Afghanistan: Karzai Talks Tough
THE visit of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to India in the second week of December came at a time when negotiations with the Americans on the future of their forces in his country were poised at a critical stage. Before Karzai landed in Delhi, there were reports that the Obama administration had asked India to intervene on its behalf and persuade President Karzai to put his signature to the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) on the presence of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014. FEAR OF CHAOS & INSTABILITY As it is, India as well as Pakistan, China and Russia, all important players in the region, have indicated that they were for a limited US military presence in Afghanistan. There is an unstated fear that a precipitate departure of the American military could lead to more instability and plunge the country once again into chaos and anarchy. Testifying before an US Senate Committee, James Dobbins, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak) had expressed the hope that Karzai’s visit to India would expedite the signing of the agreement. Dobbins told the Senate members that Karzai had “high respects and good relations with the Indian government.” Dobbins said that India had enthusiastically supported the US role in Afghanistan and had invested two billion dollars in infrastructure projects in the country. Only Iran has formally stated its opposition to the continued presence of the American military forces and military bases in Afghanistan after 2014. Iran is already surrounded by big American military bases. It is naturally not comfortable with the idea of nine permanent military bases the US wants to retain in Afghanistan. The BSA envisages an initial stay of 10 years for 15,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The American troops are supposed to be engaged in “anti-terrorism” missions and the training of Afghan troops. US intelligence agencies estimate that there are at the most 50 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan which has led many experts to question the rationale for the American troops’ presence. All the same, given the recent thaw in relations with Washington, Teheran is not protesting too loudly on the continued presence of US troops in their immediate neighbourhood. Iran had testy relations with Afghanistan, when the Taliban were in power in Kabul. Teheran did not react negatively when the US forces toppled the Taliban from power in 2001. At the same time they do not want the Americans to stay indefinitely in the never ending war on terror. Karzai is trying his best to avoid the ignominy of being the Afghan head of state to formally give permission for an indefinite of foreign forces in the country. He would rather prefer his successor to do the needful. The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, who was on a visit to Kabul in the first week of December told the media that he had received assurances that Afghanistan would eventually sign the BSA. Hagel, however, indicated that Karzai’s intention of leaving the signing to his successor after the general elections in Afghanistan in the first week of April next year was not a feasible idea. Senior American officials had suggested earlier that the signature to the agreement should not necessarily be that of the Afghan president. COSTLIEST WAR IN RECENT HISTORY The American media, meanwhile, has been busy lampooning the Afghan president for his alleged opportunism and his ingratitude for the sacrifices US and western forces have made in Afghanistan. According to economists like Joseph Stiglitz, the cost of the Afghan war for the US has crossed the figure of 700 billion dollars. Only an estimated three billion dollars have been spent on developmental projects. The Pentagon’s request for operations in Afghanistan for 2013 was for 85.5 billion dollars. The war in Afghanistan has been described as the costliest war in contemporary history. In Delhi, during his interaction with the media, the Afghan president once again made it clear that the delay in appending his signature was mainly due to the lack of a firm commitment from Washington that Afghan lives and homes would not be randomly targeted, as was being done since the American military occupation began at the beginning of the last decade. “I have demanded an end to all American attacks against Afghan homes and the beginning of a realistic peace process. Whenever the Americans meet these two conditions, I am ready to sign the agreement,” Karzai told Radio Free Europe, before coming to Delhi. The BSA states that American troops can raid Afghan homes only under exceptional circumstances. Though the Americans have been regularly promising to stop targeting civilians and respect the sanctity of Afghan homes, the attacks have continued unabated. As the Afghan president said in Delhi, to kill one suspected Taliban fighter, the Americans don’t think twice before targeting a bus full of passengers. The Afghan president pointed out that three days after he received a personal assurance from President Barack Obama that Afghan homes will not be targeted, US forces bombed a home, killing a two years old boy and critically injuring his mother and other close relatives. President Karzai, according to reports, was particularly upset with the torture and killings of 12 civilians in Wardak province in early 2013, allegedly at the hands of American troops. The Americans refused to cooperate with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security to question the American soldiers who were said to be involved in the killings. The Wardak killings have been described as one of “the gravest war crimes” committed by American troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. After Obama became president, the US forces have been relying increasingly on drone warfare in the Af-Pak region. Thousands of Afghans have perished in American drone attacks. The Iraqi president, Nuri al Malki, had firmly insisted that for the US forces to continue staying on in Iraq they will have to come under Iraqi state jurisdiction. Washington had refused to accede to this demand and had to give up its plans for a long term military presence in that country. The Afghan government has not formally made a similar demand that after 2014, American troops will be answerable to Afghan authorities for human rights violations and related war crimes offences. NO TRUST IN AMERICANS Karzai, who will demit office in the middle of 2014, has had a love hate relation with the US in recent years. He has candidly admitted on many occasions on the mutual lack of trust. He has been repeatedly saying that the Americans “don’t trust him and I don’t trust the Americans.” Karzai said in Delhi that the Indian government broadly agreed with his views on the signing of the BSA while emphasising that both the countries want the American troops to stay on. The Indian external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, told the media that the Afghan president had the best interests of his country in mind and “in accordance with India’s approach to Afghanistan, we will support it.” The Afghan president said that the Indian prime minister was in agreement with him “on the need for Afghan conditionalities to be fulfilled.” Karzai said that talking with the Taliban is important for the sake of the Afghan people. Not all sections of the Taliban are amenable for talks with Karzai or his representatives. But the Afghan president seems to be optimistic about the prospects of drawing in the bulk of the Taliban into the peace process. This is better said than done. The Taliban will keep on staging their bi-annual offensives as long as there are foreign troops in their homeland. Meaningful talks, the Taliban in Afghanistan have said, can only begin after all the foreign troops leave the country. Meanwhile, despite the looming uncertainties, Kabul and New Delhi seem intent on further strengthening bilateral relations. Afghanistan wanted India to play a bigger role in the military and security affairs of the country. During the Karzai visit, India agreed to increase the operational capabilities of the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANSDF). President Karzai said that he was very satisfied with the response from the Indian side on his request for military training and equipment. India from available indications, will not be complying with the Afghan president’s request for tanks and artillery. India along with Russia is planning to upgrade an old armaments repair factory near Kabul. The Afghan president said that his country aspired to have an army that would be dependent on “its own resources and its own citizens.” According to the Afghan president, India was helping Afghanistan achieve this objective. The two sides also agreed on a blueprint to enhance trade ties by tying up with Iran to develop new routes from the Iranian port of Chah-bahar. India has built a road connecting Zaranj, which is situated near the Iranian port, to the highway that connects to all the major cities of Afghanistan. Indian goods can be easily and cheaply transported to Chah-bahar and from there onwards to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India is also expected to go ahead and invest 11 billion dollars in the Hajigak iron ore project. Afghanistan has vast untapped mineral deposits, including lithium, gold and hydrocarbons estimated to be worth around one trillion dollars; 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements vital to American industry are awaiting extraction. This could be a major factor for the American eagerness to retain a strong military presence in Afghanistan. There are many Afghanistan watchers who fear that a proxy war between India and Pakistan could erupt if the Americans pack up and leave the country, as some senior American administration officials are threatening. Islamabad has been wary of the growing Indian clout in Kabul. India is the fifth largest aid donor to Afghanistan. President Karzai has been a frequent flyer to Delhi. A return of the Taliban to power would be viewed in Delhi as a victory for Islamabad. There is already talk of the old alliance between India, Iran and Russia in Afghanistan resurfacing in the event of Taliban resurgence.