Author : Samir Saran

Originally Published 2013-12-16 11:13:34 Published on Dec 16, 2013
Irrespective of an Afghan- US security pact, India should prepare itself for a scenario where it may have to look after its interests by itself. Kabul and New Delhi should also be looking at developing an understanding through which India can directly and independently engage with Pashtun tribal elders, provincial governors and even regional warlords to protect its investments.
The Karzai 'Kaper': What India Must Do With Afghanistan
"Hamid Karzai, it seems, is unfolding his last gamble. He continues to keep the US on tenterhooks by dilly-dallying over the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement despite the overwhelming support given to continued US presence by the Loya Jirga. It is still unclear what is motivating Karzai’s strategic thinking: is it a sense of insecurity or a need to protect his legacy and family interests or simply an exaggerated sense of Afghanistan’s importance to the US?

It is against this backdrop that Karzai embarks on his visit to India. This is not only an opportunity for Karzai to shore up support for his country post-2014, but also for India to step up its engagement with Afghanistan, take steps to safeguard its interests and seek clarity on a number of dilemmas confronting it.

There are two posers in particular that India should be seeking to address. The first is the future of the US military role in the region. Most assessments of the situation would seem to indicate that a sustained US presence in the region, albeit a smaller one, is in India’s interests. However, New Delhi is conscious of the fact that the larger Afghan polity should be comfortable with the contours of any future US role. Although there seems to be huge support for a US role post-2014, Karzai’s obstinacy has led to an impasse.

Can India with its strong ties with the Karzai government and tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan play a constructive role between the two parties to break this stalemate in a manner that would be satisfactory for India, US and Afghanistan? At the same time, can this be done in a way that does not provide disproportionate space and influence to Pakistan or cause further Iranian disenchantment with the situation?

Irrespective of an Afghan-US security pact, India should prepare itself for a scenario, where it may have to look after its interests itself. India can be under no delusion that the future security situation in Afghanistan, even with a US residual force, is likely to be detrimental to India’s commercial interests and the viability of its reconstruction efforts, which are the best managed, most meaningful of any country and have brought tangible benefits to the average Afghan. Any further deterioration in the security situation will cast further doubts on India’s monetary and human resources allocation to Afghanistan. Recent discussions suggest that India’s flagship project in Afghanistan, the Hajigak Iron-ore reserves in Central Afghanistan, may also be in jeopardy.

India has to look beyond engaging just with Kabul to continue pursuing its commercial interests and reconstruction projects post-2014. India has developed strong linkages with the Pashtuns in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan over the past decade on account of its Small and Community-based Development Projects. It is important for India to use this as leverage to provide protection to its projects from the Pashtun-dominated insurgency. Kabul and New Delhi should also be looking at developing an understanding through which India can directly and independently engage with Pashtun tribal elders, provincial governors and even regional warlords to protect its investments. Engagement with such players may not only be necessary to provide security, but also for the smooth facilitation of Indian cargo and goods particularly in western and south-western Afghanistan bordering Iran.

India must also seek more security cover by the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) for its projects. Obviously given the security situation India cannot demand without giving. It is imperative that India bear the costs for further development and training of this force which is currently largely borne by NATO.

The second dilemma for India is to reach an understanding with Afghanistan that is sustainable beyond Karzai’s reign. Maintaining the high level of engagement with Afghanistan with its obvious benefits for Afghanistan is likely to create a vested interest for whoever is in power in Kabul to continue the thriving bilateral ties with India. Creating linkages with individual stakeholders in Afghanistan to protect its commercial interests, thus, becomes important to ensure that India’s presence can withstand a change of personality in Kabul.

Stepping up its support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is another way of ensuring that continued engagement with India becomes indispensible for any Afghan government. A start in this direction can be made by increasing the number of ANSF personnel trained in India annually, which at present stands at an abysmally low figure of 1000-1200. Similarly, India should also provide adequate funds to the ANSF for the purchase of the required weapons given India’s own limitations to provide the equipment to them directly.

Such assistance must focus urgently on the need to build up the close air support capability to ground troops that the embryonic Afghan Air Force will need to ensure minimal casualties, high morale of its own forces and impose correspondingly high costs on the Taliban. This assistance must not just be material, but rather one that builds local managerial and organisational capacity to enable Afghanistan to sustain such a force.

Similar capacity building programme are necessary for the Afghan National Police as well, where special emphasis should be given to developing skills for crowd control, better management of jail and detention cells, and interrogation. Proper border management is yet another avenue that India can develop to tackle the problems of drug trafficking and influx of people from and into Pakistan and Iran.

As the situation in Afghanistan continues to change and is likely to change even more drastically in the future, India is faced with the choice of being a pro-active game changer itself or continue to watch from the sidelines as it has for the last 12 years. Now is the time to shed its strategic ambiguity and to commit to an ever larger constructive role in the post-2014 Afghanistan.

(The writers are Vice-President and Associate Fellow, respectively, at Observer Research Foundation. A shorter version of this article was published in Mail Today, December 15, 2013))

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Samir Saran

Samir Saran

Samir Saran is the President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India’s premier think tank, headquartered in New Delhi with affiliates in North America and ...

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