Khurshid’s visit must focus attention on centrality of the Pashtun question for India’s Afghan policy.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s day-long trip to Kandahar on Saturday was not just about celebrating India’s contribution to the reconstruction of Afghanistan over the last decade. Khurshid travelled to Kandahar to participate in the formal opening of Afghanistan’s National Agricultural University, built with Indian support.
The university is a fine symbol of the productive Indian economic aid to Afghanistan to rebuild the country’s hard and soft infrastructure. Khurshid’s presence in Kandahar, considered the heartland of the Taliban, also highlights some of the challenges that India will soon have to confront in Afghanistan.
Khurshid is the first Indian leader to visit Kandahar after the NDA government’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, went there at the end of 1999 to hand over three top terrorists from Indian prisons to the Taliban in exchange for the Indian hostages from a hijacked plane.
While Khurshid arrived to a far more polite reception, the external affairs minister could not have missed the Taliban’s dark shadow over Kandahar. In fact, the Afghan Agricultural University has been built around the former headquarters of the Taliban in Kandahar, from where it ruled Afghanistan. Kandahar is likely to be the first target of the group’s campaign to regain control over Afghanistan after the US-led international forces end their combat role there by the end of this year.
In the middle of this important security transition, Afghanistan is also getting ready to elect a new president to succeed Hamid Karzai, who has overseen Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political evolution since 2002. Meanwhile, Karzai’s relations with his principal external supporter, the US, have reached an all-time low.
Khurshid has rightly extended India’s full political support to Karzai and his quest for a stable and sovereign Afghanistan in the face of an insurgency nurtured across the border in Pakistan. But the big question is whether India is ready to put its money and muscle where its mouth is. For Karzai, the principal military threat comes from the Taliban, backed by the Pakistan army.
At the same time, he desperately needs an accommodation with elements of the Taliban who are willing to put Afghan national interests above those of Rawalpindi. This, in turn, demands an Indian policy that is bold enough to provide substantive military assistance to the Afghan national security forces.
Delhi must also be sufficiently supple to intensify the engagement with all shades of the Pashtun political spectrum, including the Taliban. If Khurshid’s visit to Kandahar throws into bold relief the centrality of the Pashtun question for India’s Afghan policy, it is up to the next government in Delhi to address it vigorously.