Delhi must shed its pusillanimity on relations with Kabul
by G Parthasarathy
THE Air India flight from Kabul to New Delhi on September 5, in which I had travelled, had just landed when I was told at the arrival hall that Sushmita Banerjee had been brutally murdered by the Taliban in retribution for her expose of Taliban atrocities against women. The brutal murder again exposed the medieval and murderous characteristics of the Taliban with whom the US is almost desperately seeking “reconciliation.” This, after the Taliban, operating largely from bases in Pakistan, has killed 2,161 American combat personnel and wounded 19,080. What I found in a five-day visit to Afghanistan is that it is a country with unlimited opportunities for development and democracy, even while facing a brutal insurgency fuelled and funnelled from across its borders with Pakistan. Pakistan is an object of hate and derision across the country. Visitors from Pakistan in Kabul often prefer to describe themselves as “Hindustani” in Kabul’s bazaars.
In just over a decade after the medieval Taliban was ousted, Afghanistan has seen a remarkable political and social transformation. The country has since developed a robust political system. President Karzai and his ministers are freely criticised. The media is free and lively. Shahrukh Khan and his “Chennai Express” receive rave reviews. While schools were virtually defunct and women denied the right to education and work in the Taliban years, there are now 10.5 million students in educational institutions, with universities now flourishing in Kabul, Nangarhar, Khost, Herat and Balkh. Forty-eight per cent of all doctors and 60 per cent of teachers are women, who now are also well represented in the legislature and even in the army and the police.
Afghanistan is now preparing for the Presidential elections scheduled for around April, 2014. With President Karzai constitutionally ineligible for a third consecutive term, jockeying has commenced for who should succeed him. Afghanistan has traditionally been ruled by the dominant Pashtuns, with the Tajiks, Hazaras (predominantly Shia), Uzbeks and Turkmens who constitute over 50 per cent of the population, forming alliances to protect their interests. Powerful regional leaders with significant armed cadres like Mohammed Atta in Mazar-e-Sharif and Ismail Khan in Herat will have a significant say in any outcome. This jockeying for viable coalitions will continue till the Presidential elections are held. President Hamid Karzai, derided by the Americans and their British camp followers, deserves high praise for the way in which Afghan democratic institutions have been nurtured, ethnic, sectarian and religious pluralism respected and the state and educational institutions developed, in his 11 years as President. Even the miniscule Sikh and Hindu communities are now represented in Parliament.
There are understandable suspicions in Afghanistan about the future American role after they end their combat operations in December 2014. Recognising their economic and military vulnerabilities, Afghans realise that they will have to conclude a security pact with the Americans, giving the Americans more than half a dozen air bases, if they are to secure American and western economic and military assistance. It will require at least 10 years of relative peace for the Afghans to become economically self-reliant, by developing their agricultural and mineral potential. What is most worrying for the Afghans is the American policy of supplying their armed forces only weapons with limited firepower, while denying them artillery, tanks and other heavy weaponry, which they possessed earlier, but were destroyed by the Americans shortly after they arrived. This is a source of deep anger and anguish as Afghanistan's ill-equipped armed forces are taking huge casualties as they confront the Pakistan-backed Taliban. American policies are widely seen as a deliberate ploy to force the Afghans to “reconcile” with the Pakistan-backed Taliban and Haqqani network with Pakistani "facilitation".
While the Afghans are seeking good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, the overwhelming view is that there will be no change in Pakistan's malevolence in the near future. In contrast there is huge admiration and affection for India with public opinion polls indicating that India is the most highly regarded country, by 74 per cent of Afghans polled. Ninety-one per cent of Afghans polled have an “unfavourable” view of Pakistan, with 58 per cent regarding the Taliban as the “biggest danger” to their country even when including local warlords, drug smugglers and the US. India's economic assistance and political non-interference have played a crucial role in this. But this favourable perception is slowly changing, primarily because of India's refusal to provide any military equipment to the Afghan army, which has deliberately been kept inadequately equipped.