Afghanistan’s large transitions promise to rearrange equations in the region
Hamid Karzai’s visit to India comes at a time when tough choices willo have to be made regarding engagement with Afghanistan. India has played a positive role in promoting economic interaction with Afghanistan,both bilaterally and under the auspices of the Heart of Asia grouping of regional countries. It has provided substantial development assistance,investing in a large number of small projects and a few large-scale infrastructure projects. And it has provided some training to the Afghan army.
At the same time,policymakers in India,as elsewhere,are concerned about Afghanistans trajectory from 2014,when Western forces are reduced and elections are held. While both India and China have won substantial tenders for mining operations in Afghanistan,they have been slower to develop them. Yet,Afghanistans future risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy; if it is to be a success,those Indian and Chinese firms need to be developing their mines to ensure economic stability. (Despite concerns over a recent Chinese incursion into Ladakh,the recent visit of Chinese premier Li Keqiang had a positive outcome,with both countries promising to work together on Afghanistan). Preventing the worst case scenario the fragmentation of Afghanistan and its military requires ongoing and deepening engagement from its neighbours.
While the timing of Karzais reported request for arms may appear suboptimal (given the recent election of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan with a pledge to boost ties with India),it also reflects a recognition on the Afghan side that India needs to continue its investment in Afghanistan. Time is running out for Karzai,who has reiterated that he has no intention of remaining in power beyond 2014. If he is to leave a positive legacy,he will have to cajole India into playing a positive role,rather than waiting to see what transpires.
But India will have a range of imponderables to consider. First,while Sharifs rhetoric towards India has been positive,whether the Pakistan army would be fully behind any rapprochement is unclear. If Sharif were able to push through the most-favoured nation status for India,it would be a significant demonstration of intent. If India were to agree to push through arms sales to Afghanistan,however,his leverage over Pakistans military would clearly be reduced. Karzais visit also comes at a time when Afghanistans relationship with Pakistan is again under strain. Clashes along the Durand Line appear to have intensified recently,and Karzais call for the Taliban to turn guns on Pakistan will have done little to encourage trust.
Indias recent decision to renovate Chabahar Port in Iran can be seen as a demonstration of its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. Again,Sharifs election could change the dynamics. He has offered to allow India transit access through Pakistan. While India may doubt that Pakistans military will agree,it is clear that the cheapest way for Indian goods to access Afghanistan is through Pakistan,rather than by ship to an incomplete port in Iran.
Balancing the bilateral relationships between India,Pakistan and Afghanistan is clearly challenging. The best-case scenario,in which India and Pakistan,along with China,see stability in Afghanistan as a primary objective and a continued…