BACKGROUND: The Afghan leader has been wary of Pakistan since he assumed power in December 2001 and his obvious choice for a friend has been India, one of the three nuclear powers in the region. While employing a public aggressive tone against Pakistan, the Afghan leader signed a strategic partnership with India in October 2011.
After his two later visits and one by his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, this time Karzai may be aiming higher than originally discussed and broadly agreed. Though there is no clarity about the financial aspect of the defense deals, the war-torn, landlocked nation is eyeing light and heavy artillery, fighter and supply aircraft, modern small arms and ammunitions.
India is already educating the Afghan military’s young officers in its institutes and training the mid-level command of the Afghan National Army besides imparting knowledge of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism to its soldiers. Moreover, Afghan military men serve in Indian units for a certain period of time.
For senior operation command, Afghan officers are detailed in the Commando School in Belgaum (southern India), the Counter-Insurgency & Jungle Warfare School in Mizoram (northeastern India) and the High Altitude Warfare School in Sonamarg region of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir. At any given time, Delhi can train 2,500 Afghan soldiers simultaneously in its 25 infantry regimental centers.
Prime Minister Singh has stated that “The bilateral agreement creates an institutional framework for our future cooperation.” Besides, the two nations also signed separate agreements on energy and mining with far reaching and long term consequences.
India awards 2,000 scholarships for Afghan students besides building the Zaranj-Delaram Highway and other roads, erecting electric transmission lines from northern Afghanistan to the capital. Delhi has already completed construction of the Parliament building.
Fluid security conditions notwithstanding, the Indian plan to lay a 900 kilometer railway line connecting the Delhi-financed Chabahar Port in Iran, about 72 kilometer from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port whose management control has been given to a Chinese firm recently, is in the works to ease shipment of minerals while bypassing Pakistan.
Kabul has already granted licenses to three blocks of the huge Hajigak iron ore concession in central Afghanistan to the Steel Authority of an India-led consortium. The Indian state company acquired an estimated 1.8 to 2 billion tons of iron ore. The composite plan to extract the minerals, build roads and rail links could cost Delhi over US$ 6 billion. India is vying for more than the US$ 6 billion share in the overall estimated reserves worth US$ 1.3 trillion.
Though this cooperation is aimed at countering Pakistan’s military power, a direct attack on the eastern neighbor’s economy and agriculture could prove more explosive from a regional security perspective in the long run.
With the technical help of Indian engineers, Afghanistan is in the process of building twelve dams on the Kabul River with a 5,8 billion cubic meters storage capacity. Besides existing security concerns, acquiring US$ 7.079 billion in World Bank funding remains a massive challenge. The construction of a dozen dams on a river shared by Pakistan is fraught with risks of renewed tension. The neighbors share nine rivers with a total water volume of 22,5 bcm.
Afghanistan is already questioning the legitimacy of British-era Durand line border demarcation, which Pakistan considers a settled issue.
IMPLICATIONS: President Karzai apparently expects a few clashes between border guards from the two countries, a routine matter in the case of India and Pakistan along the Line of Control in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. The last incident claimed the life of an Afghan policeman while Kabul accused Islamabad of resorting to using heavy artillery and tanks during the skirmish in eastern Nangarhar province.
Whatever the cost of a massive security apparatus in Kabul’s green zone may be, Taliban attacks remain a serious problem. This week, two Afghan police officers who had defected but later returned to their jobs killed seven colleagues while they were asleep. President Karzai’s hawkish stance risks becoming self-defeating given the fact that over two million Afghans still reside in Pakistan with no substantial humanitarian assistance by the UN, and most of the vital agricultural, livestock and hydrocarbon needs of his country are met through imports and smuggling from the eastern neighbor.
Afghanistan’s expanding military ties with India are naturally a cause of anxiety in Pakistan. Scholarships to Afghan students, training and equipment of its armed forces and allegedly “clandestine” activities of India’s consulates add to the already existing mistrust in Pakistan towards the elite in Kabul, which predominantly excludes the majority Pashtun ethnic group while symbolically showcasing Hamid Karzai as one.
The Afghan side is wary that Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies have not abandoned their clandestine plans of controlling their landlocked country, using their proxies within the Pashtun population. Though a tripartite commission comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. has been an effective forum to address complaints and develop confidence-building measures, mutual suspicion has only grown with a clear Indian role in Afghanistan.
The Indians find Afghanistan not only strategically important for encircling Pakistan but also from a trade and commerce point of view. India’s symbolic and pragmatic support for Afghanistan’s institutions as well as infrastructure is aimed at both.
China has its own non-political and low-profile role in Afghanistan. State-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) has been awarded a license to explore oil fields in northern Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin with potential reserves of 80 million barrels of crude oil. China acquired the rights to the US$ 80 billion Aynak copper deposit in 2007. China is as involved in infrastructure development in Afghanistan as India.
When foreign powers compete over resources, Afghanistan has nothing to lose. However, far greater risks are involved if the country becomes involved in the existing dispute between two nuclear powers. Pakistan has generally pursued quiet diplomacy with the U.S., NATO and China over President Karzai and his team’s aggressive posturing. Islamabad has assured its allies behind closed doors as well as in public that only Afghans should determine their future course.
China and other friendly countries also want an improving law and order situation in the war-ravaged country owing to their own political and commercial interests. India remains the only regional power uneasy with the U.S. idea of talks with the Taliban and sorting out issues prior to a full exit of NATO troops. New Delhi’s concerns have resulted in a strategy for exploiting Karzai’s anti-Pakistan approach and propagating an Indian view of the region to the Afghan armed forces.
CONCLUSIONS: In spite of its continued Pakistan-specific training and hardware support to Afghanistan’s armed forces, India may not achieve its much desired goal of a transit route to Central Asia. The Pakistan-India normalization process may have been institutionalized but remains far from achieving significant credibility and results. Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. are returning to normal as NATO ships military hardware to Karachi without trouble. Islamabad has already released Taliban prisoners in coordination with NATO’s and Kabul’s renewed policy of engagement with the militia. President Karzai’s adventurism can jeopardize the emerging consensus for the country’s peaceful transition from foreign-led security arrangements to an Afghan-managed affair.
Many in Pakistan believe that Karzai’s recent moves stem from a desire to install his older brother Qayum Karzai as the country’s president after his two-term limit expires on April 4, 2014. India may openly support Qayum’s candidacy, while Pakistan will either stay silent or at best back Karzai’s sibling for the position of vice president.