M. Serajul Islam
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just completed an official visit to India that is significant in more ways than one. During the visit, Afghanistan and India signed a “strategic partnership”, the first Afghanistan has signed with any country. Such agreements between countries are significant. This one is significant too but this one could also be ominous for peace in Afghanistan. It could pave the way for India and Pakistan to engage in the country in proxy conflicts.
At the signing ceremony, Hamid Karzai and Manmohon Singh spoke of high objectives of peace and development that they assured would result from the agreement. It may as well accrue out of the agreement or it may even bring just the opposite results. Two important players in Afghanistan that started the war on terror as partners themselves have different views on the Afghanistan-India partnership. In fact, the agreement could start the process of their parting of ways.
The US is committed to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan and towards by 2014 and that withdrawal process has started. With withdrawal of US troops, the US led multilateral UN Security Council sponsored ISAF forces would also end their mission. As the end of US and ISAF missions in Afghanistan draws near, the country is hardly in state to make the US and UN confident that the war on terror would be won by the time they left Afghanistan.
In fact, the Taliban against whom the war was started for hosting Al Qaeda is far from being obliterated. Its resurgence has been acknowledged even by the United States itself that has encouraged the Karzai administration to engage in negotiations with the Taliban to isolate the moderates from the extremists and bring the former into the mainstream of the future political process in Afghanistan.
That process has apparently ended in failure. The recent assassination by the Taliban of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was leading the negotiations has led the National Security Adviser to Hamid Karzai to state in New Delhi that the process “was a bad joke.” Burhanuddin Rabbani was in New Delhi in July. The Indian Prime Minister said that India was greatly encouraged “by his vision” and that his death has increased the resolve of the two countries to jointly fight terrorism.
The end of Hamid Karzai Government’s efforts at US insistence to negotiate with Taliban is a loss for Pakistan because of the latter’s closeness with the Taliban. The strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India that has come in the wake of the apparent abandonment of engagement with the Taliban could signal the weakening of Pakistan’s position in Afghanistan that has considered the country as its backyard. What is worse for Pakistan is that it is losing out in Afghanistan to its nemesis India. The umbrella of the strategic partnership will now allow India that has already pledged US$ 2 billion to Afghanistan in aid since 2002 to assist Afghanistan in “capacity building” that will include areas of education and overall economic development. India would also train Afghan police and security forces but this was not mentioned by either leader at the press conference in New Delhi.
The Afghan-India strategic partnership could not have come at a worse time for Pakistan. In recent times, particularly following the death of Osama Ben Laden, Pakistan-USA relations have been declining very fast. Outgoing Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen threw some major salvos at Pakistan before handing charge. He accused Pakistan of “exporting” extremism to Afghanistan through proxies and called the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of the ISI. Although President Obama watered down the scathing views of Admiral Mullen , the latter’s remarks no doubt point to Pakistan-USA partnership in the war on terror hitting rock bottom.
The entry of India at this critical juncture in Afghanistan no doubt has the support of the United States that is desperate to see Afghanistan in some shape in security terms before it leaves, a desperation that had led it earlier to encourage Hamid Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban. By all accounts, the situation in Afghanistan is hardly encouraging. It is not just that the Taliban is far from being defeated; there are enough indications to suggest that it is in fairly good shape to challenge the Karzai Government once foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Therefore, the strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan may not be good for the future of Afghanistan. It may not be good for India either. For Afghanistan, India’s entry will only change the course of the war on terror there. As long as the US and allied troops are there, the Taliban and other groups would be targeting these troops while trying to bring down the Karzai Government. Once the US and its allies leave, the target would change but not the war. The Indians would not be sending to Afghanistan any fighting troops yet although Manmohon Singh’s commitment “to stand by Afghanistan” once US and ISAF troops leave does not rule out that either. Meanwhile, their trainers and other experts who would be working there would become the new targets of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.
Pakistan would feel more than justified to provide whatever support these groups need now that President Karzai has made the clear preference for India over Pakistan that India has accepted by moving into its backyard. His reference to Pakistan upon returning to Kabul from New Delhi that India is a fried while Pakistan is a “twin brother” has not been taken seriously by anyone, least of all Pakistan.
The Indians have not shown much common sense in deciding to extend to Afghanistan “strategic assistance” in addition to financial aid and other expertise because the temptation to fiddle with Pakistan was perhaps too much for it to check. In doing so, the Indians have forgotten to take a look at history. The British entered Afghanistan and came back totally defeated. The Soviets met the same fate. The US would not be leaving Afghanistan in 2014 as victors either.
In all these politics of external powers Afghanistan will become the ultimate victim as it has in the past. External politics, this time with Hamid Karzai as a willing accomplice, is preparing the stage for Afghanistan to become the theatre of proxy wars of two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan once the US and its allies leave. The possible engagement of Pakistan and India in proxy wars in Afghanistan could have ominous consequences on South Asia where peace is what is holding the region from emerging on the world scene with its full potentials.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan