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Joint interests draw Kabul and New Delhi closer

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

The Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) story took another turn with the visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Delhi early last week. In Afghanistan’s first strategic pact with any country, Kabul and New Delhi signed a landmark strategic partnership agreement during Karzai’s visit.

As part of the new pact, bilateral dialogue at the level of national security adviser has been institutionalized to focus on enhancing cooperation in security issues. New Delhi is hoping that Kabul will take the lead in defining the exact terms of this engagement.

Along with this strategic pact, two other agreements on India-Afghan cooperation in developing hydrocarbons and mineral resources were signed further underlining India’s role in evolution of Afghanistan as a viable economic unit. The two nations agreed to enhance political cooperation and institutionalize regular bilateral political and foreign office consultations.

The strategic pact that commits India to “training, equipping and capacity building” of the Afghan National Security Services will certainly raise eyebrows, especially in Pakistan.

Not surprisingly, Islamabad was quick to remind the Karzai government that it should behave responsibly. For a long time, India had been rather cautious in taking a leap into this realm so as not to offend so-called Pakistani sensitivities. The West further supported this posture by encouraging India to be a player in Afghan reconstruction efforts but actively discouraged India from taking on a more forceful security role. But Pakistan’s machinations continued with or without Indian provocation. Its proxies kept on targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan. As NATO forces leave Afghanistan over the course of next few years, no one expects the Afghan security forces to be able to take to the challenge of the Taliban and other extremists without any help and Indian training would be very influential in this regard. And India cannot be expected to ignore its genuine interests in Afghanistan just to keep Pakistan in good humor. So the plan to train Afghan forces that was first mooted six years back by Kabul has become a reality now.

Meanwhile, as Pakistan decides to up the ante in Afghanistan, the Afghan government is seeking international support in tackling Rawalpindi’s growing sense of adventure.

The pact with India is Afghanistan’s way of trying to deal with an increasingly more menacing Pakistan. During his visit to New Delhi, Karzai was categorical in suggesting that South Asia faced “dangers from terrorism and extremism used as an instrument of policy against innocent civilians.” Karzai is seeking strategic pacts with the U.S. and the NATO as well to ward off the challenge from Pakistan.

Karzai’s position has changed significantly in recent months. After calling the Taliban “brothers” and encouraging the insurgents to reconcile with the Afghan government, Karzai has become more hard-nosed in his appraisal of the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan. The Afghan president has now suggested that peace talks with the Taliban are futile unless they involve the Pakistani authorities, who are the real masters behind the shenanigans of the insurgent groups.

Karzai’s attitude has been particularly affected by the killing last month of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan government’s chief peace envoy, by the Taliban, Kabul has been categorical that this assassination was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta with the active support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The reconciliation effort, as a result, is in tatters.

Ever since the death of Osama Bin Laden in May, the U.S.-Pakistan ties too have been in disarray. The security establishment in Pakistan wants to retain Pakistan’s central role in negotiations with the Taliban and want to prevent the U.S. from having any long-term military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington has been signaling that it would no tolerate continuing use of terrorist groups, aided and betted by the ISI to kill Americans and their allied in Afghanistan. In a radical departure from the long-standing U.S. policy of publicly playing down Pakistan’s official support for insurgents operating from havens within Pakistan, Admiral Mike Mullen, the just-departed chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Haqqani network as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI.

Much of the blame for the current turmoil in Af-Pak lies with the fact that the Obama administration made it clear early on that it wants to exit Afghanistan as soon as it possibly can without any concessions to the rapidly changing realities on the ground there. Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Haqqani network has been an open secret for quite some time now as has been the fact that the Haqqanis have been responsible for some of the most murderous assaults on the Indian and Western presence in Afghanistan. The U.S. was reluctant to take on Pakistan on this issue till such time as their interests did not come under direct attack.

As the Western forces prepare for a pull-out, New Delhi is right to strengthen its partnership with Kabul. Strengthening the security dimension of India-Afghanistan ties is extremely important for India as it is in New Delhi’s interest to help Kabul preserve its strategic autonomy at a time when Pakistan has made it clear that it would like the Haqqani network and the Taliban to be at the center of the post-American political dispensation in Kabul.

It is true that given the logic of geography and demography, Pakistan cannot be ignored in the future of Afghanistan. Karzai was assuaging Pakistani anxieties when he suggested that “Pakistan is a twin brother” while “India is a great friend.” But India and Afghanistan can certainly change the conditions on the ground forcing Pakistan to acknowledge that its policy towards its neighbors has not only brought instability in the region but has also pushed the very existence of Pakistan into question.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.