“Relations between New Delhi and Kabul are bound to deepen further”


Syed Zafar Mehdi

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.

(http://www.afghanzariza.com/2014/06/15/relations-between-new-delhi-and-kabul-are-bound-to-deepen-further)

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“India did use its proximity to Kabul to encircle Pakistan”


Syed Zafar Mehdi

Ejaz Haider, Editor for National Security Affairs at Capital TV and Visiting Fellow, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) Pakistan, in an interview with Afghan Zariza talks about Afghan-Pakistan ties, disputes and what the political transition in Kabul means to Islamabad

Q. Afghanistan and Pakistan, once described by the outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai as “inseparable brothers”, have not been in best of terms in recent years. What do you think led to the fallout?
A.
 The two countries did not start on the ideal note. It was Afghanistan that did not recognize Pakistan. Kabul also laid claim on Pakistani land right up to the trans-Indus territories. This irredentism by Kabul has been an important contributor to subsequent policies by Islamabad to develop influence in Afghanistan. Since some of the Pashtun nationalist elements within Pakistan were supported in this by Afghanistan and these elements were also linked to New Delhi, Pakistan’s search for supportive elements within Afghanistan was an understandable policy. However, much of what has happened since President Daoud Khan was ousted and killed has to do with events within Afghanistan as also the game that was played in the last decade of the cold war between the U.S. and then Soviet Union. That has had consequences, for the most part unintended, that now threaten the stability of West Asia. Given this background, today Kabul and Islamabad are in fact much closer in their appreciation of a joint threat than at any other time in the past.

Q. The Karzai government had close relations with Pakistan’s Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the initial years. But, in 2006, he accused the government of Pakistan of interfering in Afghanistan. Were his concerns legitimate?
A.
 The outgoing President Hamid Karzai, during his 12-year stint, played many actors. He was precariously balanced within the country which he tried to rule and consistency in his situation was more a bane than a boon – or at least that is what he seemed to have thought. As his deteriorating relations with the U.S. indicate, he was trying to come across as an independent ruler rather than one who was obviously beholden to the U.S.-led coalition.

In Pakistan’s case, while he was never tired of talking about cross-border incursions by the Afghan Taliban, he was also vehemently opposed to Pakistan’s suggestions to fence parts of the border and also mine them. Similarly, he was opposed to bio-metrics and all such measures that could stem illegal crossings. In short, President Karzai will be known as someone who was mercurial in his approaches.

Q. The Afghan government accuses Pakistan of using its spy agency in aiding the Taliban inside Afghanistan. Do you think Pakistan government is not in total control of ISI, as it has said in the past?
A.
 Accusations are just that, accusations.

Q. According to author Ahmed Rashid, almost 80,000 to 100,000 Pakistanis fought in Afghanistan between 1994 and 1999 to keep the brutal Taliban regime in power. Do you agree the Pakistani military played a role in that?

A. Ahmed Rashid’s book also has details on how that policy came into being and why more than six western countries, including the U.S. were part of that. The book also details the role played by oil and gas interests. Also known is the fact that these countries ultimately began supporting the Northern Alliance and how Afghanistan became a battle ground in the contest for influence by regional and trans-regional powers. In this kind of conflict, the one country that was directly impacted was Pakistan and Islamabad had no option but to try and influence the course of events in that country to save its own interests.

Q. There has been a spate of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan in recent weeks, especially in the run up to elections, and the Afghan government has accused Pakistan of its involvement. How do you see these developments? Will it affect the already strained relationship between the two neighbors?
A.
 I think that with President Karzai gone from the scene and given indications that Mr. Abdullah Abdullah will be the next President, relations between the two countries are likely to improve further. Pakistan has invested much time and energy in reaching out to Kabul and with a more consistent person occupying the Presidential palace in Afghanistan; we are likely to see relations improve. Of course, there will be irritants given the presence of the Taliban but the chances of Kabul and Islamabad working together to address that threat are much greater now.

Q. There is also a serious territorial dispute between the two neighbors over Durand line. What is Pakistan’s position on that?
A.
 The Durand line is an internationally accepted border. And while successive regimes in Kabul have been reluctant to accept that fact, that fact remains unchanged. Also, Kabul must realize, as the more discerning do, that it cannot keep talking about cross-border activity and at the same time challenge the validity of that border.

I think that with President Karzai gone from the scene and given indications that Mr. Abdullah Abdullah will be the next President, relations between the two countries are likely to improve further

Q. There is a belief that Pakistan and India are using Afghanistan as battle ground to assert their regional supremacy. How far is that true?
A.
 That is a fact. India did use its proximity to Kabul to encircle Pakistan. That policy has not entirely changed and it did have an impact on events in Afghanistan. Having said that, the problem in Afghanistan now goes much deeper than that.

