October 20, 2011

India has done well to affirm its stakes in Afghanistan

PARTNERS IN STRATEGY

- India has done well to affirm its stakes in Afghanistan

Kanwal Sibal

The Telegraph

The strategic partnership agreement signed by India and Afghanistan on October 4 has aroused considerable diplomatic interest. How should India’s decision to politically escalate its ties with Afghanistan at this juncture be interpreted, and what could President Hamid Karzai’s calculations be?

India’s ties with Afghanistan have already invited considerable interrogation and controversy within the region and beyond. Raising the relationship to a strategic partnership level gives short shrift to Pakistan’s concerns and ignores those of the West about the compatibility of India’s Afghan diplomacy with its overall regional interests.

Pakistan has vociferously opposed India’s presence in Afghanistan, established to encircle it from the west, support the Baluch insurgency and promote anti-Pakistan politics in Kabul. It has linked action against the Afghan Taliban to Western pressure on India to reduce its Afghan profile. The Inter-Services Intelligence has used terror tactics to browbeat India by engineering murderous attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul and other targets. Pakistan has criticized the scale of Indian assistance to Afghanistan as being incommensurate with any legitimate interest it could have there.

The Western countries, inclined to be receptive to Pakistan’s demands to obtain its willing cooperation to conduct the war in Afghanistan, have favoured a low Indian profile there. They have even encouraged India to dispel Pakistan’s concerns about its Afghanistan policies, the unpalatable assumption being that they had some legitimacy. However, with the steady exposure of Pakistan’s two-facedness on terrorism, it has been losing ground with the West on its India-related demands in Afghanistan. For instance, in a departure from earlier American reserve, President Barack Obama lauded India’s development assistance to Afghanistan during his 2010 India visit, following which the principle of joint India-United States of America development projects in Afghanistan has been accepted.

Since then, Osama bin Laden was found ensconced in Abbottabad and the US embassy in Kabul, along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, was attacked last month by the Taliban. Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of joint chiefs of staff, has accused the ISI of collusion in this attack, calling the Haqqani group its strategic arm, and reproving Pakistan for using militant groups as an instrument of policy, a language that has evolved to match India’s, but with a delay of two decades. American political sentiment has largely become bitter towards Pakistan, though American punitive options remain constrained because of the indispensable logistical reliance on Pakistan in order to conduct the Afghan war and the inability to overcome the ingrained habit of appeasing that country.

Meanwhile, the ground situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, with the US set to reduce combat troops for pressing electoral reasons irrespective of the military situation, the Europeans anxious to end their domestically unpopular Afghan engagement, the Taliban expanding the range of their depredations, the ethnic divisions and the squabbling of political groups becoming sharper, and governance and economic development remaining deficient. The US and Nato have decided to hand over the responsibility for the country’s security to the Afghan national security forces by 2014 when the US forces will move into a non-combat role. The formation of the ANSF is exceeding plans in numbers, but in training and equipment there are deficiencies, including the problem of a high desertion rate.

The withdrawal strategy has intra-Afghan reconciliation as its centrepiece, but not only is information lacking about the personalities involved and the progress achieved, the recent attacks, including those against Karzai’s half-brother, prominent political figures, the British Council, the US embassy and the Nato headquarters, and most dramatically, the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the High Peace Council set up by Karzai, signify a repudiation of reconciliation by the Taliban. The Afghan president, weakened by the Rabbani assassination, has announced the suspension of the reconciliation effort. His relations with Pakistan, always mistrustful, have plummeted again — even though, dictated by the reality of Afghanistan’s geographical dependence on Pakistan, his problematic relations with US/Nato and his need for a post-US withdrawal survival strategy, he had begun courting it for the success of his reconciliation initiative.

With options vis à vis Pakistan restricted and his relationship with the US marred by an enduring confidence deficit, Karzai, always well-disposed towards India, has moved towards it more decisively through the SPA. With improved understanding between India and the US and the marked deterioration of relations between the US and Pakistan, Karzai has found new room to manoeuvre. Karzai could also be calculating that India, with its “northern alliance” connections, may be helpful in maintaining an internal ethno-political balance within the polity in the fluid situation ahead. With India’s growing economy, its readiness to invest substantial sums in Afghanistan’s mineral sector, its involvement already in a major development effort in Afghanistan and the latter’s pivotal role in any viable Indian-Central Asian policy, the Afghan president could expect a major expansion of India’s economic and financial support for his country. Earlier, he had cautioned against India and Pakistan conducting their proxy war in Afghanistan at its cost. Now Karzai himself is playing the Indian card visibly against Pakistan by voluntarily offering strategic ties to India, a relationship that Pakistan seeks to impose on an unwilling Afghanistan.

Some may question why India is deepening its political, economic and security commitment to Afghanistan when the situation there is becoming more uncertain. Karzai’s position is fragile; Taliban activity is growing; Pakistan’s disruptive ambitions and policies in Afghanistan escape even US control; the progressive reduction of US/Nato forces may create more disturbed conditions; the policy of reconciliation is failing; the spectre of a civil war looms.

India, however, cannot be indifferent to developments in Afghanistan, linked enduringly by history, geography, religion and culture to the Indian subcontinent. Afghanistan must not become a source of persistent threat to regional peace and stability, emanating, in particular, from religious extremism and terrorism. In the uncertain situation ahead, India must not lose its way by ignoring its permanent interests, however difficult their realization may be for the present.

The SPA is a document that outlines intentions and interests, not a plan of action to be implemented in full in a defined time-frame. It is a document that sets out the long-term relationship. Much of its content cannot be implemented in conditions of war, occupation, insurgency and poor governance. As conditions improve, the beneficial fruits of Indo-Afghan cooperation in the whole range of areas mentioned in the agreement can materialize.

The agreement’s provision relating to India’s role in training and equipping the ANSF has attracted the greatest attention. India is already training a limited number of Afghan army and police personnel. Such training can be stepped up, now that the Pentagon spokesperson has endorsed a higher Indian effort. It is highly unlikely, however, that India will pull out all the plugs and embark on any major programme of training and equipping. The phrasing of the relevant provision is significant: India will assist, as mutually determined, the training, equipping and capacity building programmes of the ANSF. The key clause, “as mutually determined”, gives a lot of flexibility in implementation.

All in all, India has done well to think ahead and affirm its long-term stakes in Afghanistan.

The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com

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