Karzai’s Visit to India: Upping the Ante in South Asia?

President Hamid Karzai visited India this week and signed a wide-ranging strategic partnership agreement with India. His visit comes shortly after the assassination of prominent Afghan leader Burhanuddin Rabbani who was the head of the Afghan High Peace Council. Earlier this week, Karzai outlined a new approach on peace efforts to the Afghan people with a shift toward talking to Pakistan instead of reconciliation efforts with the Taliban by saying, “We are involved with the governments and not the forces that depend on them, that is why we should talk to the governments who make the decisions.” Against this backdrop, Karzai’s visit to New Delhi and the signing of the strategic partnership agreement represent the initial moves of geostrategic posturing by regional actors as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by 2014.

Q1: What was the significance of Karzai’s visit to India?

A1: This was President Karzai’s second trip to India this year and was notable for the signing of Afghanistan’s first strategic partnership agreement with any country. Most significantly, the agreement will include provisions for India to assist Afghanistan, “…as mutually determined, in the training, equipping, and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces.” The agreement also calls for the establishment of a strategic dialogue “to provide a framework for cooperation in the area of national security,” which will be led by the respective national security advisers. The agreement also deals with the prospect of regional economic cooperation, which envisions Afghanistan emerging “as a trade, transportation, and energy hub connecting Central and South Asia and enabling free and more unfettered transport and transit linkages.” Karzai tried to assuage Pakistani concerns about the partnership by saying, “The signing of the strategic partnership with India is not directed against any country. It is not directed against any other entity.”

Q2: Why is Afghanistan signing a strategic partnership agreement with India at this time?

A2: President Karzai has grown increasingly frustrated in his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban as the group continues to assassinate key Afghan leaders and close associates of Karzai. Kabul feels that Islamabad is behind many of these attacks and plays a counterproductive role inside Afghanistan. While Karzai has been critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, he still feels he must deal with key decisionmakers in the Pakistani government to get Islamabad to cease its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Karzai walks a fine line between criticizing Pakistan’s activities while also referring to Pakistan as Afghanistan’s “twin brother.” It is in this context that Karzai appears to be looking to solidify long-term partnerships with countries that will aid his stabilization efforts. India has been one of Afghanistan’s strongest partners in its efforts to stabilize and rebuild the country. New Delhi has contributed nearly $2 billion to stabilization and reconstruction projects that include the Afghan parliament building, hospitals, schools, roads, and other humanitarian projects. Kabul and New Delhi both feel they are natural strategic partners given their common interests in having a stable, multiethnic government whose territory does not serve as a safe haven for terrorism. India sees Afghanistan as crucial to its national interest since a descent into chaos within Afghanistan could lead to a migration of jihadi elements toward India. Furthermore, India also views Afghanistan as a possible bridge between energy-rich Central Asia and energy-hungry South Asia, and also touts the cultural linkages between the two countries.

Q3: How will Pakistan view Afghanistan’s new strategic partnership with India?

A3: Predictably, Afghanistan’s new partnership with India will not go over well with the Pakistanis, particularly the intelligence and military establishment in Rawalpindi. While Indian and Pakistani interests intersect in the desire for Afghan stability, the two sides have markedly different visions of how that stability should manifest itself. Pakistan’s ultimate objectives in Afghanistan can be unclear at times, but it appears the Pakistanis seek a stable Afghanistan with a pliant government that is dominated by a Pushtun-based leadership, which will not question the validity of the Durand Line and is free of Indian influence. Pakistan would also like to see Afghanistan emerge as a transit hub for trade and energy from Central to South Asia. A strategic partnership between India and Afghanistan will most likely be seen as inimical to these goals, as Pakistan fears the agreement will lead to Indian “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan and a sense that Pakistan will be surrounded by India on its eastern and western borders. Though Afghanistan’s partnership agreement with India will complicate Karzai’s efforts to convince Pakistan to cease its support for the Taliban, it appears that Karzai is making a calculation that Pakistan will never relinquish its support for the Taliban and that he must forge alternate partnerships to promote stability.

Q4: How will closer relations between India and Afghanistan affect U.S. objectives in Afghanistan as 2014 approaches?

A4: The partnership between India and Afghanistan signals the opening moves in a competition among regional actors to jockey for influence in Afghanistan as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw. While the United States has publicly communicated its long-term commitment to Afghanistan, the deteriorating U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the perception in the region that the United States is more concerned with economic troubles at home have spurred a variety of moves among regional players to position themselves for greater influence. Just last month, Iran hosted a delegation of Taliban leaders in Teheran in an effort to shape the political environment within its eastern neighbor. Rabbani was also scheduled to attend the conference but was assassinated before the event. The idea of a regional solution in which all the key regional stakeholders convene to discuss a mutually agreeable solution for Afghanistan’s future could be a way forward. However, the United States is currently not in the best position to lead such an effort with the dismal state of U.S.-Pakistan relations and long-running difficulties on engaging Iran. It is here that Turkey may be able to assert itself as an effective convener for a regional approach during the upcoming Istanbul Conference in November, since it has cordial relations with the key stakeholders, including Iran and Pakistan. The Istanbul Conference could be an opportunity for Ankara to forge a regional approach that includes all interested parties—including Pakistan. Any regional solution without Pakistan’s involvement would most certainly be dead on arrival.

S. Amer Latif is a visiting fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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S. Amer Latif