Q. Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism and extremism in its various manifestations. Do you think both the countries have common enemies who want to see them fight against each other?
A.
 Pakistan and Afghanistan have a joint threat from terrorist groups and Pakistan has officially acknowledged on several occasions that it can only be addressed jointly.

Q. How would you rate President Karzai’s tenure? How popular or unpopular has he been in Islamabad?
A.
 President Karzai unfortunately was never very popular in Pakistan. I am afraid neither is he very popular in Washington, London, Paris or Berlin.

(http://www.afghanzariza.com/2014/06/08/india-did-use-its-proximity-to-kabul-to-encircle-pakistan)

Grass in greener this side. Kashmir’s fascination for Pakistan cricket

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Cricket is a fascinating game in more ways than one. It turns faithful friends into hardened enemies and strange bedfellows into intimate partners. It tests your loyalty and fidelity. It spreads love and amplifies hatred. In the Indian subcontinent, cricket is a religion, a creed and an article of faith. Any preposterous remark, wittingly or unwittingly, against a cricketer amounts to blasphemy. Cricketers are worshipped like deities and there are temples exclusively dedicated to them. In India, when a Sachin Tendulkar is tottering at an ominous score of 99, failing to pick gaps and fiddling too much outside the off-stump, ardent fans switch off their television sets and turn to whichever god they can think of. In Pakistan, when the team wins, the sound of firecrackers is deafening in every street corner. When the team loses, houses are set ablaze and the season of mourning sets in. If the opponents are archrivals India, then players have to actually run for cover. In Bangladesh, the day their national team registers a win against any formidable side is declared a national holiday. When a Shakibul Hasan reaches a three-digit figure, the nation comes to a grinding halt. The madness is palpable, and yet it is unfathomable.

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A Kashmiri youth plays street cricket as Indian policemen stand guard during a strike in Srinagar
A Kashmiri youth plays street cricket as Indian policemen stand guard during a strike in Srinagar
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For most young Kashmiris, cricket is a political statement

In Kashmir, the fanaticism goes to another level and assumes a different dimension and meaning. There are no temples or synagogues for cricketers, but the enthusiasm is unadulterated and complete. Cricket is a unifying force that binds people together, irrespective of age, gender, class or creed. For most young Kashmiris, cricket is not just a game. It is a political statement. Their support for the Pakistani cricket team, especially when the team plays archrivals India, has become a part of popular folklore now. It has to be seen and understood in the context of their larger political aspirations and their detestation for anything to do with India.

Whenever Pakistan plays India, Kashmiris madly root for the men in green, not simply because they want Pakistan to win, but because they want men in blue to lose. Their support extends to any team that is pitted against India, be it Australia, West Indies or even Zimbabwe. The memories of the two one-day internationals played in Srinagar’s Sher e Kashmir Stadium in the past – against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies in 1983 and Allan Border’s Australia in 1986 – continues to haunt staunch Indian cricket lovers even today. The Indian team lost both games and faced hostile crowds in the stadium, who vociferously raised anti-India slogans and cheered for the opponents. In the match against the visiting Caribbean side in 1983, the incredible support for Clive Lloyd’s boys made him wonder if it was a home game or away game. No international matches have been staged there ever since, apparently to avoid more embarrassment.

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The support for Pakistan’s cricket team has always been an intriguing socio-cultural phenomenon in Kashmir, cutting across all sections of the society. It’s an elemental part of the overall training and upbringing of a child, just like the craving for ‘freedom’. When I was a small kid, I had a life-size poster of Waqar Yunus hanging in my room. Every morning, I would open my eyes and visualize him running in fast and crushing the stumps of Indian batsmen with that menacing reverse swing and those toe-crushing yorkers. I was also a huge fan of the elegant left-hander Saeed Anwar, and my small diary would be filled with pictures and statistics about him and other Pakistani players. And, every time there was a crackdown by Indian soldiers, I would pull off the poster from the wall and put it safely in the briefcase along with the diary. I still keep them with me.

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I had a life-size poster of Waqar Yunus hanging in my roomI had a life-size poster of Waqar Yunus hanging in my room
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Once, my elder cousin, who never played cricket himself but was a hardcore Pakistani cricket fan, was carrying newspaper cutouts of Wasim Akram and Shahid Afridi when he was intercepted by soldiers while on his way back from school. They tore apart the pictures and tied him to a tree for two long hours, before letting him go with a dire warning. Next day, he got a whole collection of pictures, taken out from cricket magazines, and distributed among all of us. The rebel was born that day.

