What Afghanistan’s vote means for India
India and Pakistan, with their competitive strategic interest in Afghanistan, are keenly watching the war-battered nation’s election this week, the second since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.
The front-runner of that vote is incumbent President Hamid Karzai who is facing a stiff challenge from his former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. There are more than two dozen other candidates.
While a successful vote could mean a step toward achieving basic political and military stability in Afghanistan, its outcome holds crucial geopolitical significance for India and Pakistan.
Conventional wisdom is that a victory for Karzai will help India. Karzai has lived and studied in India, cultivated a strong relationship with New Delhi and spoken out angrily against Pakistan, especially during the years it was ruled by Pervez Musharraf.
Abdullah and Ghani too have India connections — while the former lived there, Ghani was once posted in New Delhi with the World Bank.
So in that sense, Pakistan should have no serious good option, and the various candidates who offer any potential to project its influence in Afghanistan, Islamabad should be more or less a supporter of them, says Daniel Markey, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Markey says Pakistan may tend to prefer Karzai simply because he is “known quantity” and his relations with the civilian government in Islamabad are better than before.
But former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar argues Pakistani intelligence disfavours Karzai’s victory as it has scores to settle with almost all the warlords who rally behind Karzai — Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan — and they happen to be in the rogues’ gallery in the Western world, too.
But a Hamid Karzai victory may not be without complications for India.
New Delhi, which is seeding Afghanistan with projects spanning sanitation to roads and power, is worried at Karzai’s election promise to intensify peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups such as Hezb-i-Islami.
Karzai’s government has enlisted the help of former Taliban officials in recent months to act as go-betweens in an effort to reach out to fighters. Saudi Arabia has also indicated its
willingness to help in mediation efforts.
Such moves have worried Indian officials who say they fear a U.S.-British-Saudi-Pakistani plan to co-opt the Taliban into the Afghan power structure as part of the NATO’s Afghan exit plan.
If that happens, Indians suspect, wouldn’t it then just be a matter of time before the Taliban start going after their enemies?
It may not, however, be as simplistic but India does seem to have a job of dissuading Karzai from pushing for a rapprochement with the Taliban.