Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India last week was of great importance for India-Afghanistan relations as well as the future of Afghanistan itself. It came as Afghanistan prepares itself for far reaching changes next year in the political and security spheres and their consequent impact on the economy. Karzai wants India’s assistance to improve the defence preparedness of the country. Specifically, he wishes India to enhance its help in the training of the Afghan army and to supply it with some weapons and equipment, including heavy guns and tanks to improve its fighting capabilities. He made these disclosures publically while he was in India. Obviously, Karzai sought India’s help in keeping with the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011.
Pakistan’s reaction to Karzai’s request for greater Indian involvement with the Afghan Defence Forces was swift and hostile. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Jalil Jilani said that as Afghanistan was a sovereign country it could decide the nature of its relations with other countries but it should consider the regional dimensions of its decisions. Pakistan has thus made it clear that it will do all it can to prevent Afghanistan from enhancing its relations with India especially in the security and defence sectors. It has the potential to make long term and great trouble in Afghanistan through its proxy, the Afghan Taliban. The Foreign Secretary’s comment shows Pakistan’s willingness to use the Afghan Taliban as a pressure point so that India- Afghanistan relations do not achieve their full potential.
President Karzai would have anticipated Pakistan’s adverse reaction before making a public approach to India for deeper defence co-operation. He has shown courage. He is also supported by a large section of politicians among both his supporters and in the Opposition who want closer ties with India. It is therefore sad that India has merely said that the matter would be discussed between the officials of the two countries. We should not have hesitated to state publically that India has agreed in principle with the Afghan request.
The main question is if in taking decisions relating to India’s relations with Afghanistan the Government should take Pakistan’s sensitivities into consideration. This issue is particularly pertinent as the incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has indicated that he would like to improve India-Pakistan relations. However, soon after he made these comments to Indian media people, Pakistani press reports indicated that he was advised by General Kiyani to go slow in making such comments relating to India. And, howsoever Nawaz Sharif may try it will be the Pakistani Army that will continue to have the last word on Pakistan’s India policy. It will be short sighted for India to hold back on our ties with Afghanistan in the hope that by doing so it will earn Pakistan’s goodwill.
India enjoys great appreciation among the Afghan people. It is considered as a friend which has assisted Afghanistan in the rebuilding of their country through its large and extensive programme which extends from developing infrastructure to training and skills development. They also feel that India has not interfered in their domestic affairs. At a time when the next few years will be difficult the Afghan people look to India’s help in the security sector through supplies of weapons and more training. It should be noted that there has been no request for any Indian troops and nor should we ever send any soldiers to Afghanistan in any circumstances.
Why will the next few years be complicated and troublesome for Afghanistan? The vast majority of US and NATO troops will withdraw from the country. It is expected that about ten thousand soldiers from these countries will remain mainly for the training of the Afghan Army and some support to it as it will take on the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban already strong in many areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan and in some pockets in the west and the north of the country will surely intensify their violent activities with Pakistani support. The Afghan Security Forces will be put to the test and many believe they will not fully succeed especially as the US forces were not able to eliminate the Taliban challenge. The fact is that as long as the Afghan Taliban has bases in Pakistan they cannot be eliminated but they have to be contained.
Presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Afghanistan in April 2014. The Afghan constitution prevents Karzai who has lead the country after the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in November 2011 from contesting the elections again. Karzai told the media in Delhi that he wants to retire. He has the responsibility to organise credible elections so that the Afghan political class holds together and the people respect the election results. If Afghan politics fragments on an ethnic basis the Afghan Army will also fragment. The result will be chaos in which the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan will gain the upper hand. As it is, the Taliban have not shown any true interest in reconciliation talks with the Karzai Government.
The drawdown of US troops will also lead to economic difficulties as the flow of foreign funds will diminish. Those Afghans who can have taken steps to send funds outside the country as an insurance against the country slipping into complete chaos.
Events in Afghanistan have a bearing on India’s interests including our security interests. Indian policy makers will have to be very vigilant over the next few years regarding events in that country. They will have to particularly avoid looking at Afghanistan through the prism of Dr Manmohan Singh’s desire to improve relations with Pakistan.