Vying for clout

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The US decision to wage war on Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban has put Afghanistan firmly on the map. But one perhaps surprising source of interest is India. Lately, New Delhi has been actively establishing links to the post- Taliban government.

India has no shared border with Afghanistan, nor does it have any obvious religious or ethnic affiliation to its people. What it does have is a considerable history of political interaction. New Delhi was close to the government of former king Zahir Shah in the early 1970s. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recalled recently how he visited Afghanistan twice during that decade. Later, the Soviet occupation and civil war made thousands of Afghans refugees; many travelled to India where they still live today.

India’s strongest contemporary link to Afghanistan is its relations with the Northern Alliance. India closed its mission in Kabul following the take-over of the city by the Taliban in 1996. In the next five years, it bitterly opposed the student militia, while actively supporting the Northern Alliance. New Delhi gave the Alliance money and arms, and sheltered the families of its leaders. Many of those families, including the widow of executed president Najibullah and her three daughters, still live in India. Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan’s new interim government went to university in north India. He has maintained a warm relationship with New Delhi.

Little wonder, then, that Vajpayee’s government welcomed the transfer of power in Kabul. Its opposition to the Taliban had one main cause: the closeness of India’s old rival, Pakistan, to the Taliban. Indian and Pakistani relations tend to operate in a zero-sum manner: any third country friendly to one is almost inevitably the enemy of the other. India also believes that the Taliban’s Afghanistan was a “training ground for Pakistan-sponsored terrorists” operating in Indian Kashmir. Islamabad vehemently denies this claim, maintaining that the Kashmiri separatist movement is wholly indigenous. Nevertheless, New Delhi is optimistic that the Taliban collapse will remove a major catalyst of its troubles in Kashmir.

But India hopes for more out of its relations with Afghanistan’s new regime than just an end to terrorist activity. Vajpayee recently announced in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament), “We are making efforts so that we have the maximum possible role in Afghanistan.” So far, those efforts have been considerable. Indian diplomats were among the first to enter post-Taliban Kabul. S. K. Lumnah, India’s special envoy to Afghanistan, set up a liaison office there as a prelude to reopening the Indian embassy. He also attended the talks in Bonn. Indian planes have been busy flying aid to the country: a team of doctors and medical equipment, including thousands of prosthetic limbs that are cheaper and more versatile than Western ones, have already been sent. The team hopes to fit 1,000 limbs a month. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh also announced that personnel would be sent in to reactivate the Indira Gandhi Hospital for women and children in Kabul. Indian films and audio-cassettes are also being supplied to Afghanistan’s entertainment-starved populace — and are proving a big hit.

This is only the start. The Indian government plans to supply a million tons of wheat to Afghanistan this year, and has promised to make available a 100- million-dollar line of credit to the new interim government once it takes power. Indian Airlines will also resume flights to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif.

India’s efforts are paying off. Ariana, the Afghan national carrier, announced that it will be starting flights to New Delhi. Younus Qanooni, the Northern Alliance interior minister who will continue in that post after the installation of the interim government on 22 December, was the first of several Alliance ministers to visit India. Significantly, he flew there straight from the Bonn Conference, returning to his homeland only after spending three days in India. He was followed by Mirwaiz Sadiq, the labour and local affairs minister, and Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister. Indian officials say they are expecting the head of the new government, Hamid Karzai, to pay a visit shortly.

Qanooni sought Indian help in establishing a police force and a legal and judicial system for Afghanistan; Mirwaiz Sadiq solicited help in setting up medical services and reopening schools and colleges. All of this bodes well for future relations. But what has surely pleased India most was Qanooni’s warning to Pakistan not to interfere in Afghanistan or Indian Kashmir. That was the clearest possible signal that the new regime in Afghanistan has opted to befriend India over Pakistan.

There is another incentive guiding India’s interest in Afghanistan: oil. Afghanistan is a gateway to the vast energy resources of the Central Asian republics. A big motive India has for cultivating Afghanistan’s new rulers is to stop the country falling again into Pakistan’s orbit, and letting Pakistan influence the region’s petroleum future. The Indian rush to send aid and reopen its embassy is prompted by political necessity.

This has not escaped Islamabad’s notice. In the Far Eastern Economic Review, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf claimed that India had just one aim in Afghanistan: “To do something that will be against Pakistan, that will damage our cause. That is their sole purpose.” A major reason why Pakistan pushed for a broad-based as opposed to Northern Alliance government in Afghanistan was the Alliance’s Indian connections.

Will India achieve its aims in Afghanistan? To some extent it already has, but situations — in particular the balance of power — can change fast in Afghanistan. Much will depend on how the new interim government performs, whether Karzai can assert himself, or whether the Northern Alliance will be dominant. The next looming question is who takes power after the interim government’s six-month tenure is over. If a new government is Alliance-dominated, it will be good news for India, bad news for Pakistan. But if the new government has a strong Pashtun element, then the reverse will be true.

Geography, as President Musharraf has noted, may be a significant factor. India’s lack of physical contact with Afghanistan will limit its interaction. Airlifting a million tons of wheat is no mean undertaking. Compared to Pakistan, with its road links and established transport routes, India is at a strategic disadvantage. So far, though, Pakistan has yet to make its advantage count.

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