During his visit to India this week, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan let slip that he has given New Delhi a “wish list.” His tantalising refusal to disclose what it contained has unleashed speculation that with the U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2014 drawing closer, military equipment is what Afghanistan is seeking from India. The two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2011 which included a clause for training, equipping and building the capacity of the Afghan National Army. New Delhi provides some training to Afghan security personnel but no equipment. On the ANA will fall the unenviable task of securing the country once western forces leave. The sporadic, indirect contact between Kabul and the Taliban for “peace talks” has not progressed, and there is fear about the country’s future after 2014. India is right to be concerned about this. Even so, New Delhi should be very wary of acceding to any request for “lethal” military assistance, if that is what President Karzai wants. If the U.S., with all the lethality it commands, could not find a military solution to the Taliban, how likely is it that the ANA will succeed in such an endeavour? Instead, the solution lies in a concerted regional approach in which the neutrality of Afghanistan is supported and guaranteed by all countries in its extended neighbourhood. None of its neighbours should treat Afghanistan as strategic real-estate to be leveraged against third countries.
Afghan neutrality presupposes regional support for a national military capability strong enough to ensure the country’s territory is not used by terrorists and non-state actors. But as long as the Delhi-Islamabad equation is not normal, any military role for India in Afghanistan, even if as a supplier of arms, is likely to prompt further Pakistani help for the Taliban. President Karzai has been emphatic that without Pakistan’s co-operation, Afghan peace will remain a distant dream. In this regard, the recent democratic change in Pakistan is both an opportunity and a challenge. Nawaz Sharif had good relations with the 1990s Taliban government in Afghanistan; his party keeps contact with the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. While this is a cause for concern, it also means Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in-waiting could be an important guarantor of peace and stability in Afghanistan, more so if his enthusiastic overtures towards India can overcome opposition from the Pakistani Army and bear fruit. Success will depend also on New Delhi’s willingness to grasp his hand of friendship, despite the naysayers and their misgivings. It is this, rather than Indian howitzers, that will help Afghanistan prepare for a momentous transition.