October 08, 2011

New phase in India-Afghan ties: Pakistan feeling uncomfortable

by Harsh V. Pant


THE Af-Pak story takes another turn with the visit of the Afghan President, Mr Hamid Karzai, to Delhi earlier this week. In Afghanistan’s first strategic pact with any country, Kabul and New Delhi signed a landmark strategic partnership agreement during Mr Karzai’s visit. As part of the new pact, bilateral dialogue at the level of National Security Adviser has been institutionalised to focus on enhancing cooperation on security issues. New Delhi is hoping that Kabul will take the lead in defining the exact terms of this engagement.

Along with this strategic pact, two other agreements on India-Afghan cooperation in developing hydrocarbons and mineral resources were signed further underlining India’s role in the evolution of Afghanistan as a viable economic unit. The two nations agreed to enhance political cooperation and institutionalise regular bilateral political and foreign office consultations.

The strategic pact that commits India to “training, equipping and capacity building” of the Afghan National Security Services will certainly raise eye-brows, especially in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Islamabad was quick to remind the Karzai government that it should behave responsibly. For a long time, India had been rather cautious in taking a leap into this realm so as not to offend so-called Pakistani sensitivities. The West further supported this posture by encouraging India to be a player in Afghan reconstruction efforts but actively discouraged India from taking on a more forceful security role.

But Pakistan’s machinations continued with or without Indian provocation. Its proxies kept on targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan. As NATO forces leave Afghanistan over the course of next few years, no one expects the Afghan security forces to be able to face the challenge of the Taliban and other extremists without any outside help, and Indian training would be very influential in this regard. And India cannot be expected to ignore its genuine interests in Afghanistan just to keep Pakistan in good humour. So, the plan to train Afghan forces that was first mooted six years back by Kabul has become a reality now.

Meanwhile, as Pakistan decides to up the ante in Afghanistan, the Afghan government is seeking international support in tackling Rawalpindi’s growing sense of adventure. The pact with India is Afghanistan’s way of trying to deal with an increasingly menacing Pakistan. During his visit to New Delhi, Mr Karzai was categorical in suggesting that South Asia faced “dangers from terrorism and extremism, used as an instrument of policy against innocent civilians.” He is seeking strategic pacts with the US and the NATO as well to ward off the challenge from Pakistan.

Mr Karzai’s position has changed significantly in recent months. After calling the Taliban “brothers” and encouraging the insurgents to reconcile with the Afghanistan government, he has become more hardnosed in his appraisal of the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan. The Afghan President has now suggested that peace talks with the Taliban are futile unless they involve the Pakistani authorities who are the real masters behind the shenanigans of the insurgent groups. Mr Karzai’s attitude has been particularly affected by the killing last month of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan government’s chief peace negotiator, by the Taliban. Kabul has been categorical that this assassination was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta with the active support from the ISI. The reconciliation effort, as a result, is in tatters.
Ever since the death of Osama bin Laden in May, the US-Pakistan ties too have been in disarray. The security establishment in Pakistan wants to retain its central role in the negotiations with the Taliban and to prevent the US from having any long-term military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington has been signalling that it would not tolerate the continuing use of terrorist groups, aided and betted by the ISI, to kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan. In a radical departure from the long-standing US policy of publicly playing down Pakistan’s official support for insurgents operating from havens within Pakistan, Admiral Mike Mullen, the just-departed chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI.

Much of the blame for the current turmoil in the Af-Pak area lies with the Obama Administration that made it clear that it wanted to exit Afghanistan as soon as it could without any concessions to the rapidly changing ground realities Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Haqqani network has been an open secret for quite some time as has been the fact that the Haqqanis have been responsible for some of the most murderous assaults on Indian and Western presence in Afghanistan. The US was reluctant to take on Pakistan on this issue till such time as their interests did not come under direct attack.

As the Western forces prepare for a pullout, New Delhi is right in strengthening its partnership with Kabul. Strengthening the security dimension of the India-Afghanistan ties is extremely important for India as it is in New Delhi’s interest to help Kabul preserve its strategic autonomy at a time when Pakistan has made it clear that it would like the Haqqani network and the Taliban to be at the centre of the post-American political dispensation in Kabul. It is true that given the logic of geography and demography, Pakistan cannot be ignored in the future viability of Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai was assuaging Pakistani anxieties when he suggested that “Pakistan is a twin brother” while “India is a great friend.” But India and Afghanistan can certainly change the conditions on the ground, forcing Pakistan to acknowledge that its policy towards its neighbours has not only brought instability in the region but has also pushed the very existence of Pakistan into question.
The writer teaches at King’s College, London

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