External Affairs

Interview: Hamid Karzai Backs Modi on Balochistan Issue

New Delhi: The 58-year-old former president of Afghanistan is back in Delhi for the fourth time since he left office two years ago. Karzai may be ‘retired’, but his schedule in Delhi –  which includes meetings with senior government officials, media interviews and public events – is no less punishing than before.

Arriving in the Indian capital just a few days after Indian independence day, the most frequent question Karzai has been fielding is about Narendra Modi’s mention of Balochistan from the ramparts of the Red Fort. This was the first time ever that an Indian prime minister had publicly spoken about the restive Pakistani province.

Well, Karzai approves. “We in this region have suffered immensely from violence, from the promotion of extremism and especially from the violation of rights, specifically the right to development. Therefore, the prime minister’s remarks to allow the people of Balochistan to enjoy a violence free life and to aspire for their own development and progress is something we appreciate and welcome,” he said on Friday.

For Afghans, Balochistan – the seat of the Quetta shura – is seen as the launching pad for the Afghan Taliban. Along with India, Afghanistan is also blamed by Pakistan for fuelling insurgency in the province.

Afghanistan has a “huge stake” in Balochistan, said Karzai, adding “it is from there that we see extremism arrive here (in Afghanistan)”.

“There was the horrific bomb blast in Quetta which killed some of their best people… I knew personally five or six people among the dead and I called their family and offered condolences. So, it is not a distant issue. It has immense proximity to us, both physically and mentally”.

The former Afghan president said that there was “immense suffering both among the Balochis and Pashtuns”, adding that “such suffering cannot go on without reaction”.

“They (the people in Balochistan) cannot be playthings forever. There are other means through which one can achieve one’s objective. More civilised means. Not through radicalism… People can’t be cannon fodder,” he said.

However, Karzai was insistent that Modi was only talking of providing moral support to the Baloch. “India will not engage in a proxy war… I know the Indian mentality. India will seek to ameliorate things, to resolve things, rather than aggravate… It is always about softening things, not about hardening things,” he said.

The Pakistani government has reacted sharply to Modi’s speech, claiming that it lends credence to their claims that the Indian external intelligence agency, R&AW, was behind the Baloch militancy. Tareq Fatemi, special assistant on foreign affairs to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan said on Thursday that Modi had crossed certain “red lines”.

Karzai, again, had Modi’s back – noting that Pakistan was the first to make observations about its neighbours. “The Pakistani authorities have been speaking freely about both India and Afghanistan. This is the first time that they have heard from the Indian prime minister. Therefore, India is not the first. Neither was Afghanistan the first,” he said.

On India’s current crisis in Kashmir where clashes have gone on for 40 days, Karzai was circumspect. “It is clearly troubled by extremism and you know where it comes from…. I think that India has all the means and wisdom to address it.”

The role of Pakistan’s ISI in spreading terrorism in Afghanistan does not need the confirmation of documents as revealed by a former Afghan spy chief, he asserted.

“We don’t need to see those documents. Those are very small token samples of a much larger picture… We see it on the ground. We see it is in our daily life. We see how it is done. How vulnerabilities of individuals, families are employed,” he said.

He appealed to “Pakistani brothers that enough damage has been done to all of us, including our brothers in Pakistan”.

India’s stake in Afghan security

At the same time, Karzai said that India should not only maintain engagement with Pakistan, but seek to extend this to Pakistani military.

“I know for a fact that Pakistani civilian leaders do want to improve relations with India and do want to better relations with Afghanistan….I know Nawaz Sharif wants best of relations (with India)…We only hope that it (India’s outreach) can be extended to the establishment of Pakistan, the military”.

The former Afghan president, who is here in Delhi primarily at the invitation of a think-tank, the  Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, also lobbied for India to provide more military assistance to bolster Afghanistan’s security forces. “I want India to take bold steps and put aside its caution in bolstering Afghan defence forces and capabilities. It has the means. And it is good for India and good for Afghanistan,” he said.

During Karzai’s tenure as president, which coincided mostly with UPA’s two terms, India had been hesitant to provide military equipment and large-scale training – so as  not to fuel Pakistan’s paranoia about being “encircled”. Karzai noted that India was being “considerate” not just about Pakistan, “but also of United States”.

“India is a very considerate country. I have told our Pakistani brothers, when they said that india has a large presence in Afghanistan. (I told them) India kept in mind Pakistani concerns and refused to provide equipment and training,” he said.

“But we were against that… We told them that India must leave aside this considerate view in the region and must provide to Afghanistan what Afghanistan needs”.

India has, so far, provided four Mi 25 attack helicopters, out of which three have been sent so far. Besides, there are proposals to send three more choppers to help in frontline operations against the Taliban, who have increased their control over territory. The Afghan army chief is slated to bring an updated wish list when he visits India later this month.

Indian military institutions have already trained thousands of Afghan officers, including special forces. Afghan pilots are also getting Indian training.

Karzai, still an active player in Kabul’s political life, also had a message for India. He wanted New Delhi to be “watchful and concerned” about the presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. “it is a foreign import. I don’t want to take the name of which country is behind it… but it has a very sinister design”.

Power sharing in Kabul

Karzai is in Delhi, just as Afghan capital is in the midst of a political crisis following the bitter remarks by Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah against President Ashraf Ghani. Both of them stood against each other in the 2014 presidential election, but came together through a US-brokered agreement to set up a national unity government (NUG).

Abdullah had accused Ghani was refusing to meet him for months and not consulting him on official appointments. Karzai indicated that he had anticipated this outburst, with the NUG having provided a dysfunctional government.

Even as he said that he wanted Ghani and Abdullah to work with each other, he added, “I also want them to fulfil the    promise they made to the Afghan people in their agreement that on the completion of two years, they will be holding a Jirga to determine whether government will be parliamentary or presidential or whatever else”.

As per the roadmap of the NUG, a Loya Jirga was to have been convened by September 2016 to decide among other things, the amendment of the constitution to include the position of prime minister. But, it requires a number of other preceding steps, which include new electoral laws, distribution of electronic i-cards and holding of parliamentary and district council elections.

“If we cannot have those institutions in place, then we have our grand old tradition of the Loya Jirga, which means that is a gathering of Afghans in times of crisis to discuss and resolve the issues that confront us,” he said.

Karzai has been advocating the Loya Jirga in the past few weeks, travelling across Afghanistan to garner support for his proposalSo far, neither Ghani or Abdullah have made any comments on Karzai’s proposal.

When asked whether the traditional Loya Jirga can amend the constitution, Karzaid said, “The constitution is born out of the traditional loya jirga. In other words, the traditional loya jirga is the mother which can convene anytime and discipline its children”.

However, he clearly does not agree that the post of CEO or prime minister will lead to stability. “I didn’t agree with the US about a CEO role in 2009 and that’s why they were against me”

US elections

Meanwhile, even as Afghanistan continues to face dire straits on the security and political fronts, Karzai gets some cheer when he watches the election campaign in United States.

A major part of Karzai’s bitterness towards US stems from the 2009 elections, during which he accused American officials of trying to rig the presidential race to stop him returning to power.

“I like it very much, because I have seen them interfering in our election. This is avenging that.,” said the former Afghan president about the US administration and  the Democrats claiming that Russia was trying to manipulate the presidential elections. “Russians are doing that? I will encourage them”, he said.