India Matters in Afghanistan: Cricket, conflict, crossroads

Discussion in 'Foreign Relations' started by Srinivas_K, Feb 12, 2014.

  1. Srinivas_K

    Srinivas_K Senior Member Senior Member

    Jun 17, 2009
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    India Matters in Afghanistan: Cricket, conflict, crossroads

    Kabul: Afghanistan is synonymous with suicide bombers and air-strikes. But, there is another dimension that isn't highlighted. It is a country of 31 million people, who are like people anywhere else. They want homes, food, development, education, roads, and like people anywhere else, they want peace.

    For people caught in the crossfire, Afghanistan's meteoric rise in the cricketing world is as incredible as it is full of romance. The Taliban had banned sport when they ruled the country from 1996-2001. In just nine years after their fall, Afghanistan literally picked itself up from its boot-straps in the cricketing world.

    Afghanistan moved from division five - the lowest for international one day tournaments - to rubbing shoulders with the top two teams, South Africa and India in the 2010 T20 world cup. In 13 years since the fall of the Taliban, the team has qualified for two T20 world cups and dreams of beating Bangladesh in March this year to make it to the main draw of a third T20 World Cup. But, the pinnacle came last year when the team qualified for the 2015 ODI World Cup.

    The national team has been uniting a war-ravaged country with even Taliban dominated areas celebrating their success wildly on the streets. Taking Pakistan to the final ball in a T20 game in December 2013 in Sharjah had people proudly talking for days.

    Afghanistan's dream-run began and was nurtured by one man - Taj Malik. Now 39 years old, a small-time cricketer, a right-handed batsman and leg-break bowler, Taj Malik coached a rag-tag bunch of refugees in camps in Peshawar all the way to the World Cup. In his cricket academy in Jalalabad bordering Pakistan, he recalls how it all started: 'When the Russians came to Afghanistan in 1979, millions immigrated to the neighbouring countries. The 1987 World Cup was jointly hosted by India and Pakistan. When we saw the games on TV, we got inspired and started playing cricket in refugee camps. Then came the 1992 World Cup held in Australia won by Pakistan. We then became crazy about the game and knew we must have an Afghanistan team. In 2001, when we officially started the game in Kabul, I picked all those guys I knew in the refugee camps. It's here that the India-connect comes in. From kids wearing Yuvraj jerseys to trainees at cricket academies in Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, we are peppered with questions and passionate pronouncements on India, the BCCI, the IPL and how the Afghan team can benefit if only India does more."

    Nangarhar is Afghanistan's Shivaji Park and at least nine of the country's cricket team members come from this province bordering Pakistan. On the dusty fields, one finds group of cricketers who could have been mistaken to be anywhere in India. But, this is war-torn Afghanistan and Jalalabad is one of the most dangerous parts. 95 per cent of the population speaks Pashtu (the language of the Taliban) and one would presume there would be a hatred of India here - unlike in Kabul. But here, the youth playing on the city's public grounds voiced just the opposite. They like Indian cricketers so much because they beat Pakistan so often!

    On the ground is another century-old connection between India and Afghanistan - an Afghan sardar spectator. Before the 1990s, the Afghan Sikh population was estimated at 50,000 but now there are less than 1000 families. Even president Karzai has recognised the minority Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan by pushing for the reservation of one seat for them in parliament.

    Afghanistan's national team itches for the opportunity to play more international teams and is hungry to get a chance in the IPL. It is now setting its target on Test status. India has asked the BCCI to consider Afghan players for the IPL. Tours of India to play India A and Ranji sides has been proposed as is letting the Afghan team play as an invitee in the Duleep Trophy. India is also looking at providing a coach, mentor and a former top India player as a brand ambassador. An annual assistance, training camps and training Afghan coaches is also on the cards as is supporting the Afghan women's team. India is considering assisting in building of stadiums in Kandahar (the birthplace of the Taliban) and in Khost as well. It was India which successfully pushed for Afghanistan to be included in this year's Asia Cup as a fifth team. And the Afghan Board has expressed its gratitude for that.

    India has played with a straight bat when it comes to helping the naturally talented Afghans come to the Big League. Now it can also give the push the Afghans need to compete in the Big League. The British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Afghanistan last year with ex-England footballer David Owen and kicked off a partnership with the English football association to help the country's footballers. Their talent came to the fore when they beat defending champions India to win the South Asia Football Federation title last year. FIFA has also recognised the team with its annual Fair Play award in January 2014.

