India explores options abroad Accord with Kabul most significant

By H K Dua : India has been batting on the back foot in handling its affairs at home, but on issues of foreign policy it has lately been looking for new openings, showing greater confidence in itself. In at least four areas it has made moves which befit a nation of billion-plus people keen to emerge as a major power of the 21st century.

The country  has chosen to explore oil and gas in the South China Sea; abstained on the vote on Syrian resolution in the Security Council; the Prime Minister has met President  Mahmoud  Ahmadinejad on the sidelines at the United Nations to promote better ties with Iran; and, most significantly, signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan.

All these initiatives are aimed at making the point that a country like India cannot but follow a foreign policy that is independent in nature and is aimed at protecting its national interest, without meaning  to harm the interest of any other nation, in the region or beyond.

It is possible the Chinese are going to feel  upset with India about  its decision to explore oil and gas in the South China Sea  — which in Beijing’s reckoning belongs to its area of influence.  The abstention on the vote on the Syrian situation and the Prime Minister’s meeting the Iranian President in New York may have made Washington unhappy; but India has its reasons and the right to pursue a policy that advances its interests without tripping on other countries toes.

The most important, perhaps a departure, is India’s decision to go in for  a strategic partnership with Afghanistan. The strategic partnership agreement, signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hamid Karzai, provides for India to train the Afghanistan National Army and the supply of military equipment to enable it to do its job better against the  security threats the country is facing.

Many in Pakistan are bound to feel disturbed by India and Afghanistan signing the strategic partnership agreement. Islamabad has always been living with the self-cultivated belief that Afghanistan is a part of its strategic depth it has been seeking to achieve.

Afghans, irrespective of their  dispensation, have never liked the notions of  strategic depth which  smack of Pakistan’s extra-territorial ambitions,  or at least a  keenness to have a quisling rule in Kabul to govern Afghanistan  — for Islamabad.

The strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan cuts into Pakistan’s plans to acquire this strategic depth in Afghanistan and as such is certainly bound to be unpopular with the Pakistan Army.

Essentially, Pakistan has been wanting to fill the vacuum  in Afghanistan, first left by the Soviet withdrawal and now after the US has pulled out its troops in 2014. After  the Soviet withdrawal two decades ago it sustained the Taliban regime in the 1990s until it was replaced by US-Nato troops in the wake of  9/11.

The induction of US-Nato troops aimed at fighting Al Qaida terrorists operating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was never liked by Pakistan. It followed a strange two-track approach which ostensibly was meant to support the US  war on terrorists and at the same time backing the Taliban groups in Afghanistan on the sly was a part of Pakistan’s ground plans. This kind of a two-faced policy followed by Pakistan was bound to lead to a fractured relationship between the US and Pakistan one day.

The Haqqani groups attack on the US-Nato interests in Afghanistan has made mending the US-Pak relations extremely difficult.  It looks like Islamabad may soon have to choose between Haqqani and the US.

For years, India has been kept at bay by Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Indian Embassy and other interests in Afghanistan have been attacked by the ISI-backed Taliban. Even if the level of India’s training to Afghan National   Army and the supply of equipment to ANA to augment its capability under the new agreement remains low,  any Indian interest in Afghanistan is bound to get under Pakistan’s  skin, although it is the sovereign right of Afghanistan to enter into arrangement with another country, particularly when it wants to equip itself to deal with threat to its security.

It is not that Indian presence in Afghanistan is going to be  massive in size that should cause  fear in Islamabad.  India has already been training a few Afghan army personnel in India. The new agreement may eventually lead to training in Afghanistan itself and supply of some basic  military equipment.

A day after signing the agreement for strategic partnership, Dr Karzai in a keynote lecture in New Delhi felt it necessary to assure Pakistan, which he described as “a twin brother” and India, “a great friend”. It is unlikely that his assurance and any that India might convey, are likely to be taken at face value by Islamabad, judging from the reports that the Pakistan top generals are already discussing the new situation.

India also does not want to be sucked into  any internal Afghan conflicts as it knows about the fate that  other powers – the Soviet Union or US-Nato and others, have met after getting into the country’s internal power struggles. India does not want to be a part of any game, great or otherwise — often played by international powers in the past.

New Delhi’s only strategic interest is that Afghanistan should emerge from its continuing travails and grow according to its own genius, as an independent country, free from any foreign interference.

India has already been favouring the idea that an international conference should be called to work out  future of Afghanistan after the US-Nato troops have pulled out from the war-torn country.

Participants in this conference should be the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the European Union, and Afghanistan’s, regional nations like India, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian neighbours. This conference should guarantee a kind of international status that ensures Afghanistan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference into its affairs by any outside power, among other things.

The idea for such a conference has always been looked at with scorn by Pakistan which has considered Afghanistan to be its redoubt  and a part of the  strategic depth.

The US has so far been lukewarm to the idea of such a conference, mainly because it did not  want to hurt Pakistan’s sensitivities, but in view of the kind of the problems that are now dogging the US-Pakistan relationship, it may come to  the view post-pull out guarantees for Afghanistan more favourably. Several other western countries are increasingly accepting the need for such a conference.

Much depends on how the Pakistan Army  top brass reacts to the present situation in the region. There is a possibility that it may misunderstand Indian intentions.

Rightly considered, India and Pakistan should think of ways for how they can cooperate with each other in the economic development of Afghanistan. This will require statesmanship of a high order and an element of mutual trust, which in turn will help resolve India-Pakistan problems and ensure  durable peace in the region.

H K Dua is a senior journalist and now a Member of Parliament. This article appeared in The Tribune on October 12, 2011