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Home > India > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

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Drawing lessons from the Kabul bombing

July 09, 2008

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The horrendous terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on Monday has no precedents. Never has our Kabul mission been attacked in this fashion -- not even during the darkest periods of the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. Nor has any other diplomatic mission in Kabul been so targeted in the current phase of the civil war that began with the US invasion in 2001.

Unsurprisingly, Indian opinion-makers have been swift in depicting the terrorist act as a moral evil, which it probably is. All the same, it is necessary to draw a line while presenting what happened as a kind of morality play of good versus evil. The danger is when the narrative begins depicting a moral universe where we are hated solely on account of our altruistic motives and intrinsic goodness.

Whereas, the reality is that we live in savage times where realpolitik and not morality often enough happens to be the guiding force inciting our monstrous enemies. A need arises, therefore, to take a more honest look at any hidden sewers that may exist. Such an exercise cannot and should not in any way detract from the total condemnation that the terrorists deserve. But it will serve an important purpose in so far as we do not fall into a false sense of innocence.

Even the death of a sparrow is a tragedy. Too many Indian lives are being lost in Afghanistan. The death of a brigadier, certainly, is a huge loss to our armed forces. It is about time to ask questions why this is happening. First and foremost, do we comprehend the complexities of the Afghan situation? The primary responsibility for this task lies with the Indian mission in Kabul, which should assess the situation correctly and report to Delhi.

The ministry of external affairs will be the best judge to decide whether there have been any lacunae in putting in place the underpinnings of our Afghan policy. After all, a distinct pattern is emerging in the recent past. Is it mere coincidence?

Each time an Indian life was lost, the top officials in Delhi reiterated their resolve not to be deterred by terrorists. A high level meeting of officials ensued to take stock of the security of the Indian personnel in Afghanistan. We, then, moved on. But does that approach suffice? Is anyone listening out there in the Hindu Kush? Isn't a comprehensive relook of policy warranted? Something has gone very wrong somewhere. The government owes an explanation.

Why Afghanistan is important to India

One thing is clear. The Taliban is a highly motivated movement. They are not in the business of exhibitionism. Their actions are invariably pinpointed, conveying some distinguishable political message or the other. This has been so all along during the past decade. Anyone who interacted with the Taliban would agree. Even on the eve of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, they were prepared to deal but by then the Bush administration was bent on the military path. In the present case of our embassy, the terrorist attack was carefully targeted.

Equally, its timing must also bear scrutiny. The overall fragility of the security situation or the prevailing climate of violence in Afghanistan alone cannot account for it. India is not part of the coalition forces. But why is India being then singled out? After all, Iran has been no less an 'enemy' for the Taliban or Al Qaeda [Images] -- or Russia [Images] and Uzbekistan, for that matter.

The first point to be noted is that the Taliban has once again chosen to target Indian interests, which are located on Afghan soil. They haven't stretched their long arm to act on Indian soil. Even though our army chief recently speculated that Kashmiri militants could have tie-ups with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, such a tie-up seems highly improbable. (Why there should have been such a speculative statement at all on a sensitive issue at such a responsible level, we do not know).

The Taliban message is that they have a score to settle with India's Afghan policy; that it is best settled on Afghan soil; and that they do not have any hostility toward India as such.

Two, the Taliban have ratcheted up the level of their attack on Indian interests. Targetting the Indian chancery makes it a very serious message. It is unclear whether the Indian defence attache was specifically the target. Conceivably, he was. If so, the timing of the attack is relevant. India has sharply stepped up its military-to-military cooperation with Afghanistan. Media reports indicate that India is training Afghan military personnel and possibly supplying military hardware to the Afghan armed forces. The Indian authorities have not cared to deny these reports.

Needless to say, Taliban would be keeping a close tab. The Taliban have infiltrated Afghan security agencies and would know the nature of the Indo-Afghan military cooperation. In any case, in the Kabul bazaar, nothing remains secret for long. The Taliban seem to have sized up that the Afghan-Indian 'mil-to-mil' cooperation is assuming a cutting edge. Of course they'd resent it. They'd see it as an unwarranted Indian interference in their country's internal affairs.

