Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been quite successful so far in bringing his allies, India and Iran, closer to bolster multilateral cooperation primarily needed to block the return of the Taliban after the withdrawal of US forces this year. The collaboration also includes wide ranging cooperation in the economy, trade and commerce, and other fields.
Karzai, who is up for re-election in a few months, has received a positive response from both countries, which are equally opposed to the Taliban coming to power again after a US withdrawal. The only difference is that India supports US plans to keep about 15,000 marines in Afghanistan after the proposed withdrawal while Iran has so far maintained its stance that it wants the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Karzai agreed, in principle, to maintain some US troops after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, but is opposed to the conditions the US has been proposing for the stationing of its troops in ten bases in Afghanistan for a minimum period of 12 years which will be extended afterwards. One of his key demands is that Washington should guarantee that US troops must never shoot Afghan citizens in their operations.
Due to his reservations over those conditions, Karzai has been resisting signing the proposed US-Afghan security pact and insisting that it should be signed by the new president of Afghanistan after this year’s presidential elections, scheduled in April 2014. Karzai has refused to budge from his position despite the fact that the Grand Assembly of tribal elders (Loya Jirga), convened sometime back to discuss the issue, recommended that he should sign the proposed security pact with Washington.
Considering this, President Karzai’s recent three-day visit to India was quite significant. It was Karzai’s fifth visit to India in three years. He also undertook a one-day visit to Iran in December 2013, following a visit to India. He is believed to be courting support of neighboring countries in an attempt to successfully counter the mounting American pressure for signing the proposed security agreement.
During Karzai’s talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Tehran reiterated that all foreign troops should be withdrawn, not only from Afghanistan but also from the entire South Asian region. Moreover, Tehran agreed to hold talks with Kabul for evolving a regional pact for economic and defence cooperation. Iran already enjoys influence in Afghanistan in the economic, cultural and social sectors.
It is believed that President Karzai wanted Tehran’s support for his stance regarding the proposed US security pact. Not only that, he wanted Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan’s peace and security affairs after the US withdrawal, and also in the professional affairs of the Afghan National Army. Though Iran could not provide substitutes for US troops, it is believed that Iran’s role in Afghanistan is bound to increase after the US withdrawal. Both countries enjoy a centuries-old historic, cultural, linguistic and defence relationship, and share over 650 km of borders. Iran is also hosting nearly two million Afghan refugees displaced after three decades of foreign invasions.
India has also joined Karzai’s efforts in forging a broad-based alliance between the three countries. India has already provided a long list of wide-ranging support to Afghanistan in the economic and social sectors.
Delhi constructed a 220-km-long highway connecting northern Afghanistan to another highway leading to the strategic Iranian port of Chah Bahar in the Gulf, which has been seen as a viable commercial alternative to other busy traditional ports in the Gulf like Dubai, and Pakistan’s Gwadar port. India is especially interested in expanding the Chah Bahar port to fully exploit the growing trade, commercial and defence relations with Afghanistan which have seen significant growth after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Both India and Afghanistan have decided to further develop the Chah Bahar port to increase its cargo handling capacity to 12.5 million tonnes, from the existing 2.5 million tonnes. On the defence side, large numbers of Afghans have been receiving training in Indian military and police academies.
President Karzai also desired to purchase arms and ammunition from India in the past, but Delhi kept its defence cooperation with Kabul limited in view of a
likely response from Pakistan. However, it has kept its investments and economic cooperation with Kabul growing at a steady pace. In his recent visit to Delhi, President Karzai offered India an extraction contract from the Hajigak iron mines in Bamyan, estimated to be the largest iron reserves in Asia, where many countries besides China are already working on extraction projects. India decided to make an initial investment of 11 million dollars in the project. Karzai also invited Indian entrepreneurs, industrialists and businessmen to invest in Afghanistan’s natural resources and various other sectors. These measures are bound to expand economic and defence cooperation between India and Afghanistan.
Karzai did not confine his efforts to seeking cooperation from neighbouring countries for controlling affairs in his war-torn country. Last month’s visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Kabul and his talks with Karzai are considered a part of the same plan. In his attempt to seek cooperation from Islamabad, Karzai supported Islamabad’s efforts to hold peace negotiations with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and also condemned the killing of TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone attack.
Yet, other Afghan quarters are hostile to Pakistan for not allowing them access to the top Taliban official in Islamabad’s custody – Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – and for refraining from taking action against the Haqqani network based in tribal areas of Pakistan.
The difference between Iran and India over the stationing of US troops in post-withdrawal Afghanistan does not pose any big hurdle in the three countries as they are on the same page regarding overall strategic, defence and economic cooperation and their alliance in south Asia. The situation raises serious questions for Pakistan as to what strategies Islamabad is employing to adjust to the changing realities and to benefit from them.