By Mosharraf Zaidi
Apr 10, 2010
It is in India's interests to stand by democratically-elected Hamid Karzai
How should India react to Afghan president Hamid Karzai's newfound love for Pakistan and his increasing belligerence toward the US? Perhaps there is only one rule that should guide Indians when it comes to President Karzai and his heartbreaking country. Stop repeating mistakes of the past.
For more than eight years, India has followed America's numerous mistakes in Afghanistan. Most notable among these was the advocacy of Hamid Karzai's corrupt and incompetent Northern Alliance government as some kind of a Nehruvian godsend for the Afghan people. Newsflash: The campaign to paint him as an unstable, unreliable and deeply compromised leader may be relatively fresh, but Karzai's administration has always been corrupt and incompetent.
This campaign is so fresh in fact that it is quite easy to forget that since October 2001 an insatiable appetite for any kind of political and strategic advantage in Afghanistan has helped stimulate a disingenuous, opportunistic and fallacious cheerleading of the Karzai government. As recently as October 2004, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor referred to Karzai as "a virtual George Washington". The Independent swooned that Karzai "is highly educated, nattily dressed, Westernized and fluent in English". Feted alternately as a new father for a new Afghanistan, a liberator of Afghan women and a champion of democracy, Karzai, let us remember, was an all-round hero until very recently.
Now that Karzai is doing what any self-respecting politician would do in his situation — making overtures to old adversaries, putting on a show for his constituency, and flexing his muscles to demonstrate how truly dangerous he can be — he is being painted as a heroin-user and a corrupt and unworthy ally.
Karzai's reaching out to Pakistan of course, was inevitable. No government in Kabul can afford to be on the wrong side of Islamabad (or Rawalpindi, or both) for very long. Pakistan's own internal political dynamic notwithstanding, there is an irresistible and irrevocable bond between Afghanistan and Pakistan. No matter what Pakistan's sins may be, the two countries share a physically enormous and culturally porous border.
That is why the discredited Pakistani notion of strategic depth is so funny. It need not ever have been conceived formally. Pakhtun culture, geography and the peculiar nature of Afghanistan's land-locked and insecure economy make Pakistan and Afghanistan, natural, if sometimes uncomfortable, strategic allies.
Karzai's discovery of his country's "co-joined twin" status with Pakistan was not only unsurprising, but rather took surprisingly long. Any short-term skirmish for influence in Afghanistan will always be won by Pakistan. Countries that couldn't see this coming need to revisit the basic fundamentals of foreign policy-making in their capitals. The Obama Administration's newfound tilt toward the Pakistani military as being the crucial player in the Af-Pak war theatre is also unsurprising, given how narrowly the sole superpower has defined its interests in the region.
Organic relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the United States' belated return to its old Cold War model of patronage for the Pakistani military, however, does not mean that India should continue business as usual. Pakistan may win the odd skirmish, but will find that taking on India in any strategic long-term contest will only end in defeat.
How quickly India wins the strategic war is up to India, though. India's expectations of apologetic and acquiescent neighbours to the east, west, north and south is a dated foreign policy posture that has only provided resistance to India's emergence as a true global power. The biggest lag on India's coming of age among a range of problems is the continued tendency in India to see Pakistan through the lens of South Asian Muslim nationalism and the events of August 1947. If there is one thing worse for India than insisting on a partition-only view of Pakistan, it is a terrorism-only view of its largest neighbour. Real and meaningful engagement between India and Pakistan, beyond the smoke and mirrors of cricket heartthrobs and Bollywood crotch-grabs, is almost non-existent.
Pakistan is a large poor country that is trying to become a democracy worth its name. Pakistan is a largely uneducated country trying to develop an education system capable to meeting global demand. It is a developing country trying to contain the egos of twenty-something development experts from Western capitals. If all the things Pakistan is trying to do sound familiar to Indians, they should. Pakistan is trying, inspite of itself, to be more like India.
Yet when Pakistanis hear the brand name India, it is not democratic institutions that they think of. Nor do they think of the IITs, of Infosys, or of the pitch-perfect management of Western donors by New Delhi's grand corps of civil servants. Despite having the world's grandest and most exquisite democracy next door, nobody would ever mistake India as a vital partner for Pakistani democrats. In Afghanistan, India has a chance not to repeat the mistakes it has made with Pakistan.
India's true strength is in the export of the ideas and attitudes that have helped sustain its complex, beautiful, and at times violent and tragic democratic story. As US policymakers begin the process of burying Hamid Karzai's legitimacy, with only a range of brutally violent warlords (Taliban or not) to choose from, India needs to stop following its fading superpower role model into a hornet's nest.
Standing by the elected Karzai — no matter how cozy he becomes with Pakistan and the Kandahari Taliban — is the only way for India to affirm its status as a secure and truly powerful regional hegemon. Moreover, it is the only course of action that is consistent with the Indian democratic narrative. Standing in Karzai's way because Indian hawks are worried about Pakistani influence in Afghanistan would immeasurably short-sighted, because Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan is inevitable and organic. Besides, Karzai's ventality, corruption and incompetence should not be so strange for South Asians. Our South Asian politics is like this only. Karzai was, is, and will remain, one of our own.
The writer is an international development expert and has advised the UN, the EU, and the World Bank on politics and public policy in South Asia
Source: The Times of India