January 24th, 2010
Jayant Prasad, India’s ambassador in Kabul, suggests that if Afghanistan does not stabilise, the resulting chaos can impact India’s security in very many negative ways. In an interview to Anand K. Sahay, on the eve of the London Conference on Afghanistan on January 28, Mr Prasad expands on the policy to remain engaged.
Q. During his recent visit to the United States, the Prime Minister was categorical that India would remain engaged in Afghanistan, and advised America to do the same. The Indian leader did not wait for US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US would be increasing troop levels. Why were we so emphatic, and off the mark even before the Americans? Why is Afghanistan so important to us?
A. Think back to 1998. When US embassies in East Africa were bombed that year, former US President Bill Clinton sent cruise missiles to hit Osama bin Laden in Khost in eastern Afghanistan where he was thought to be living. The Al Qaeda leader escaped, but many died or were injured in that strike. Western reporters learnt from survivors in Peshawar hospitals (where they’d been brought) that many of the dead and injured were members of terrorist groups who were training for attacks in Kashmir. I remember reading a report by Tim Weiner about this. I think it was called “Blowback from the Afghan Battlefield”.
At present there is danger of fusion and coalescing of terror groups in Pakistan that operate in India and Afghanistan. Perhaps the Pakistan government is itself beginning to realise this. But we are not at all confident that such realisation has gone far enough to create an impact on these terrorist outfits.
If the international community turns away from Afghanistan at the present juncture, if India turns away, Afghanistan may well be destabilised. The destabilisation of Afghanistan will lead first and foremost to the destabilisation of Pakistan, and is likely to have consequences for India.
Q. We don’t have an immediate border with Afghanistan. So, why should we be engaged to the extent we are? Why us, why not China, for instance?
A. Let me speak only of us. We have civilisational and historical ties with Afghanistan at the people level. We were engaged there in the Sixties and the Seventies as well, before the Soviet occupation, unlike China. We are now trying to cover the hiatus.
The failure to stabilise Afghanistan affects us directly, as I suggested earlier. Such failure will also result in the subversion of the region as a whole, in particular Muslim populations from Bangladesh to the Ferghana Valley, by allowing political space to an extremist interpretation of Islam. We fall right in the middle. The international community simply cannot afford to quit Afghanistan without steadying it and establishing a functioning state system.
Q. Does India plan to train the Afghan Army and police personnel?
A. We are training about 120 Army officers and this number may go up in about a year. Any further decision in this area will be in response to Afghanistan’s request. Right now there is a problem of absorption of capacity. There is a rapid expansion of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (Army and police) over the next 18 months by different countries.
Q. Is there a role for India here?
A. It will be up to the government to consider Afghan requests. Military training is no different from what we were doing in the Sixties and the Seventies. The training of the police is also an important part of the stabilisation process.
Q. We are committed in a big way in Afghanistan, and are the fourth biggest aid provider as a country. We have not given development assistance of such magnitude to any country. Can this be sustained if the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) troops leave Afghanistan? The January 28 London Conference on Afghanistan is expected to take up the question of reconciliation with elements of the Taliban leadership in preparation for a future Nato and US withdrawal. What do we think about this?
A. Our presence will be affected by the law and order situation, the security situation. It is contingent on that. But we are hopeful that if Afghanistan capability in the security sector becomes a reality, if they gain ownership and leadership in that area, the situation will be manageable. The essential pre-requisites here are that in ground operations the leadership should be given to the Afghan Army. That will mark a real transition. At present, the international troops are in the lead. They should slip into a supporting role. The Afghan Army must also be provided force enablers such as artillery and air power.
To calm the situation, it is also necessary that public spending, providing a safety net should flow from Afghan institutions, rather than foreign agencies.
The new US policy, however, visualises a massive civilian surge. Also, whatever is done in the social and economic sphere should be development from below.
As for inclusiveness and reconciliation being part of the overall stabilisation process, this should be Afghan-led. The latitude should lie with the Afghan leadership to choose with whom to have reconciliation and how. They will probably bring in those who will commit themselves to respecting democracy and human rights as enshrined in the Afghan Constitution.
Q. What is the nature of India’s development work in Afghanistan that it should be lauded equally by the Afghans and the Americans?
A. We have helped establish power systems and transmission lines so that now there is 24-hour power in Kabul. We have built hundreds of kilometres of roads. We have done rural development work. Shortly we may expect to help in a big way in the agriculture sector. The details are likely to become available after the London Conference.
Over time, our role has been changing in view of Afghan needs. We only assist in areas in which we are asked by the Afghans. We are currently into building Afghan capacity in a big way, into skills creation and development, so that those we train may train others. In this field, we are doing more than anyone else.
Q. Afghanistan was a non-aligned country before the Soviet invasion, like India. Does that still ring a bell for both sides?
A. There is a strategic congruence between our foreign policy objectives and Afghanistan’s national interests. What we are seeking is a stabilisation of that country, for it to be able to stand up on its feet, and take independent decisions. That is what the Afghans also want.
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