'India has a constructive role in Afghanistan'

Arguably, India's cooperation is within legitimate parameters. After all, Delhi is dealing with the duly elected Afghan government, which enjoys international legitimacy. But such things are never quite that simple in war zones. It took all the persuasiveness on the part of our envoys to get the Mujahideen to accept with the benefit of hindsight that our erstwhile ties with Najibuallah's regime in the 1980s were history and were not directed against them but merely signified government-to-government relations, which were usual.

Again, as we learned at enormous cost, in the ultimate analysis, it became completely irrelevant that the Indian Peace -Keeping Force saga in the mid-1980s in Sri Lanka [Images] began at the insistence of the established government in Colombo under the leadership at the highest level. The dividing line between the judicious and injudicious becomes thin when an outsider gets involved in a fratricidal strife.

In this particular case, there is an added factor. The Afghan army has pronounced ethnic fault lines. Ethnic Tajiks account for close to 70 percent of the officer corps of the Afghan army. So, when we train the Afghan army officers in our military academies to fight the Taliban -- which is a predominantly Pashtun movement -- we are needlessly stepping onto a political minefield of explosive sensitivity. Either we do not comprehend these vicious undercurrents in Afghan politics or we choose to deliberately overlook. In any case, it demands some serious explanation.

Three, the United Progressive Alliance government has incrementally harmonised its Afghan policy with America's War on Terror. This is most unfortunate. We ought to keep a safe distance from the Bush administration's war against militant Islam. Besides, the US has complicated motives behind its intervention in Afghanistan -- its geo-strategy toward Russia and Central Asia, its agenda of NATO's expansion as a global political organisation, its crusade against 'Islamofascism', etc. Seymour Hersh recently revealed in the New Yorker magazine what was an open secret -- Washington has been using Afghanistan as a base for training and equipping terrorists and planning and executing subversive activities directed against Iran with a view to speed up a 'regime change' in that country.

We do not share these diabolical US policy objectives and hare-brained dogmas. But unfortunately, influential sections within our security community have laboured under the notion that acquiring a sort of frontline status in the US's War on Terror in Afghanistan would have tangential gains vis-a-vis Pakistan. The temptation to harmonise with the US is all the greater when we see that US-Pakistan security cooperation has come under strain on account of Islamabad's growing resistance to the American attempt to shift the locus of the war into the Afghan-Pakistan border and the tribal areas within Pakistan.

Why the Indian embassy in Kabul was attacked

Again, some others in our strategic community hold a belief that it is time India began to 'flex its muscles' in its region. Indeed, US think-tankers routinely encourage their counterparts to believe that India is far too shy and reticent for a serious regional power in the exercise of its muscle power.

At any rate, there is a widespread perception in the international community -- including former US officials who held responsible positions and even British statesmen -- that Afghanistan is the theatre of a proxy war between Pakistan and India. But we can certainly do without such a proxy war.

There are five good reasons for saying so:

First>, it is tragic, immoral and contemptible if we indeed are cynical enough to overlook the suffering that we would be inflicting on the friendly Afghan people -- who barely eke out a living as it is -- by making them pawns in our 'low intensity' wars with Pakistan.

Second, such a proxy war is contrary to our broader regional policy, which is to make Pakistan a stakeholder in friendly relations with India.

Third, we will be annoying or alienating the Pakistani military, which is a crucial segment of the Pakistani establishment.

Fourth, it undercuts the climate of trust and confidence, which is gathering slowly but steadily in the overall relationship with Pakistan.

Finally, it is plain unrealistic to overlook Pakistan's legitimate interests in Afghanistan. It would be as unrealistic as to expect that we would sit back and take with equanimity if we perceive creeping Pakistani influence in the Maldives, Sri Lanka or Nepal or Bhutan. (Three top Indian officials recently visited Colombo to make precisely such a point about trends toward Sri Lanka's expansion of ties with China and Pakistan.) Call it 'sphere of influence', call it 'Munro Doctrine', but there are geopolitical realities that cannot be overlooked.

Afghanistan poses fundamental challenges to Pakistan's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Therefore, Pakistan is highly sensitive about Afghanistan's external relations. It is inconceivable that Pakistan would take in its stride any Indian activities in Afghanistan, which it perceives as threatening its security interests. (Sophistries apart, Delhi's calculated political decision to maintain consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif is a case in point.) A futile cycle of tit-for-tat will ensue whereby India and Pakistan would end up bleeding each other.

