President Hamid Karzai arrived in India to ink the deal after indicating he was losing faith in his olive branches to Pakistan.
The strategic partnership, the first such official deal between the two countries, allows arms transfers and formalizes the ability for Afghanistan to seek Indian military training. A small number of Afghan officers already come to train here; the agreement would allow Afghanistan to scale that up if wanted.
Pakistan has made it clear throughout the past decade that it fears “encirclement” by any strong alliance between India and Afghanistan. Today’s agreement allows Karzai to brandish the threat of greater military cooperation with India if cooperation with Pakistan toward peace remains in question.
Despite warm and historically deep ties with Kabul, New Delhi has limited its engagement to development work and kept its boots off Afghan soil. That won’t change: India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Gautum Mukhopadhyay, told reporters in New Delhi that with regards to the military training, “we are doing everything here.”
What's in the agreement?
The strategic agreement leaves out specifics.
“India agrees to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programs for Afghan National Security Forces,” reads the agreement. It also carefully notes that the partnership “is not directed against any other State or group of States.”
“It’s ongoing, there’s nothing new about it,” said Ambassador Mukhopadhyay. But the agreement does open up an “incremental” and “additional” level of cooperation based on what the Afghans want and the Indians can deliver, he added.
An Afghan official said that the document allows Afghanistan to ask for more military aid from India. “We may not need until 2014 because NATO is already with us. But this document allows us, shows a green light,” the official said.
The deal reflects the political realities closing in around Karzai: His external backers, the Americans, are heading for the exits by 2014, and many of his internal backers who are ethnic minorities have lost all patience with his outreach to Pakistan.
Enter India, a country that views Afghanistan as a historical friend and a gateway to markets and resources in Central Asia.
India and Karzai share an enemy in the Taliban. India also has expertise in training armies from developing nations.
“It is easier for us to train these guys than for Western guys to train them. We understand people who are less educated and come from a rough background,” says Ramesh Chopra, a retired Indian general.
Currently the Indian training of Afghans here is extremely limited: Less than a dozen a year, according to analysts. General Chopra says India has the capacity to train more than 20,000 Afghan soldiers a year if called upon. Regimental centers across India could each take on a few thousand “easily.”
“If you spread these guys around … we have the capability, the capacity, and we can do it at a very low price,” says Chopra.
But any expansion of training would be gradual, say Chopra and other experts.
“It’s not like they would be taking them in the thousands,” says Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Center for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi. “The capacity building would be restricted mostly to officers because that would imply knowledge of English.”
What now, Pakistan?
The deal marks a break from Karzai’s efforts during the past year to enlist Pakistan’s friendship and support for a peace settlement.
It comes on the heels of the recent assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Afghan officials have indicated Pakistan was behind the killing and not a nation interested in Afghan peace. Karzai's government submitted its evidence to Pakistan to back up the claim.
“Pakistan strongly rejects the baseless allegations,” reads a response from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The so-called evidence given to the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul is actually a confessional statement of an Afghan national Hamidullah Akundzadeh accused of master-minding the assassination.”
The statement goes on to say the information will be looked into before reiterating that Pakistan condemns the killing and is committed to Afghan peace.
Some Afghan analysts are doubtful that today’s deal with India will do much to pressure Pakistan.
“Afghanistan is holding an empty gun here,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, a former Member of Parliament in Afghanistan. “It seems like Afghanistan is using this – probably with acquiescence of Western countries and India – to put pressure on Pakistan. And Pakistan is used to these empty and hollow pressures.”
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