Feb 8, 2010

It’s clear from the Istanbul and London conferences on Afghanistan that India stands marginalised. All the major players in the Afghan drama are now keen to do a deal with the Taliban, cut their losses, and scuttle and run. India’s plea against making a distinction between “the good Taliban” and “the bad Taliban” found few takers. The United States and Britain want to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by 2011-2012. Their generals are convinced that the war is unwinnable and it’s better to leave that country to its own devices.

President Hamid Karzai stands considerably weakened after his controversial election victory. Politically, he’s increasingly isolated and had to drop his Cabinet nominees because they were vetoed by the legislature. He is upset with the Americans for turning against him. He too wants a deal with the Taliban. Pakistan is keen to play the broker between the West and the Taliban. It stands to gain influence especially if the Taliban play hard to get.

All these are short-term, myopic calculations, based on knee-jerk responses and zero-sum notions of rivalry, and lacking in long-term strategic vision. The Anglo-American goal is to spend their way out of a hopeless war by funding defections from the Taliban. This would help integrate the Taliban rank and file within six months and begin reconciliation. In the second phase, lasting a year, Taliban field commanders and shadow governors would be integrated into the civilian fold and perhaps the cabinet. This would lead to power-sharing with the Afghan Taliban leadership in the Shura (High Council) in Quetta—in Pakistan’s Balochistan—and full reconciliation between different factions in the country’s fractured and tortured politics.

The crucial initial assumption here is that large numbers of Taliban would defect and join the Afghan National Army despite its low pay and morale. But significant defection is unlikely given that the Taliban are winning battles and confidently advancing in Afghanistan.

Even reconciliation between organised groups would exclude recalcitrant elements like Mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and scores of warlords who can make trouble and undermine the civilian regime and quickly return Afghanistan to chaos. But the US and Britain aren’t thinking beyond a couple of years. They probably don’t care that they might leave Afghanistan in a state at least as bad as when they invaded it.

India could have helped secure a better future for Afghanistan by giving some sober advice to the US-led coalition had it adopted a firmly independent stance right from 2001 instead of tailing Washington in the hope that its “Global War on Terror” would contain a major extremist menace. A non-military strategy would have meant treating al-Qaida and its Taliban allies as criminals under legal instruments like the International Criminal Court. This would have undermined their domestic base and strengthened the forces of political reform and democratisation.

The US-led coalition chose the military shortcut and failed to provide adequate relief and assistance to rebuild people’s war-ravaged lives and the infrastructure, promote development and create institutions of governance. Instead, it propped up Mr Karzai and various warlords. They had neither the will nor the ability needed for reconstruction. When misgovernance and corruption under Mr Karzai became embarrassing, the coalition dumped him. But it didn’t rectify its original mistake in ignoring the people’s basic needs.

India has run Afghanistan’s best civilian assistance programme and earned tremendous goodwill. The programme is based on understanding a desperately poor and backward country—including bad roads for which Indian-made trucks are well-suited—and delivering aid with as few middlemen and sub-contractors as possible (unlike Western aid, which goes through layers of sub-contractors, only a fraction trickles down). India has also built hospitals, schools and roads, including the Zaranj-Delaram highway to the Iran border which enables access to the sea. No less important, India is training Afghan civil servants, diplomats, legislators, judges and policemen.

However, India has failed to translate goodwill into influence because of its “all-Taliban-are-terrorists” stand and its insistence that the US stay on in Afghanistan and press Pakistan to act sternly against the perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and destroy the jehadi terrorist infrastructure.

This may sound like a good wish list but isn’t sound policy based on realistic assumptions about Pakistan, the US or the Taliban. The US has no real Afghanistan strategy beyond “surge and scuttle”. It needs Pakistan as an ally for geopolitical reasons and has only limited leverage over it. Washington cannot really discipline Islamabad.

India’s insistence against “good-Taliban–bad-Taliban” differentiation is at odds with its own experience with insurgent and secessionist groups, marked by grades of extremism. There’s also an overlap between the Pashtun and Taliban identities. Many Pashtuns, who feel that their tribe isn’t adequately represented under Mr Karzai, are sympathetic to the Taliban although they don’t support mindless violence or bans against music.

Since the early 1980s, India has got excessively identified with the Northern Alliance, composed of Tajik, Uzbek and other non-Pashtuns, and backed by Iran and Russia. The Northern Alliance’s ground attacks and the US coalition’s air power were key to the fall of the Taliban in 2002. The Alliance is seen by many Pashtuns as a collaborator in the 2001 invasion. India must rebuild bridges with the Pashtuns which were historically strong, as the Badshah Khan-Gandhi relationship testifies.

India must support a regional approach to Afghanistan. Pakistan is critical to this. Pakistan has a legitimate interest in Afghanistan’s stability and in the representation and welfare of the Pashtuns. There are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. India too has a stake in the containment of extremism in Afghanistan, with which it has had centuries-old ties—right since the Gandhara civilisation to the present, based on culture, trade, language, music and food.

Logically, and not unrealistically, India and Pakistan should acknowledge their respective and joint stakes in stabilising Afghanistan and in its development. This could be best done if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convenes a regional summit in New Delhi with Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai to discuss outstanding issues, including peace-building, trade and transit, political cooperation, concerted action against jehadi extremism, more people-to-people exchanges, and economic cooperation.

The summit would help allay Pakistani fears—not all illegitimate—that India might corner Pakistan through covert operations from its numerous consulates in Afghanistan, i.e. from “behind the lines”.

However, there’s a precondition for such a worthy initiative. The India-Pakistan dialogue must be resumed quickly. India’s refusal to engage Pakistan after November 2008 now looks a long, unproductive sulk, not mature diplomacy which encourages Pakistan to punish the culprits, and act strongly against jehadis. India has gained nothing by refusing to discuss with Pakistan issues of urgent relevance to both states and peoples. India has only hurt itself by behaving in a fashion that strengthens Pakistan’s hawks, who would like to prolong and exacerbate hostility.

India and Pakistan have drastically reduced the number of visas issued to each other’s citizens. The number of cross-border visitors has fallen by 80 percent-plus. The sufferers are ordinary people in divided families, and civil society groups which stand for peace, firm action against jehadi extremism, and cultural exchanges to promote better mutual understanding. The latest casualties are Pakistani publishers and booksellers, many of whom were denied visas for the World Book Fair in Delhi.

The India Premier League’s decision to boycott Pakistani cricketers is a total disgrace to the sport and to public decency. New Delhi wasn’t responsible for this perverse decision. But it didn’t help when the Ministry of External Affairs superciliously told Pakistan to “introspect the reasons which have put a strain on relations between India and Pakistan and adversely impacted on peace, stability and prosperity in the region”.

Such statements can only strengthen anti-India sentiments in Pakistan and fuel further hostility. The less engagement there is between India and Pakistan, the less can New Delhi defend its interests. The wider the two countries diverge, the more mutually hostile do they become.

The time to correct course by resuming dialogue is now. India must seize the opportunity at the forthcoming SAARC Home Ministers’ meeting. Why, India should take the initiative by proposing a Foreign Minister-level dialogue. There’s simply no reason why the Siachen and Sir Creek issues cannot be quickly settled. India’s best bet to get Islamabad to act against terrorism lies in resuming dialogue with action on the ground to assure Pakistan that India doesn’t want to overwhelm, corner or marginalise Pakistan.

Last July, at Sharm-al-Shaikh, Dr Singh made a tentative offer to resume dialogue. But he instantly retreated when criticised over a reference to Balochistan in the joint statement with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. He must pick up the thread and entrust the dialogue resumption to the new National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon.