The Kabul test

Karzai visit focuses attention on Delhi's need to nuance its Af-Pak strategy in a delicate moment.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in India this week at a doubly delicate moment. Karzai's second presidential term is coming to a close and elections to choose his successor are due in April 2014, amid the planned withdrawal of most American forces by the end of next year and the resurgence of the Taliban, backed by the Pakistan army. The uncertainty surrounding the transition in Kabul is matched by the political meltdown in Delhi, especially after the rout of the Congress party in the latest round of state elections. While general elections are due only in April-May next year, the Manmohan Singh government is beginning to look like a lame duck.

Yet, the stakes in securing the partnership between Delhi and Kabul, which has blossomed over the last decade, are higher than ever before. Karzai confronts multiple challenges to the future of Afghanistan. Even as the threat of destabilisation from across the Durand Line has grown, the political rift between Kabul and Washington has widened. The divergence is reflected in Karzai's reluctance to sign the bilateral security agreement that defines the terms and conditions for the residual military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. This unfortunate turn of events is rooted in deepening mutual distrust between Karzai and the Obama administration. Karzai has been angry at the American outreach to the Taliban and worries that a retreating America has become even more dependent on the goodwill of the Pakistan army. In turn, Washington has made no secret of its belief that Karzai is part of the problem in Afghanistan.

All this makes India's challenge in Afghanistan that much more complicated. On his part, Karzai is putting greater weight on military cooperation with India, not as an alternative to that with the US, but as an important part of his strategy to diversify Kabul's defence relationships after 2014. India is committed, under the strategic partnership agreement signed with Afghanistan in 2011, to extend military assistance to Kabul. That commitment is now under test as Karzai seeks expansive defence engagement with India, including the supply of heavy equipment. Delhi, however, appears to be rather cautious. While it must carefully weigh the regional consequences of supplying weaponry to Kabul, Delhi can't ignore the dangers that will flow from the Pakistan army's likely advances in Afghanistan after 2014. The answer for Delhi lies in extending strong military support for Kabul and complementing it with an expanded political engagement with Pakistan's civilian leaders. India's Af-Pak strategy must walk on two legs, but walk it must.

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