Mustafa Ali writes from New Delhi: President Hamid Karzai’s visit to India’s capital is very significant. With rising tension in his relations with Pakistan, Karzai needs to find support elsewhere. India and Afghanistan signed a security agreement in 2011. Technically this permits him to ask for artillery, tanks, aircraft and other hardware to boost his armed forces. Will he eventually get more weapons from India? India has invested about $2 billion in socio-economic projects in Afghanistan. This comes down to building roads, bridges and hospitals. Karzai has floated the idea of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan signing an agreement that would guarantee they never again go to war against one another. In other words, Karzai thinks of a triangular relationship to shape the future of the region.
So why is there tension between Islamabad and Kabul? The new government of Nawaz Sharif is talking about peace talks with the Taliban – that is the Pakistani Taliban. They have sought refuge in eastern Afghanistan as the Pakistani military continues its campaign against them. Needless to say, Islamabad does not think that the Afghans are doing enough to prevent them seeking safe havens.
Meanwhile China and India have had a spat about some disputed territory in Kashmir. This was an opportunity for Karzai to demonstrate some solidarity with India. As is well known, the Middle Kingdom is increasing its presence in Pakistan and is very conscious that the present Pakistani regime could collapse. It remains to be seen if the Pakistani military permits Sharif to make concessions to the Taliban. This would mean ceding most of the border areas with Afghanistan to the Taliban. The knock-on effect of this would be to strengthen the Taliban in Afghanistan after NATO forces leave next year. There is also the possibility that the Pakistani Taliban will expand beyond their bases in western Pakistan into the heartland of the country.
India consistently accuses Pakistan of state-sponsored terrorism. The target is India. Hence New Delhi and Kabul have a common interest in ensuring that terrorism does not derail the growing relationship between the two countries. India does not want to see Pakistan and Afghanistan becoming a threat to its national security. Karzai and his clan do not want Afghanistan to fall under Islamabad’s control after 2014. They would be the losers. Greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan’s future is therefore desirable. The key player eventually will be China. It has an interest in restricting Indian influence in Afghanistan. Another important objective is to ensure that the Taliban do not take over the country after 2014. This would inevitably lead to the penetration of Central Asia by Islamic radicals. Already China is beginning to think of Central Asia as its greatest security headache after 2014. It has huge investments in oil and gas there and is building up the infrastructure so as to move goods more quickly. Russia, of course, is another important actor. The United States, in its present defensive mood, may leave Central Asia to China and Russia.
Karzai is a frequent visitor to New Delhi. This is his 11th trip but then he has been to Islamabad 19 times. Hence this visit has to be put in perspective. He needs to engage in a delicate balancing act between India and Pakistan. Time is now of the essence. Will he manage to survive the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces? What can India do to help him?