New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to visit Afghanistan next month with game-changing moves expected from key players, including the US, in the coming months as the war on terror completes 10 years.
India, which considers Afghanistan as a part of its extended neighbourhood and has invested $1.3 billion (around Rs5,775 crore today) in aid and reconstruction projects, will also be hearing about US strategy in the region during the visit of Marc Grossman, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, this week. This is his first visit to India since taking over after Richard Holbrooke’s death in December.
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Singh last visited Afghanistan in 2005. It also comes after Singh personally led an initiative that resumed diplomatic peace talks with Pakistan, suspended after the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai in 2008.
“The dates (for Singh’s visit) are being worked out. It is likely to happen in the first half of May,” an Afghan diplomat in New Delhi said. “As you know, President Hamid Karzai had extended an invitation to the prime minister when he came” to India in February.
The ministry of external affairs, however, did not confirm the visit.
Singh’s visit will be taking place against the backdrop of major developments expected by the middle of the year, starting with a possible withdrawal of US troops in July from the insurgency wrecked country as promised by President Barack Obama in 2009. With a sizeable chunk of the troops expected to leave by the end of 2014, there are signs that Afghanistan’s neighbours are beginning to prepare for a post-American era.
“The visit will highlight India’s political commitment to Afghanistan and the Karzai government,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “It will signal India’s interest in keeping itself abreast of and influencing the developments in Afghanistan. It will also be a signal to Pakistan that India is not going to walk away from Afghanistan.”
After being seen on the side of the invading former Soviet Union due to close ties with Moscow, India saw its influence in the strategic country decline rapidly when the Pakistan-backed Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996. Islamabad has always wanted a friendly administration in Kabul that it can fall back on in case of a war with New Delhi. Since the ouster of the Taliban in November 2001, India has been working hard to shore up goodwill among the Afghans with a slew of low-profile development projects.
Obama, who ordered extra troops into Afghanistan in 2009 as part of a surge strategy to defeat the reviving Sunni Pashtun Taliban, assessed the situation in the region this week amid fresh signs of tension over the fight against militants along the Afghan-Pakistan border with key ally Pakistan.
“By all accounts, the surge is not working as well as it was made out to be,” said Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary, who was also India’s ambassador to the US. “The Taliban seems to be in control over much of Afghanistan and only a few very safe districts have been handed over to (the government). Otherwise, there has not been much progress militarily.”
Singh’s visit will also be an occasion for India to “assess the situation with reference to the Afghanistan-Pakistan dialogue with reference to the reconciliation process with the Taliban”, Sibal said.
He was referring to relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which were rocky with Karzai joining the chorus of those accusing the neighbouring country of supporting the Taliban, but improved in recent months. During a visit to Kabul on 16 April, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Karzai agreed to include Pakistani military and intelligence officials in a joint panel in talks with the Taliban to end the long drawn-out war that is wearying the international troops stationed there.
“Karzai has a problem with the United States just like Pakistan,” said Sibal.
The US has been pressing Pakistan to act against elements of the Taliban taking shelter in the region straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US also suspects Pakistan’s military spy agency, ISI, of having close ties with insurgents fighting foreign troops trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Anti-US sentiments are also running high in Pakistan with the death of civilians in US drone attacks that are aimed at the Taliban.
In recent years, ties between the US and Karzai have also become strained, with Washington rapidly losing domestic support for the long-drawn-out war in Afghanistan, criticizing the Afghan president for not clamping down on corruption. Media reports say the US is also wary of Karzai’s peace talks with the Taliban—a move seen as an attempt by Karzai to widen his political base and ensure his political survival.
“Both countries like to deal with the situation independent of rather than be dictated to by US and it is here that they find common ground,” said Sibal.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Gilani also urged Karzai against building a long-term strategic partnership with the US after international forces hand over all security duties to Afghan troops in 2014 and maintain just a token presence. Instead, Gilani reportedly urged Karzai to look to Pakistan—and its Chinese ally—for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy.
Mansingh expressed doubts about this, saying he was unsure how “two so-called failing states can come to such an agreement. The chemistry between Karzai and the US is not particularly good at the moment, but the benefit of the doubt should be given to the new envoy to the region, Grossman, who has been working with the two countries”.
Grossman, who is reaching New Delhi on Thursday, will interact with Indian officials in New Delhi on Friday, according to the official cited earlier.
One of the issues likely to figure in the talks is an agreement that the US is reportedly working out with Afghanistan on maintaining a permanent troop presence in that country that has reportedly caused unease in Russia and Iran.
Graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint