India takes centre stage in Afghanistan endgame

Oct 7, 2011

The strategic partnership agreement signed by Afghanistan and India in New Delhi on Tuesday decisively puts India in the centre stage of the endgame in Afghanistan as it awaits the US and Nato to pull out of that country by 2014.

The timing, scope and reach of the agreement and the statements made at the time of signing are enough to cause alarm bells in Islamabad. Already, Pakistan’s traditional position on “strategic depth” has been in tatters. The emergence of India as a major player in determining the post-ISAF future of Afghanistan is a severe setback for the country’s security establishment that calls almost all the shots in the formulation and execution of the Afghan policy.

Significantly, this is the first such agreement Afghanistan has signed with any country and even precedes the one which is being negotiated with the US envisaging probably provision of bases for continued military presence. It comes at a time Pakistan has touched the nadir in relations with the US and Afghanistan. The is a clear signal of a paradigm shift in regional alignments. Notwithstanding disclaimers by President Hamid Karzai and Dr Manmohan Singh to allay Pakistan’s suspicions Islamabad cannot but feel genuinely perturbed by this accord that goes beyond normal friendship arrangements between two states. It inducts India as major player in the regional equation.

The agreement contains a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in the field of mineral resource development that should upstage China while Indian commitment to assist in training; equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan security forces is counter to Pakistan’s insistence that India must not have any military role in Kabul. Finally the commitment to strengthening trade, economic, scientific and technological cooperation premises on Pakistan’s recognition of landlocked Afghanistan’s transit rights. All of these have, in one way or other, a bearing on national and strategic interests of Pakistan in particular and China in general.

The American stamp on the accord is unmistakable and stems from Hillary Clinton controversial statement in New Delhi assigning India a lead role in Asia commensurate to its newly acquired economic and military prowess. With the US and Nato planning exit from Afghanistan by 2014 leaving a vacuum, which many thought would be filled by Pakistan, there seems to be a conscious effort to bring in India to play that role. Pakistan is thus being squeezed to revamp its policy and alignment in Afghanistan and let India bring Afghanistan under its ambit for expansion beyond that to the energy-rich Central Asia.

The astute Indian premier minced words but gave a peep into the Indian place in the post-US withdrawal scenario when he declared that “India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014.” Karzai reportedly conveyed to Singh that the strategic engagement between the two countries, which includes a big Indian effort to build Afghanistan’s security capacities, will help prepare Kabul for withdrawal of international forces. To Inter-Services Intelligence’s ire, Karzai also made common cause with India on terrorism issue against Pakistan when he subtly repeated American accusations against the ISI by saying that “Afghanistan recognises the dangers that this region faces through terrorism and radicalism that is being used as an instrument of policy.”

After more than two decades of being virtually marginalised in Afghan affairs, India made a diffident entry in the wake of ouster of Taleban in 2001 by the US. In deference to Pakistan which had facilitated their occupation of Afghanistan, the Americans initially did not encourage upfront Indian involvement and let it focus on “soft power” — economic aid and trade as one of the largest donors pledging $2 billion for building roads, hospitals, schools and parliament house. Singh envisioned “Afghanistan’s economic integration with the Indian economy”. The accord signals India’s push for huge oil and mining assets of Afghanistan where China was also bidding. Singh also hopes that both countries will try to operationalise their trilateral MoU signed with Iran to end Afghanistan’s landlocked isolation and dependence on Pakistan to reach the sea. It brightens India’s chances of bagging a lucrative mining contract for Hajigak, said to be the region’s largest untapped reserve of iron ore, and provides an opportunity to hunt for oil in northern Afghanistan.

The provision of military training appears vague and is being read minutely by the army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. In the past Afghan security troops have received training in Indian academies. The agreement apparently envisages a larger military scope for military-to-military ties between the two countries. What is more important this training would likely be imparted inside Afghanistan which means the US would be outsourcing this task to India on which it is annually spending $12 billion.

(Khaleej Times Online)

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