Why should Afghans be left behind? (An Interview with Mr. H.K. Dua, MP)
Mr. H.K. Dua is a Member of the Rajya Sabha and a veteran journalist and political commentator. Over a career spanning four decades, Mr. Dua has been the Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of the Indian Express, Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune Publications and Editorial Advisor of The Times of India. He was in New York recently for a visit to the United Nations headquarters, where YFFP’s UN Correspondent Spandana Battula caught up with him for an interview on India’s relations with Afghanistan.
YFFP: Thank you so much for taking out time and speaking to us today. What brings you to the United States and what is your interest in the United Nations?
H.K. Dua: I have come to the United States as a Member of the Indian Parliament’s delegation to the UN. Every year our Parliament sends some MP’s, in batches, to the General Assembly to get exposure to the United Nations and the issues it takes up. Since Indians are internationalists by nature—ever since independence, Jawaharlal Nehru himself had taken lot of interest in the UN and world affairs—now when India is emerging as a major economic and political power of the 21st century, it’s all the more important to know what’s happening around the world.
YFFP: You are also going to Washington, D.C., to speak about India and its relations with Afghanistan at a few think tanks. How and when did you begin to get interested in Afghanistan related issues?
H.K. Dua: As a journalist, I have taken interest in two areas – domestic national affairs at home and international affairs, particularly South Asia. At the moment, the most sensitive issue [in South Asia] is Afghanistan and Pakistan for us. We are next door; whatever happens there affects us. So I would like to discuss the various ramifications of the emerging situation.
What is the emerging situation? US and the NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan against insurgents, terrorists and militants from across the border. We [in India] have taken an interest in Afghanistan’s welfare, we are investing in their economic well being, in schools, colleges, roads, those kind of projects. It is good to know what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014 when, as President Obama has announced, American troops have been pulled out. I would like to know whether there is again going to be a vacuum, will Taliban fill the vacuum, or who will do so? We want Afghans to determine their future; they should fill their vacuum and not people from outside. What I believe—and I think India also believes—is that no outside country should interfere in Afghanistan. Afghanistan should be a sovereign country, it should be democratic and it should be put on track for faster development.
YFFP: Could you briefly trace India’s historical ties with Afghanistan? Do you think the main dimensions have been economic, military, or cultural?
H.K. Dua: India has age-old ties with Afghanistan; after all there is only one Khyber Pass in between. Our relationship with Afghanistan is much older than anybody else’s. We have a stake in the future of Afghanistan, although Pakistan is reluctant to admit that. Afghanistan’s location is also important to us—the silk route passes through it. Trade between India and Central Asia and then to Europe went through Afghanistan. There is a proposal to revive the silk route. If there is peace in the region, in Afghanistan and around, imagine the trading that will take place. The people of Afghanistan will gain, and everybody will gain. There are also traditional cultural ties; India is very popular in Afghanistan. For now we have construction projects going on, India has been investing despite the difficulties in Afghanistan.
YFFP: What are India’s interests in Afghanistan? Why are we still investing in a crisis prone country?
H.K. Dua: Because it is an important part of our region. We don’t want Afghans to suffer because of violence. Recently we signed a strategic agreement when President Karzai was in India to put our relationship on a more sound footing. You see, if we keep Afghanistan isolated in its backwardness it will always be a source of trouble. And trouble will cost everyone – India, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian countries. Peace and development are linked, so why should Afghanistan be left behind when the world is making progress? And if it is left behind, it will again become a source of trouble.
YFFP: How do you perceive US policy with regard to troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, and how will this impact India?
H.K. Dua: Frankly, the US has to withdraw because after the ten years they have been fighting, the war is still not over. Soldiers are killed and when the coffins come home it is an unpopular sight on T.V. channels and in the media for the [American] people. And many Americans ask a question: “Why are you fighting a war in a distant Afghanistan?” For us it’s near but for Americans it’s far. But from an international strategic point of view it was very important, it was the continuation of their fight against terrorism after 9/11. Al Qaeda had taken up sanctuaries in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but then the war continued and still continues. They have achieved some success but they have been promising to withdraw from 2011, now extended to 2014. But what do you do after 2014? That question remains unanswered. If trouble again erupts, then Afghanistan’s future would be uncertain.
YFFP: Do you foresee any changes in the US’s Afghanistan policy following the American presidential election in 2012?
H.K. Dua: You see, when Pres. Obama came to power he announced the pullout of troops from Afghanistan. He wants to live up to his promise. I am sure he will also be concerned what will be the situation after the pullout but you can’t fix the deadlines. His earlier deadline was July, 2012, and he has extended it to 2014, so he will have to decide whether he can pull out all the troops or whether there will be a US presence in some form or the other. I have a feeling the US will have to sit down with other countries in a multi-nation conference of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and EU members, and all should sit together and work out an international compact for Afghanistan’s future. After the elections they will plan, they can’t switch on and off the situation.
YFFP: Do you think there is any merit in India sending troops to Afghanistan to fill the vacuum the US might leave?
H.K. Dua: No, I don’t think India should send troops into Afghanistan. Personally, I am not in favour nor is anyone in India in favour of this. Training of their armed personnel is one thing but sending troops to fight, no, not at all. The reason being that historically, whosoever has got into Afghanistan has burnt their fingers. It does not help. Afghans don’t like it and you should not be doing anything that Afghans don’t like it. And India does not like it: when we are calling for non-interference from outside, it doesn’t mean we should get into it. Look at the experience of the Soviet Union; they burnt their fingers. The Americans and NATO have the same problems. So Indians should not think of it at all.
YFFP: There is a growing view that the real problem in South Asia is really not Afghanistan, but the precarious state of Pakistan’s internal politics and security. Would you agree with this, and if so, what can India do to help preempt a future failed state in Pakistan?
H.K. Dua: Our problem is the India-Pakistan relationship. The trend is positive, the dialogue is continuing. There have been ups and downs, several attempts in the past have failed to establish peace. After all, India and Pakistan have fought three wars plus Kargil. War is not good. After all, one-fifth of humanity lives in South Asia, and a large chunk of the population is poor. [The region] needs peace to grow—India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal—all the SAARC countries and Afghanistan now.
Now both [India and Pakistan] are nuclear powers—that rules out war. I don’t think they [Pakistan] will be foolish enough to start a nuclear war. But they started a proxy war by encouraging militancy and terrorism. That is a major hurdle: 26/11 and the attack on the Indian Parliament were a shocking thing. This should not happen in the civilized world of the 21st century. So the India-Pakistan dialogue gets stuck on this question of terrorism, but again we must make attempts. There should be trade, people to people contact and prevention of terrorism; then both countries will grow.
YFFP: It has been suggested that promoting peace and development in Afghanistan is actually one of the few areas in which India and Pakistan might have a fruitful collaboration. Do you believe this is possible?
H.K. Dua: I think it is not only possible, but it is desirable and if there is a political will and statesmanship prevails in both the countries, it will be the best way out. India and Pakistan should cooperate in the development of Afghanistan, in its economic growth. Pakistan should think of cooperating with India in Afghanistan, and some of their own problems will be sorted out. The two neighbours must cooperate in the development programs in Afghanistan and the whole region will gain. People of the sub-continent will be very happy. There is nothing like living as good neighbours.
YFFP: Do you have any thoughts or advice to share with young Indians interested in foreign policy who are trying to think out-of-the-box about the crisis in Afghanistan?
H.K. Dua: The youth in India as well as in Pakistan must always work for peace. They should also be condemning terrorism and they can be the force for peace. In fact, there should be more interaction between people of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan; and also, there should be youth exchanges. That will widen the constituency of peace in the region.