From the Indian perspective at least, our national priorities at the present crucial juncture of economic growth and development should be very obvious. We can do without mindless distractions and extravaganzas. We need a peaceful external environment. China's fascinating example of national priorities is in front of us -- almost mocking us.

The biggest danger is that in the present climate of euphoria over India's so-called strategic partnership with the US, Washington may egg us on to a 'proactive' role in Afghanistan. Indeed, this may be happening already to some extent.

India (and China) has been approached by the Bush administration to despatch troops to Afghanistan. Understandably, with the Afghan war posing such a profound dilemma to the US, Washington would be immensely pleased if India with its surplus manpower gears up for a bit of load-sharing in the War on Terror.

Nothing would be more foolhardy on India's part than to be drawn into the US stratagem. There cannot be any two opinions that when the chips are down, the US would know that Pakistan is a fundamentally more valuable ally in Afghanistan than India ever can aspire to be. Simply put, geography favours Pakistan, and geography delimits a direct Indian role in Afghanistan. We can only end up as a doormat for US regional policy.

However, there are disturbing signs that sections of the Indian strategic community, egged on by the armchair cheerleaders in our media, are raring to go for a bit of action in the great game. Indeed, the great game in the Hindu Kush is a heady, exhilarating game. But it is also a high-risk game. It can even end up tragically, which was what happened to imperial Britain and the Soviet Union � and quite probably will happen to the US.

Iran, India and the 'great game'

It is understandable if India were to retaliate against the Taliban for its hostile activities towards India. But that is not the case here. The case here is more of the powerful pro-American lobby in our security community hoping against hope that somehow or the other a justification could be found to give raison d'etre for India to get involved in the Afghan war. The easy route is to cast the Taliban as inimical to India's national security.

Part of the problem is also our lack of understanding about the phenomenon of political Islam and its manifestations in our neighbourhood. Carnegie scholar and author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, Fawaz A Gerges has tackled the intellectual challenge of disentangling myth from the reality of Islamism.

He came up with some facts to consider: Islamism is highly complex and diverse; the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates who form the overwhelming majority (over 90 percent) of religiously political groups embrace democratic principles and oppose violence; Mainstream Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation in Muslim societies, learning to make compromises and even rethink some of their absolute positions; Mainstream militants serve as a counterweight to ultra-militants like Al Qaeda; Islamists, like their secular counterparts, are deeply divided among themselves and the intensity of the fault lines are very real.

Interestingly, Gerges had this to say about the Taliban: 'There is nothing uniquely 'Islamic' about their internal governing style except the rhetoric and the symbolism. They have not offered up an original model of Islamic governance'. Thus, once in power in the late 1990s, Taliban did face a Herculean task of coping with political reality. If not for their cynical manipulation in the 1990s by outsiders -- the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- the Taliban would not have been driven to the welcoming arms of Al Qaeda.

Much of the currently perceived threat to regional stability from the Taliban is a dark illusion that has been exaggerated and distorted. But then we became trapped by a fear and adversarial perceptions crystallised already by the late 1990s. We promptly, unconditionally surrendered the right to question the myth about the Taliban. Indeed, Taliban functionaries kept conveying to us directly and through intermediaries that they didn't harbour ill-will toward India to provoke such vehement Indian support for the Northern Alliance.

Maybe we overreacted; maybe the searing pain of the blood-letting in J&K in the late 1980s and early 1990s percolated into our thinking; maybe the spectre of Islamic extremism genuinely haunted us; maybe Pakistan's hostile mode prompted us to retaliate; maybe the hijack of the Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar and the humiliation that followed was too much to accept; maybe the destruction of the Bamiyan statues prior to that was already an affront to our civilisation. Certainly, one thing led to another.

But 2001 was a cut-off point. We should have stopped in our tracks and reassessed. The Bonn Conference in the winter of 2001 was the occasion for an ancient country like ours to have pointed out to the world community that there could be no durable peace unless the vanquished and the defeated party were also brought into the settlement. Europeans would have understood. But our political leadership let us down. Instead, we revived belief in our role to battle evil.

On the other hand, if we had plodded through, the myth might have easily fallen away. And that might have offered a permanent solution to India's Taliban problem.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for three decades. His assignments included Islamabad and Kabul.


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