Siddharth Varadarajan is the Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi and formerly the Editor in Chief of The Hindu newspaper. In an interview with Afghan Zariza, he speaks about growing Indo-Afghan relations, India-Pakistan power-play in Afghanistan and what future holds for the region Q. In the space of one year, the outgoing President Karzai made three trips to New Delhi, which is testimony to the growing affinity between the two nations. How important is Afghanistan for India? A. Afghanistan is an extremely important country as far as India is concerned. Apart from the historical and cultural ties which exist, both countries have much to benefit by deepening their economic and political interaction today. It is in India’s interest that Afghanistan has a strong and stable government that is in full control of its territory, is capable of defending its borders from external interference, and is at peace with all its neighbors. Q. India has expressed its concerns regarding withdrawal of NATO-led coalition forces from Afghanistan, saying they erred in announcing the departure date. Do you think Afghan forces are equipped to fight insurgency and external aggression, mainly on Afghanistan-Pakistan border? A. I think the way the U.S. has choreographed its proposed military exit has not been helpful but I think the withdrawal of foreign forces opens the door for a new situation to emerge in which the ANSF are able to stand their ground against the insurgents and their backers. But a lot will depend on the international community providing financial and even the material assistance. Q. The stalemate over the Kabul-Washington bilateral security agreement (BSA) continues, even though all the Presidential candidates have agreed to sign it after elections. From India’s point of view, do you think it is in the best interests of Afghanistan? A. I think it is fair that this matter is being left to the new government. The US should be more understanding of the need to maintain the right optics on the BSA question. The new President of Afghanistan should go into the text of the agreement carefully and if he finds it to be in Afghanistan’s interest, then he should sign it.
Q. India has made lot of economic, political and strategic investments in Afghanistan over the last 12 years. Is India’s intervention in Afghanistan driven by self-interest?
A. India’s policy towards Afghanistan is driven by its desire to have a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan. This is India’s overarching interest, because we have suffered in the past from the lack of peace, stability and security in that country. Many countries are helping Afghanistan; Indian projects are focused on capacity building and infrastructure. These are not aimed at any third country.
Q. During his last visit to New Delhi, President Karzai asked the Indian leadership for sophisticated lethal and nonlethal arms, a demand that was turned down by a committee in South Block, with excuse that it might land in wrong hands. Do you think the reason is plausible enough?
A. I think the Indian decision to limit its military assistance to training is driven primarily by its desire to act in concert with the U.S. and other international partners who are already assisting Afghanistan in the security sphere.
These countries fear active Indian military assistance to the ANSF may encourage Pakistan to step up its support to the Taliban. I personally think these fears may be exaggerated; in any case, as the situation on the ground evolves, India may not consider the question a closed chapter.
Q. There is a certain lobby that says Afghanistan is a battleground for both Pakistan and India to claim regional supremacy. What is your take on that?
A. It is unfortunate that Pakistan looks at Afghanistan in this way. You are familiar with the old theory of ‘strategic depth’ against India, something the Pakistanis now say they have abandoned. But there is a great deal of suspicion, most of it unwarranted, and it is in Afghanistan’s interest that these suspicions are allayed. That is why many of us on the Indian side have been advocating the need for a political dialogue between the three countries, as well as confidence building initiatives like joint economic projects.
Q. The Presidential candidates have expressed willingness to engage ‘good Taliban’ in negotiations. How does one distinguish between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’?
A. I think the High Peace Council (HPC) criteria – that dialogue is possible with all those who are prepared to give up violence, accept the Constitution and are willing to respect the fundamental rights of all Afghans, including women – helps us to clarify what a ‘good Taliban’ might look like.
Q. There are many speculations that after the withdrawal of NATO led forces from Afghanistan this year, the Taliban might shift focus to Kashmir. Do you think these fears are legitimate?
A. I do not think so. The Taliban’s primary focus is to come back to power in Afghanistan and also increase its influence in Pakistan, particularly the frontier areas of the country. Kashmir is a tertiary preoccupation for them. In any case, they do not pose any significant military threat that the Indian Army is not capable of dealing with.
Q. There will be a democratic transition in Afghanistan next month and India will also go to polls. How do you see the relations between India and Afghanistan shaping up under new government?
A. Whichever government comes to power in Kabul and New Delhi, relations between the two countries are bound to deepen further.
Q. How do you rate President Hamid Karzai’s tenure? Was he good for India?
A. The Karzai tenure was a complex one with some failures and some accomplishments as far as the internal situation in Afghanistan is concerned. For India, of course, his tenure has been positive because he helped grow the relationship under very difficult circumstances.