Will India supply lethal military weapons to Afghanistan? Are New Delhi and Kabul planning a new deal after the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014?
These were the questions circulating in news reports during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent trip to India, his fourth in two years. The frequency of Karzai’s trips suggests the camaraderie that has developed between the two nations.
Moreover, this visit took place in the context of the recent conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Durand Line, a porous border more than 2500 kilometers long that separates the countries. The skirmishes drew protests across Afghanistan, prompting some to demand a reassessment of Kabul’s relationship with Islamabad.
Against this backdrop, the wish list Karzai presented to New Delhi shows a desire to take the Afghan-Indian relationship to a new level. Yet, it also rings alarm bells for Pakistan, where suspicions of a larger design on the part of India are growing.
"We have a wish list that we have put before the government of India," Karzai told reporters in New Delhi.”
So what’s on the list and why is India wary of providing it?
Some news reports suggest that light artillery guns, helicopters and heavy vehicles are among the items sought. Though Karzai has ruled out the possibility of any Indian military presence in the war-torn country, he has suggested that Afghanistan will welcome Indian instructors once the nation establishes a "Sandhurst-type" military academy.
Under the Strategic Partnership Agreement that both countries signed in 2011, India provides training to a small group of Afghan military personnel. The agreement also includes "capacity building" in the areas of education, development and people-to-people contacts.
To date, India has committed US$2 billion to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, alongside providing assistance with rebuilding the country’s police, judiciary and diplomatic services.
New Delhi’s stance on Kabul’s wish list remains unclear. However, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “We stand ready and will do everything within our means to promote security and peace in Afghanistan… Our interests in Afghanistan are neither transitory nor transitional. It is an engagement that will continue.”
A high-ranking ministry official told The Diplomat on condition of anonymity that “Kabul’s wish list keeps on growing every time and before committing to anything we have to keep the larger regional interest and peace in mind.”
India cannot discount Pakistan’s sensitivity vis-a-vis Afghanistan and it cannot ignore Islamabad’s suspicions surrounding its deepening engagement with Afghanistan.
As The Indian Express writes: “India needs to balance its stakes in Afghanistan against the potential reaction from Pakistan and the NATO. The Pakistan army is indispensable for peace in Afghanistan — it is also the problem.”
Further, New Delhi’s Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is keen to engage incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the hopes of normalizing ties with Islamabad. In this scenario, New Delhi cannot afford to antagonize its western neighbor by committing military aid to Kabul. Greater military engagement with Afghanistan would give the military establishment in Rawalpindi a reason to undermine Pakistan’s democratically elected government.
The Kabul-based English newspaper Outlook Afghanistan writes that many have interpreted the recent spurt of bombings and clashes in the country as a warning from Islamabad about developing close ties with India. Given a lack of information, however, such claims are only theoretical.
Pakistani journalist and author Zahid Hussain told Al Jazeera that the Islamic Republic does not have a problem with Kabul and New Delhi improving ties, but it will take issue if they strengthen military ties.
India and Afghanistan’s relationship is not a zero sum game, but one involving many consequences. If Kabul asserts its sovereignty regardless of the region’s geopolitical realities, it could entail repercussions with the potential to nullify whatever progress the landlocked country has made in the last twelve years.
Meanwhile, international troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, leaving Afghan security forces to protect the country, while Karzai is set to leave the Presidential Palace after next year’s elections. In short, the Hindu Kush is again on the cusp of change.
Only time will tell whether history repeats or a new, more peaceful order emerges.