NEW DELHI — When Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai came to New Dehli last week, he had more on his mind than pleas for economic support. The Afghan leader also suggested that Indian troops help train a new Afghan army, something that is causing consternation in Pakistan and other neighboring countries.
In the next round of the "Great Game," competing interests are gearing up to clash once more in the "rooftop of the world," the Hindu Kush mountains. At the turn of the 20th century, the game was played by Britain and czarist Russia for control of Central Asia. In the 1980s, the game was about religious identity, with the US encouraging Saudi- and Iranian-financed Islamists to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today, the game is about oil and settling old scores.
Presumably, Karzai is trying to keep Afghanistan a player - not the football. His success will largely depend on maximizing the world's donor dollars while minimizing foregin interference.
"The hope for Karzai is to multiply some of the money, because in history, every single Afghan power has been determined by his ability to deliver money to the provinces," says Frederic Grare, director of the Center for Human Sciences, a French-funded think tank in New Delhi.
One of the tough parts of the new Great Game is figuring out who is on which team. Russia and the US want to limit the spread of Islamic extremist groups in Central Asia, but Russia is concerned about America's growing military presence in the region. Pakistan and Iran want to see a peaceful Afghanistan, so that millions of Afghan refugees in their territories can return home. The US, which had Iran's vocal support in its war on the Taliban, now calls Iran part of an Axis of Evil.
Complicating things further is the growing importance of the region's oil. The US, Pakistan, and India would like to create an oil pipeline through Afghanistan that pumps oil from the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan with ports in Pakistan and markets beyond.
Iran and Russia seem less enthused about a pipeline. Some diplomats say Tehran's support of Afghan renegade warlord Ismail Khan in Herat is part of its plan to prevent an Afghan pipeline project and protect Iran's influence in the global oil market.
But for now, the question of training an Afghan national army is raising tensions most. Whichever country gets the role will also gain a measure of diplomatic influence in Afghanistan. India appears to be Karzai's first choice, and this worries Pakistan, which backed the Taliban.
Over the weekend, international peacekeepers began training the first 600 men in what they hope will be the model for a future multiethnic army. Some 200 Afghan commanders were due to hold talks in Kabul this week on the shape of the future army.
Indian military sources say India is perfectly suited for the task of training the army, which could number 50,000 to 60,000. Like Afghanistan, India's Army is composed of many ethnic and religious groups, and often fights in alpine conditions.
"Because our languages are based on Persian, it's very easy for Indian personnel ... to learn the language," says Lt. Gen. Gurbir Mansingh, the retired quartermaster general of the Indian Army. "In addition, we have an impeccable record on peacekeeping. American peacekeepers were in Somalia and they botched it."
But while some experts say India's training should be limited to inviting a few officers to its war colleges in New Delhi or to its alpine warfare camp in Kashmir, others say India will only gain influence if it has Indian soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.
"The only way for India to get influence is by having a physical military presence," says Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based analyst for Jane's Defense Weekly. "Right now, it has nothing except Bollywood movies and hospitals."
Yet, others argue that letting any neighboring country train the Afghan army would destabilize the region. "The training needs to be done by someone external to the region," says Grare. "I would much rather see the Swiss or the French do it, but whoever it is must be nonthreatening for all the regional actors. Nobody wants an unfriendly neighbor."