A MATTER OF RELATIONSHIP 

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By BY J.N. DIXIT
  • Published 12.03.02
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Hamid Karzai, chairman of the interim government of Afghanistan, visited India on February 26 and 27, putting to some extent at rest speculation that he is not too enthusiastic about India. No major political or security agreements were signed with Afghanistan during his visit, nor were there any declarations of profound policies about bilateral relations or regional developments. He had all the scheduled meetings with the leaders of the Indian government as well as with the leader of the opposition, Sonia Gandhi. His more substantive discussions were with the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, and the defence minister, George Fernandes. Given this general factual background, the question arises whether his visit was of political significance or whether it laid the foundation for an entirely new and positive edifice of Indo-Afghan relations. His discussions in New Delhi have to be assessed in the context of his foreign policy initiatives and discussions since he took over charge of the interim Afghan administration nearly nine weeks ago. First, we must take note of the management of domestic politics which he undertook. Given the absence of any cohesive Pashtun military force in Afghanistan, he had to accept the troops of the Northern Alliance as the main national instrumentality for defence and security of Afghanistan. He also had to give a number of important portfolios to leaders from the Northern Alliance (Uzbeks and Tajiks) in the interim cabinet to ensure a manageable coalition in this initial stage of re-stabilization of Afghanistan. The writ of his government does not run effectively in different parts of Afghanistan with local warlords supported by armed cadres following their own agenda. He has not only had to cope with the Pashtun, non-Pashtun politico-ethnic divide in Afghanistan society, but he has also had to face internecine factionalism and violence within Pashtun factions and within the Northern Alliance. The conflict between the Tajik and Uzbek cadres of the Northern Alliance in northern and north-eastern Afghanistan, the assassination of the minister for civil aviation of Afghanistan, and the refusal of local tribesmen and governmental leaders south of Kandahar, in Paktia and in Pakhtika, reflect the complex factiousness which permeates Afghan politics. Karzai has had to undertake high-level foreign policy consultations with leaders of important powers of the world while trying to keep his government together and initiate domestic consultations for the summoning of the Loya Jirga or the grand national tribal assembly. There was criticism and concern in some circles in India that despite the unqualified support which India gave to the campaign against the taliban and the promptitude with which India extended developmental assistance to Afghanistan, Karzai has not given sufficient attention to India. As usual, the irrelevant Indian lament was he went to Pakistan but he had not given any final dates for a visit to India. An objective assessment of his trips abroad and discussions with other heads of government indicate that he structured these visits and discussions with a careful sense of priorities. The priorities were to establish his government's credibility and effectiveness in the eyes of the major powers of the world led by the United States of America; second, to obtain the maximum amount of economic and developmental assistance for Afghanistan as speedily as possible to stabilize his government and to restore civil administration in Afghanistan, responsive to Afghanistan's immediate and multi-faceted requirements. The third priority was to establish contacts with immediate geographical neighbours to seek their cooperation in the above processes. The fourth priority was to restore Afghanistan's identity as a moderate Islamic country within the community of Islamic states. And the fifth priority was to interact with governments which have a direct interest in Afghanistan's stability and development and to inform them also of his plans and his difficulties and his anticipations about political prospects in Afghanistan. When one takes note of these logical priorities which underpin his foreign policy approach, Indian angst about his not coming to India before going to Pakistan and so on is not logical or practical. He visited Japan, the US, and the United Kingdom. He has visited China, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And then in the last leg of his journeys he visited Iran and India between February 23 and 27. The chronological order of these visits affirm that they took place within the framework of his priorities mentioned above. His visit to Iran is of particular significance given the fact that he went to talk to Ayatollah Khameini (the supreme Iranian leader) and the president, Mohammad Khatami, after the declaration of the US president, George W. Bush, that Iran was a part of "the axis of evil" in his "state of the union" speech in January. It showed that despite Afghanistan's dependence on the US, Karzai has a capability of independent foreign policy options which are of importance to his country despite the obvious macro-level political constraints affecting the Afghan predicament at present. His delaying coming to India need not be interpreted as India having a low priority in his scheme of things. It should be that Indo-Afghan relations are pegged to a different and long-term framework of importance. Karzai has had connections with India in his youth. He did his graduation from a college in Shimla. He apparently has positive memories of his time in India. He was, of course, critical of India for India's support to the Soviet-backed Babrak Karmal government in Afghanistan as he was part of the Afghan struggle against that government. That resentment, however, does not seem to linger in his psyche or policies towards India. His visit was the culmination of the process of high level consultations between his interim government and the government of India which have taken place since December last. The Afghan defence minister, Fahim Khan, the deputy defence minister, Rashid Dostum, and interior minister, Yunus Qanooni, visited New Delhi for discussions on Indo-Afghan cooperation which led to an agreement about economic and development assistance and extension of training facilities to the Afghanistan government. India has pledged a hundred million dollars of assistance to Afghan- istan at the Tokyo conference in January. During Karzai's visit, Vajpayee announced another ad hoc immediate assistance package of the value of ten million dollars. There are also indications that his discussions with Jaswant Singh and George Fernandes have resulted in decisions about cooperation: with Afghanistan in countering terrorism, in ensuring a proper security environment, for certain categories of defence supplies and some training facilities for Afghan administrative and security personnel in India. A practical and measured revival of long-term stabilization of Indo-Afghan relations stands initiated with Karzai's visit. He also gave his assessment about political prospects in Afghanistan which are of equal importance. He has acknowledged that the convening of Loya Jirga will be a complex exercise given the politico-military tensions in Afghanistan compounded by the escape of large number of taliban cadres who have dispersed in the Afghan countryside (leaving aside those who escaped into Pakistan). He indicated that an international peace-keeping or peace maintenance force (separate from the anti-terrorist coalition force), operating in Afghanistan will have to be augmented and may have to remain in Afghanistan till Afghanistan creates a cohesive national army and police force. He and the foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, were, however, clear in their mind that once the above process takes off, the foreign forces must leave Afghanistan. They were also averse to having military personnel from neighbouring countries who might generate internal antagonisms in the emerging Afghan power structure. He emphasized that India has an important role to play in Afghanistan's reconstruction and re-stabilization and in resisting the revival of religious extremism and terror. It was also the assessment of the Afghan delegation that close relations with India and the US would strengthen India's role in Afghan developments. A positive revival of Indo-Afghan relations has been initiated by this visit. There is no need to evaluate these relations through the prism of our relations with Pakistan, Afghan-Pak relations or the US's relations with Pakistan, as far as these relations do not manifest trends which may negatively affect Indian interests. The author is former foreign secretary of India