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SOURCE: FIRST POST

Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, is an enigmatic man. He shares historical links with Pakistan and talks of a duality in the nature of bilateral relations; he shared an uneasy relationship with the US during his tenure in office; he acknowledges India’s deep and persisting efforts in Afghanistan but nevertheless wants India to “do more”.

As it happens, the Indians are a little touchy over the issue. New Delhi is increasingly wary of the turmoil on the horizon as the US moves inevitably towards the endgame in Afghanistan but of immediate interest is the spark provided by Donald Trump when he recently appeared to belittle India’s role as Afghanistan’s partner for stability and peaceful development.

At a long-winded news conference at the White House last week, the US president seemed to mock the Indian prime minister on the quality and quantity of Indian assistance, suggesting that Afghanistan has no use of a library that India has built and prodded India to “do more”.

Though no one really knows which “library” project he was referring to – and Trump couldn’t care less — the general impression in India was that the US president was putting pressure on New Delhi to send some boots on the ground. This added heft to retrenchment theory and solidified the impression that at least a partial drawdown of US presence is imminent.

The White House has been at pains to deny media reports to this effect but there is no denying the bipartisan nature of popular opinion in the US that the war in Afghanistan has gone on for too long without any end or solution in sight.

Trump’s jibe met with resistance and outrage in India. The government responded by clarifying that India has no policy of sending troops to other countries except for UN peacekeeping missions and released a dossier through the media of its developmental activities in Kabul, pointing out that it has committed $3 billion as assistance towards rebuilding the country since 2001.

Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue, however, former Afghanistan president Karzai backed the US president’s contention that India should “do more”.

“I think Trump’s comments generated a lot of unnecessary media hype. He was seeking a larger role for India in Afghanistan. That’s exactly what Afghanistan wants too,” the former president said on Wednesday during the conference on geopolitics convened by the ORF and Ministry of External Affairs.

Instead of Indian military presence though, Karzai’s stress was on the continuity and intensity of Indian presence – a pointer perhaps to the reality of thinning American interest in persisting with the ‘unwinnable war’. Karzai sees the Indo-Afghan relationship as exceedingly “romantic” and he felt managing the level of expectations in such a relationship becomes difficult.

“The India-Afghanistan relationship is amazing, romantic. This romance raises expectations at an unrealistic level. We want India to do more – detached from other countries. We want India to be on board in all the processes that bring peace, stability and development.”

The unstated reference is clearly to the shifting US policy on Afghanistan, which seems geared more towards an “honourable exit” than staying the course and continuing to act as the security umbrella for regional stability. While American military presence since September 2001 attacks has worked to India’s benefit and allowed it the necessary space to execute projects without looking over the shoulder, that chapter is nearing its end and India might be forced to rethink its policy or options.

Karzai’s comments, in this context, could be interpreted as an encouragement to New Delhi to stick with its Afghanistan policy regardless of the churn in Washington. US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who set the ball rolling for direct talks with the Taliban, is incidentally on an India visit and attended the session where Karzai made his observations.

Though the prospect of a reduction in US military presence has caused a fair bit of unease and consternation in Kabul (add the fact that the first round of US-Taliban talks kicked off without Afghan government playing a part in it), Karzai doesn’t believe that the US will pull out of Afghanistan. He remains convinced that Afghanistan is strategically so important that the US will never really abdicate its responsibilities.

“The Americans are not going to leave Afghanistan,” said Karzai. According to him, they will stay at least in the form of a bilateral security agreement or in a way that is beneficial to the war-torn nation.

On the Taliban though, Karzai was clear that their participation in the process is necessary for peace to arrive. “Taliban are Afghans. They are sons of the soil. Taliban’s participation is inevitable for the peace process to succeed,” said Karzai. The former president stressed on the duality of Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan.

“As much as we love Pakistan people, we are unhappy with the government and the military in Pakistan. They behave the opposite way. They support extremism, terrorism and have gone to the extent of destroying Afghanistan. Denying its children education and destructing infrastructure.”

And yet Karzai recognises Pakistan as the “closest of all neighbours” and wants it to play a supportive role in the peace process. For India, the signs are clear. Afghanistan is keen that New Delhi takes up a quantum of responsibility commensurate with its role as the anchor of regional stability. Yet there is not much clarity in India about what that is.