    The Great Game in Afghanistan is often likened to the visually violent Buzkashi in which horse -mounted riders attempt to drag a goat or calf carcass and throw it into a scoring circle. In the Shomali or windy plains north of Kabul, dozens of Chapandaz - riders jostle to grab the carcass. It looks like a free-for-all but the modern version is not all mayhem-it has rules. The riders are not allowed to intentionally hit or knock a fellow rider off his horse. In Afghanistan's savage past, though, the skillful yet fierce Chapandaz was often likened to the country's rulers. Whitney Azoy, a former US diplomat, anthropologist, Pulitzer nominee and filmmaker has been associated with Afghanistan for over 40 years. He wrote: the leaders are men who can seize control by means foul and fair, and then fight off their rivals. The Buzkashi rider does the same.

    In modern day Afghanistan, the rough and tumble of Buzkashi has been transformed into an extremely complicated chess game-not only involving the country's leaders-but regional and global powers.

    The Afghan President in his Palace in Kabul in 2014 will oversee a triple transition: military, withdrawal of coalition combat troops; economic, 16 billion dollars of foreign military and development aid annually; and political, the country's first peaceful transition of presidential power is scheduled from April.

    At present there are about 87,000 coalition troops in the country, down from 150,000 last year. By spring, there will be fewer than 40,000 and at the end of the 2014, zero combat troops. In his palace, President Hamid Karzai in his mercurial manner has refused to sign an agreement with the US to allow possibly up to 15,000 foreign troops to stay on from 2015 for another decade. These troops will train and assist Afghan security forces and be used in counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

    No more night raids, halting of operations against the Taliban in Afghan homes and villages, the US pushing for peace talks with the Taliban - these are President Karzai's new conditions to sign the agreement, despite a Loya Jirga (a council of elders and leaders) set up by him unanimously endorsing the deal.

    In the new great game in Afghanistan, Pakistan based groups have allegedly been targeting Indian interests in the country. The latest was the attempted bombing on the Jalalabad consulate in August 2013 but the most deadly was attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008. That was linked by the US to the Haqqani network, a known proxy of the ISI.

    It's the worst kept secret in Washington and New Delhi that Pakistan based groups are being used by the ISI to hit Indian assets in Afghanistan. Two Indian diplomats were killed in a suicide car bomb attack on the Kabul embassy in 2008. That attack was linked to the ruthless Haqqani group from across the border.

    Islamabad is also jittery about President Karzai's wish-list from India for military equipment. President Karzai told NDTV in an exclusive interview in The Arg, his Palace, that T 72 battle tanks, Field guns, howitzers, and one squadron of attack helicopters are on his wishlist.

    India of course has no problem with ramping up the training of Afghans from current 350 a year to possibly over 1000 and restarting with the Russian an arms maintenance factory in Kabul. It's a question of supplying lethal weaponry to Afghanistan that's a problem.

    Mining in Afghanistan is another problem for India. Indian state and private firms including SAIL and the Jindal group have yet to sign the estimated 11 billion dollar bid for iron ore in Hajigak in relatively peaceful Bamiyan province. Afghanistan is estimated to have over $ 3 trillion in mineral and petroleum wealth. China has already stolen a march over India in the $ 3 billion Mes Aynak copper mines just south of Kabul in Logar. President Karzai acknowledged that the investment is important but also said that financial safeguards and guarantees for Indian companies would be provided by Afghan law. He said, "The laws are good. The laws are in parliament. They have all the relevant guarantees and safeguards for foreign investment in Afghanistan."

    One man who feels just financial investment is not enough is Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. He is one of 11 candidates for the Presidential polls, and according to one survey will replace President Karzai. He is a former finance minister and has worked with the World Bank and the UN. He told NDTV that human capital is also vital. He said, "This is my request for your IITS. It's the Indian Institutes of Technology that are going to be key to the management of this mineral wealth and of course mining schools."

    Dr Habiba Surobi is Afghanistan's first woman governor. She headed Bamiyan-province where India's mining interests lie. She is also the country's first Magsaysay winner and a Vice Presidential candidate in 2014. She acknowledged everything that India had provided including the two billion dollars in aid. She told NDTV, "From training up, from equipment to the economy to investment. In every field, India has played a big role."

    Another issue that matters to India in Afghanistan is reconciliation with the Taliban - something that disturbs leaders like Dr Abdullah Abdullah. In a December 2013 survey, he is the leading candidate to replace President Karzai. He told NDTV, "The Taliban is not a popular force and they are not that strong as they used to be in 1995-96. Far from it."

    India's position is that reconciliation should be Afghan led and not Pakistan brokered. New Delhi's stated position is that the red lines of respecting the Afghan constitution, giving up arms and cutting links with the al Qaeda should not be crossed in talking to the Taliban.

    Lines intersect though when it comes to the similarities between Afghan and Indian weddings. A traditional Afghan wedding song begins and has a chorus of: Ahesta bero, mah-e-man, Ahesta bero (Walk slowly the light of my moon, walk slowly). New Delhi will have to make sure it not only walks slowly but walks surely - because India matters in Afghanistan.

    India Matters in Afghanistan: Cricket, conflict, crossroads |

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