Endgame Afghanistan: India's worries

Kabul:  Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai will be on a two-day visit to India starting Monday. He will hold talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on enhancing strategic ties, security and developmental work in the run-up to next year's withdrawal of western troops. As Afghanistan braces for 2014, we travelled extensively in the AfPak region to find out whether the proposed end of war would impact India.

Braving for 2014, whether the exit of western troops will end the war in Afghanistan or start a fresh round of violence is a million dollar question, an important one for Indi's security concerns as well.

After the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Pakistan pushed the trained jihadis to fight the insurgency in India. Kashmir saw its bloodiest decade. 9/11 made Pakistan, America's ally on the war against terror and gave birth to Pakistan Taliban - a group attacking Pakistan itself. Pakistan's attention shifted to the western border and some experts believe Pakistan's internal worries led to relative peace on its eastern front, one it shares with India.

Will Pakistan push the trained militants again in our direction?

Over the last decade India has earned immense good will in Afghanistan. At a certain point, the timing of soap opera 'sans bhi kabhi bahu thi', popularly known as 'Tulsi' here, coincided with the time of the prayers. This was taken up in the parliament of Afghanistan, so the shows timing could be adjusted. India has made friends across the ethnic groups through cultural connections and developmental work.

None of this pleases Pakistan. Rawalpindi has always thought of Afghanistan as a no go area for India, a strategic base for themselves in event of war against India. In the past Kashmir insurgents have received training in mountainous areas of Afghanistan.

Retired Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul of Pakistan's army once headed the ISI. Credited in Pakistan for pushing hard line policies against India, he played a pivotal role in the insurgency that began in Kashmir.

He warns India of tomorrow's reality. "Tomorrow's reality is, if Afghan freedom fighters come out freely then they will give a fillip to the idea. It is going to kindle a new spirit, because yet another superpower has been defeated. They will think why we can't do it, the Kashmiris will do it."

In Afghanistan, the governor of Nuristan tells us, "Many border areas are full of anti-India groups. LeT is here, they are more powerful than Al Qaeda. If Afghanistan is a trouble area, if there is a war here, I think India will never feel safe. The war is going to come to their borders."

Sources in the United States government have told NDTV, for months now the US has been trying to convey to India of a change of heart in Pakistan's deep establishment, though most Afghan leaders like Amarullah Saleh, Afghanistan's former chief of intelligence do not buy into that.

"They define Pakistan as a vulnerable country, which if truly put under pressure, may collapse. We don't buy the argument. We see it as a calculative strategy. India should strengthen Afghanistan. Every spectacular attack in Afghanistan one way or another is linked to Rawal Pindi and every spectacular attack in India is linked to LeT. So why is the root of terrorism not drying up in our region? One primary reason is the ambiguity of the Western policy vis-a-vis Pakistan," said Amarullah Saleh.

India's decision-makers acknowledge that India's own internal security would be at risk especially if the drawdown of international troops from Afghanistan leaves behind a security vacuum that is filled by militant groups backed by Pakistan. India is aware of Pakistan's sensitivities but is not shying away for defining it as a long-term relationship with Afghanistan. India's former ambassador to Afghanistan confirms "In terms of being able to contribute more to Afghanistan security, to regional security through co-operative activities, yes that is possible. But as always it is something that has to be decided and we have to take into account their requirements, we have to take into account our capacities, and we have to take into account regional stability. So whatever we try to do, we would do in a responsible way in a responsible direction."

The Afghans want India to play a bigger role, not only in developmental work and investments but also security cooperation. While president Karzai's visit is unlikely to bring any major surprises, sources have told NDTV, India has not yet revealed its entire plan for Afghanistan. Policy they say is work in progress.

Pakistan's new Prime Minister says Afghanistan would be left to Afghans and has made all the right noises on relationship with India. The big question, will his words become reality?

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