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Afghanistan: Kabul's India Ties Worry Pakistan

Presidents Karzai (left) and Musharraf in mid-February (epa) While Afghan President Hamid Karzai tries to maintain balance in his country's relations with India and Pakistan, Islamabad might be feeling squeezed and do its best to undermine the renewed Afghan-Indian partnership -- at great cost to Afghanistan.

Karzai led a 110-strong delegation made up of cabinet ministers, members of the Afghan National Assembly, and businesspeople on a four-day visit to India in early April. The trip was Karzai's fourth to India since he became Afghan leader in late 2001. But unlike during Karzai's visit to Islamabad in February -- which led to an exchange of accusations between the Afghan leader and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- Karzai and his hosts in New Delhi appeared to get along well.

'Frank Words'

Karzai described as "frank words" exchanged between friends Musharraf's charge in March that the Afghan leader was "totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country" and unaware that there was an anti-Pakistani conspiracy brewing inside the Afghan government, and he tried to play the role of mediator between his Indian hosts and Pakistan. Karzai said he favors a "tripolar structure of cooperation" among his country and the archrivals, India and Pakistan. According to Karzai, such a structure -- which he does not regard as political -- would "release the best energy of this region and bring quicker progress" to South Asia. In an indirect endorsement of New Delhi's position, Karzai said India and Pakistan should begin working to improve the region and solve their bilateral problems even in the absence of any resolution to the dispute over Kashmir. But Pakistan is directly linking cooperation with India and other outstanding issues with the Kashmir question.

More specifically, Karzai said that he would ask his "brother" Musharraf to allow the transit of Indian goods to Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. Currently, Islamabad only allows the shipment through its territory of Afghan goods going to India, not Indian goods to Afghanistan.

Karzai called indirectly for more effective joint counterterrorism measures within the proposed tripolar structure, presumably including an exchange of information between the three countries on terrorist activities affecting the states.

Diplomatically, Karzai was soft on Pakistan during his time in India -- a departure from his stance in February, when he accused Islamabad of not doing enough to stop cross-border infiltrations by the neo-Taliban and other militants. However, the main topic of discussion between the Afghan and Indian leaders revolved around counterterrorism and security problems -- both in Afghanistan and in Indian-held Kashmir. Kabul and New Delhi have accused Islamabad of doing too little to stop such activities, at best, or worse, of fully supporting the terrorists' activities.

India's Afghan Policy

As India tries to move onto the world stage and away from being in a perpetual state of hostility with Pakistan, it wants to curtail Islamabad's ability to be a menace or, in worst-case scenario, entertain hostilities which could lead to a military conflict between the two nuclear-weapons states.

India wants to see the Kashmir issue remain dormant with little or no violence. One way to achieve this goal is to keep leverage on Pakistan that can be used when necessary.

Close cooperation with Afghanistan -- a country with which India has had historically friendly relations up to 1992 -- is a cost-effective policy to keep Pakistan in check. India made a strategic mistake when it took a back seat to Pakistan in the postcommunist era of Afghanistan. It seems very unlikely that New Delhi -- with its aspirations to become a regional and even extraregional power -- would allow Afghanistan to once again become a pawn in Pakistani plans.

During Karzai's visit to New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged an additional $50 million in assistance to Afghanistan, bringing the total Indian pledge to $650 million -- of which $200 million has already been spent. India is also reconstructing a road in the remote southwestern Afghan province of Nimroz. The project is being carried out by state-owned Border Roads Organization (BRO), the mission statement of which states that the BRO is India's "most reputed, multifaceted, transnational, modern construction organization committed to meeting the strategic needs of the armed forces." The killing of a BRO employee by the neo-Taliban in November prompted the Indian authorities to dispatch approximately 200 Indo-Tibetan Border Police commandos to Afghanistan in March to provide security for Indians working in various construction projects in Afghanistan.

That is the first time in the period since Pakistan has been a state that Indian security forces have been stationed in Afghanistan, not far from Pakistani border.

Pakistan's Threat Perception

Unlike New Delhi's aspiration to take a seat on the world stage, Pakistan's policies from that state's inception until now are focused primarily on the real and perceived threat emanating from India. This overarching concern also has been at the heart of Islamabad's designs to help establish a client government in a weak and dependent Afghanistan, keeping Kabul outside of the Indian orbit and Afghanistan.

Pakistan was handed the chance to tear away Afghanistan from Indian influence when Pakistan-based and -supported mujahedin groups gained power in Kabul in 1992. However, Islamabad's main clients, namely Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later the Taliban, both failed to make Pakistan realize its goal.

With the demise of the Taliban regime, Islamabad had to do an about-face and join forces with the U.S.-led coalition, which brought Karzai to power. Reluctantly, Pakistan was forced to work with a Kabul government that not only had unprecedented international support, including the presence of NATO and other Western military forces, but also one which began rekindling the traditional pro-India policy followed by pre-1992 Afghan governments.

The fact that Abdul Ahad Karzai -- Afghan President Karzai's father -- was assassinated in Pakistan in 1999, allegedly by the Taliban, coupled with Karzai himself being a graduate of Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla, India, did not help diminish the threat perception in Islamabad that Kabul's Indian-educated leader could have a potential distaste for Pakistan.

Since 2003, Islamabad has accused its arch nemesis India of setting up camps in Afghanistan to train Afghans and Pakistanis as terrorists to destabilize Pakistan. With the recent and current instabilities challenging Islamabad's authority in Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the fingers of accusation toward India's involvement from across the border in Afghanistan have become louder in Pakistan.

Pakistan charges that with its presence in Afghanistan, India is encircling Pakistan with consulates and commandos and is financing militant organizations in FATA of Waziristan and is providing training and funds to the Baluchistan Liberation Army -- a tribal militant organization established in the 1970s.

Afghan Predicament

During his February trip to Pakistan, Karzai was very empathetic when he stated that Afghanistan's "relations with India in no way, no way, no way will impact" on ties between Kabul and Islamabad. However it is no consolation for Musharraf that Karzai's trip to Pakistan was ostensibly to deliver to him a list of names of alleged terrorists who, according to Kabul, were living in Pakistan. At the same time, the Afghan leader is received as a hero in India where the crux of his discussion revolved around ways to curb the increasing acts of terror in Afghanistan, which both Kabul and New Delhi believe Islamabad can stop.

In circles beyond Kabul, it is becoming understood that unless Pakistan truly tries to stop the influx of insurgents to Afghanistan, the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan are not going to be fruitful in the short-term. Karzai, while being fully cognizant of this, has tried to keep a friendly posture towards Musharraf; a few outbursts notwithstanding. While Pakistan needs to accepts Afghanistan as an independent country -- one not subservient to its demands, Kabul has to be careful not to play the Indian card so much that Islamabad's threat level goes on high alert. With the overwhelming distrust between India and Pakistan, both sides are likely to use any opportunity to gain a better hand against the other. Kabul should play its cards carefully so as not to end up with a weakened hand.