With threats on all borders, the new government of Afghanistan is plunging into the world of Central Asian power politics.
Hamid Karzai, the chairman of Afghanistan’s interim government, and other leaders are strengthening their ties with India in hopes of keeping neighboring Pakistan off balance.
Calling India his “second home,” Afghan leader Hamid Karzai said Dec. 30 that it should play a greater role than other countries in reconstructing Afghanistan, the Times of India reported. Mr. Karzai was speaking in Kabul to Indian special envoy Satish Lambah, who reiterated New Delhi’s support for the interim government in Kabul and for rebuilding Afghanistan.
Afghan leaders appear to be moving closer to India, which has been a longtime supporter of the Northern Alliance and a rival to Pakistan, which fostered the ousted Taliban regime. The move makes sense for several reasons. Ethnic Tajiks, who have strong ties to India, dominate the interim government. And because the Afghan government faces threats on all sides, it needs to play balance-of-power politics in order to survive.
The political leanings of the interim government will strain Afghanistan’s relations with Islamabad, which will complicate U.S. efforts to continue operating in Pakistan. Mr. Karzai’s remarks come as Kabul makes concerted efforts to forge links with the Indian government. Three Afghan officials Interior Minister Younus Qanooni, Labor Minister Mir Wais Sadeq and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah have visited India since mid-December.
The government’s entreaties will fall on receptive ears in New Delhi, which would love to reduce Pakistan’s westward influence. The Indian government may even hope eventually to use Afghanistan to keep Pakistan’s army committed to the western border much as Islamabad uses the Kashmir insurgency to keep parts of the Indian army pinned down and bleeding.
While Kabul is strengthening its relationship with New Delhi, it is trying to make life difficult for Islamabad. On Dec. 30, Afghan Border Affairs Minister Amanullah Dzadran asked for international peacekeeping troops to be deployed along the border with Pakistan to combat what he claims is Pakistani intelligence assistance to Osama bin Laden. A day earlier, Mr. Qanooni, speaking on Iranian television, directly accused Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, of helping bin Laden escape capture.
The intensity of Afghanistan’s new relationship with India is a bit surprising, but leaders in Kabul have both geopolitical and personal reasons for their actions.
The ethnic backgrounds of the new Afghan leaders create differences with Islamabad. This applies not only to the ethnic Tajiks, who occupy most ministerial posts and who spent the past five years fighting the Taliban, but also to Mr. Karzai. Although he is Pashtun, like many Pakistanis, Mr. Karzai belongs to the Durrani tribe, which historically has had cool relations with Pakistan. The Durranis have claimed the leadership of all Pashtun tribes, even those in Pakistan, and once supported a “pan-Pashtun” movement in the 1950s that proposed an independent Pashtun state. Wary of the Durranis, Islamabad supported a competing Pashtun faction during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The only instance of Pakistani support for Durrani Pashtuns occurred when a few of them, starting with Mullah Mohammed Omar, created the Taliban movement in the mid-1990s. However, Mr. Karzai accused the Taliban of being manipulated by Pakistan and started a competing Pashtun faction. Although Pakistan allowed Mr. Karzai to maintain his headquarters in its southwestern Baluchistan province, the two sparred regularly.
Afghan leaders are motivated by more than ethnic allegiances and personal history, however. They also are playing basic balance-of-power politics, following the traditional pattern of Afghan leaders, who are usually surrounded by more powerful nations and must play competing sides against each other. Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan surround Afghanistan. All three have interests in Afghanistan and control armed factions within the country. The United States, Russia and the European Union have their own plans for Afghanistan, and they have troops in the country as well. Mr. Karzai’s government, on the other hand, is weak and disorganized, and it faces huge humanitarian and security concerns.
Mr. Karzai needs to use every lever he has, and playing Pakistan off India is a very good one. India already has pledged $20 million in aid and will likely shell out more as a way to keep Pakistan off balance. Meanwhile, Mr. Karzai and others can use the threat of an alliance with India to force Pakistan into more agreeable policies on security and trade issues.
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