Talking tough

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Afghan President Hamid Karzai describing a visit he made to an injured young girl in hospital while addressing media representatives in New Delhi on December 14. Photo: FINDLAY KEMBER/AFP

At a house hit by a NATO air strike in Sajawand village in Logar province, south of Kabul in June 2012. Afghan officials said 18 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the strike, and an outraged Karzai cut short his visit to Beijing to return home. Photo: AFP

U.S. troops pose for photographs with Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, on December 8. Photo: Mark Wilson/AP

The Afghan President wants a commitment that attacks on homes will stop before he ratifies the agreement that will allow U.S. troops to stay on in his country after 2014.

AFGHAN PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI’S INDIA visit in the second week of December came at a time when negotiations with the United States on the future of its forces in his country were at a critical stage. Before Karzai landed in New Delhi, there were reports that the Barack Obama administration had asked India to intervene on its behalf and persuade him to put his signature to the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) on the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. India, Pakistan, China and Russia, all important players in the region, have indicated that they are for a limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. There is an unstated fear that a precipitate departure of the U.S. forces may lead to more instability, chaos and anarchy. Testifying before a U.S. Senate Committee, James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak), had expressed the hope that Karzai’s visit to India would expedite the signing of the agreement. Dobbins told the Senate members that Karzai had “high respect and good relations with the Indian government”. Dobbins recalled that India had enthusiastically supported the U.S. role in Afghanistan and had invested $2 billion in infrastructure projects there.

Only Iran, which is already surrounded by big American military bases, has formally stated its opposition to the continued presence of U.S. forces and military bases in Afghanistan after 2014. It is naturally not comfortable with the idea of the U.S. retaining nine permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The BSA envisages an initial stay of 10 years for 15,000 U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in Afghanistan. U.S. troops are supposed to be engaged in “anti-terrorism” missions and the training of Afghan troops. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that there are at the most 50 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan, which has led many experts to question the rationale for the U.S. military presence. All the same, given the recent thaw in relations with Washington, Tehran is not protesting too loudly on the continued presence of U.S. troops in its immediate neighbourhood.

Iran had testy relations with Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power in Kabul. Tehran did not react negatively when U.S. forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001. Still, Iran does not want the Americans to stay indefinitely in the never-ending war on terror.

Karzai is trying his best to avoid the ignominy of being the Afghan head of state to formally permit an indefinite presence of foreign forces in the country. He would rather have his successor decide the issue. U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was on a visit to Kabul in the first week of December, told the media that he had received assurances that Afghanistan would eventually sign the BSA. Hagel, however, indicated that Karzai’s idea of leaving the signing to his successor after the general elections in Afghanistan in the first week of April was not a feasible one. Senior U.S. officials had suggested earlier that the signature should not necessarily be that of the Afghan President.

The American media meanwhile have been busy lampooning Karzai for his alleged opportunism and his ingratitude for the sacrifices U.S. and other Western forces have made in Afghanistan. According to economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, the cost of the Afghan war for the U.S. has crossed $700 billion. Only an estimated $3 billion has been spent on development projects. The Pentagon’s request for operations in Afghanistan in 2013 was $85.5 billion. The war in Afghanistan has been described as the costliest war in contemporary history.

In Delhi, during his interaction with the media, the Afghan President once again made it clear that the delay in appending his signature was mainly due to the lack of a firm commitment from Washington that Afghan lives and homes would not be targeted randomly, as has been happening since the American military occupation began in 2001. “I have demanded an end to all American attacks against Afghan homes and the beginning of a realistic peace process. Whenever the Americans meet these two conditions, I am ready to sign the agreement,” Karzai told Radio Free Europe before coming to New Delhi.

