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'India has gained added leverage in Afghanistan'

December 24, 2010 17:12 IST

Haroon Siddiqui In a recent column in the Toronto Star, Haroon Siddiqui revealed that US President Barack Obama is trying to bring India into his Afghanistan calculus, and started the process 'in confidence' during his recent meeting with India's Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.

Siddiqui knows what's going on, because of his close contacts with senior diplomats in the US, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A native of Hyderabad, India, who migrated to Canada in 1967, he has covered most Indian prime ministers; written extensively about the emergence of modern India, and travelled with then US President Bill Clinton on his 2000 official visit to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

He has followed the Afghan file ever since covering the Soviet invasion and occupation from 1979 to 1988, and Canada's military engagement with NATO in Afghanistan since 2001.

In an interview with rediff.com's Ajit Jain in Toronto, the senior Canadian journalist noted that his main contention since 2006 has been that the American mission in Afghanistan has failed.

What's the basis of your claim that the US mission in Afghanistan has failed?

America's involvement in the Afghan war has already cost that country about $200 billion and it has produced a quagmire that, I would say, is worse than Vietnam. But unlike in Vietnam, America managed to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory in Afghanistan. Washington toppled the Taliban easily in 2001 but sadly they allowed the Taliban to come back and control vast swaths of Afghanistan.

In my recent column, I said: 'All big powers find it difficult to concede defeat. America, in particular, cannot bring itself to quit Afghanistan, especially having failed on most other fronts -- the economy, geopolitical influence, Iraq, etc.'

Obama, in particular, cannot retreat. Not after he called it 'the right war' during the 2008 presidential campaign. He did so to offset his opposition to 'the wrong war in Iraq'.

So it came to be that, as President, he had to order his own George W Bush-like military surge. But here we are a year later, and casualties -- both military and civilian -- are at their highest. The Taliban are in as much control, if not more. Corruption in Afghanistan is as rife as ever. Most civilian projects still cannot get off the ground because of lack of security. There's still no alternative to the poppy-opium economy. The parliamentary elections were as fraudulent as last year's presidential election, stolen by Hamid Karzai.

How are developments in Afghanistan impacting US domestic politics?

We have seen the recent mid-term elections that have thrown up the Tea Party, whose members and leadership think that the way out of America's post-9/11 fear is to continue spending hundreds of billions more on wars to kill some more 'ragheads'.

Obama's fate in Afghanistan is sealed. But still, he has to find a way out of it.

What about India's role in Afghanistan?

Let's put it in context. Last year, the Obama administration was deeply divided on the military surge in Afghanistan. It still is. But it's too late to change course. So its policy is now driven by two deadlines:

1. The promised withdrawal of troops, starting in July 2010. But with the situation in Afghanistan not stabilising at all, that promise has been steadily diluted to mean the start of the withdrawal of only some troops.

2. The absolute need to stabilise Afghanistan long before Obama faces re-election in 2012 and also pull out most NATO troops. India is opposed to the US and NATO withdrawal out of Afghanistan until the situation is truly stabilised. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that clearly during an interview with me in New Delhi, just prior to the G-20 summit in Toronto this summer.

What about Pakistan?

The Obama administration is convinced that it cannot achieve its goal within those two deadlines without the support of Pakistan.

It has been dealing directly with the Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, rather than with the weak and ineffective Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, while still paying lip service to democracy.

Kayani tells Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, and also General David Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, about Pakistan's fears of India -- from the south and also from the north because of India's growing diplomatic and development footprints in Afghanistan.

Set aside whether the fear is real or it's proffered as an excuse not to go after the Taliban and other proxies. The relevant point is that Obama is persuaded that he has to address Pakistan's concerns, in order to get Pakistan to especially go after the Haqqani militant network in North Waziristan. Jalaluddin Haqqani is a former Taliban cabinet minister in the 1990s who has found refuge in the Pakistani tribal belt and who is close to Pakistan's intelligence services.

But how are the US-India relations on Afghanistan?

On India, Obama is as keen as Bush was. In fact, he has a visceral feel for India, having long admired Mahatma Gandhi (and disliked Winston Churchill, whose bust the President had removed from the Oval Office).

But Obama had also said during the 2008 election campaign that the Kashmir issue must be addressed. That's why his appointment of Richard Holbrooke, who died a few days back, as special envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But India resisted successfully. It did not want an outside interlocutor in its bi-laterals with Pakistan. So Holbrook became responsible for only 'Af-Pak'.

But Holbrooke got more and more convinced that Afghanistan cannot be resolved without somehow bringing India into the equation.

Therefore, on this trip to India, Obama was walking on egg shells about this triangular Afghan-Pakistan-India axis, as he sees it.

If you say Obama has an interest in Pakistan, then how come during his official visit to India, he skipped Pakistan?

He deliberately avoided going to Pakistan, so as not to be seen as equating India and Pakistan. He was very solicitous of India and, especially, Prime Minister Singh, and meant every word of it.

He made sure to send the right signals that he was not seeing India through the prism of Afghanistan-Pakistan. He made it widely known that India was important to him and the United States in its own well-earned right.

He mentioned Kashmir only in answer to a question during his media briefing in New Delhi. In his answer, the US President was very careful to say the US cannot step in and find a solution, though both countries would obviously benefit by reducing tensions between them.

But in his private meeting with the Indian prime minister, I am told by well informed sources, that Obama did raise the need to normalise India-Pakistan relations, as much as possible. Dr Singh himself has stated openly that he wants to normalise relations with Pakistan, provided Islamabad would control cross-border terrorism.

Any connection between Kashmir and Afghanistan?

Of course. Obama's mission was to break that logjam between India and Pakistan in order for him to find an honourable way out of Afghanistan. As part of that effort, the US officials tried to address India's concerns about the future, by emphasising that they had no intention of abandoning Afghanistan, as it had in the 1990s and lived to rue it.

The way Obama has framed the issues in the region, India has clearly gained added leverage. How it will use it remains to be seen.

But I am told that American officials who travelled with Obama to India have come back convinced that the President did manage to dance well on the head of a pin.

Image: Haroon Siddiqui

Ajit Jain in Toronto