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India should robustly support Karzai

By M K Bhadrakumar
April 26, 2010 12:04 IST
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai's arrival in New Delhi on Monday can be seen as of a piece with the 'new thinking' in Indian foreign policy in recent months.

The revival of traditional ties with Russia, the inclination to move away from futile finger-pointing toward meaningful interaction with China, signs of a course correction on Iran -- tendencies that seemed tentative are indeed gaining traction and assuming a purposive direction in diplomacy.

The timing and estimations behind New Delhi's invitation to President Karzai merit attention. No doubt, the Afghan situation is nearing a turning point. The foreign minister-level meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation held in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, on Friday officially set in motion a process to roll back the alliance's operations in Afghanistan.

While this would be a natural process and not a 'run for the exit', as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it, the political reality is that the Western allies have reached agreement on basic guidelines for commencing the hand-over of responsibility for security to the Afghan forces on a case-by-case basis within this year.

'I expect that we will start handing over responsibility to the Afghans this year', Rasmussen said. 'Today, we took an important decision to help make that happen. We agreed the approach we will take to transition.' President Karzai will have the opportunity to 'tweak' the alliance's approach.

These measured steps of 'Afghanisation' ought to prompt Delhi to contemplate what role India can play.

Clearly, Delhi should focus on economic and political rather than military engagement in Afghanistan to bolster long term security in that country and in the region.

Indian can train Afghan specialists in various fields, provide training and equipment to the Afghan army and cooperate in a range of counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic activities.

The question of any military deployment should firmly remain excluded from the consideration zone despite India's vast experience in peacekeeping operations.

Entanglement in potentially exhausting military missions abroad needs to be avoided. Below that threshold, diplomatic ingenuity and creative thinking would lie in figuring out how economic expansion can be the key element of India's security strategy in Afghanistan.

Secondly, President Karzai's visit is an occasion to refine our thinking apropos the 'reintegration' and reconciliation strategy toward the Taliban.

To be sure, Delhi has come a long way in the direction of recognising that any Afghan settlement to be durable needs to be inclusive and Afghan-led and the international community cannot be prescriptive in what is quintessentially a fratricidal war.

The Afghan leader's reconciliation strategy aims at forming a broad-based, representative government that affirms the country's plural character. President Karzai has put together a coalition, which shares his strong antipathy to any Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, propelled by the Pakistani military.

Delhi should not only empathise with President Karzai's strategy but should extend whole-hearted support to it politically. The Afghan leader's strategy is in harmony with India's desire for a friendly, strong and independent Afghanistan free of foreign interference.

Curiously, there is a growing awareness in Washington as well that instead of berating President Karzai -- and at times even undercutting him -- the US should learn to work with him.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made this clear during a press availability in Tallinn on Friday: 'President Karzai has one of the most difficult jobs in the world, balancing the internal forces inside Afghanistan, balancing the neighbourhood and all of the regional powers that surround Afghanistan, working to try to integrate the international forces into the fabric of his society. This is a very difficult undertaking... And I would caution us not to sort of single out Afghanistan, a new country, a new democracy, a country trying to fight an insurgency, stand up a government.'

If these helpful words indeed translate as US policy on the ground in Kabul, all is not lost in Afghanistan. Especially so, since the prospects will then distinctly brighten for the jirga or tribal assembly, which President Karzai hopes to convene in Kabul in the second half of May.

Delhi should voice support for any Afghan initiative that resorts to the revival of that country's traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution and consensus-building. The jirgas have been an integral part of Afghan political history.

Exactly twenty years ago in May 1990, the then Afghan president Najibullah convened a Loya Jirga in Kabul with a similar lofty aspiration of reconciliation and power-sharing.

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence's continued interference in Afghanistan, the acute security situation, the spectre of political Islam, etc. formed a backdrop strikingly similar to what is obtaining today.

Unfortunately, it remains a blot on the international community (including the indecisive Indian government at that time) that it failed to seize the historic occasion and give Najibullah a fair chance to choreograph a post-Communist era for Afghanistan.

That historic failure pushed Afghanistan into the vortex of violence and anarchy and made it a revolving door of international terrorism.

History shouldn't repeat itself. India should do all it can to buttress the feeling in the major regional capitals -- Moscow, Beijing, Tehran -- that the sinews of the government in Kabul led by Karzai must be strengthened.

This should be done bilaterally at the government-to-government level and amply supplemented through regional and international forums.

India must raise its voice at the upcoming international conference in Kabul. India must also strive to contribute to the deliberations of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation scheduled to be held in Tashkent in June.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna's visit to Tehran in mid-May provides fresh opportunity to pick up the threads of the moribund Iranian offer that the two countries should work together on issues affecting war and peace in Afghanistan.

A fundamental mistake India made in 2001 was to hitch its Afghan policy with the US's 'war on terror'. There are large areas in the US strategy that become shared concern for Delhi but at the same time, there are also dimensions, which negatively impact Indian interests.

In sum, Delhi failed to anticipate that in the US strategy, Pakistan was bound to figure as a 'natural', and even irreplaceable, ally sooner or later. Besides, India will not want to be inveighed in the 'great game' in Central Asia. Nor is it in India's interests to identify with the NATO's expansion project as a global security organisation in which the deployment in Afghanistan is a crucial step forward.

Delhi also needs to take a view as to whether open-ended foreign occupation of Afghanistan is conducive to regional security and stability.

Most important, through the past eight-year period, in the zest to harmonise with US policies, Delhi rolled back its diverse contacts with Afghan groups who were part of the anti-Taliban resistance. This approach overlooked the ground reality that the majority opinion within Afghanistan has always opposed the Taliban.

Finally, to quote Clinton, 'I've met with a number of the ministers of the current (Afghan) government, and they're very impressive... I would invite attention to the accomplishments of a number of them who have revolutionised the way business is done.' Without doubt, a new generation of Afghan leaders has begun to appear.

However, in the recent years, in contrast, Indian diplomacy went into slumber. Hardly any Afghan leader visits the Indian capital.

Karzai's visit should herald a more active phase in Indian diplomacy towards the Afghan problem. Least of all, our special envoy should visit Kabul far more often.

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M K Bhadrakumar