The BSA states that American troops can raid Afghan homes only under exceptional circumstances. Though the Americans have been regularly promising to stop targeting civilians and to respect the sanctity of Afghan homes, the attacks have continued unabated. As the Afghan President said in New Delhi, to kill one suspected Taliban fighter, the Americans did not think twice before targeting a bus full of passengers. Karzai pointed out that three days after he received a personal assurance from President Obama that Afghan homes would not be targeted, U.S. forces bombed a home, killing a two-year-old boy and critically injuring his mother and other close relatives. Karzai, according to reports, was particularly upset with the torture and killing of 12 civilians in Wardak province in early 2013, allegedly by American troops. The U.S. refused to cooperate with Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security to question the American soldiers who were said to be involved in the incident. The Wardak killings have been described as one of “the gravest war crimes” committed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Drone warfare

After Obama became President, the U.S. forces have been relying increasingly on drone warfare in the Af-Pak region. Thousands of Afghans have perished in U.S. drone attacks. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki had insisted that for the U.S. forces to continue staying on in Iraq they would have to come under Iraqi state jurisdiction. Washington refused and so had to give up its plans for a long-term military presence in that country. The Afghan government has not formally made a similar demand that after 2014 U.S. troops will be answerable to Afghan authorities for human rights violations and other war crimes.

Karzai, who will demit office in mid-2014, has had a love-hate relationship with the U.S. in recent years. He has repeatedly been saying that the Americans “don’t trust him and I don’t trust the Americans”. Karzai said in New Delhi that the Indian government broadly agreed with his views on the signing of the BSA, while emphasising that both the countries wanted the American troops to stay on. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told the media that the Afghan President had in mind the best interests of his country and “in accordance with India’s approach to Afghanistan, we will support it”. The Afghan President said that the Indian Prime Minister was in agreement with him “on the need for Afghan conditionalities” to be fulfilled.

Karzai said that talking with the Taliban was important for the sake of the Afghan people. Not all sections of the Taliban are amenable to talks with Karzai or his representatives. But the President seems to be optimistic about the prospects of drawing the bulk of the Taliban into the peace process. This is better said than done. The Taliban will keep on staging biannual offensives as long as there are foreign troops in their homeland. Meaningful talks, the Taliban in Afghanistan has said, can only begin after all the foreign troops leave the country.

Bilateral relations

Meanwhile, despite the uncertainties, Kabul and New Delhi seem intent on strengthening bilateral relations. Afghanistan wants India to play a bigger role in the military and security affairs of the country. During Karzai’s visit, India agreed to increase the operational capabilities of the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANSDF). President Karzai said that he was very satisfied with the response from the Indian side on his request for military training and equipment. India, from available indications, will not be complying with the Afghan President’s request for tanks and artillery. India, along with Russia, is planning to upgrade an old armaments repair factory near Kabul.

The Afghan President said that his country aspired to have an army that would be dependent on “its own resources and its own citizens”. According to him, India is helping Afghanistan achieve this objective. The two sides also agreed on a blueprint to enhance trade ties by tying up with Iran to develop new routes from the Iranian port of Chah-bahar. India has built a road connecting Zaranj, which is situated near the Iranian port, to the highway that leads to all the major cities of Afghanistan. Indian goods can be transported easily and cheaply to Chah-bahar and from there onwards to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India is also expected to go ahead and invest $11 billion in the Hajigak iron ore project. Afghanistan has vast untapped mineral deposits, including lithium, gold and hydrocarbons, estimated to be worth around $1 trillion. As much as 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth elements vital to American industry are awaiting extraction. This could be a major factor for the American eagerness to retain a strong military presence in Afghanistan.

There are many Afghanistan watchers who fear that a proxy war between India and Pakistan could erupt if the Americans pack up and leave the country, as some senior American administration officials are threatening that the U.S. will do. Islamabad has been wary of the growing Indian clout in Kabul. India is the fifth largest aid donor to Afghanistan. President Karzai has been a frequent flyer to New Delhi. A return of the Taliban to power will be viewed in New Delhi as a victory for Islamabad. There is already talk of the old alliance between India, Iran and Russia in Afghanistan resurfacing in the event of a Taliban resurgence.

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