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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

South Block’s Predicament: Stranded in Afghanistan and Marginalised in the Region

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Mansoor Ali

National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon went to Kabul a week after the terror attack on a small hotel housing mainly Indians, ostensibly to beef up security arrangements in the Afghan capital. While this was clearly one of the main tasks of his visit, a prime objective of the trip was to regain India’s faltering grip in Kabul. More so after its diplomacy received a severe setback at the London Conference on Afghanistan where New Delhi was unable to garner support for its positions in the region.

So while security is a pressing concern, there is no gainsaying that India has become a target for the Taliban as well as various anti-India outfits operating in and out of Afghanistan. In the absence of a clear-cut strategy and vision, India finds itself isolated, with Turkey seizing the initiative to bring Islamabad and Kabul together on a ‘talk-to-the-Taliban’ policy. Pakistan, which has been spearheading a campaign to make India pull out of Afghanistan, has succeeded to a point where the West, while continuing to recognise New Delhi’s efforts at reconstruction in Afghanistan, is reluctant to publicly appreciate India’s strategic considerations. As the London Conference amply demonstrated, the US and its NATO allies have decided to go along with the good and bad Taliban policy of Pakistan, drawing a distinction between the hardliners and moderates, so as to begin talks with the latter.

On terrorism too Pakistan has been able to convince the world that it is as much a victim of the scourge as India, and that it needs all the help it can get to protect its people from the extremists. It is of course true that terror has struck Pakistan hard and fast, but it is also true that Pakistan still seeks to protect those groups which Islamabad has used for terrorism within Jammu and Kashmir and in other parts of India. But given the fact that it has been able to convince the US under Barack Obama that it has dealt with and is dealing with terrorism, Islamabad is now back in the good books of the Western world and is not just recognised but also applauded as a worthy ally in the war against terrorism. The US knows, as does Pakistan, that Obama’s exit policy in Afghanistan cannot be possible without Islamabad’s help and support and is prepared to let the fires of Kashmir simmer, in return for dousing the flames in Afghanistan.

One of the key personalities behind Pakistan’s success in bringing the world around to what had appeared to be, and for India still is, a completely untenable stand is Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani. This quiet General, who refuses to meet even the Pakistani media for interviews, keeps away from the spotlight, does not belong to the elite, has managed more than what his predecessor did with his aggressive rhetoric. He has been able to convince Washington, through the successful operations in Swat and parts of Waziristan, that the Pakistan Army can still perform. Those who were sceptical of his prowees in Islamabad’s elite circles now admit that Kayani is a ‘professional’. He has also managed to win over some civilian support by convincing them that the Army is not interested in political control.

As a result, Pakistan has been able to reclaim its ‘strategic’ assets in Afghanistan and is presently brokering a dialogue with the Taliban, with the full support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai who was earlier totally opposed to the idea. Menon, thus, has to rebuild fences with Karzai and ensure that Pakistan’s writ does not run in Afghanistan to a point where Indian interests in the region are jeopardised. This task was very much achievable at one stage, but given India’s overconfidence and inability to think ahead, the advantage was lost last year.

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It is true that India has made it clear that it will not close down its Consulates just because of absurd allegations by Pakistan, and will continue to remain engaged with the people of Afghanistan. But terror attacks are cutting into this resolve: pilots are now reluctant to fly Indian Airlines into Kabul, and doctors as well as others engaged in the process of reconstruction do not want to be part of the process. Security cannot be ensured as India is clearly being targeted, and the fact that the Americans are not particularly supportive was evident in Richard Holbrooke’s first remarks insisting that he did not think India was the target of the terrorists. He retracted subsequently, but the political significance of his first response was not lost on Kabul, Islamabad or New Delhi. The Americans have worked out their exit policy, and are moving frenetically forward. Pakistan is the ally, as is Karzai now, but India remains out on the fringes and is not essential to the US strategy in the region except as a country that needs to be managed from time to time.

Instead of mindlessly succumbing to US pressure and US strategy for the region, New Delhi needs to urgently define its own interests and work out a related strategy. Talks with Pakistan, although of utmost necessary, cannot be successful or pay India necessary dividends if these are not woven into a long-term policy for the region. Otherwise, as the recent Foreign Secretary level talks showed, the exercise will be not just meaningless but even damaging to the peace process.

Dialogue, thus, has to be factored into a strategic policy and not become the policy itself. It has become quite apparent for some time
now that the government has outsourced thinking and policy-making to the US, and quite happily accepts the finished product and starts implementing it without further thought.

Security for Indians in Afghanistan can only be possible if the terrorists know that any such action will draw the same response from the US and Afghan forces when Americans or others are killed. And this can only happen if India is able to get on to the same page as the rest.

By now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should have realised that India’s strength does not, and never can, come from becoming a sub-ordinate to the US. It comes from having a voice in the neighbourhood—West Asia, South Asia, China and Russia. Unfortunately the UPA Government, by following the policies initiated by the NDA, has ensured a certain marginalisation of India in the entire region. The reluctance to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation despite the enthusiasm of the then Russian President, Vladimir Putin, the refusal to speak for the Palestinians, the inability to articulate a policy dear to the West Asian hearts, the vote against Iran at the IAEA at a politically critical time, the confused policy on Sri Lanka and Nepal… the list is long. But suffice it to say that market economics can never be a substitute for sound diplomacy. After all, if New Delhi does not speak for anyone, no one will stand up for it either. And this is now evident right at India’s doorstep.

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