For the second time in the nearly two years that he’s been India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Jayant Prasad has been witness to the Indian embassy in Kabul subjected to terror attacks. But he still wears his Indianness like a talisman on his sleeve. Jyoti Malhotra caught up with him in his Kabul home, which looks more like a fortress than a house. Excerpts from an exclusive interview.
This is the second time in two years that the Indian embassy in Kabul has been attacked. Who do you think is behind this and why?
The message is very clear and simple. We are being attacked by those who are against the friendship between India and Afghanistan.
Who are these people?
I wouldn’t like to speculate.
Is the Indian embassy a particular target of the terrorists?
It is true that there has been a rapid deterioration in the security situation, especially in the last few weeks since the August 20 presidential election. The terrorists are gradually moving out of the south and the east of Afghanistan and into the north and western parts of the country. But the NATO forces, the Italians and others have also been attacked.
Would you say the Americans need to put greater pressure on the Pakistanis to crack down on the Taliban and Al Qaeda across the border?
Well, there is no example of effectively dealing with terrorism or insurgency anywhere in the world without ending sustenance and support that comes from the contiguous area. This is something those involved on the security side have to think about seriously.
Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, in his report to his government a few weeks ago has, at last, spoken about the need to take action against the Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Omar, which takes refuge in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Your reaction?
The Quetta Shura has the comfort of cohabiting with accommodative hosts, some of whom are part of Pakistan’s state structures. There is no intelligence black-hole there. The Quetta Shura is not on the moon. It is in a city that is the capital of a province in a neighbouring country. There is no need for guided munitions or drones to take out members of the Quetta Shura, a gentle knock on the door would do the trick.
Is there any further information on the attack against the Indian embassy in Kabul last year in which Venkat Rao, a diplomat, and Brig. Mehta, an army officer, as well as several Afghans were killed?
I think the provenance of that attack is well-known.
The Pakistan army is mounting an operation on South Waziristan, where some of the hardcore insurgents live, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, accused of bombing the Indian embassy in Kabul last year…
I wish them all possible success. We have been waiting for this for eight years.
McChrystal, while acknowledging India’s developmental presence in Afghanistan, has stated that Pakistan will be upset if India continues playing such an active role...
How can one agree that Indian assistance is creating a problem for Pakistan? This is not the objective of Indian assistance to Afghanistan. India’s objective is to stabilize Afghanistan. Getting the Afghans to stand on their own feet is good for the Afghan people, good for India and good for the world, including all the regional countries.
Did McChrystal’s statement surprise you?
Not in the least. Some elements in the Pakistani leadership present their case in this manner. But we are not in Afghanistan to surround Pakistan in any pincer movement. Moreover, it is not the position of the US government that the Indian presence in Afghanistan is creating any problem for any regional country. This is what they have said publicly and this is what they have told us bilaterally.
What do the Afghans say about the Taliban-Al Qaeda?
Even today, at least 90 per cent of the Afghans approve or strongly approve of the foreign presence in Afghanistan and disapprove or strongly disapprove of the Taliban-Al Qaeda presence here. Despite the ubiquitous presence of the Taliban across the country, the number of hardcore Taliban fighters are estimated to be about 20,000, both by the international security forces and by the Afghan government. And yet they have a pervasive presence, not only in areas contiguous to Pakistan in the east and south of the country, but now also around Kabul and the west and the north.
The impression outside is that the Afghans want the American troops to leave…
If the international security forces were to withdraw today, it would become very difficult to deal with the Taliban, without building up the Afghan army properly. About 134,000 personnel are expected to be in place by 2010, but it is one thing to build the numbers, quite another effort to make them into a fighting force. The army doesn’t only fight with infantry weapons, they have to have enablers, a modicum of artillery, they have to be taught the correct battle tactics. They need mobility and aircraft. This will take another 3-5 years at least. Any talk of getting results in Afghanistan in the next 12-18 months is a pipe-dream. Because in Afghanistan, you need patience and perseverance, you need long-term commitment to build Afghan institutions to take charge.
So leaving in the next 12-18 months as is being talked about in America would be a betrayal?
If that happens, Afghanistan could slip into the same situation as before 2001. We would then be restoring the status quo ante in Afghanistan.
So you would be going down a slippery slope?
In that case, absolutely.
Does India believe there is a difference between the Taliban and the Al Qaeda?
