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A helping hand

Published : Sep 23, 2005 00:00 IST

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Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the inauguration of the renovated building of Habibia High School in Kabul.-AHMAD MASOOD/REUTERS

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the inauguration of the renovated building of Habibia High School in Kabul.-AHMAD MASOOD/REUTERS

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announces more Indian aid to reconstruct Afghanistan, even as the war-ravaged country continues to witness violence.

WITH his landmark visit to Kabul in the last week of August, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the highest-ranking Indian civilian leader to visit Afghanistan in almost 30 years. The last visit to Afghanistan by an Indian Prime Minster, Indira Gandhi, was in 1976. Among those who accompanied the Prime Minster to Kabul was Rahul Gandhi, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and a first-time member of the Lok Sabha.

When Indira Gandhi visited Afghanistan, it was a peaceful country and few people knew that a civil war was lurking on the horizon. The superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competed peacefully for influence in the landlocked Central Asian country.

The civil war that flared up from the early 1980s dramatically altered the situation. New Delhi found itself identified with the losing side. The victory of the mujahideen, however, did not mean the total sidelining of New Delhi from the "great game" in Central Asia. The civil war, which broke out again in the 1990s among the warring factions of the mujahideen, brought India back as a player in the region. The Northern Alliance, which fought against the Pakistan- and Saudi Arabia-backed Taliban, was helped militarily, politically and financially by India. The other major backers of the Northern Alliance were Russia and Iran. The U.S. joined in at a later stage after initially supporting the Taliban.

The military defeat of the Taliban at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition in the aftermath of September 11 once again altered the political equations in Afghanistan. For the first time, Islamabad was temporarily left out of the loop in Kabul as a Northern Alliance-dominated government took power. The "strategic depth" Pakistan had acquired, evaporated almost overnight. However, geographical proximity coupled with Pakistan's crucial role in the region in the U.S.-led "war on terror", helped it regain a measure of influence in Afghanistan. The majority Pashtuns, who have traditional cross-border links with their brethren in Pakistan, have re-established their ascendancy in Afghanistan politics after the election of Hamid Karzai as President.

Pakistan has been zealously trying to keep India from expanding its influence in Afghanistan. After the new government was installed in 2001, Pakistan expressed its concern when India decided to open consulates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Kandahar and Jalalabad. India also announced a huge aid package for Afghanistan. Leading Afghanistan government officials were frequent visitors to New Delhi. Karzai has made three official visits to India since he took over the presidency in 2001.

Senior Indian officials said that Pakistan's refusal to allow goods and humanitarian aid for Afghanistan to be routed through its territory is a mark of its unhappiness with India's increasing influence in the country's affairs. Even nutritional biscuits meant for Afghanistan have not been allowed transit through Pakistani territory. Goods from Afghanistan to India are, however, allowed transit. A senior Indian official said that the proposed gas pipeline between Iran and India, passing through Pakistan, was a non-starter at this juncture, given the latter's refusal to allow Indian goods and services access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Indian goods for Afghanistan and Central Asia are routed mainly through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

Karzai has repeatedly talked about making Afghanistan the "land bridge" for India to the Central Asian region. Manmohan Singh, however, talked about New Delhi's continuing interest in a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline. Most observers of the global petroleum scene are sceptical of this pipeline materialising in the near future. So far no extensive study has been done about the amount of the gas reserves in Turkmenistan. Many experts have opined that there is no evidence of huge quantities of gas in Turkmenistan to justify the laying of a pipeline. Besides, the government in Kabul is in no position to guarantee the security of such a pipeline.

During Manmohan Singh's short visit, the two countries signed three accords, dealing with education, agriculture and health care. Manmohan Singh and Karzai issued a call to all the countries in the region to fight the scourge of terrorism jointly. The two leaders emphasised that the role of Pakistan was crucial in defeating terrorism. Karzai implied in recent days that Pakistan was not doing its utmost to curb cross-border terrorism. Pakistan has stationed a large number of troops along its border with Afghanistan. They act in close coordination with the U.S. Special Forces in their hunt for wanted Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Both Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahari, are said to be hiding somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The Prime Minister handed over a rebuilt school in Kabul to the Afghanistan authorities. The school, destroyed during the two decades of civil war, was originally gifted to the Afghan people during the visit of Indira Gandhi. As many as 1,000 new scholarships for Afghan students were announced during the visit of Manmohan Singh.

India had extended a $500 million aid package to Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. A further $50 million was offered during Manmohan Singh's visit. Karzai welcomed Indian help for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country. He said the Prime Minister's visit was a "special" one as the two countries had "centuries-old ties".

The Indian help to Afghanistan has been appreciated by the U.S. The U.S. Ambassador to India, David Mullford, said that India-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan had not been negatively impacted by Pakistani sensibilities on the issue. Washington is happy that India is helping out in Afghanistan's election process and in activities such as the training of its police force. Mullford said that he would like India to undertake similar activities in Iraq too.

THE Taliban and its supporters have been resurgent in recent months in Afghanistan. There are signs that the insurgents are replicating the tactics used by their counterparts in Iraq against the U.S. occupation. The visit of the Indian Prime Minister was curtailed to one and a half days owing to security considerations. Manmohan Singh was originally scheduled to go to Jalalabad also. Sixteen U.S. Special Operations Force (SOF) troops were recently killed near the Pakistan border. As many as 450 Afghan soldiers were killed in fighting in July. Over 30,000 U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops have been operating in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001.

The support for the Taliban has increased as the warlords, responsible for widespread human rights abuses, continue to hold sway over Afghanistan politics. Among them are Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, a key adviser to Karzai, of the Ittihad-e-Islami faction. Abdul Rashid Dostum retains control over the northern areas near his stronghold of Mazhar-e-Sharif, though he currently holds a senior post in the Defence Ministry in Kabul. Mohammad Fahim, the former Defence Minster, is a leading figure in the Jamiat-e-Islami faction owing allegiance to former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the late Ahmad Shah Masood. Karim Khalili, a commander of the Hezb-e-Wahdat faction, is currently a Vice-President in the Karzai administration. The warlords and their candidates will be contesting the first parliamentary elections in 30 years, to be held on September 18. The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the elections. Guerillas have killed pro-government clerics.

The U.S.-backed Karzai government has not been successful in curtailing the production of opium despite a pledge it gave to the United Nations. According to the latest U.N. figures, the quantity of opium produced has not come down in 2005. Revenue from opium generates half the country's national income. According to Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, it would take many years for the country to end its dependence on opium. Speaking in Kabul in the last week of August, he said that the Karzai government needed to do much more and called for a "zero tolerance" policy towards warlords involved in drug trafficking.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 23, 2005.)

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