The tortuous path being taken by Afghanistan and the United States to reach an agreement on a residual US military presence in that country is understandable. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has a two-fold problem as the US pulls out its main body of soldiers. One is a problem of legitimacy. His opponents, the Taliban, portray him as an American stooge. The other is a problem of military wherewithal.
The US continues to be unclear as to its post-withdrawal plans. Mr Karzai is understandably wary of carrying the burden of a US presence minus the benefits of adequate protection or money. Washington’s on-and-off attempts to force a political marriage between Mr Karzai and the Taliban have not helped the US’ credibility in Kabul.
Mr Karzai, on the one hand, has deliberately humiliated the US, sought to not appear too eager to have a residual US presence and postponed the final outcome. This helps counter claims that he is too close to Washington. On the other, he has sought to keep his options open as along as possible because so much of what is happening in Afghanistan is taking place on geopolitical quicksand.
India has made it clear that it will support Mr Karzai, no matter what his policy decision may be. This is probably the best of a bad set of choices. New Delhi was once an unalloyed supporter of the US military presence in Afghanistan, seeing this as the best guardian against the Taliban’s return and, as a spillover, jihadi violence in Kashmir.
This has been eroded by the US’ determination to withdraw without giving much thought to the fallout of such an action, including the Taliban getting a foothold in Kabul and giving Pakistan a free rein in Afghanistan. India should be working to find an international coalition to help Mr Karzai keep the Taliban at bay.
Unfortunately, with the Manmohan Singh government in intensive care unit and the US disinterested, this is a goal that looks presently unlikely. But the Afghan environment changes rapidly and it may shift in India’s favour. Which is why New Delhi should have no problems that Mr Karzai has put off a final agreement with the US until next year.