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No question of proxy war: Outgoing Indian ambassador to Kabul Amar Sinha

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RUCHI KUMAR-Amar Sinha has been India’s ambassador to Afghanistan for the last two and a half years

He is very popular among the Afghan polity and locals too

Sinha saw regime changes in both countries, but feels the relationship didn’t change

It’s a bittersweet moment for Amar Sinha. The man whom the people of Afghanistan have titled ‘more Afghan than Afghans’ is leaving Kabul after two and a half years as India’s ambassador to the country.

Sinha is set to take charge as secretary, economic relations, at the Ministry of External Affairs. But while he’s excited about the new posting, he’s sad to leave Kabul after a tenure marked with unique high points in the diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Sinha actually chose the Kabul posting, and took the initiative to embrace the city, and the country, in its entirety. “They always seek volunteers who would like to go. It is a non-family station, so many people have a problem with their wives vetoing the posting. I didn’t have those issues,” shares Sinha, a 1982 batch IFS officer.

Locals will certainly miss him. Since news of Sinha’s departure broke, social media has been buzzing with Afghans tweeting laudatory messages to Sinha and wishing him luck.

Greater emphasis

Sinha’s tenure in Kabul stands out for several reasons. The most important is the fact that this was a period of political transition for both countries.

Not only did Sinha witness the rise of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India, but also the troubled elections in Afghanistan which eventually led to the formation of the National Unity Government under President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah.

Yet, Sinha feels there hasn’t been a big change in how the countries deal with each other.

“Frankly, I haven’t felt a change in how Afghanistan and India deal with each other despite the government change in both countries,” he says.

“Back home, I feel there is much sharper focus because of the shift in priorities. Delhi is much more actively engaged,” he adds, pointing to Modi’s emphasis on the neighbourhood from his first day in office.

Sinha was India’s envoy to Afghanistan for the last 2.5 years, and was very popular among locals

This engagement was evident in Modi’s recent visit to Kabul. He inaugurated the new Afghan parliament building, constructed by India as a gift to the country.

The Kabul event, extensively covered in the Afghan media and grandly celebrated on social media, was one of the last ones managed by the departing ambassador.

“I will continue to have finger in the Afghan pie,” he promises. “Part of my charge [at the MEA] would be to look at projects and development partnerships with Afghanistan, and hopefully, I can push things along there.”

We are not in the business of war

On being asked if he noticed a change in regional politics since President Ghani took charge of Afghanistan, Sinha insisted there was none.

“There could be a change in the public narrative and public perception, but the entire political spectrum in Afghanistan is pro-India,” he says.

About the increased affinity between Afghan and Pakistani leaders, he adds: “We understand that. It is natural they would engage. Look at it from our own perspective, doesn’t every government in India try to reach out to Pakistan?”

Asked if there was any truth in media reports that India was displeased about an improving Af-Pak relationship, Sinha says: “We do not believe that our relationship is a zero-sum game. Just because their relationship with Pakistan improves, it doesn’t have to be at the cost of India. Don’t we have multiple relationships with countries that we may or may not see eye-to-eye with? So we have to give the same space to the Afghanistan leadership.”

But Sinha doesn’t have any illusions about Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan. “The Pakistani narrative of increased Indian involvement in Afghan affairs has not been confirmed by facts on the ground or by the Afghan government,” he says.

Sinha’s tenure saw regime changes in both India and Afghanistan. But he insists nothing else changed

“The rest of the world will find it very difficult to understand why Pakistani policies support anti-government forces in Afghanistan. But the rest of the world is very aware of the dispute between India and Pakistan. So perhaps linking their policies to that dispute, from the Pakistani perspective, makes their job easier.”

He refutes the accusation that there’s a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. “What is the proxy that we are using for this to be called proxy war?” he questions. “Who are the Taliban killing? Casualties are the Afghan security forces and Afghan civilians. So unless one argues that they are India’s proxy, I don’t see that there is a proxy battle going on – we are not in that business.”

Rising insurgency – concerns for India?

Sinha does not believe that there is a rise of Taliban power in Afghanistan. Neither does he see the factions calling themselves ‘Daesh’ (aka ISIS) as a force associated with the group in Syria.

“What we see today is the Taliban as a weakened force. The last three years were nothing but a charade – the fact that they carried on jihadin the name of a man who is dead,” he says, referring to the recent reports that Taliban founder Mullah Omar had been dead for a few years.

“There is another fiction that the Taliban is somehow an Afghan force, which has been refuted with the new developments, from the hastily called jirga to the appointment of Mullah Mansoor. There is no denying where the Taliban is operating from. It has an address, and we all know where that it. We can even get letters delivered to that address,” Sinha says with a smile.

However, there is a concern about the rise in insurgency. “Recent activities on the part of terrorist groups is an attempt to remain relevant. However, for the youth of Afghanistan, the fact is there is widespread unemployment, lack of opportunities and a shrinking economy. Ultimately, they have to go somewhere. I don’t know whether their motivation is religion, or in fact, pure economic survival,” he says.

India’s role in Afghan development

On the question of India’s role in the development of Afghanistan, Sinha says it’s an ongoing process.

“So far, our support has always been in areas that have been requested by the Afghan government. We have not yet prescribed any particular solutions. They have come up with what they need and we’ve delivered to our capacity. But going forward, I feel we can be a solid partners in agriculture, rural development and associated industries,” he advises.

Dubbed ‘more Afghan than Afghans’, Sinha has nothing but optimism for the future of the country.

India continues to provide major support in education. Apart from 1,000 annual scholarships, Modi announced an additional 500 scholarships to the children of martyred Afghan soldiers.

“We are investing the future of the country. We are not just providing support to the current redevelopment work, but are empowering their next generation,” Sinha says.

Sinha admits he is an unabashed optimist when it comes to Afghanistan’s future. “Forces that are against Afghanistan will not be happy to see a strong and united Afghanistan, and will do everything in their power to create divides. But this is something that doesn’t come naturally to Afghans,” he says.