Karzai’s India Gamble

Pakistan isn't helping the Afghan government end its standoff with the Taliban -- so Karzai is looking to India instead. 


KABUL, Afghanistan—Before he set off for India with a wish list of military hardware, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave negotiations with Pakistan one last chance — at least in principle. On April 24, he traveled to Brussels for a trilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s chief of Army Staff, whose cooperation is seen as essential for any post-2014 peace deal with the Taliban. The protocol screw-ups were telling: A photo-op from Truman Hall, the residence of the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, shows a startled looking Kerry (standing in front of the wrong flag) betwixt the stonefaced Afghan president and his effective counterpart in Kayani. Pakistan’s civilian foreign secretary, also present on the trip, was not even in the frame.   

Already strained over how to approach negotiations with the Taliban, the relationship between Kabul and Islamabad had reached a new level of intransigence in April over Pakistani plans to build a military gate on what the Afghan government considered its side of the border. Karzai had responded by ordering Afghan troops to remove the gate and any other "Pakistani military installations near the Durand Line," the contentious British-mandated border between the two countries.

Against this backdrop, it’s little surprise that the Afghan president had given up on Pakistan before he even touched down in Belgium. In trying to resolve the conflict with the Taliban before he leaves office next year, Karzai has repeatedly bent over backward in hopes of securing Pakistani cooperation — often risking political capital at home, where anti-Pakistan sentiment is on the rise. Now, it seems, Karzai no longer wants to wait at Pakistan’s mercy.

According to a source close to Karzai, Kayani actually agreed in the talks to help push the Taliban toward publicly agreeing to negotiate with the Afghan government, but the offer was evidently not trustworthy enough to dissuade the Afghan president from looking to Pakistan’s archrival for assistance. (The July deadline for a similar offer — made at a previous summit in Britain — for a "peace settlement" with the Taliban to be reached "over the next six months" is fast approaching with no progress.) Kerry summed it up aptly before jetting back to Washington: "We are not going to raise expectations or make any kind of promises that can’t be delivered."

Pakistani observers say support for ending Pakistan’s historically interventionist policies has grown within the government — and to a lesser extent, within the military establishment — in recent years. But there has been little in the way of concrete change: The militant sanctuaries in Pakistan still go unmolested and the Taliban, long rumored to have close ties to Pakistan’s military establishment, have remained resolutely opposed to talks with the government in Kabul. Many believe that Pakistan, ever fearful of encirclement by India, wants to keep Afghanistan unstable after the withdrawal of NATO troops at the end of 2014. 

In sharp contrast with his vocal optimism following previous dialogues, Karzai remained hushed after the Brussels meeting. Soon after he returned home, the border dispute with Pakistan turned deadly, as Afghan soldiers exchanged fire with Pakistani border guards. One Afghan soldier was killed and several Pakistani guards were reportedly wounded. In response, Karzai met with the family of the soldier who died in the clashes and declared him a national hero. The presidential palace then issued a statement on behalf of tribal elders Karzai had met, claiming that Afghan territory extends "as far as Attock," a city located deep inside Pakistan that borders its Punjab province. For its part, the Afghan media — which mirrored public sentiment — portrayed the events as if Afghanistan were at war with its neighbor. (The Pakistani press, by contrast, hardly mentioned the event, preoccupied as it was with its own historic election.)

Then on May 21, Karzai dealt Pakistan the ultimate snub by travelling to New Delhi in search of military equipment that, according to Indian media included 105 mm howitzer artillery, medium-lift aircraft, bridge-laying equipment, and trucks. No public statements have been made specifically addressing Karzai’s request for hardware, but sources close to the Afghan president suggest that India is sending a military mission to assess Afghanistan’s needs and will most likely provide some of the equipment. After a decade of limiting its $2 billion in assistance to development and reconstruction so as not to irk Pakistan, India seems willing to up the stakes. In New Delhi’s calculation, respect for Pakistani sensitivities hasn’t protected Indians from attacks in the past. Even building a highway cost India 135 casualties — "one human sacrifice…for every kilometer and a half constructed," as the country’s foreign minister put it.