The Taliban and Al Qaeda are organisationally different, ideologically not. They have the same support base and agenda but different areas of operation. They share a fundamental philosophy to keep women subservient, deprive them of education and deny democracy and pluralism, essential for stabilising and rebuilding a viable state system in Afghanistan. Indeed there is a growing fusion of the ideological streams of the terrorist groups that operate under the Al Qaeda umbrella.
Is Afghanistan becoming a battle-ground for India & Pakistan’s expanding spheres of influence?
Absolutely not, we are not in competition for Afghan goodwill. India has been an old friend of Afghanistan and we have been able to nurture that friendship in the years since 2001.
Foreign minister S M Krishna has talked of the need for a "political settlement" with the Taliban. Does India believe that the “moderate” Taliban can be won around?
Mr Krishna did not speak of any political settlement with the Taliban, but about the need for a political settlement with those that did not share its aims. There is no doubt, indeed, that a political settlement is desirable. The UN Security Council has stated clearly that reconciliation should be supported as an Afghan-led process, not one directed or induced from outside, within the Afghan Constitution and should fully respect its Resolution 1267. This is also very much India’s position.
You’ve been witness to Afghanistan’s second presidential elections… Your reaction?
It’s a sad thing that at the end of eight years after the ouster of the Taliban, accomplishments have been modest. On the positive side, 6.2 million children now go to school, of which 40 per cent are girl students, there is near universal public health coverage for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, and 4 million out of 6.5 million refugees have returned to their country.
But it has also been a story of missed opportunities. When the Taliban and the Al Qaeda escaped into the contiguous areas, there was a clean slate in the country, and the Afghan people in concert with the international community could have written on it whatever they wanted to. But the project, in which the prime focus was eliminating the threat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, was implemented in a half-hearted way. There was the unfortunate diversion of attention away from Afghanistan to Iraq. In fact, even the UN representatives at the time were of a “light footprint” of the international community, which was the wrong time to talk about it.
So that was the first mistake...
Absolutely. It meant that the development effort faltered and the security effort was seriously misplaced. We are now talking about 400,000 Afghan army and police. What is currently available on the ground is very small. The right decisions are probably now being taken, but they are being taken 8 years too late.
What were the other big mistakes?
The other is that instead of building public goods and state institutions, there has been an inordinate influx of foreign consultants and foreign advisers. Inadequate attention was devoted to building Afghan capacity or providing the Afghan Government the means to pay their public servants. In the last two years that I have been here, at least 3 doctors in the Indira Gandhi Institute for Child Health have become chauffeurs in the UN compound, for instead of a monthly salary of 125 dollars, they are paid 600 as chauffeurs.
So there is huge resentment against the expatriate community?
Some Afghans have begun to believe that the foreigners are here for their own purposes and that most of the money that is spent here is siphoned away by way of contractors profits or consultants fees.
So the presidential elections were a big step in building democracy in Afghanistan, despite the alleged fraud?
India has been a democracy with over 60 years of practice of conducting elections. Even so, we are still resolving some problems, including pre-election violence and small malpractices that we are able to redress. The outstanding aspect of Afghan elections was that there has been absolutely zero electoral violence between or among the supporters of the major presidential candidates. And second, both President Karzai and his major rival, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, have got votes from across ethnic lines.
You are not concerned about the widely alleged fraud?
It is not as if elections can be perfect in the first or second effort in a country that never had elections before.
And if Hamid Karzai is re-elected?
India is a democracy and we are a very strong votary of dealing wih governments constituted after the electoral processes. We will work very closely with any government that is chosen by the Afghan people. Moreover, all major presidential contenders are equally appreciative and supportive of India’s role in Afghanistan. We know President Karzai so well, he has studied in India, he knows our country very well and we would be very happy to work with him in the future as well.
How does India take forward its policy in Afghanistan?
There was an unfortunate hiatus in India’s active presence here. But since September 11, 2001, this has been bridged by our partnership with Afghanistan that stretches from Badakhshan in the North to Kandahar in the South. We are not involved in the internal politics of Afghanistan. Many might consider this a failing. I believe this is to be an asset. The people of Afghanistan are strongly supportive of India’s presence in Afghanistan. Both Indians and Afghans live in a difficult neighbourhood, bristling with terrorism and insurgencies. Afghanistan’s success will also be India’s success.
What do the Afghans say about Indian assistance?
They know our assistance is helping them strengthening institutions and build human resources. We are taking 700 Afghan students to study in India this year, Afghan public servants can go to any Indian training institution from 3-180 days, it’s an open offer. Also, in my 33 years in the Indian Foreign Service, this is the first time I have been in a country where Indians are appreciated simply for being Indian. And that is a very good feeling.