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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Why Pranabda makes sense

May 31, 2007

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External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee's statements regarding Iran and Afghanistan at the 45-nation ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) in Hamburg on Tuesday are bound to draw attention.

Mukherjee commands immense respect as a statesman. The new thinking that he has brought to bear on the Iran nuclear issue is refreshing for its candour and its profundity.

His unequivocal emphasis on the need of a constructive engagement of Iran, and its categorical rejection of the means of coercion by the international community -- be it in the form of military threat or through economic sanctions -- sets Indian thinking apart on a staunchly independent course on the Iran nuclear issue.

Mukherjee has enhanced India's standing in the international community as the voice of reason and moderation. He puts India in a lead role on a major regional security issue -- a rare happening amidst our tryst with globalisation. His statement will certainly provide the impetus for New Delhi and Tehran to move ahead purposively with their partnership as two important regional powers, especially in the highly promising area of energy cooperation.

From the podium in Hamburg, Mukherjee has endeavoured to send a powerful signal back home that under his stewardship of foreign affairs, India's will to pursue an independent foreign policy should not be in doubt. Coinciding with the commencement of the first direct official talks between Tehran and Washington, the external affairs minister's statement is well timed. South Block has done a professional job in keeping itself ahead of the curve.

Also Read: An Interview with Pranab Mukherjee

As for Afghanistan, Mukherjee has focused on the all-important security situation in that country, stemming from the Taliban's resurgence, and firmly rejected any 'appeasement' policy towards the Taliban by the international community. The Taliban are the alter ego of Al Qaeda, and the Janus-faced demon needs to be handled with steely resolve, he argued. He underlined the importance of the international community 'staying the course' in this respect.

In essence, Mukherjee understandably flagged Delhi's legitimate concerns over the impact of the deepening Afghan crisis on regional security and stability. He stressed these concerns in near-apocalyptic terms by drawing attention to the inevitable spread of an 'arc of instability' in the region and the resumption of a 'dance of death' if the present crisis continues.

Also Read: 'Reforms are not a mantra to be chanted'

The fact remains, however, that Afghan problem has many dimensions.

Several inter-related issues do not figure in the Indian statement. Mukherjee spoke before a Western audience drawn from NATO member countries. Nonetheless, there is a growing world opinion, including in the European capitals, that the Taliban challenge has no real military solution. An intra-Afghan dialogue must commence -- and the sooner it does, the better.

Some argue that confidence needs to be built ahead of peace. Yet, making peace and creating confidence must run together. How can there be confidence in someone who is not at peace?

The Afghan political spectrum has begun to take its own initiatives, though tentative, for dialogue, reconciliation and power sharing. How can the international community ignore the war fatigue among Afghans?

Second, despite India's traditional reticence about adopting prescriptive attitudes toward other countries, it cannot entirely be overlooked that the Taliban are operating in a fertile soil nurtured by the misgovernance, deep-rooted corruption and ineptitude on the part of the regime in Kabul that the United States masterminded.

Images: Pranab takes India to the world

Reconstruction is vital, but, equally, the vast cesspools of corruption and venality that have discredited foreign aid and reconstruction need to be drained. An entire parallel economy centred on poppy cultivation has emerged, which is eating into the vitals of fledgling State institutions.

Third, excessive violence by the US forces is causing deep alienation among Afghan people. It earns a bad name for the international community, apart from undercutting the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

Unsurprisingly, there is growing evidence of the Afghan people's historical antipathy toward prolonged foreign military occupation of their country.

As Mukherjee rightly emphasises in the case of Iran, Afghanistan too cannot be dealt with as a 'political entity' prised out of the ebb and flow of its history, its proud traditions, and its cultural ethos and social moorings.

Fourth, the US monopoly on conflict resolution in Afghanistan is eroding the international consensus. NATO is a divided house today. Question marks arise over Washington's geopolitical intentions.

Beyond the Afghan parapet, the darkening horizon is all too apparent, heavy with the distrust over the US' regional policies, including in Central Asia and the Caucasus, ensuing in particular from Washington's decision regarding the deployment of missile defence systems, coupled with its agenda of projecting NATO as the sole security organisation with a global reach.

Delhi cannot but take note of these portents of far-reaching consequence to regional security.

Finally, who are the Taliban? Pakistan keeps them under wraps. The US acquiesces. Nor has there been clarity about the Taliban's alleged nexus with Al Qaeda. The circumstances on the regions straddling the Durand Line remain obscure. Islamabad, Washington and London keep the international community guessing.

Furthermore, the 'war on terror' is stretching credibility. Al Qaeda takes protean forms. Double standards are galore.

Who doesn't know that Fatah al-Islam, which undoubtedly has Salafist leanings and can be justifiably regarded as being close to the Al Qaeda network, has been forged in the smithies of the US Central Intelligence Agency with the intent of confronting the Hezbollah in Lebanon and eventually disarming it as the force of resistance?

Just as in the case of the Iran nuclear issue, Delhi must do forward thinking on Afghanistan. The co-relation of forces is changing rapidly -- both within Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan in the region. The paradigms of yesteryears may have become out-moded.

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