Hamid Karzai holds the key
The troop pullout will benefit India as long as Afghanistan is certain about US support.india Updated: Jul 23, 2012 23:54 IST
The abbreviated and stealthy manner of US President Barack Obama's recent visit to Kabul is a reminder of how many loose strings the US is trailing as it extricates itself from Afghanistan. That Mr Obama only now, after a US military presence that is a decade old, is signing a strategic agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a reminder of the ambiguity that surrounds the sole superpower's longest war.
Washington has committed itself to the stability and security of the Afghan government. However, it is doing this in the background of a promised US troop withdrawal by 2014, congressional indecision about funding an indigenous Afghan security force and a possibility that the US will use Afghanistan as a basing area for a drones-and-special forces counterterror strategy.
Throw in the on-and-off western attempts to find Taliban members to negotiate with and the tortuous international conferences on Afghanistan and it is no surprise that Mr Karzai is at the forefront of the political hedging being carried out by all Afghan players.
The obvious concern for India is that the greater the uncertainty Kabul feels about US support, the more willing it is to seek an accommodation with Islamabad. The years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan coincide with the worst years of insurgency in Kashmir.
A second term for the militants would almost certainly serve as a fillip for groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In pursuit of its goal of a genuinely independent Afghan government, India has tried to provide whatever support it could to the US war effort.
As the latter's commitment has waned, New Delhi has thrown its weight behind a more ramshackle support structure for the Karzai government. These include maintaining at least some US military support for Afghanistan, a long-term multi-billion dollar international aid commitment and ensuring that Mr Karzai is not diplomatically isolated within the region.
Underlying all this is the hope that this will allow the Afghan leader to at least negotiate with the Taliban and Pakistan from a strong position and maintain an option of fighting them off for several more years.
The present state of affairs can be described as cautiously optimistic. The Taliban's main external backer, Pakistan, is itself isolated and there is a quagmire-like quality to its Afghan policy. If what the rest of the world has promised comes through, Mr Karzai will have enough money and arms to last for several more years.
The degree of US commitment remains a key and unpredictable variable. India's own commitment to Kabul remains fixed, if thin in assets.