Pundits debate role of India, the silent operator in Afghanistan

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Washington DC – India, a regional power, is increasingly shifting its focus abroad with a financial flavor even though the nation’s foreign service is handicapped with limited resources and manpower, according to a panel debating Pakistani and Indian interests and strategies toward Afghanistan on Friday.

Participating in the panel discussion at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an independent, nonpartisan conflict management center created by Congress, Professor John Echeverri-Gent of the University of Virginia, a frequent visitor to India said that New Delhi is increasingly working on its foreign policy through a “business oriented” lens even though it has an understaffed foreign affairs department.

The participants addressed the situation arising out of the impending transition in Afghanistan, with a focus on the role of regional actors in Afghanistan’s future. There was a unanimous agreement that failure to incentivize a peaceful Pakistani and Indian coexistence in Afghanistan will be detrimental to Afghanistan’s future.

Pamela Constable, a veteran journalist and author of “Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself,” observed that Islamabad views developments through a “prism of India,” but she noted that New Delhi does not consider those “in a narrow conflict way” like Pakistan.

Professor Echeverri-Gent said Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s eduction in India and prominent role played by the Northern Alliance in his government are cited by Pakistan, while expressing their concern about developments in Afghanistan, but the academician said not to forget that India is the 6th biggest donor in Afghanistan and has pledged more than $2 billion in aid.

India’s Geological Survey has promised to do mineral surveys, while New Delhi, after signing a security agreement, is ready to train Afghan security forces and supply military hardware, added Echeverri-Gent.

Constable said that during the 2001 Agra Summit, attended by then Pakistani President Musharaff and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpai, there was a very good chance of a peace deal breakthrough between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, but hard liners on both sides, “especially Pakistan,” derailed the process.

There is a glimmer of hope at present, as both South Asian neighbors are on a business oriented reconciliation path, said Professor Echeverri-Gent, highlighting the positive role being played by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in recent months.

He was referring to the largest Indian business delegation of FICCI to Pakistan earlier this year. There was also a recent FICCI study urging both sides to open trade, as it would help the two governments to garner larger revenues and make available cheaper commodity prices to the consumer.

Ambassador Touqir Hussain, a former Pakistani diplomat and currently an adjunct professor of the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University, agreed with the positive outlook regarding the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan.

Sunil Dasgupta from the Brookings Institution referred to Afghanistan as a test ground to check how big a power India has become and suggested that an Indian withdrawal from Afghanistan is the best solution.

Among regional actors, Pakistan is usually highlighted as the most critical player in a sustainable regional peace, but there is still much effort needed to bring together local power hungry warmongers and Pakistan is in no way capable of succeeding, because of the distrust Afghans feel toward their immediate neighbor.

Citing the vox populi in Afghanistan, Constable said any survey would prove that Afghans have an aversion to Pakistan, while they look up to India as a friend. The participants agreed that the year 2014 will signify security and political transitions in Afghanistan and the recently finalized US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership agreement signals Washington’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan beyond this deadline. However, a regional understanding on Afghanistan still remains elusive. (IATNS) 

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