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Khurshid outlines new thinking on Afghan problem

By M K Bhadrakumar
July 05, 2013 14:31 IST
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India has fleshed out its approach toward the peace talks with the Taliban taking into account the inputs from John Kerry’s visit as well as the consultations in Delhi the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins, says M K Bhadrakumar.

India has unobtrusively unveiled a new thinking toward the developing Afghan situation. It came embedded within an innocuous “intervention” by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid at the 20th Asian Regional Forum meeting in Brunei Darussalam on Tuesday. Hardly anyone back home in India took serious note of it. 

Khurshid chose the ARF forum as the first available peg to hang the Indian thought processes following what appears to have been detailed discussions regarding the Afghan peace talks on the anvil at Doha with the United States during the visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Delhi last week.

Evidently, India has fleshed out its approach toward the peace talks with the Taliban taking into account the inputs from Kerry’s visit as well as the consultations in Delhi that followed immediately thereafter with the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins who was on a regional tour.

The fundamentals of the Indian approach toward the Afghan problem so far have been three vectors. First, the security situation in Afghanistan remains extremely worrisome and, therefore, in the haste toward peacemaking on the part of the international community, there should be no let-up in the struggle against terrorism.

Second, the international community should remain engaged in Afghanistan for the long-term both in terms of rendering development assistance as well as for beefing up security.

Third, India will be supportive of a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban that is “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” but with the important caveat that those engaging in talks should be willing to accept internationally accepted “red lines” -- namely, Taliban should severe links with the al Qaeda and bidding farewell to arms agree to respect the Afghan constitution and also jettison its abominable human rights record.

The “red lines”, by the way, were not an Indian mantra but a benchmark determined by the US to define “good” Taliban, which Delhi accepted in good faith. 

Khurshid’s statement in Brunei is notable for the nuances that have crept into the above approach following the recent US moves to directly engage the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

Clearly, the statement underscores that the high probability of the US establishing permanent military bases in Afghanistan does not bother India and, on the contrary, Delhi would presumably accept it as a necessary underpinning for the US’ continued engagement in Afghanistan.

Delhi does not seem to visualise that no matter the US’ geopolitical objectives in keeping a permanent military presence running into tens of thousands of its as well as NATO’s troops, Indian interests are going to be threatened. 

Arguably, Delhi would even see tactical advantages on the geopolitical plane if the US and the western alliance remained present in the region in the long-term.

The Indian focus is on stabilising the situation so that Afghanistan becomes a “stable, democratic and pluralistic state” and the notable omission in Khurshid’s formulation is the word “neutral” (which would have implied the vacation of foreign occupation.)

India’s stance is different from Russia or Iran’s, both of whom have found the idea of a permanent US military presence in the region unwarranted and undesirable. Pakistan, of course, keeps a strategic ambiguity pending a US-Taliban deal.

A second salient in the Khurshid’s new approach is that Delhi has embraced the idea of reconciling the Taliban without “ifs” and “buts”. All Taliban have become “good” enough to be reconciled.

At any rate, the so-called “red lines” have become blurred, because the US now maintains that the “red lines” cannot be regarded as a necessary precondition for the commencement of the talks at Doha but would, hopefully, emerge as the outcome of the talks -- that is, if the talks prove successful. Dobbins brilliantly quibbled while in Delhi last week that, after all, you don’t talk peace when the war is over, rather, you talk because of the war going on.

Again, the operative word in Khurshid’s statement is “all armed opposition groups” -- not militants or extremists or insurgents. The connotation is a serious one.

All Afghan militant groups have also been bracketed together.

This is nothing short of a paradigm shift, necessitated by the realistic appraisal that there is widespread support today for the idea of reconciling the Taliban in the world community and within the Afghan nation itself. (British Prime Minister David Cameron even says that the reconciliation of the Taliban should have been addressed a decade ago.)  

Indeed, this is the most refreshing part of the new thinking in Delhi -- throwing overboard the notions that the Taliban represent the forces of darkness and that the Taliban are entirely a Pakistani proxy. 

Obviously, this new thinking acknowledged that the Taliban have indigenous roots and are quintessentially an Afghan group. Which, in turn, implies Delhi’s recognition at long last that what is going on in Afghanistan is a civil war or a fratricidal strife -- depending on how the outsider chooses to view it.

Interestingly, there is not a word in Khurshid’s statement differentiating the Haqqani Network, either. Until recently, the Haqqanis used to touch a raw nerve in Delhi, especially among the Indian security experts, having been implicated, in the Indian assessment, in the two murderous attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Suffice to say, Delhi has quietly, pragmatically harmonised its visceral hatred of the Haqqanis with the US’s tactical decision to let pass their inclusion in the Doha talks, which has been something the Pakistani military has been relentlessly pressing for.

Khurshid has underscored that the reconciliation process must not “undermine” the legitimacy of the Afghan state and government. Prima facie, this is a principled stance but it is a nuanced stance, nonetheless, as it carefully avoids identifying with the present leadership of Hamid Karzai.

Washington has been finding Karzai a difficult customer and even tried to prevent him from getting re-elected in 2009. Finally, Kerry had acted as the intermediary to work out an understanding whereby Karzai was allowed to get re-elected as president and agreeing in turn that he would definitely relinquish power in 2014.

The Obama administration has since then been striving to isolate Karzai and purge him of any residual ambition to remain in power beyond the current term ending in April either as president or as the kingmaker pulling the strings from behind the stage during the complex political transition looming ahead.

Karzai keeps Washington guessing as to what his intentions are whilst insisting that he is looking forward to retiring from his tumultuous political career.  

Delhi, on the other hand, identified itself closely all along through the past decade with Karzai, who has never hidden his warm feelings toward India as his second home. Surprisingly, however, Khurshid omitted making any references to Karzai and chose to differentiate the “Afghan state and government.”

This becomes intriguing because both Kerry and Dobbins urged Delhi to train eyes on the Afghan presidential election due next April and the political transition, that is, to look at life without Karzai.

While Kerry suggested that India should render “technical assistance” in the holding of the election, Dobbins went a step further and hinted he confabulated with Indian officials on what credentials Karzai’s successor ought to have.

Equally, while underscoring India’s future role in Afghanistan, Khurshid stressed the areas of “reconstruction and rehabilitation” of Afghanistan but kept silent on security cooperation. Of course, this is also the sort of restricted Indian role that Washington expects Delhi to play in post-2014 Afghanistan.

On the whole, what emerges is that Kerry and Dobbins have succeeded in their mission to get Delhi on board the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy.

It could be argued that Delhi has made a virtue out of necessity by adopting the new thinking that would ensure that no serious contradictions arise vis-à-vis the American approach during the uncertain period ahead, while remaining deeply skeptical of the prospects of success of the American project in Doha.

The point is, Delhi needs to be modest about its self-appreciation of the Indian capacity to influence the current peace process, especially at a time when the US recognizes Pakistan as the “core player.”

Both Kerry and Dobbins suggested that an improvement in India-Pakistan relations would help the stabilisation of the Afghan situation. But it is doubtful if Delhi sees things quite in that simplistic way.

Khurshid, in fact, made a pointed reference to the “need for joint and concerted efforts to dismantle terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens, particularly beyond Afghan borders.”

It doesn’t need much ingenuity to discern what precisely he had in mind. Khurshid said this, notwithstanding the latest estimation by top US officials that Washington discerns a “genuine shift” in Pakistan’s hitherto-ambivalent stance toward the peace talks.

M K Bhadrakunar writer is a former ambassador.

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