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Surya Gangadharan
Monday , May 16, 2011 at 11 : 54

No English, no Urdu, no Hindi... only Pashto!


This, spoken vehemently by a boy no more than 7 or 8 years old in the lift of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. He was looking directly at me as he spoke and I hadn't addressed a word to him. Before I could query the boy, the lift reached the hotel lobby and he ran out.

Was he telling me in his own way what Afghans are increasingly articulating? That they are tired of having foreigners in their face, especially those with guns hogging their roads, and telling their president how to behave when not bombing Afghan villages?

It's a sentiment privately echoed by Afghan officials escorting a group of Indian journalists during Prime Minister Mamohan Singh's recent visit to Kabul. Afghan-led, Afghan-owned is the mantra, even as they acknowledge their dependence on foreign aid for many years to come. But it's clear Afghans want to reclaim ownership of their country; talk to each other without brooding foreign minders around.

To some extent, the foreign powers at least in Kabul appear to be responding. The concrete barriers that squeezed roads are still there although a visible effort has been made to ensure traffic moves more freely. Foreign troops are less visible. I saw only one convoy in two days - a small one comprising three mine proof armoured vehicles of the ISAF. The expected US draw-down begins in July when around 5,000 troops go home followed by another 5,000 in December.

The big question: can the Afghan National Army, sometimes referred to as "the few the proud and the unready", manage on its own? Afghans are doubtful. They'd like foreign forces to stay but on their terms. They want financial and other commitments stretching long into the future but would rather not accept the riders that such commitments will inevitably involve.

Can India step up to the plate, ask some Afghans. But that's a decision not for Kabul alone. As the dominant 200-pound gorilla in Afghanistan, the US will have to agree. Then there's Pakistan. Taliban will have something to say on that for sure. Is India ready for such a role? Perhaps in small doses involving police training, more interaction, perhaps even joint training with the ANA. But we are told India lacks the capacity and resources to go the whole hog.

There's also the fact that Afghans have no memory of Indians with guns in their hands hogging their highways or bombing their villages. In that sense, for India, a smaller lower profile with the focus on people probably works out better in the long run.


More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.