Those days, everyone in Kashmir would try to imitate Pakistani players. In our mohalla team, players earned some interesting sobriquets for themselves, owing to their fascination with various popular Pakistani players. In our team, we had ‘Akram’ bowling those deadly yorkers, ‘Anwar’ playing those delightful square drives, ‘Saqlain’ bowling the mysterious flippers, ‘Eijaz’ with the safest pair of hands, and ‘Afridi’ hitting every ball with sheer disdain. Many of us that time would fancy playing for Pakistan. We took our cricket seriously and some of us even played at higher levels, but at the U-19 level, I finally realized that it was self-defeating to carry on, since I would only end up wearing a blue jersey. That was a big deal.

It’s no more about cricket, it’s about pride and retribution

Whenever Pakistan plays, Kashmir shuts down. The streets wear deserted looks as everyone is glued to their television and radio sets, gasping for breath after every ball bowled and every shot played. When Pakistan is pitted against India, tensions run high. It’s an almost war-like situation, minus bullets and bombs. It’s no more just about cricket, it’s about pride and retribution. Defeating India becomes a rallying cry in the Indian-occupied territory. Such is the frenzy that even the pro-India ministers and legislators, watching the action in their plush government mansions, in their heart of hearts pray for Pakistan’s victory. Victory of men in green is celebrated with firecrackers, even as the Indian soldiers, peeping irately through the sand bunkers turn red with fury. In the past, they have even shot people for the frenzied celebrations over Pakistan’s victories, but they could not stop the celebrations as they could not stop the mourning of the dead.

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The streets wear deserted looks as everyone is glued to their radio setsThe streets wear deserted looks as everyone is glued to their radio sets
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Like my father, for most Pakistani cricket fans, 1986 was special. My father may not remember that I was born that year but he vividly remembers Javed Miandad’s scintillating last-ball six off Chetan Sharma in the Australasia Cup final at Sharjah. My uncle, a diehard Pakistani cricket fan, had refused to eat anything for two days after Pakistan slumped to 87 all out while chasing India’s paltry score of 125 in 1984 Rothmans Four-Nations Cup at Sharjah. My uncle also recalls that after a match at Eden Gardens Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1987, Saleem Malik, who smashed 72 from 36 balls and saw his team through, had become an overnight hero for cricket fans in Kashmir. Any player who performed well against India acquired a cult status in Kashmir. That continues even today.

So, those who think the armed rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir in the early 90s fuelled the Pakistani cricket following in Kashmir are sadly mistaken. People in Kashmir always rejoiced at India’s defeats and Pakistan’s triumphs. They can afford to forgive men in green for losing to minnows like Zimbabwe or Ireland, but they cannot forgive them for conceding the match to India.

My little cousin has all the records of Pakistani cricketers on his fingertips

Memories of a fierce encounter in the 1996 World Cup Quarterfinal at Bangalore are still fresh. The game witnessed many interesting on-field histrionics. When Amir Sohail locked horns with the tall and lanky Venky Prasad, we were glued to our television screens at home, shouting and screaming, waiting for the next cracking cover drive from Sohail. A pall of gloom descended in the room packed with a ‘bleeding green’ battalion of my cousins when Sohail perished. One cousin, the lone Indian supporter in the room, was almost lynched when he tried to scream with joy. After the match, which India won, one Pakistani fan reportedly shot himself after shooting his television.

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Indian police humiliate a youth in SrinagarIndian police humiliate a youth in Srinagar
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My little cousin, a self-confessed cricket buff, has all the records of Pakistani cricketers on his fingertips. He will throw a barrage of statistics at you to prove that Saeed Anwar was a better match-winner than Sachin Tendulkar, Aaqib Javed was more economical than Venky Prasad, Waqar Yunus’s slowest delivery was better than the fastest Javagal Srinath ever bowled, Mushtaq Ahmad’s googly was sharper than Anil Kumble’s, Eijaz Ahmad was quicker on field than Mohd Azharuddin; and Inzamum ul Haq’s son bowls faster than Ajit Agarkar or Joginder Sharma. He knows how long Saeed Anwar held the record for the highest individual score in an ODI (against India) and how long Aaqib Javed held the record for the highest wicket-taker in an ODI (against India). Both records are broken now, but memories are deeply etched in the mind.

These days, IPL is the buzzword in cricketing circles. While the fever has gripped India and many other countries, there is not even a murmur in Kashmir about who’s playing whom. And there is nothing shocking about it. There are no Pakistani cricketers playing, and for Kashmiris, cricket loses meaning when men in green are not in action. Banning them from the IPL is yet another reason for their fans in Kashmir to hate India.

(First published in The Friday Times, Pakistan)