The president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai does not need any reasons for a trip to India. Indeed, his latest visit to Delhi last week was the third in as many years. Yet, if a pretext is ever needed for a Karzai visit, it can always be found. There are 481 universities in India and last week’s visit was ostensibly occasioned by a ceremony conferring an honorary doctorate on Karzai at the Lovely Professional University in the northwestern state of Punjab, which used to be a gateway for the invasions from Central Asia in much of India’s history through the past millennia.
Indeed, eyebrows will be raised that Lovely conferred an honorary doctorate on Karzai when his critics and detractors are closing in on him and putting question marks on his legacy. Karzai may not be around as president if the Afghan cauldron boils over in the post-2014 mayhem as is widely expected. He told the probing media persons in Delhi last week that he is simply too tired to carry on and needed to retire from the stressful public life.
But Karzai is a close friend of India and Delhi is gripped by gnawing worries about the «spillover» of instability from Afghanistan. Delhi would have mixed feelings about Karzai’s determination to step down next year as president. The Indian political leadership will be sorry to see him walk into the sunset. The Indian president Pranab Mukherjee made it a point to participate in the ceremony at the Lovely.
But the thinking among a core segment within the Indian strategic community is that the best thing to happen will be if Karzai simply vacated the stage and in a «statesmanlike» gesture make way for an erstwhile Northern Alliance leader to wear the mantle of president, preferably hailing from the Panjshir Valley, so that the unfinished business of the war against the Taliban could be relentlessly pursued on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets and of course in the hills – to borrow Winston Churchill’s famous words. India’s security establishment is not inclined to roll over and make way for Pakistani influence to gain ascendancy in Kabul in the post-2004 situation.
Meanwhile, Delhi watches with deep concern the floundering peace track and the centrality that Pakistan has managed to secure in the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy. The Indian security analysts apprehend a Taliban «surge» on the Afghan chessboard taking advantage of the security vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of the NATO troops… The Indian security experts fear that in an anarchic situation developing in Afghanistan, terrorist groups (and their Pakistani mentors) could exploit the milieu to gain «strategic depth» fir staging cross-border attacks. It is a fear that is well grounded, borne out of past experiences.
At any rate, Karzai’s «working visit» last week factored in the acute Indian concerns over the developing regional security situation and in all likelihood Kabul hoped to cash in on it. Even as Karzai was setting out for Delhi, his aides began speaking about Kabul’s expectations of military cooperation with India to beef up the capacity of the Afghan armed forces. In the event the focus of Karzai’s visit came to rest on an Afghan-Indian military tie-up to cope with the post-2014 security scenario. Karzai himself added to the high drama by a cryptic remark at the end of his talks in Delhi: «We [Kabul] have a wish list that we have put before the Indian government. It is now up to India how they want to respond to our request. There was no discussion on the deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan, and there is no need of doing that».
On the other hand, the Indian side has been notably reticent in the public statements. The details of Karzai’s «wish list» are not known but media reports mentioned that he sought 105 mm artillery, medium-lift aircraft, bridge-laying equipment and trucks, amongst other items. The official Indian position is that such matters need to be taken up at the appropriate level, which is a working group headed by the foreign secretaries of the two countries constituted under the strategic pact of 2011 and is scheduled to meet in the coming weeks.
However, the Indian Foreign Ministry has also kept a degree of «strategic ambiguity» in its stance, stating in a recap on Karzai’s talks, «As Afghanistan moves towards its critical security, political and economic transitions marked by the drawdown of NATO forces and the Presidential elections in 2014, the strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India can play an important/crucial role in providing security and stability to Afghanistan. India is ready to stand by Afghanistan as close, friendly and historic neighbor through these transitions and play a due and responsible role in this regard».
Interestingly, however, the head of the Pakistani foreign ministry Jalil Abbas Jillani directed his reaction pointedly at Kabul rather than at Delhi: «As a sovereign country Afghanistan can pursue its own options but we hope that it would mind the overall peace and security situation». It was a measured reaction, more in the nature of a word of pre-emptive caution than of outright condemnation of a precipitate situation.
The Indian response to Karzai’s «wish list» is likely to be cautious, too, taking into account a variety of factors. Karzai’s visit took place at a juncture when the Afghan-Pakistani ties have dipped to a low point. But a view prevails even among the Afghan opposition politicians that much of the current tensions on the Durand Line is also related to Pakistani antipathy toward Karzai’s political personality and his own attempt to ride a wave of Afghan nationalism in the critical period leading to the presidential elections next April. Clearly, a lot of jockeying is going on among the Afghan politicians and Karzai is a shrewd tactician and master-builder of coalitions. The last thing Delhi would want is to be drawn into the quicksand of Afghan politics – leave alone to take sides in a shooting war on the Durand Line.
One most critical determinant of Indian policy will be the inevitable impact that any stepping up of the Indian military cooperation with Afghanistan would have on the Pakistani moves in the period ahead. The strong likelihood is that Pakistan will retaliate by stepping up its help for the Taliban, which of course will trigger a host of downstream consequences for the international community, which is involved in the stabilization of the Afghan situation. Plainly put, Delhi will most certainly take into account the United States’ continued aversion toward any form of Indian military role in Afghanistan that might upset Pakistani sensitivity, especially at the present sensitive juncture when Islamabad’s cooperation is vital for the evacuation of the NATO’s war equipment worth tens of billions of dollars via Karachi Port.
Besides, Delhi will also be mindful of the delicate matrix involving the India-Pakistan relationship that is shaping up in the coming months with Nawaz Sharif leading the new government as prime minister in Islamabad. Sharif has repeatedly pledged his intention to improve the relationship with India and despite the Indian misgivings about the adversarial mindset of the Pakistani Army, Delhi will be in a «wait-and-watch» mode tilted toward Sharif and probing the possibilities of a constructive engagement of the new civilian leadership in Islamabad.
Indeed, there could be twists and turns of the Afghan endgame that are still in the womb of time. Sharif has stated its intention to revisit the Afghan strategy. Much depends on his political grit and capacity to leverage his extensive networking with the religious parties (going back by a few decades) to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan. Arguably, Sharif is well placed to be the guarantor of an Afghan peace settlement involving the Taliban. But then, the caveat also needs to be noted, namely, that the Pakistani Army micromanages the Afghan policy and Sharif’s intervention will inevitably bring into play the much bigger question of the civil-military balance in Pakistan’s policymaking.
Suffice to say, while Delhi may have genuine concern regarding the developing situation in Afghanistan, it will be extremely injudicious at this juncture to accede to any Afghan request for «lethal» military assistance. Having said that, Karzai himself was probably grandstanding too and deliberately wearing his «India connection» on his sleeve – and the Indians didn’t mind him doing that. Evidently, Karzai’s whole intention is to keep Islamabad guessing. His skills in shadow boxing are a legion.