The recent visit of Afghan Interim Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum to India appears to have had several aims. On an official level, Dostum's visit sought to strengthen Afghan-Indian diplomatic ties. At the same time, Dostum seems to have pursued a personal agenda, hoping to gain favor with New Delhi in order to fortify his domestic political position.
Dostum's three-day visit to New Delhi ended February 2. His meeting with Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes provoked the most speculation. The two reportedly explored the potential of setting up an army in Afghanistan with training facilities in India. Dostum officially denied asking Fernandes for Indian arms and logistical assistance. He said military cooperation with India was restricted to medical supplies and training for Afghan doctors.
Dostum also held talks with Indian Foreign Secretary Chokila Iyer. Officials said the discussions focused on Afghan reconstruction issues and the strengthening of diplomatic ties, which became strained during the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan. Beginning February 13, a group of Afghan diplomats will begin training at the Indian Foreign Service Institute.
According to a local source, however, one of Dostum's main aims was to convince Iyer to open an Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's main city in the north of the country that is firmly under the control of Dostum's militia forces.
Forces loyal to Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, reestablished control over Mazar-i-Sharif after wresting the city from Taliban in late 2001. In his talks with Iyer, Dostum reportedly argued that an Indian embassy in Mazar-i-Sharif could yield economic benefits of increased trade between northern Afghanistan and India. Following the talks, Dostum said the proposal to open an Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif remained under consideration.
Some local observers saw Dostum's trip as a reflection of his desire to increase his influence over Afghanistan's reconstruction process. Dostum initially voiced dissent over the composition of Afghanistan's interim governing council. But he later expressed support for Hamid Karzai's interim administration and promised not to derail the reconstruction process. After the interim council was sworn in, Dostum was appointed the deputy defense minister.
Dostum advocates a decentralized leadership structure for Afghanistan, saying such a system would give Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts its best chance for success.
Dostum is the fourth member of the interim council to visit India, after Interior Minister Younis Qanooni, Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and Defense Minister Gen. Mohammad Qasim Fahim.
Interim Administration and Planning Minister Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq also visited India on February 1 for talks that centered on expanding cooperation on alternate energy sources.
Karzai is also expected to visit New Delhi soon, based on an invitation extended at the international donor's conference in Tokyo in late January. During the conference, India pledged $200 million in financial aid to Afghanistan and one million tons of wheat - to be delivered under the aegis of the World Food Program.
After the talks between the Afghan and Indian delegations in Tokyo, India said it would soon reestablish an air link to Kabul. On January 24, Ariana, Afghanistan's national airline, completed a test flight from Kabul to New Delhi, its first international flight in two years.
Agam Shah is a freelance journalist who specializes in Indian affairs.