Other government sources, both Afghan and Indian, however, say that Karzai’s request poses a number of problems, one of which is logistics. India would have to cooperate with Moscow in order to supply the Afghan government, since some of the hardware –like Antonov An-32 aircraft — is manufactured in Russia. It would also have to consult both Moscow and Tehran for transit routes in order to deliver the weapons to landlocked Afghanistan. This gives Pakistan two potential pressure points from which to exert influence over the deal. (Both Russia and Iran have their own fears about allowing arms to be sent to a volatile country so close to home.) Training and maintenance poses another challenge as hardware cannot be simply handed over to inexperienced armed forces.

In public at least, Pakistan is downplaying fears that it will try to derail the arms shipments. "As a sovereign country Afghanistan can pursue its own policies," Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jillani told reporters last week. "But we hope that it would mind the overall peace and security situation."

On the other side of the Durand Line, officials are eager to portray the deal as a positive regional development. Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister, Ershad Ahmadi, told Foreign Policy that Pakistan is misguided in its assessment of threats to regional peace.

"It’s not our relationship with India and our effort to strengthen our army that is threatening regional stability and security," Ahmadi said in an interview. "It is the presence of terrorist sanctuaries, the indoctrination and training of militants across the border in Pakistan that is the number one source for instability."

Over the past ten years, Afghanistan has tried to maintain constructive, independent bilateral relations with Pakistan, Ahmadi said. "But they have refused to see us beyond their lens for India."

Karzai is walking a fine line in asking for military aid from India. Some sources in the Afghan government interpret the president’s move as simply an effort to pressure Pakistan into producing results on Taliban talks. (They cite short notice and the fact that Karzai is in his final year in office as evidence that the request is just a political ploy.)

But others say the urgency of a looming foreign withdrawal has genuinely forced the president’s hand. While NATO and the United States shoulder the bu
rden of equipping and training the Afghan security forces — and the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States currently being hashed out will solidify that commitment — there is a fundamental disagreement between the two countries about what the vision for the Afghan forces should look like. NATO and the United States are willing to equip Afghan forces for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, but Karzai wants more — particularly for defending Afghan borders.

The urgency for Karzai to acquire such weapons — particularly air support and the 105 mm howitzers that are effective at up to 11,000 meters — stems from the belief that Taliban militants are playing a waiting game at the borders. Once the foreign soldiers leave, Karzai fears, insurgents holed up in the border areas will start crossing in large numbers to test the government in Kabul. After 2014, the war could very well escalate, as the recent battle in Sangin — reportedly involving hundreds of Taliban and lasting several days — indicates. It could conceivably even turn into trench warfare — which Afghan soldiers are woefully underequipped equipped for. Even with NATO and the United States actively involved, Afghan soldiers routinely bleed to death from treatable injuries because they lack air transport.

Nonetheless, Karzai and India are taking a considerable risk in testing Pakistan at such a vulnerable moment for Afghanistan and the region. Days after Karzai’s return from New Delhi, a squad of suicide-bombers besieged a central part of Kabul for almost an entire day. The Afghan government blamed it on terrorists "supported by the intelligence of countries in the region" — a common euphemism for Pakistan. Some observers have already connected the incident to Karzai’s overture to India.

Mosharaf Zaidi, a former policy advisor to the Pakistani foreign ministry, says that over the past couple years "most sensible people in the government" have come to realize that  "Pakistan’s interventionist policies" have come back to haunt the country.  Nevertheless, the political environment is such that the new government in Islamabad won’t be able to turn a blind eye toward Afghanistan if the arms request goes through.

"If it came down to India providing hardware, when the guns are turned in Pakistan’s direction, it just plays very negatively in the Pakistani domestic political sphere –particularly for a new government," he says.

Still, Ahmadi sees an opportunity in Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government. "Pakistan’s policies over the past ten years have depleted the tremendous goodwill Afghans had for them, particularly for sheltering our refugees," says the Afghan deputy foreign minister. "But, with the new government in Pakistan, there is an opportunity for reset."

But ultimately — as the photo-op in Brussels makes clear — future cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan over peace with the Taliban depends more on the tone set by Kayani and the Pakistani military establishment than by anything the government in Islamabad does. It will also depend on whether Karzai holds firm on his anti-Pakistan rhetoric — or caves to his eastern neighbor once again.

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