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Sumitha Narayanan Kutty: Why we can't take Afghanistan for granted

Hamid Karzai clung tight to India but Afghanistan's new leadership may have other ideas

Sumitha Narayanan Kutty 

Sumitha Narayanan Kutty

Afghanistan has a new president, albeit two months late. And even as the newly inaugurated president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and his “chief executive officer” Abdullah Abdullah hash out the specifics of the country’s first peaceful political transition, outgoing president Hamid Karzai minced no words to convey who he thought were Afghanistan’s ‘true friends.’

“The Western countries and the United States of America came to Afghanistan for their personal goals. There are also countries who, without having personal agendas, are here for honest cooperation with Afghanistan’s government. One example is India.”

Karzai’s sharp criticism of the United States and NATO alliance in the same breath as his praise for India were completely in line with what he has been saying for a long while now. It was interesting to see his no holds barred attempt to drive this point home crediting India, Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan… and India, again.

Before India breaks out the champagne, it would be prudent to acknowledge that the stakes have changed in a post-Karzai Afghanistan. The India-Afghanistan partnership now hinges on the new national unity government in Kabul – forged between two bitter rivals nonetheless – and their vision of regional cooperation. Ghani and Abdullah will together decide where India fits (though rumor has it, the president has the final word).

“Indian military aid not priority”

The United States is set to withdraw all but 9,800 troops by year end from Afghanistan, with a complete exit scheduled by 2016. Given this situation, India has often been urged to assume a more active role in the country, particularly of the military kind. There has been great (and well-intentioned) interest for India, which has spent $2 billion in aid, to step up to the plate and become Afghanistan’s “Plan B” of sorts. As president, Hamid Karzai championed the same. In the last year alone, he made three visits to New Delhi. He also handed over a military “wish-list” in December 2013.

By June this year even as Karzai made a renewed push for greater military aid, both Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, then presidential finalists, began hinting at other ideas for the relationship.

First, they do not seem to prioritize military cooperation as Karzai did. Responding to this writer’s question on whether he would push for greater military cooperation with India like his predecessor, Abdullah Abdullah who is a traditional Indian ally answered in the negative.

“In terms of dealing with Prime Minister Modi’s government, I don’t think the priority for Afghanistan is to ask for military aid at this stage, ” he replied at a video conversation organized by the Atlantic Council in Washington DC in June. He however added that he was keen to work with New Delhi to enhance “existing areas of cooperation for the benefit of economic development in Afghanistan.”

A quick scan of the Northern Alliance leader’s election manifesto finds New Delhi placed within the two pillars of his ‘economic agenda’ – the first, for furthering regional connectivity and second, on deepening energy partnerships, specifically the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

President Ashraf Ghani is yet to evince special interest in India’s role in his country. His foreign policy thrust has remained oriented to the West, particularly the United States, with a regional thrust on a “ten-year process of engagement with Pakistan.” He has expressed some interest in talking to India on trilateral issues such as transit.

The Afghan president’s 310-page election manifesto mentions India frequently, but in very vague terms with respect to strategies for Afghanistan’s education, health, economic and trade sectors. In the section devoted to foreign policy, the country is only placed in Kabul’s “Fourth Circle” of communication along with China and other “Asian countries.” India finds itself ranked behind “Neighbors” (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran & Pakistan); “Islamic Countries” and “Europe, USA, Canada and Japan.”

Second, Ghani and Abdullah do not share Karzai’s anti-American posture which pushed him toward India and Iran. The future of the bilateral security agreement (BSA) is already secure with the new Afghan government having endorsed it right after the presidential inauguration. Kabul’s new government will continue “banking on” the ten-year security framework, supplemented by international support from friendly nations like India. This suits India’s current appetite and bandwidth for a secondary, less muscular role in Afghanistan.

New Delhi Playing to Strengths

Despite much talk in Washington about how the India-Pakistan rivalry plays out in Kabul, India is painfully aware of its geopolitical limitations vis-à-vis its neighbor which shares a border with Afghanistan. Its strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 with Kabul prioritizes security but India remains cautious, terming it an “enabling framework” for cooperation when the time is right. Nonetheless, New Delhi has keep the situation conducive to more military aid. One such move is the agreement India signed with Russia, where it would pay Moscow to supply smaller arms such as light artillery and mortar to the Afghan military.

Another factor that affects India’s Afghan calculations is its “Pakistan first” policy. On any given day, New Delhi would take the normalization of ties with Pakistan over a greater role in Afghanistan. Thus, with no illusions of a primary role in shaping outcomes, India continues to work on expanding economic cooperation in conjunction with Iran which provides much needed land access to Afghanistan. Like India, Iran’s policies toward Afghanistan transcend political differences and the country is key to Kabul’s framework of regional cooperation. This collaboration will be a space to watch.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has continued to reiterate New Delhi’s support to safeguard the happiness of the Afghan people. With the political transition in Kabul now complete, India and Afghanistan should work on reaffirming and expanding their partnership. What form this partnership takes however remains Afghanistan’s prerogative.

Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is a foreign affairs analyst specializing in Iran and South Asia and a Research Scholar at the Takshashila Institution—an independent think tank.

First Published: Sun, October 12 2014. 22:46 IST