Against the backdrop of the withdrawal of foreign combat troops from the violence-wracked, land-locked country, India has assured Afghanistan that it is “prepared to increase bilateral contribution to institution-building, training and equipment” to that country.
The situation that will obtain in Afghanistan after the presidential elections in April 2014 and the subsequent withdrawal of international troops from the country before that year ends, not to mention the protection of Indian interests in Afghanistan over the years, would have weighed on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s mind as he hosted Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks in New Delhi May 21. That, when taken together with President Karzai’s stated desire to broaden and deepen security ties with India, including, but not limited to, the supply of weapons and other military hardware for the Afghan forces, set this round of talks apart from previous ones.
Kabul maintains that the Afghan national security forces must be equipped with the necessary capabilities – including capacity for logistics and equipment maintenance as well as adequate ground and air firepower – to execute independent operations against conventional and unconventional enemies. India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in October 2011, which dwelled on security, trade, capacity-building and people-to-people contacts. Specifically, India agreed “to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces”. Therefore, Kabul’s desire to source hardware with Indian assistance must be viewed in that context.
While India is expected to lend a sympathetic ear to President Karzai, how soon and to what extent will it be able to satisfy Afghanistan on this count will be a function of India’s own assessment of the unfolding situation in the Af-Pak region. Adding to New Delhi’s anxieties is that there are many moving parts to the Afghan conundrum, namely Pakistan’s attitude towards Afghanistan and India, the Taliban’s own gameplan, the moves for a possible reconciliation with the Taliban and the extent of Pakistan’s role in it, the possibility of a greater Chinese involvement subsequent to the US pullout and the ethnic configuration of Afghanistan in the immediate future. Last but not the least, the eventual successor to President Karzai, following the April 2014 presidential elections, is going to be of critical importance to India’s long-term interests in that country.
Given the complexity of the situation, New Delhi is predictably circumspect. Ahead of the talks, Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry, stressed that while Afghanistan is a “strategically important” neighbour, India will “continue to discuss and respond to specific requests of the Afghan government … within our own modest means as a developing country”.
India has pledged over $2 billion for multifarious reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Amid the flux in Afghanistan, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee met the Afghan president in New Delhi and conveyed to him that New Delhi is “proud to partner the government and people of Afghanistan in their efforts towards reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.” Karzai was quick to assure that the “India-Afghan relations stand today on solid cemented grounds.” “Our relations are greater than any time before,” he said.
According to Ashraf Haidari, deputy chief of mission of the Afghan embassy in India, “the Taliban leadership continues to receive protection from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments.” He buttresses his argument by pointing out that “without an external sanctuary, sustainable funding, weapons supplies, and intelligence support in Pakistan, the Taliban would be unable to reconsolidate its control over Afghanistan. Since 2003, the Taliban and its affiliated networks have gradually expanded their influence in the ungoverned southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, launching daily terrorist attacks that have injured and killed thousands of innocent civilians.”
From President Karzai’s perspective there are three other issues that continue to engage his government’s attention. One is the tensions with Pakistan on the Durand Line, which has been cited by Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi on more than one occasion. The second is the recognition that Afghanistan is vulnerable to transnational security threats, stemming in particular from the narcotics trade and terrorism. The third issue, which is of a more immediate concern to his government, is the lack of coordination among international donors or partners. Although the diversity of nations present in Afghanistan demonstrates international goodwill and consensus for supporting the country, Kabul feels each contributing nation has pursued its own aid strategies, effectively bypassing coordination with each other and the Afghan government. Hence, a lack of strategic coordination across international military and civilian efforts to ensure aid effectiveness has so far crippled the Afghan state and left it with no capacity or resources to deliver basic services to its people.
For the landlocked Afghanistan, access to a sea port is particularly vital. This specific need can be met to a certain extent by India’s collaboration with Iran for developing the Chabahar port and linking it to Afghanistan by a network of roads. At the same time, Kabul is acutely aware that its location should help it serve as a regional trade and transit hub for an easy movement of goods and natural resources to meet the rising energy demands of India and China. Incidentally, Afghanistan was discussed at some length by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi May 20. India has also been discussing Afghanistan with a host of other countries in the region and beyond, notably Iran, Russia and the US, besides international fora.
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