Sujatha’s quiet trip to Afghanistan
Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh returned Sunday from an unannounced three day visit to Afghanistan. It was her maiden visit abroad after having taken over as India’s foreign secretary on August 1 and was undertaken barely 24-hours after second Afghan Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili concluded his three day visit to New Delhi.
The frenetic pace of India-Afghan engagement is not only a sign of close partnership but also that a lot needs to be done as the 2014 deadline for NATO forces to withdraw from Afghanistan draws closer. India has huge security concerns in Afghanistan, including in the mining sector.
But its intelligence agencies think the bigger danger of the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan would be a repeat of 1989 in Jammu and Kashmir. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan that year meant many fighting them moved to the Indian state which witnessed a sudden explosion of violence.
Afghan Vice President Khalili’s visit to New Delhi, foreign secretary Singh’s to Kabul and preceding these two visits was Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s two day working visit to India in May are signs that the two sides are working very closely with each other. India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership in October 2011.
On her part, the foreign secretary visited Kabul and Jalalabad during her visit from May 23 to May 25. Indian government sources said the “special visit” to the consulate at Jalalabad was to convey “a very clear message that no terrorist attack can have an impact on India’s strong determination to assist Afghanistan in its reconstruction and development efforts”. Afghan security personnel had thwarted the August 3 suicide attack. The foreign secretary met her Afghan counterpart Ershad Ahmadi, called on President Karzai, first Vice President Marshal Fahim, second Vice President Khalili and Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasool.
Many in the Indian security establishment believe India’s concerns about the post-2014 situation will soon force it to make some hard choices. New Delhi may not be ready at least yet to put its soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan but will need to do more to protect its interests than what it is currently doing.
When he was in Delhi in the third week of May on a two day visit Karzai requested the Indians to supply heavy weaponry to the Afghan forces. His wish list included light artillery guns, helicopters and heavy vehicles. Indian officials claim New Delhi politely refused but Pakistani military officials allege India has started sending heavy weaponry to Afghanistan.
In its official statement after the recent Karzai visit, the Indian External Affairs Ministry stated that “as Afghanistan moves towards its critical security, political and economic transitions marked by the drawdown of NATO forces and the Presidential elections in 2014, the strategic partnership between Afghanistan and India can play an important/crucial role in providing security and stability to Afghanistan.” It further stated that India was “ready to stand by Afghanistan as close, friendly and historic neighbor through these transitions and play a due and responsible role in this regard.”
Currently, India trains Afghan officers in its military academies but has resisted putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan. The last time New Delhi turned down a similar request seeking military help from a neighbor was from Sri Lanka in 2005. Colombo turned to Beijing and Islamabad and New Delhi surrendered strategic space in what it considers its strategic space.
Incidentally, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid recently said that India’s Afghanistan policy did “not have an exit policy”.