, whose family still lives in India, 20 years after he was hung by the lamp post in the UN office in Kabul by the Taliban.

The worst possible scenario for Karzai is that he could meet Najibullah’s fate after the United States and other NATO members withdraw their troops and the Taliban return to Kabul. He is trying hard to prevent that.

As part of his effort, he was in Delhi in the third week of May. In the backdrop of a NATO withdrawal and fears of a Taliban resurgence, he gave the Indian Government a ‘wish list’ for military equipment.

Governments normally do not talk of defence deals. But Karzai is keen, even desperate. India has committed to provide training, equipment and capacity building for the Afghan armed forces as part of the strategic partnership pact signed in 2011.

India has trained the Afghan security force personnel in its military academies, but it has provided little military equipment, according to Indian officials.

India’s Afghan strategy has centred on boosting its influence through economic reconstruction projects in which India has invested over $ 2 billion.

Now estimated at 3,52,000-strong, the ANSF cost over $ 4 billion to support—far beyond the Afghan Government’s resources.

The key equipment sought by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) includes medium trucks that can carry 2.5-7 tonne cargos, bridge-laying equipment and engineering facilities.

India was also asked to consider the possibility of supplying light mountain artillery, along with ordnance, and to help Afghanistan build close air-support capabilities for its troops. The land-locked Afghans also want to raise an Air Force.

India is not a major weapons exporter, and suffers chronic shortages of defence equipment itself, including artillery. Hence, any supply to Afghanistan would have to be a political decision driven by diplomatic and security considerations.

For India, the moot point is whether it should step into, even partially, the shoes that are being discarded by the powerful US and NATO that have lost 2500 soldiers and sunk billions.

A Carnegie report assesses that the Afghan political system’s centre of gravity—the east and the Kabul region—is gravely threatened by a Taliban advance that will take place in the spring of 2013 following the winter lull in fighting, and that 17 out of 34 provinces are likely to be under the control of the Taliban within months of the withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan is essentially that of a strategic stalemate for these powers, and the worst is in store. India could be making the cardinal mistake, as the saying goes: fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

India seems hesitant, largely because of the Pakistan factor. Pakistan sees Afghanistan as its backyard and would not want Indians to come in with arms. It says India is ‘misusing’ its presence, even its embassy in Kabul, to ‘destabilise’ Pakistan—which is utter nonsense.

Karzai himself realises India’s limitations. He took a more diplomatic approach. “We under-stand when India can help and when it cannot.”

He said that he did not discuss the likelihood of Indian troops in Afghanistan after 2014. He was categorical that Indian troops are “not needed”.

Karzai put Afghanistan’s relations with India and those with Pakistan in a perspective. He said that Afghanistan, as a sovereign country, had the “right to choose its friends”. He described Pakistan as a “close neighbour” and India, as a “traditional friend and ally”. Afghanistan’s relations with India were not at the expense of its relations with Pakistan. The reverse is equally true.

However, that depth of understanding is lacking in the Indian political discourse in the social media.

Armchair critics of the government say that it is hesitating and is cowardly in not helping Afghanistan. A ‘bold’ Narendra Modi is seen as an antidote to a weak Manmohan Singh.

Assuming that Modi does become the Prime Minister next year, and leads a ‘bold’ government, he will have to be extremely cautious in dealing with this issue for a number of reasons.

For one, India does not have a contiguous border with Afghanistan to enforce a military push in the event of a crisis. Two, the Indian personnel, be they in uniform or in civilian clothes, have been easy targets in the last decade, when Indians working on development projects and even the heavily guarded Indian mission in Kabul has been attacked more than once.

Posting Indian military personnel is going to be risky at the best of times with groups like the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar dedicated to hurting Indian interests at the behest of the ISI.

Then, President Karzai, who has been the central figure in Afghan national life for over a decade, has failed to provide the vision and leadership essential for the evolution of a consensus required to evolve as to what type of polity the Afghan people want. They seem torn between the old authoritarian ways of the older generation, while the younger generation, expressing itself through the social media, wants a liberal democracy.

With no victory of any sort and even a decent face-saving exit, the Americans and NATO want to wash their hands off. A comparison with Vietnam may seem premature with about 16 months still to go for the Western exit, but it is heading for a victory-less exit to America’s longest war and for NATO that ventured on its first military foray outside its region.

Then, the Afghanistan’s peace process remains a non-starter for all the stakeholders. Everyone is shadow-boxing, while Pakistan holds the trump card in the form of the Taliban leaders, forcing the West to its way of thinking and acting.

Unfortunately, at the end of 12 years of “war on terror”, Afghanistan is still politically unstable, militarily insecure, economically impoverished and in social turmoil. Another round of conflict is in the offing between the Pakistan-backed Taliban and non-Pashtun warlords who are already bracing themselves.

For India to enhance its presence, especially military, is full of risks. Without the economic and military clout of the US/NATO combine— that has failed miserably—Indians could be sitting ducks.

Thousands of Indian soldiers were massacred when they went to Afghanistan as part of the East India Company’s military expedition to Kabul, called the First Afghan War 1839-42. All Indians perished. The only survivor was a British officer. This has been chronicled recently by William Dalrymple.

Independent India cannot afford to repeat that mistake. 

The author, a close observer of the Afghan scenario, is a senior journalist who worked firt in the UNI news agency and then in several publications in cluding The Times of India. He was also posted in Dhaka as a correspondent of UNI soon after Bangladesh’s liberation in December 1971.

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