India’s Afghan pact puts Pakistan on notice

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi: The strategic pact that New Delhi has just signed with Kabul has formalised a bigger role for India in Afghanistan and put Pakistan on notice about its policy of using militant proxies, setting the stage for sharpened rivalry with Islamabad in the run up to the draw-down of US troops by 2014.

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The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed Tuesday by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai brings together different strands of existing dialogue mechanisms in an overarching framework to spur greater political and economic interaction across a broader spectrum.

The pact envisages regular summits, an annual security dialogue at the level of national security advisers and the creation of a Partnership Council led by foreign ministers that will drive the strategic partnership straddling diverse areas.

Most important, the pact contains a formal commitment by India, which already has pledged $2 billion for various reconstruction projects, to train Afghan National Security Forces — indicating that New Delhi is likely to scale up its current training of Afghan security personnel.

“It marks a significant increment in our existing relationship with Afghanistan which is mostly focused on reconstruction projects. These projects have generated an enormous amount of goodwill for India,” Satish Chandra, former deputy national security adviser, told IANS.

Savita Pandey, professor of South Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), underlined that the pact, the first of its kind Afghanistan has signed with any country, “gives legitimacy and an institutional structure to the growing Indian role in Afghanistan”.

India’s formal commitment to train Afghan National Security Forces has, however, stirred suspicion in Islamabad about New Delhi trying to undermine its influence in a country it sees as its strategic depth.

“We have been involved in training Afghan security forces for a while. But there are indications in the pact that we will be involved in training on a large scale. We may also be supplying defence equipment,” said G. Parthasarathy, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan.

Above all, the pact puts Pakistan on notice about the dangers of using terrorism and extremism as instruments of state policy, a key source of tensions that has plunged Islamabad’s relations with Washington and Kabul to a new low.

Ashley Tellis, a South Asia expert at Carnegie Institute in the US, said the agreement was intended, in part, as “a shot across Pakistan’s bow in order to show Islamabad that Kabul has other options if the Pakistan Army continues to support Afghan insurgencies”.

“There will be a sharp rivalry between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan post withdrawal of US troops. There will also be a rivalry with China,” said Pandey.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has sought to play down the agreement, saying “both (India and Afghanistan) are sovereign countries, which have the right to do whatever they want to”. But leading Pakistani analysts like Ayesha Siddiqa has predicted an intensified proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Many Pakistani dailies, too, have written about an encirclement strategy by India. The News said the pact “is bound to raise suspicion in Pakistan at a time of shifting alliances in an unstable South Asia”.

Given Islamabad’s influence over the Afghan Taliban and proxy outfits like the Haqqani network backed by ISI, the Karzai made it a point to allay those worries when he said in a lecture Wednesday that the pact was not directed against Pakistan.

In a delicate balancing exercise, he described India as “a great friend” but Pakistan as “a twin brother”.

In another pointed message to Islamabad, Karzai stressed on a direct dialogue with Islamabad, rather than the Taliban. “We have now decided not to talk to the Taliban because we don’t know their address. When we find them, we will talk to them. Therefore we have decided to talk to our brothers, our neighbours, in Pakistan,” Karzai said in India as he ended his two-day visit to the country Wednesday.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at [email protected])