Hamid Karzai's visit to India on May 20, comes at a time when tough choices will have to be made regarding engagement with Afghanistan.
India has played a positive role in promoting economic interaction with Afghanistan, both bilaterally and under the auspices of the Heart of Asia grouping of regional countries. It has provided substantial development assistance, investing in a large number of small projects and a few large-scale infrastructure projects. And it has provided some training to the Afghan army.
At the same time, policymakers in India, as elsewhere, are concerned about Afghanistan's trajectory from 2014, when Western forces are reduced and elections are held. While both India and China have won substantial tenders for mining operations in Afghanistan, they have been slower to develop them. Yet, Afghanistan's future risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy; if it is to be a success, those Indian and Chinese firms need to be developing their mines to ensure economic stability. (Despite concerns over a recent Chinese incursion into Ladakh, the recent visit of Chinese premier Li Keqiang had a positive outcome, with both countries promising to work together on Afghanistan). Preventing the worst case scenario - the fragmentation of Afghanistan and its military - requires ongoing and deepening engagement from its neighbours.
While the timing of Karzai's reported request for arms may appear suboptimal (given the recent election of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan with a pledge to boost ties with India), it also reflects a recognition on the Afghan side that India needs to continue its investment in Afghanistan. Time is running out for Karzai, who has reiterated that he has no intention of remaining in power beyond 2014. If he is to leave a positive legacy, he will have to cajole India into playing a positive role, rather than waiting to see what transpires.
But India will have a range of imponderables to consider. First, while Sharif's rhetoric towards India has been positive, whether the Pakistan army would be fully behind any rapprochement is unclear. If Sharif were able to push through the most-favoured nation status for India, it would be a significant demonstration of intent. If India were to agree to push through arms sales to Afghanistan, however, his leverage over Pakistan's military would clearly be reduced. Karzai's visit also comes at a time when Afghanistan's relationship with Pakistan is again under strain. Clashes along the Durand Line appear to have intensified recently, and Karzai's call for the Taliban to turn guns on Pakistan will have done little to encourage trust.
India's recent decision to renovate Chabahar Port in Iran can be seen as a demonstration of its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. Again, Sharif's election could change the dynamics. He has offered to allow India transit access through Pakistan. While India may doubt that Pakistan's military will agree, it is clear that the cheapest way for Indian goods to access Afghanistan is through Pakistan, rather than by ship to an incomplete port in Iran.
Balancing the bilateral relationships between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is clearly challenging. The best-case scenario, in which India and Pakistan, along with China, see stability in Afghanistan as a primary objective and a means to build confidence between them is achievable, but will face severe challenges. For now, India would be sensible to continue to focus its support for Afghanistan's military on training, and wait to see the substance of Pakistan's desire for a rapprochement with India, rather than immediately respond positively to Afghanistan's request for arms.
Underlying these dynamics will be the thinking in Pakistan's military. The idea of India having a greater military presence in Afghanistan would clearly be anathema to them. Whether the threat of greater Indian military engagement will encourage Pakistan to take positive steps is questionable, but with Karzai losing patience with Pakistan, he is moving from carrots to sticks. Nonetheless, Sharif's determination to push ahead with peace talks with the Taliban in Pakistan may present an opportunity for reconciliation in Afghanistan.
While the military requests have dominated the media, in the long term, as much importance should be placed on Karzai's requests for greater Indian investment in a range of sectors. Shifting the regional discourse away from security and towards economic engagement would be beneficial - not on its own sufficient to remove tension, but a good start. If Afghanistan can be seen as a land of opportunity rather than a potential source of regional instability, half the battle will be won.
This article originally appeared in the Indian Express.