24 November 2005

India is vulnerable in Afghanistan

The brutal murder of an Indian driver by the Taliban is a reminder that India has plenty of hands wielding shovels in Afghanistan but no boots on the ground there. While sending troops — or walking away — is not an option, is President Hamid Karzai really in a position to provide security?

24 November 2005
The Hindu

News Analysis

Worker's killing exposes India's vulnerability in Afghanistan

Siddharth Varadarajan

THE KIDNAPPING and brutal murder in Afghanistan of a Border Roads Organisation driver has exposed not just the mindless, criminal nature of the Taliban — which is well known — but also the peculiar vulnerability of India and Indians in a country that is still in the throes of conflict despite reacquiring the trappings of a State.

The Indian government has committed itself to both helping revive Afghanistan's physical infrastructure and also to developing a full-fledged political and strategic relationship with its government. The Indian policy is largely motivated by the desire to deny Pakistan the opportunity to regain the "strategic depth" it once had in Afghanistan. The road from Delaram to Zaranj that India is building will allow Kabul and New Delhi to trade with each other via the Iranian port of Chabahar rather than through Pakistan, which Islamabad in any case is loathe to allow. Certainly, the significance of the road and of the Indian presence in Afghanistan has not been lost on the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, a section of which is still said to be working with the Taliban.

Today, India is one of the most visible and prominent political backers of President Hamid Karzai in the region. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first foreign head of government or VVIP to visit Kabul and actually spend a night in the city. On November 19, India announced that it was awarding the prestigious Indira Gandhi Peace Prize for 2005 to Mr. Karzai. These gestures are intended to convey the extent of New Delhi's commitment to the Afghan President.

"The assumption is that Mr. Karzai enjoys unquestioned legitimacy and authority inside Afghanistan and that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from publicly and demonstrably linking India to him in this manner," says M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat with extensive experience in the region. "But this is simply not the case."

The Afghan President's writ does not really extend to large parts of his country. The result, says Mr. Bhadrakumar, is that India has allowed itself to become identified too closely with a man whose authority is being contested. "Even for his own personal security, Karzai needs the American firm, Dyncorp," a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing told The Hindu . "So how is he going to ensure the Indians working in some remote corner of Nimroz province are protected from the Taliban?"

Four years after the United States-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban, the former ruling militia has managed to pull itself together again. One indication of their renewed ability to wage war is the casualty rate among U.S. soldiers. Of the 315 foreign military personnel who have died in Afghanistan since the time `Operation Enduring Freedom' was launched, 120 of them — approximately 40 per cent of the total — were killed in this year alone. That's up from 58 in 2004, 57 in 2003, 68 in 2002 and 12 in 2001. As for civilian deaths from bombings and shootings, this year's death toll is already close to 1,500 — the highest annual total since the ending of major offensive operations by the U.S. military which also claimed a large number of civilian lives.

The irony is that the Taliban's increasing strength — as measured by their ability to inflict casualties on foreign troops — has proceeded more or less in tandem with President Hamid Karzai's ascent up the ladder of formal political legitimacy. From being someone whom the Bush administration had hand-picked and installed in Kabul as de facto leader, Mr. Karzai last year oversaw the adoption of a new Constitution and went on to win a keenly contested presidential election. Elections to the Majlis have also now been held. The U.S., which is keen to drawn down its active military presence, is focussing its efforts on training and equipping the Afghan army. However, none of this has helped to improve the security environment within the country.

Lately, there have been reports in the Pakistani press suggesting that once again Washington is looking at the possibility of cutting a deal with the Taliban, or at least getting a section of the former ruling militia to join forces with Mr. Karzai. These moves might also explain Washington's reluctance to make a bigger issue out of the fact that Taliban insurgents continue to cross the Pakistani border with ease.

For India, which has very real stakes in ensuring Afghanistan re-emerges as a peaceful state, the challenge is to remain committed to the rebuilding of the country without being sucked into the vortex of its often destructive politics. "Our aim from the start should have been to provide aid, training and scholarships, increase people-to-people contact and take on projects, but without politically over-committing ourselves," says Mr. Bhadrakumar. India wants to be recognised publicly as a key player but it lacks the strategic or military muscle to back that up. In other words, being seen as close allies of Mr. Karzai makes Indians in Afghanistan a target; and in the absence of any security presence of its own, New Delhi is helpless in the face of this targeting.

In the run-up to Manmohan Singh's visit to Kabul in August, the Indian side had expressed some interest in increasing the level of cooperation on security matters. The Afghans were cool to the proposal, as were the Americans and Pakistanis. In any case, the fact that Washington insists all foreign forces in Afghanistan must function under the overall command of the U.S. Army effectively rules out the possibility of even a limited Indian security contingent being deployed to protect, say, Indian infrastructure projects. The small ITBP force stationed in Afghanistan protects only Indian diplomatic property and never leaves the compound. Indeed, so restricted is their mobility that the PM's special plane for the August visit brought gym and exercise equipment for them.

While there are disagreements within and outside government about how to structure New Delhi's relations with President Karzai, all agree that there can be no question of India walking away from its commitments. It is possible that the Taliban picked on a worker from the Delaram project precisely because it is so important strategically, because the road to Iran will eventually reduce Pakistan's leverage over Afghanistan. Or the choice of target may have been a coincidence, the aim simply being to tell India to stop "interfering" in Afghan affairs. Either way, it is in India's interest to stay the course. It is also in India's interest to work on allaying Pakistani fears about its Afghan policy. In pushing for Afghanistan's inclusion in SAARC and agreeing to open discussions on extending the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline to India, the Manmohan Singh government gas sought to create a framework in which New Delhi and Islamabad could cooperate with each other in the region rather than seeking to score "strategic" points over each other. The logic of these proposals must now be taken forward. It is only a genuinely South Asian approach that can lay the basis for Afghanistan's revival.

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