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India needs to relook its Afghan policy

January 30, 2010 11:14 IST

Comments by External Affairs Minister SM Krishna on the eve of the London conference on Afghanistan, that there is little difference between the "good" and the "bad" Taliban, are a manifestation of the schizophrenic disconnect within the Indian establishment over its policy on Afghanistan—and its neighbour, Pakistan.

Committing $ 1.2 bn in aid to Afghanistan, which makes India the sixth-largest donor in the world, has created an unprecedented space for manoeuvre in the Hindukush heartland. With projects in every district in Afghanistan, from electricity transmission lines to training women in the SEWA way, India's benign presence has been vindicated by a recent study commissioned by the BBC, ABC and ARD — the British, American and German broadcasters, respectively — which found that 71 per cent of the Afghan population was in favour of India playing a big role. And yet, SM Krishna threw it all away in London.

The West, burnt by the recession and the sight of coffins repeatedly coming home, was determined to announce a reconciliation package for the "moderate" Taliban. As much as $500 million has been allocated for a "reintegration fund", along with promises that Afghans will take charge of their own security over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pursued reconciliation with Taliban "moderates" like former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil—even persuading Saudi King Abdullah to broker such a peace over Ramzan festivities in 2008—spoke about "disenchanted brothers" returning home.

So, just when India should have soundlessly changed gear, accelerated its profile and announced it believed that there was no alternative to talks, negotiations and persuasion, Krishna fell back into the warmth of his own, risk-averse rhetoric trap. The tragedy is that even as Krishna spoke for the country in London, a change in India's mindset — attitude, policy, strategy, call it what you will—is already under way in Delhi. The establishment core in another part of South Block is preparing to "evolve" its own black-and-white positions on the Taliban and present a more "nuanced" approach to the global community.

The argument behind this significantly sophisticated approach is that India must return to playing a much bigger role in the ever-changing great game in the innards of Asia. Of course, oil and gas and all those crucial transit routes into central Asia over which Afghanistan sits, like a veritable Nandi bull, are terribly important.

But more than all these prosaic pipelines, it is the dramatic pull of those snow-clad ranges that have accommodated scores of foreign powers from Alexander onwards, that draws India into playing just once more on the Afghan high table. Here, the almighty Americans or Russians have been both bloodied and bested; Iran employs old Persian gambits like the smile behind the veil; Pakistan can barely contain its glee over the fact that Nato troops are desperate to leave; while China, with mandarin-like patience, watches the board quietly and in a side move, buys up the biggest copper deposits in that part of the world.

Actually, this strategy is not new. It dates back to the first year of National Security Adviser Shiv Shanker Menon as foreign secretary in 2006-07, when the first ideas of distinguishing between the "good" and "bad" Taliban were floated around the corridors of South Block. Menon had just returned from Pakistan as high commissioner, all hell was breaking loose in the Af-Pak region, and that's when ideas beyond the realm of common thought and speech began to be articulated.

In fact, the evolution of India's strategy on Afghanistan—which Krishna either missed in London or didn't want to talk about—is really its first big strategic move on the international stage, in the wake of the Indo-US nuclear deal, and it's all about announcing that India is now part of the solution in Afghanistan.

Of course, all the western powers in London didn't want to discuss the parameters of such a "regional solution" in public glare, even though Gordon Brown had mooted the idea and US leaders like Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke had confirmed it. All of them had told Delhi that they wanted India to play a bigger role, including training Afghan security forces.

Here is the western argument favouring India: Pakistan is playing fast and loose with the Afghan Taliban, Iran can't be trusted, China is too much of a competitor to also be allowed to win in Afghanistan, while Russia ... well, Russia is already a big power. That leaves India, a benign presence with both civilian and security capabilities, to upgrade its presence, so that the US and NATO forces can go home peacefully.

Except, the Pakistani veto hangs over the West. The Pakistani army and the ISI, which is playing such a crucial role in battling the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat and Malakand valleys and now in South Waziristan, have told the Americans that they would not tolerate an enhanced Indian influence in Pashtun areas like Kandahar and Jalalabad and in the rest of the country.

This is what explains Pakistan's oft-repeated statement that only Afghanistan's "contiguous neighbours" can be allowed to participate in any "regional" mechanism or structure that may be set up to help the Afghans take charge of their own future. (India, to counter this, has now begun saying that it is a neighbour as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir hugs the Wakhan corridor.) That is why Turkey, under Pakistani pressure, did not invite India to participate in its day-long conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul on Monday (on the eve of the London conference). That is why several influential Pakistani analysts link a resolution of the Kashmir dispute with promises to the US that they will upgrade the fight against the Afghan Taliban.

That is why the Pakistanis won't grant trade and transport access to Afghan trucks that want to cross Pakistani territory to come right up to India. And that is also why the Pakistan army and the ISI have decided, according to Pakistani newspapers like the Lahore-based Daily Times, that only they will make decisions over Afghanistan-related policies.

In the face of this determined Pakistani resistance, western leaders are now asking India to help. How can India help itself by enhancing its own profile in inner Asia as well as help the US and NATO forces? First of all, India could moderate its hardline positions on the Taliban, and secondly, it can start a dialogue with Pakistan so as to try and assuage Islamabad's fears.

The second is easier said than done, but the first is much easier to implement. Especially, since Karzai himself has been pursuing this skein of thought for some time, and in London, the rest of the world followed suit. India, on the other hand, was the only major power which dissented.Perhaps the time has come for SM Krishna to talk to his own establishment on the direction of India's strategy on Afghanistan—and Pakistan.

Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi