By Ajai Shukla
[Business Standard, 18th Dec 10, carried a slightly shorter version of this article]
In what will come as a shock to the Indian public, which has supported New Delhi’s political backing and US $1.3 billion developmental aid programme to Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai’s steadfast support for India is being apparently overtaken by his growing alignment with Pakistan.
The signals were unmistakable at a just-concluded “track two” India-Pakistan-Afghanistan trialogue, organised this week in Kabul by an Indian think tank, the Delhi Policy Group. After strongly supporting the first three rounds of the trialogue, over the last two years, the Government of Afghanistan effectively ignored this fourth round, as did the Pakistani embassy.
President Karzai himself, while ignoring the trialogue along with his ministers and senior policymakers, had enough time to have a one-on-one conversation with Pakistani journalist and TV anchor, Naseem Zehra, who peeled off from the trialogue for this exclusive chat with the president.
“Karzai has clearly decided that his survival depends upon hedging his bets with Pakistan”, says an Afghan foreign ministry official in Kabul. “He believes his support from America is running out, and New Delhi is unwilling to go beyond humanitarian aid and provide a more muscular presence.”
These Afghan sources describe an insecure and frightened Karzai who is worried that, with India having decided to confine itself in Afghanistan to soft power and developmental aid, an American troop pullout would see him isolated and at the mercy of the Taliban. His post-American survival, therefore, depends upon building good relations with Pakistan and Iran.
“Every Afghan president is haunted by the spectre of Najeebullah”, explains an Afghan official. Mohammad Najeebullah, who was the president of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, was captured by the Taliban when they swept into Kabul in 1996. He was tortured, brutally killed, and his mutilated body was hung up by the Taliban in this city’s Aryana square.
Foreign ministry sources identify Karzai’s first major pro-Pakistan gesture as the sacking, on 6th June, of Amrullah Saleh, head of the Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. Saleh, an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s backing for the Taliban, was ordered to resign after an abortive rocket attack on a peace jirga (conference) that was meeting to approve negotiations with the Taliban. Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar, was also asked to resign.
That also provided the opportunity to hand over the Afghan National Army (ANA) to a more Pakistan-friendly officer, say Indian officials in New Delhi. The stridently anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan ANA chief, General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, was asked to hand over command of the army and take over the interior ministry.
At that time, Karzai’s spokesperson, Waheed Omer, insisted that the only reason for Saleh’s removal was a security lapse at the jirga. But most Afghans perceived it as a sop to Pakistan in exchange for “facilitating” a dialogue with the Taliban.
Meanwhile India continued diplomatically, but firmly, to oppose Karzai’s key internal initiative, which was dialogue with the Taliban. “There is no moderate Taliban just as there is no good terrorist,” remains India’s official position, voiced by numerous officials in multiple forums worldwide.
In retrospect, say Afghanistan experts in New Delhi, Karzai’s evolving approach towards Pakistan was evident even before Saleh’s removal. In January this year, Karzai excluded from his new cabinet his longstanding foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who had been unsparing in his criticism of Pakistan. Zalmai Rassoul, who has been far friendlier towards Pakistan, was appointed in Spanta’s place.
Two months later, in March, the Afghan president declared during a visit to Islamabad, “India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a twin brother.”
Meanwhile, the Indian government continues to rely on the United States and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which currently maintain security across Afghanistan while building up Afghan capabilities. New Delhi is keen to provide training assistance for the ANA and the police, but Washington has resisted an Indian military presence, in deference to Pakistani fears.
On 15th Dec, the US government released a major review document, which outlined Washington’s plans for the withdrawal of more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. Keeping many more cards in Washington’s hand than were put down on the table, the review suggested that a “responsible” US withdrawal would begin as scheduled in 2011 (read, not many troops will be pulled out next year), leading towards the handing over of security responsibility to Afghan forces in 2014. The review was optimistic that this past year’s “troop surge” of 30,000 additional American soldiers was weakening Al Qaeda and arresting the Taliban’s momentum.