India's irons in the Afghan fire

Posted in Broader Middle East | 01-Nov-04 | Author: Ramtanu Maitra| Source: Asia Times

Hamid Karzai is greeted by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, February 27, 2002 ahead of the official welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi.
Four days after the Afghan presidential election was held, amid charges of voter fraud and irregularities by 15 of the 18 candidates, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarma called the polls a "historic milestone" in the country's "journey towards peace, stability and prosperity". Using phrases otherwise heard only in Washington, Sarma said: "The people of Afghanistan defied the threat of terrorism and came out in strength to exercise their right to vote."

As a strong proponent of a fair form of democracy, India's statements endorsing a blatantly flawed poll seem a bit out of place. Sarma's statement not only endorses a flawed election, but it also ignores the outright rejection of the poll by some of the Northern Alliance leaders (also friends and beneficiaries of India) who termed the election a fraud. In the final analysis, however, India's position is firmly rooted in its own self-interest and is surprisingly devoid of any ideology.

A friend of India
To begin with, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is destined to be the first president of Afghanistan - his main rival conceded defeat even before election workers began counting the final votes - spent years in India during his student days. As a result, not only does Karzai have many friends in India, but he himself has a strong affinity toward India. Since 2001, when the United States entrusted him with the power of running a highly fractious Afghanistan, formalizing the process through an international consensus called the Bonn Agreement, India has stayed in close touch with Karzai and provided him with some much-needed infrastructural support. Karzai's relationship with India remains vastly more cordial than his relationship with Pakistan.

Indians point out that under the previous Taliban regime Afghanistan had become a breeding ground for terrorists and Islamic jihadis, many of whom found their way to the Indian side of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, intensifying the violent campaign against New Delhi. It was also widely acknowledged that the Taliban government was working closely with Islamabad, creating the potential for Pakistan to exert influence in Central Asia. The Taliban-Pakistan nexus was wholly unacceptable to India, and the US invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban in the winter of 2001 was most cordially welcomed by New Delhi. India also welcomed the United States' efforts to break the Taliban-Pakistan alliance and install a non-fundamentalist Karzai, who belongs to the Pushtun-Afghan community.

Karzai's visit to India in 2003 and his interaction with New Delhi over the last three years are indicators that he trusts India. Recently, a few weeks before the presidential election, Karzai made it a point to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. According to New Delhi, the election of Karzai as the Afghan president would help not only to consolidate growing bilateral ties, but would also provide New Delhi an opportunity to broaden its vista in that part of Asia.

During the last three years, in addition to developing a close personal relationship with Karzai, India had kept a close watch on the changing scenario in Afghanistan. One of the key concerns among the leadership in India has been the security of the region and the threat to India posed by pro-Pakistan, Islamic activism emerging once again in Afghanistan. The tell-tale signs of regrouping by Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants and the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan helped ensure Delhi's support for the flawed election. An orthodox militant mujahideen leader who was supported by the United States and Pakistan in the 1980s against the erstwhile Soviet Union, Hekmatyar is an avowed enemy of Karzai and India and would join hands with anyone who would take up arms against either or both.

This became a focus of New Delhi's concern, particularly after the Taliban, with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, took control of Kabul in 1995. Intelligence reports show that following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, some of the jihadis, many of whom were Arabs and Chechens, shifted to the Pakistan side of Jammu and Kashmir to infiltrate India and commit violence.

Playing the reconstruction card
Despite India's proximity to Afghanistan, and its historical links to the area, India was pretty much out of the scene following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, India re-energized itself and began to participate in Afghanistan for its own economic and security benefits, and with a view to keeping Pakistan out.

Under the difficult circumstances that prevailed, India has done rather well, moving cautiously and giving no impression that it seeks to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs. Its predominant focus has been on economic and reconstruction assistance; the supply of Tata buses enabled the reopening of bus services in Afghanistan. India also assisted extensively with technical training facilities for Afghanistan and in areas ranging from law and order to information technology.

According to veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, Indians have built schools for Afghan children and hospitals for Afghan women; Indian buses by the hundreds ply Kabul's streets; and the national airline Ariana is being resurrected thanks to a free gift from India - three airbuses. India is also building roads in western Afghanistan and repairing dams in the eastern part of the country.

By contrast, Pakistan, considered by New Delhi as its major rival in Afghanistan, has conducted no visible reconstruction work. Pakistan has yet to build the promised Torkhum-Jalalabad-Kabul road, which could have enhanced Afghanistan-Pakistan trade.

India's success stems from its development of a highly constructive, imaginative reconstruction strategy for Afghanistan. As Ahmed Rashid points out, this strategy is designed to please every sector of Afghan society, give India a high profile with the Afghan people, gain maximum political advantage with the Afghan government, increase New Delhi's influence with its Northern Alliance friends and turn India's image from that of a country that supported the Soviet invasion and the communist regime in the 1980s to an indispensable ally and friend of the Afghan people in the new century.

