By Sujoyini Mandal, Opinions Columnist, MPP ‘13
On October 4th, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on a critical bilateral arrangement that has far reaching implications for both Afghan and South Asian security. This two-way “strategic partnership deal” incorporates a wide range of political, economic and trade issues, and comes at a time of increasing hostility between Afghanistan and Pakistan after the September 20 death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan High Peace Council Chairman who was spearheading the reconciliation process with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Afghan defence officials point to ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) involvement in the suicide bombing that killed Rabbani. Additionally, recent insurgency attacks in Helmand, southern Uruzgan and Herat indicate declining security within Afghanistan. As the United States draws down its troop levels, Afghanistan needs to rethink its security alliances, regionally and internationally.
The agreement is important for at least three reasons. First, it is a breakthrough for an Indian government looking to expand its political capital in the country. For decades, India has used Afghanistan as an ally against the threat of Pakistan and China. As Prakhar Sharma, a World Bank consultant and specialist in Afghanistan explained, the agreement shows “India is in Afghanistan to stay, to assist Afghans with their transition into a multi-ethnic and progressive democratic society.” Both India and Afghanistan are replacing symbolic ties with strategic ones that could usher in a new decade of unprecedented bilateral relations, strengthening India’s regional clout and perhaps ensuring Afghanistan’s support for a permanent Indian seat at the UN National Security Council.
Second, it is a breakthrough for Afghanistan. The agreement offers the country a much-needed ally just as the U.S. military presence is dwindling and hostility with Pakistan is increasing. The long shadow of foreign powers, first the USSR and then the U.S., has left Afghanistan without strong government or security infrastructure. As part of the security agreement, India, with its history of effective counter-insurgency experience, will play an important role in training Afghan security forces. This could allow Afghanistan to rely less on military and financial assistance from the West and to build up its own capacity with regional help.
Third, there are wider repercussions for South Asian security. While Pakistan has not made any aggressive diplomatic overtures, it is easy to see Pakistan’s concern with a pro-India administration in Kabul, considering the 2,640km border they share. At the same time, Islamabad does not want to disrupt existing relations with New Delhi. The next few months are crucial to see how the different dynamics are played out in South Asia. But one thing is clear – with declining US presence in the region, regional powers have to move towards cooperative mechanisms and ultimately aspire to build up South Asian security cooperation.