In Afghanistan, with a purpose

It is evident from Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s just-ended state visit to this country (November 9-13), and the nature of the discussions he had here, that Afghanistan is at a new juncture, and so are India-Afghanistan relations.
Since the end of 2001, the United States and Nato were underwriting Afghan security after the Americans ousted the Taliban from power, and also Kabul’s basic expenses. The combat units of these countries will leave by 2014. In fact, the Afghans are eager to bring this about, and have already taken charge of 75 per cent of security responsibility of their territory. They have acquitted themselves creditably, dealing with “strategic” and well-executed Taliban attacks against significant targets quickly and without suffering serious losses. This has brought praise even from the internationals who are otherwise always carping.
Of course, Afghanistan is not a walk in the park. This may be expected in a country where war is ongoing 30 years on in spite of heavy Western military intervention (and this says something for the quality of that intervention and the regional political framework within which it was embedded). But the problems are hardly insurmountable. However, the overall picture painted in Western writings and analyses, including those of the media, has stuck close to the hoary colonial narrative that the “corrupt”, sloppy and slimy “natives” will bring nothing but misery to their benighted people when the guiding light of the West is no longer available.
Regrettably, the Indian intelligentsia has bought into this narrative wholesale because its information base is exclusively Western. Indian news establishments do not base journalists even in countries where Indian policy is heavily invested, as in Afghanistan where our aid commitment is about $2 billion, the highest for any country until recently (when we pledged similar figures for Bangladesh). Policy circles also tend to get carried away at times by the force of Western opinion.
And this brings us to the other major change which is looming. Mr Karzai has done his constitutionally mandated two terms and a new President is to be elected in April 2014, the same year the bulk of the Western forces go away, obviously raising some concerns for stability in the overall framework of security fears in a war-torn country.
India had developed a rapport with Mr Karzai but would soon be dealing with a new leader. Although the broad structure of ties between India and Afghanistan will lie within the framework of the Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011, which was indeed signed in anticipation of 2014, domestic politics in Afghanistan can turn. But New Delhi, which has long decided to “stand by” Afghanistan, is mentally prepared to help Kabul meet challenges that may lie ahead (along with important Islamic countries, leading Western powers and international institutions).
Nevertheless, it is evident that careful modulation of policy at the start of a new act of the play is called for. Is India up to it? It does not need to be brave but it cannot afford to be timid either, always looking over its shoulders to see what others in the region, especially Pakistan, might say about its role in Kabul in the new situation, or what the US thinks, although it is a given that all responsible countries will dialogue with one another.
Undue timidity can lead to missed opportunities in a theatre in which India enjoys greater goodwill — at the level of people of all shades in this very diverse country and across government sectors — than in absolutely any country in the world. More, no country enjoys the confidence of all Afghanistan (this borders on familial affection) as much as India does.
New Delhi grasps this at the intellectual level, but may still need some goading to action. “We have recognised that an active development partnership between our governments is not enough and it needs to be supplemented by nation-building and stronger people-to-people links,” said President Pranab Mukherjee in his speech at the banquet he held in honour of the visiting Afghan leader last Monday. He specially spoke in this connection of developing private trade and industry, and regional cooperation.
We cannot be unaware that a country in need will seek help from where it can get it. China, a neighbour of Afghanistan’s, has already made important investments in the mining sector. It has also offered to equip and train troops if Kabul asks. Big Chinese stakes in Afghanistan cannot but have major strategic implications for India, especially with Pakistan having strong links with Beijing.
Speaking to the investor community in Mumbai on this trip, Mr Karzai said his country would lay out the red carpet for Indian businesses and only grey ones for investors from other nations, but urged speed in accepting the offer. Don’t let the red get dusty, he cautioned. He also cited the case of China which had moved into the Afghan mining sector early, and in a big way. This was by no means a veiled threat, but it is clear that the vacuum will be filled by other capable states if India doesn’t fetch up.
(For those unfamiliar with the story, Afghanistan can well be the new West Asia. Its iron ore reserves — the world’s largest known deposits — are thought to be worth about $300 billion. Its copper stocks, which China has begun acquiring in a big way, are also the world’s most extensive. Riches of coal, gas and oil abound. If one-twentieth of all this can be realised through international investments and technology in the medium term, Afghanistan will be an altogether different place.)
In order not to be spooked by insecurity and instability fears, especially insofar as Indian private investments go, a more nuanced view of the situation is needed. Clearly, political chaos is unlikely to break out in Afghanistan when the Western forces leave.
The “warlords”, who fought the Soviets and then virtually destroyed the country fighting one another, are not the free agents they once were and are integrally absorbed in the country’s new political and economic matrix, and have benefited from this inordinately. Their former soldiers have turned against their masters, by and large, as the latter fattened themselves, leaving the footmen in the lurch. The funds and arms from neighbouring countries (based on ethnicity), except Pakistan, are a thing of the past. A new, dynamic and young society has taken shape in Afghanistan. It has little time for the “warlords” (locally called “jihadis”) or for the Taliban. It is this pervasive element which is India’s natural ally in Afghanistan. The new Afghanistan has the military, political and social capacity to check the Taliban.

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