BY INDER MALHOTRA
In the hectic, hot-paced procession of foreign dignitaries to Delhi in recent days, the visit of the Afghan President, Mr Hamid Karzai stands out for a variety of reasons.
In the first place, the endgame in America’s Afghanistan War, the longest in US history and highly unpopular because of its enormous cost in blood and treasure, has gone on too long. It has been obvious since his re-election that the US President, Mr Barack Obama would be happy to withdraw his combat troops even before the present deadline of December 2014. But that is easier said than done.
For, although there is a broad agreement between Washington and Kabul on the “enduring presence” of US troops in the war-ravaged country, this by itself would not be enough. Especially, if there were no agreement among all major powers and regional stakeholders to ensure that the post-US Afghanistan would be a peaceful, stable and united country free from foreign interference in its internal affairs. Should the Americans leave behind an Afghanistan that is once again torn by a civil war it would be an act of great betrayal of not just luckless Afghanistan but also of the entire region that could then go into flames.
Peace eludes Afghanistan
At present there continues to be much confusion about international efforts both to ensure a viable and lasting peace in Afghanistan and reconciliation among the country’s different ethnicities. Although Pushtoons are the largest and dominant group, the total number of minorities such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras put together exceeds them. Yet, each actor is still trying to pursue its selfish objective. For instance, although the talks between the US and Taliban at Doha have lingered on without producing any result, the Americans are persevering. The US-Pakistan relations continue to be at very low ebb; each ally now calls the other “enemy.” Yet, neither wants the relationship to be terminated. For all its discontent, US goes on pouring money into Pakistan, and the latter ensures transit for essential supplies to the US and NATO in Afghanistan. It is self-evident that Pakistan’s cooperation is necessary if there is to be a consensus on the plan for a lasting peace in Afghanistan. Yet there are wheels within wheels. The US is simultaneously organising an alternative route via Turkey and Central Asia so as to avoid reliance on Pakistan as well as Russia with which America’s relations have plummeted.
For similar reasons Afghanistan-Pakistan relations have also acquired tortuous complexity. In all his public statements during his stay in India, Mr Karzai made no bones about delivering sharp messages to both the US and Pakistan. He repeatedly declared that his negotiations with America would be “tough.” While bluntly telling the US to stop using drones against the people of Afghanistan he told it to attack the Taliban’s sanctuaries in Pakistan as well as its Pakistani financiers. To Pakistan, his message is that it should immediately put an end to the use of the Haqqani network in its tribal land of Waziristan to attack Afghanistan, render all help to Afghan Taliban and so on. Even so, while the Afghan President was running down Pakistan during his speeches in Mumbai and Delhi, a delegation of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council left for Islamabad for “peace talks” with the Taliban! Originally, a former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, headed the high peace council. After his assassination last year, his son has been carrying on his still unsuccessful mission.
This rhetoric is, however, mild compared with the grim reality on the ground. Cross-border skirmishes between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been on the increase. This weekend, Pakistani ISI alleged shell fired by Afghan troops reportedly killed five civilians in Pakistan’s South Waziristan agency. The notorious Pakistani inter-service intelligence may have some justification in complaining that its Afghan counterpart is backing the Islamist warlord Maulana Fazlullah. If so, it is clearly in tit-for-tat retaliation for the unabashed Pakistani support to the Haqqani network on the Afghan border for a much longer period. Afghanistan has already suffered far too much violence that needs to be ended.
India’s larger footprint
One major reason why there has been so much delay in restoration of peace in Afghanistan is that the US, thanks to its regard for the sensitivity of Pakistan, refrained from inviting India, with undoubtedly huge stakes in that country, to do its bit in the much-needed effort. On the contrary, for quite a while it asked us to “make up” with Pakistan and thus encourage it to cooperate fully with the US in the Afghan venture. Only last year, and that too at Afghanistan’s insistence, did it agree to a triangular partnership between itself, India and Afghanistan. This effort has come too late and has achieved too little so far. Except that Washington is now urging India to have a “larger footprint” in Afghanistan.
It is also understandable that during his visit to India, Mr Karzai devoted a lot of his time and energy on appealing to Indian industry and business to invest in his country in areas such as mines, fertilisers, youth affairs and small development projects. This country has always done its best in this regard. It has built in Afghanistan schools, hospitals and the splendid parliamentary building in Kabul. It has also given that country a $ 2 billion credit and a lot of other help. India is indeed the world’s fifth largest bilateral donor to the land of the Afghans.
During Mr Karzai’s latest visit - his last before the general elections in both countries in 2014 - the two governments have signed four memorandums of understanding and several agreements for cooperation in the development of coal and mineral resources, implementation of small business projects, educational and vocational institutions and so on. Vastly more crucial is our agreement to expand and streamline training of the Afghan national army because the Afghans are unhappy with the existing NATO-dominated arrangements.
Mr Karzai also has his task cut out for him. Under the Afghan Constitution he cannot seek re-election because he has already completed his two terms. Indeed, he is the first president to do so. In the last election he had sadly rigged the poll. This horrendous mistake must not be made a second time if Afghanistan has to have a future.