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The shoddy way India looks at Afghanistan

September 03, 2013 11:11 IST

The shoddy way India looks at Afghanistan

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New Delhi has consigned to itself the role of the underdog, says Ajai Shukla

The self-congratulatory euphoria that surrounded India’s aid-driven Afghanistan policy for years after the Taliban’s eviction from Kabul in 2001 was as misplaced as the gloomy defeatism that is the current flavour. 

The Taliban’s resurgence and Pakistan’s growing role in brokering talks between the insurgents and President Hamid Karzai’s government have sent New Delhi into an undisguised sulk.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, at a closed-door seminar in New Delhi on August 23, repeatedly lamented that Kabul was talking to the Taliban.

“Certain elements in the [reconciliation] process are not very comforting to us,” said Khurshid. “We are not sanguine about some of the armed groups that Afghanistan is talking to, but that is for Afghanistan to decide.”

Surely Khurshid was not suggesting that President Karzai should confine his dialogue to groups other than the Taliban; the Irish Republican Army, for example?

Nor did he differentiate between Taliban factions (though he should have) by indicating that reconciliation with Mullah Omar would be acceptable to New Delhi, while engaging the Haqqani network would not. 


Photographs: Courtesy US Army

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All that Khurshid conveyed was that New Delhi was sore at being left out while Kabul played ball with Islamabad.

This suggests that India has no Plan B in Afghanistan.

The Indian public narrative is already evincing tinges of paranoia, with wild talk of jihadi hordes flooding into Kashmir from Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation thins out, leaving them without an enemy.

The unspoken (and unspeakable!) part of this postulation is that an Afghanistan in turmoil keeps Kashmir safe.

Never mind that, in a quarter-century of militancy in Kashmir, the Indian Army has not encountered Afghan fighters in significant numbers. Our breast-beating xenophobes never let history, logic or fact come in the way of a nice doomsday scenario.

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Photographs: Courtesy US Army
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In fact neither Pakistan’s (probably temporary) new role nor the Nato thin-out, nor any power struggle in post-2014 Afghanistan, is likely to seriously diminish India’s enviable position within that country -- that of a benign friend.

With an overwhelming majority of Afghans, including Pashtuns, viewing India thus, the Quetta Shura will struggle to justify enmity with India.

Not realising this truth has been New Delhi’s biggest policy failure in post-2001 Afghanistan, one that has locked it into needless confrontation with the Taliban. In the simplistic mindsets of under-travelled analysts; over-protected and over-restrained diplomats; an over-cautious intelligence community; and a jingoistic media that reduces complex realities to a disingenuous binary, the Taliban has been painted as a monolithic clone of Pakistan.

There is little understanding that, while the Inter-Services Intelligence-controlled Haqqani network will do as Rawalpindi orders, Mullah Omar is a far more stubborn, independent leader who resents ISI bullying. Reams of public material, including accounts by top Taliban officials, eloquently describe the widening rift in the Pakistan-Taliban alliance of opportunity.

But Indian leaders, diplomats, spooks and soldiers have failed to constructively engage the Taliban, talk to its leaders, gauge its perspectives and look for common ground. Instead of regarding the Taliban as a potentially game-changing opportunity, New Delhi has confined it to an ideological framework that is loaded heavily against us. 

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Photographs: Courtesy US Army

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In how it has imagined the Taliban, New Delhi has consigned to itself the role of the underdog.

Pakistan, knowing how much it is detested across Afghanistan, is engaging Afghans across the board. Nawaz Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, has reached out to non-Taliban groups, emphasising that Pakistan would negotiate a settlement even-handedly.

But India -- which enjoys far greater currency with Pashtuns than Pakistan does with Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazaras -- seems oblivious to the fact that any Afghan settlement must include the Taliban.

Has New Delhi not studied the Taliban before turning its face away?

The astonishing truth is that India has never engaged the Taliban.

Plenty of information about the Taliban flows in from the embassy in Kabul, all of it second-hand. With India closely aligned with the Northern Alliance and the Karzai regime, those are its sources.

The National Directorate of Security, Kabul’s primary intelligence agency, produces copious information, but that is tailored to the expectations of an intensely anti-Taliban government.

So where is the unbiased information, obtained from the ground in Afghanistan? Our diplomats there -- amongst the most threatened people in that country -- can hardly be out and about, reading the Afghan street. 

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Photographs: Courtesy US Army

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Street-level intelligence operatives from the Research and Analysis Wing must gather those inputs. But the heavily bureaucratised RAW has almost no covert operatives in Afghanistan. And functioning from an embassy under diplomatic cover makes an agent into just another babu.

Another crucial input for Indian assessments is the state of the Afghan National Security Forces.

But, despite our privileged position as trainers of Afghan National Army officers, India has only second-hand insight into its capabilities.

Until New Delhi starts getting operational insights from people who go into battle with Afghan units, this will remain an (military) intelligence failure.

New Delhi’s reluctance to engage the Taliban is similar to the “okay, talks are off” style of diplomacy that it follows with Pakistan.

India has responded to Pakistani outrages by breaking off talks -- and then meekly restarting after realising (yet again) that creating a vacuum is hardly a punishment. No doubt the Taliban and India have hurt each other.

The Taliban played a dubious role in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar in 1999. New Delhi, on its part, has sided with the communists, the Soviets and the Northern Alliance at various points in Afghanistan’s history over the last four decades.

But today there is enormous advantage to both sides in a dialogue. New Delhi must set the ball rolling.

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Photographs: Courtesy US Army

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