Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karzai Balancing Act

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai must ensure that his improving relations with India do not alienate Pakistan.
By Agam Shah

India was exuberant when its long-time ally The Northern Alliance drove the Pakistan-backed Taleban out of Kabul in November last year.


Pakistani policy in the region had backfired and now there was an opportunity for India to rejuvenate its links with Afghanistan. And it leapt at the chance.


Delhi immediately re-opened its embassy. A few days later, the Indian-financed Indira Gandhi hospital was up and running again in the capital. And, as the new interim government of Hamid Karzai convened early December, India invited ministers for talks about reconstruction aid.


Some analysts watching developments assessed that Delhi was taking advantage of the situation in an attempt to isolate Pakistan, its main rival in the region.


The theory goes that, with Pakistan as former backers of the Taleban regime, the new authorities in Kabul are far more likely to strengthen ties with the country which backed the anti-Taleban resistance.


This view was bolstered by the fact that relations between India and Pakistan are at an extremely low point. An attack on the Indian parliament on December 13 by two Pakistani-based terrorist outfits led to accusations by Delhi of official complicity.


The ensuing diplomatic scuffle led both countries to mass troops on their borders, sparking fears of an all out, possibly nuclear, war.


Yet other commentators believe that it is precisely because the stakes have been raised so high that Delhi is keen not to further antagonise relations further.


India, they say, is first and foremost trying to rebuild relations with Kabul which all but collapsed in 1980 when Afghanistan was plunged into political turmoil.


According to Surenra Arora, a foreign affairs official with India's ruling BJP party, the decision to help Afghanistan has nothing to do with isolating Pakistan.


Even if India and Afghanistan do tie up, it is unlikely to isolate Pakistan geopolitically, says Radha Kumar, an analyst at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, unless "the two countries were to jointly embargo and blockade Pakistan or if Pakistan were to declare war on both countries at the same time, which is ... unlikely."


While Kabul is unlikely to want to work against Islamabad, it has plenty of reasons for wanting to keep it at distance. Suspicious of Pakistan for its support of the Taleban, Hamid Karzai, head of Afghanistan's interim council, also carries a grudge against Islamabad for trying to undermine the transitional authority.


Pakistani leaders tried to pre-empt the Bonn talks by proposing to set up a Loya Jirga in Peshawar. Then, during the talks, they accused the interim administration of illegitimacy on the grounds of inadequate ethnic representation.


In fact, Afghanistan's interim council members believe there are even more efforts underway by Islamabad to undermine the Kabul administration. They believe that a strong alignment with India and other countries, including the United States and Russia, could stop Pakistan from meddling in Kabul's affairs.


Meanwhile, India has a number of other reasons why it wants Afghanistan as an ally beyond that of repairing traditional ties. In particular, it wants to be sure that the country is not used again as a training ground for Kashmiri militants. There is also the question of securing some control over smuggling and money-laundering routes stretching from Afghanistan.


With these interests in mind, India has been quick to follow up on its initial advances. It pledged 200 million US dollars at the Tokyo donors' conference in mid-January and arranged for emergency deliveries of one million tons of grain.


Talks held during the Tokyo conference also secured Indian government assurances of help in training up civil servants, police and security forces, as well as building schools and clinics around the country.


India, then, is keen to support Kabul, but Karzai, notwithstanding his grudges against Pakistan, must not allow his growing ties with Delhi alienate Islamabad. If he is to rebuild Afghanistan economically, politically and socially, he must balance relations with his two powerful neighbours.


A good three-way relationship between India, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be beneficial to all, said Arora, as it could lead to better regional cooperation. "We would like Pakistan to be a part of our growing relationship with Afghanistan," she said.


Agam Shah is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai