Existential crisis for nascent democracy

It’s not only along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir that Pakistan is waging war against India. Another proxy war is beginning in Afghanistan, where Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration as the new president coincides with the withdrawal of the American-led international coalition fighting the Taliban. Presumably, Sushma Swaraj’s visit there last month marked the beginning of a major initiative to cope with these new realities unfolding since the June 14 run-off election vote audit.

 The threat is not only to India’s security but to regional peace and – whether or not the Pakistanis realise this – also to Pakistan’s own existence. Abdullah Abdullah’s tenacity has resulted in a complex  power-sharing arrangement, and though the newly created chief executive officer — similar to a prime minister — has promised to “work together for a better future with trust and honesty”, stability can’t be taken for granted. The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed this by denouncing Afghanistan’s agreement with the United States, which underlies the present arrangements as a “sham” and calling Ghani’s government “a bogus administration (that) will never be acceptable to the Afghans.” He vowed “to continue our jihad until we free our nation from occupation and until we pave the way for a pure Islamic government.”

 Yet, Pakistanis appear convinced a power-sharing dispensation with the Taliban is possible. Even some American policy-makers apparently share in the delusion. Officially, however, the United States has assured Ghani and Abdullah that it “stands ready to work with the new administration to ensure its success.” A bilateral security agreement provides for 9,800 American soldiers to stay on after the end of this year to help train, equip and advise Afghan military and police forces, and a separate status of forces agreement also allows a small NATO force to remain after December 2014.

 Swaraj’s announcement that India remains committed to extending all possible help to meet the challenges Afghanistan faces, and that it will continue to be significantly engaged in reconstruction activities was received with relief and jubilation. Yet, some Afghans may have expected more. In their eyes, if India sees itself as Afghanistan’s first strategic partner, and shares the Afghan people’s vision of a “strong” and “prosperous” Afghanistan, as the External Affairs Minister suggested, it should make a more positive effort to translate principle into practice.

 How, is the moot point. While India was the only South Asian country to recognise Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s, its prestige diminished during the 1990s’ Afghan civil war and after the Taliban took over.  True, India did not actually join George W. Bush’s war in 2001, but it did help to overthrow the Taliban by providing intelligence and other support for the American-led coalition forces. Since then, India has become Afghanistan’s largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid. Various memorandums of understanding strengthen cooperation in rural development, education and standardisation. Some 4,000 Indians are working in construction projects and India’s aid pledge reached $2 billion in May 2011 after Manmohan Singh’s two-day visit to Kabul.

 This humanitarian help only provokes further vituperation from Pakistan, and allegations that reconstruction projects are a cover for Indian intelligence to recruit, train and support insurgents who will then extend Indian hegemony. Even Pakistan’s long-time ally and protector, the United States, has given the lie to this canard. But that does not stop the Pakistani media and dignitaries like Lt. Gen. Abdul Qayyum from repeating  that India runs dozens (36 was the number once cited) of consulates throughout Afghanistan, and that their real job is to organise acts of terrorism along the Pakistan-Afghan border. Actually, India, like Pakistan, has only four consulates in Afghanistan, located in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

 Pakistani propaganda is not the only problem. Indian construction workers and all Indian nationals stationed in Afghanistan regularly face threats to life and limb, as happened in Kabul in February 2010.  The deadliest since the Taliban fell in 2001 occurred in July 2008 when the Indian embassy was attacked by a suicide car bomb which killed 58 people and wounded 141. A senior Indian army officer, Brigadier Ravi Datt Mehta, was entering the embassy gates in a car with V. Venkateswara Rao, when both men were killed. The embassy in Kabul was attacked again by a car bomb a little more than a year later, killing at least 17 people this time. Another terrorist attack took place at the Arya Guest House where Indian doctors were staying, resulting in the death of 18 people.

 In the aftermath of the 2008 embassy bombing, the Afghan Foreign Ministry called India a “brother country” and the relationship between the two, one that “no enemy can hamper.” The Afghan government has no doubt that Pakistan’s ISI is involved in all these outrages, which are conducted by the same Pakistan-based  terrorist organisation. Recent Wikileaks tapes corroborate this belief. After Taliban militants killed an Indian national in November 2005, India deployed 200 soldiers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to provide security for Indian nationals and the projects supported by India against murderous enemies.

 Having himself been to school in India, the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who visited Delhi in 2008, welcomed this support in the face of danger. Indian cooperation includes rebuilding air links and power plants, developing electricity, oil and natural gas supply lines, and improving health and education. India trains Afghan civil servants, diplomats and police, and provides scholarships for Afghan students. The major road that the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation constructed in 2009 in the remote province of Nimroz, connecting Delaram to Zaranj, has proved a viable alternative route for the duty-free movement of goods through Iran’s  Chabahar port to Afghanistan. The road was part of the strategy of building up transport links that bypass Pakistan, thereby helping reduce the Afghan economy’s dependence on other countries.

 According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 50 per cent of Afghans prefer India’s leadership over that of the United States and China. This finding provided fitting testimony to a connection that reaches back to the Indus Valley Civilisation and, later, to ties between the Seleucid empire which controlled the region known today as Afghanistan and the Maurya empire which took over the territory.

 When terrorists equipped with AK-47s, RPGs, hand grenades and suicide vests attacked the Indian consulate in Herat in May this year, India’s ambassador, Amar Sinha, said, “Our premises have been repeatedly attacked by those who do not support India’s development work in Afghanistan. The attack will not dilute India’s development assistance and its contribution to rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan.” But short of sending troops to replace the Americans (as some Afghans and others want), Narendra Modi must devise a sound framework for continuing and strengthening a partnership that is essential for India’s security and which Pakistan, for precisely that reason, is determined to destroy.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

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