Karzai’s India visit is a defining moment

Karzai’s dilemma is that he needs international assistance in beefing up the capability of the Afghan armed forces to cope with the security challenges in the post-2014 situation but without surrendering the country’s sovereignty and independence. Source: RIA Novosti

Karzai’s dilemma is that he needs international assistance in beefing up the capability of the Afghan armed forces to cope with the security challenges in the post-2014 situation but without surrendering the country’s sovereignty and independence. Source: RIA Novosti

The visit to New Delhi by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on December 13 will be taking place against an ominous backdrop of regional and international security.

India has not reacted to the flare-up of tensions in the Asia-Pacific over the past week. It didn’t have to. India could anticipate the developments.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said with remarkable prescience last week in his address to the Combined Commanders’ Conference in New Delhi that “just as the economic pendulum is shifting inexorably from west to east, so is the strategic focus, as exemplified by the increasing contestation in the seas to our east and the related “pivot” or rebalancing” by the US in this area. This, to my mind, is a development fraught with uncertainty. We don’t yet know whether these economic and strategic transitions will be peaceful.”

Clearly, the US’ “pivot” has destabilized the Asia-Pacific. The “pivot” devolves upon a diplomatic and military build-up throughout the Asian region centrally aimed at isolating and encircling China and checking its growing challenge to American dominance in East and Southeast Asia.

The US is encouraging its key allies such as Japan and the Philippines to take a tougher stance toward Beijing and the latter has begun reacting to the calibrated escalation of the military provocations and pressure from Washington.

The stage is set for risky military confrontations, encounters or even outright war through miscalculation or deliberation. The year is 2013 and it bears an uncanny resemblance to 1913 when, too, the deepening crisis of capitalism culminated in war.

It may seem the US has lost the panache for wars but Washington is only extricating itself from overstretch in the Middle East so that it can focus optimally on the “pivot” to Asia. Of course, this is not a “strategic retreat,” as the Saudis and Israelis allege, but is a reorientation of global priorities even as the timeline is shortening by the day when China would overtake America as the world’s number one economy.

The Pentagon’s vast military assets in the Persian Gulf are integral to the “pivot” to Asia as they operationally mesh with the US’ presence in Diego Garcia, its control of the Malacca Straits and its dominance of the Indian Ocean sea lanes. The logic of the deployment of the US missile defence system in the Persian Gulf region is also obvious.

The missing link in the growing arc of US’ encirclement of China is Central Asia. The establishment of the US and NATO military bases in Afghanistan becomes critical to the “pivot”. Simply put, China can reach the outside world through the new Silk Road through Central Asia, bypassing the Malacca Strait.

The Rand Corporation, which has close ties with the Pentagon, recently brought out a report in a “wartime strategic context” outlining a battle plan for the US and its allies to block the vital waterways leading into China from the Malacca Strait and stopping the Chinese fleet leaving its home waters as well as preventing its ships from using sea lanes.

The report envisages the possibility of such a conflict erupting in a conceivable future. Analysts estimate that the most recent exercise carried out by Japan was a dress rehearsal of such a battle plan as laid out in the Rand report. The exercise involved 34000 soldiers, six warships and 350 aircraft.

Suffice to say, the visit to New Delhi by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on December 13 will be taking place against an ominous backdrop of regional and international security.

On the one hand, the Obama administration is arm-twisting Karzai to forthwith sign the status of forces agreement [SOFA] that could formalize the American military bases in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Karzai continues to be gnawed by doubts as to his legacy in facilitating long-term foreign occupation of his country.

He has openly voiced apprehensions regarding the American intentions. Indeed, it is just a matter of time before the US and NATO would deploy the missile defence system in the military bases and the electronic warfare gear to monitor regions to the north of Central Asia, which would transform Afghanistan into a vital hub in the “pivot” strategy.

Karzai’s dilemma is that he needs international assistance in beefing up the capability of the Afghan armed forces to cope with the security challenges in the post-2014 situation but without surrendering the country’s sovereignty and independence.

This is where India comes in if he were to dispense with the SOFA and the western military presence altogether. Of course, India is doing the right thing to steer clear of big-power rivalry and instead focus on developing what Manmohan Singh described in his address as India’s “comprehensive national power” – “the amalgam of economic, technological and industrial prowess, buttressed by the appropriate military sinews” – as well as possessing military capabilities that protect India’s “abiding interests.”

How are India’s “abiding interests” affected in the emergent Afghan paradigm? The point is, the US’ occupation of Afghanistan is bound to generate resistance amongst large sections of Afghan people sooner or later and the SOFA will prove to be the harbinger of yet another violent insurgency.

Again, so long as there is American military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan will remain in turmoil and that only works to the advantage of the “jihadi” groups. Most important, given the criticality of the transit routes leading from Karachi Port for supplying the military bases, Washington will need cooperation from Islamabad, which would have implications for Pakistan’s political economy as well as the India-Pakistan relations.

Thus, India will be vitally affected by what happens in Afghanistan. During the upcoming visit, Karzai will be probing the Indian thinking.

The US is threatening Karzai with the “zero option” and a termination of all aid unless he signed on the dotted line on the SOFA document. This is crude blackmail and calls into the question the US’ sincerity of purpose in establishing the American-NATO military bases in Afghanistan.

Karzai’s political grit and resilience as an Afghan nationalist is coming into play here. However, politics is after all the art of the possible. Make no mistake that New Delhi will instigate Karzai to dump the SOFA. That momentous choice will be his to exercise, ultimately.

But India comes in if he chooses to develop his own Plan B to carry Afghanistan’s stabilization forward while dispensing with the American and NATO occupation. Not only India, but Karzai can be expected to take help from other regional players as well who are stakeholders in the security and stability of Afghanistan.

India’s interests are best served if Afghanistan’s neutrality is somehow restored. But for this to happen, India needs a leap of faith as regards its turf war with Pakistan.

The Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is on his first visit to Kabul. The outcome of the visit will form input for New Delhi’s “talking points” with Karzai. The point is, there are intriguing trends.

Sharif is steadily, unobtrusively moving toward making the balance of power tilt in favour of the elected civilian leadership in Islamabad. A military coup is no more a possibility, (which itself is saying a lot) and Sharif just made the surprising choice of a low-profile “peace time general” as the new army chief who favors the shifting of the army’s focus to internal security from the traditional threat perceptions from India.

And it is at this point that Sharif decides to go to Kabul – after having released more Taliban prisoners and after formally receiving the delegation of the High Afghan Peace Council in Islamabad and bringing about their proximity with key Taliban figures.

To be sure, Sharif cannot redeem his electoral pledge to regenerate the Pakistani economy without normalcy in relations with India and Pakistan. Which is why Karzai says Sharif’s intentions are good. Now, if the Sharif proposes to Karzai the makings of a genuinely regional initiative on the Afghan problem, how should India respond?

This is where the leap of faith is necessary. New Delhi should encourage Karzai to work on the track of seeking a durable through an Afghan-led, Afghan-led peace process with Sharif’s backing. If Sharif veers round to fostering intra-Afghan peace talks, the process can gain traction and India should encourage it.

India should have the strategic clarity to estimate that the arrival of the US’ “pivot” in the Hindu Kush will bring untold sorrows. The US’s last Afghan legacy (in the 1980s) was jihadism, which indeed hit India’s “abiding interests” very hard.

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