The southern trade corridor
India's enlightened policy toward Afghanistan has also positioned New Delhi to benefit from the emergence of Iran as a principal trading partner for Afghanistan. For some time, one of India's foreign economic policy focuses had been the development of a southern trade corridor linking India with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. This would also ensure a very powerful Indian presence in those countries, New Delhi opines.

The establishment of a bilateral Trade and Transit Agreement between Tehran and Kabul, which led to the creation of the Chahbahar Free Zone Authority (CFZA) in 2002 was an important benchmark for the southern trade corridor. CFZA allows the import and export of goods to and from Afghanistan at a 90% discount on Iranian customs duties, and it also allows free usage of 20% of the port's warehouse space for goods en route to Afghanistan. The agreement cut down Kabul's dependency on the Pakistani port of Karachi, India noted.

When the Taliban regime was deposed by the US and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces, political and economic ties between Iran and Afghanistan were at a low. Since then, the relationship has grown, particularly in the area of trade and commerce. Iran's exports to Afghanistan rose from US$52 million in 2001 to a record $212 million in 2003, the Tehran Times reported.

New Delhi has long realized that to become a regional power Central Asia is an area of vital importance. India has historical and cultural links with Central Asia, a region that has become highly vulnerable to Islamic jihadis and drug traffickers. Of equal importance is the goodwill that India enjoys in the region, particularly in light of India's long-standing relationship with Russia and its growing relationship with China.

Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, India established diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and worked with these newly independent states to develop frameworks for diplomatic, economic and cultural cooperation. Besides its long-historical connection with this region, India sought good relations with the Central Asian nations north of Afghanistan for several reasons. India wanted to prevent Pakistan from developing an anti-India coalition with the Central Asian states in the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, persuade those states not to provide Pakistan with assistance in its nuclear program, ensure continued contacts with long-standing commercial and military suppliers established when the Soviet Union existed, and provide new opportunities to Indian businesses. In addition, in the 1990s India began to think seriously about establishing a military presence in Central Asia.

There was, however, one major obstacle to India's Central Asian aims: an unstable Afghanistan. During the 1991-95 period, Afghanistan remained highly unstable, with civil war raging all around. Then, when the Taliban took over, Pakistan received virtual control over Afghanistan, and the India- and Russia-backed Northern Alliance was kept at bay, holding only 5% of Afghanistan.

But most disturbing for New Delhi was that the Indian policy vis-a-vis the Pushtun-Afghans had to be put on hold because of the domination of the Pushtuns in the anti-India Taliban movement. Indian links to the Pushtuns had been maintained through the Khalq, the Pushtun faction of the Afghan Communist Party, following the Saur Revolution of 1978 and during the decade of the 1980s when the Soviet-backed Afghan communists managed to stay in power. This relationship atrophied during the Taliban rule.

A presence in Central Asia
Nonetheless, despite the difficulties posed by the Taliban and Pakistan, India had operated a military hospital in Farkhor in Tajikistan during the 1990s. In fact, when two suspected al-Qaeda Arabs holding Belgian passports assassinated Afghan Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in northern Afghanistan on September 9, 2001, his body was taken to this hospital. Over the years, many Northern Alliance leaders fighting for the ouster of the Taliban regime from Afghanistan have been treated in the Indian-run Farkhor hospital, and New Delhi supplied Northern Alliance troops with arms to fight the Taliban.

Things began to jell for India in the winter of 2001, when the Taliban were ousted. In 2002, India began repair work on an air base at Ayni, about six miles outside of the Tajik capital Dushanbe. At a November 2003 meeting with Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmanov, then-Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee denied India had planned to station aircraft at the base, despite the presence of enough indicator to suggest otherwise.

It is likely that India is already thinking of setting up more air bases in the region. As far back as February 1995, security matters were the focus during a visit to India by Kazakhstan's defense minister. India's defense minister at the time, George Fernandes, visited both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Subsequently, joint military exercises have been held with both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and, in November 2003, Fernandes announced plans to enhance anti-terrorism cooperation with both countries.

Kazakhstan's leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has proposed that India go a step farther and join Central Asia's regional security alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - a suggestion welcomed by Russia, but opposed by China. Also in the works: six Ilyushin midair refueler planes on order from Uzbekistan, and a pledge of financial support for a navy to defend Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea oil routes.

In addition to the security focus, India has energy needs and Central Asia has the potential to meet a good part of India's requirements in the future. Indian oil company ONGC Videsh Ltd already has a 15% holding in Kazakhstan's Alibekmola oil fields and a 10% holding in the country's Kurmangazi fields. According to a January 2003 report by Johns Hopkins University's Central Asian-Caucasus Institute (CACI), India is ready to get a minimum 20% stake in Uzbekistan's oil and gas fields as well. In addition, keen to avoid Pakistani territory, India has supported a controversial 890-mile, $2-billion "energy highway" that would run from Russia via Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan and on to Kashmir through the India-China Line of Control.