New Delhi made a leap of faith with regard to the controversial issue of reconciliation with the Taliban. Implicit in this is the awareness that Pakistan enjoys a close relationship with the Taliban.
The year was 1992. Chaotic days in April, as one Sunday morning Benon Sevan, United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy, came to the High Commission in Islamabad straight from a conference with the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, seeking political asylum for Afghan President Najibullah in India as part of a deal for the orderly transition of power in Kabul to the mujahideen who had surrounded the Afghan capital. I spoke to the then Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit, on open line in Malayalam and sought instructions, which came within the hour: Narasimha Rao ordered that Najib would be our state guest. Najib never made it to Delhi and my subsequent meetings with him used to be in the U.N. compound in Kabul where he was interned till his murder in 1996.
The communist government of Najibullah was overthrown by the mujahideen. A government under Burhanuddin Rabbani got installed in Kabul by June in terms of the Islamabad accord mediated by Mr. Sharif. Mr. Sharif took the mujahideen leaders to Saudi Arabia to pray before they were sent across to Kabul to govern. Pakistani influence on the Kabul government was deemed paramount. Our Mission in Kabul was vandalised and we wound up diplomatic presence. Hardly a few weeks passed; sometime in late August, soon after I was reassigned to South Block, we received a curious “feeler” from Mr. Rabbani's government. Would New Delhi allow a refuelling halt for the presidential aircraft proceeding to Jakarta, ferrying the Afghan delegation to the Non-Aligned summit, on September 1? We figured out that the mujahideen leadership was looking for an alibi to establish contact. Indeed, we warmly hosted Mr. Rabbani and a planeload of mujahideen commanders, including some frightening names vowed to eternal enmity toward India. Thus began a new chapter in the chronicle of India's relations with Afghanistan.
In fleshing out the new thinking fraught with dangers, Rao put down thoughtful markers so that South Block could choreograph a durable policy architecture. One, we should deal with all mujahideen groups without fear or favour and contact should be established with anyone and everyone willing to meet us despite the militancy of their Islamism. Two, we would deal with whosoever was in power in Kabul and focus would be on cultivating a friendly government that was sensitive to India's vital interests and core concerns. Three, dealings would be strictly with the government in Kabul, no matter its proximity with Pakistan or its security agencies. Four, we would neither arm any Afghan group nor ostracise any — not even the Wahhabi group of Ittehad headed by Rasul Sayyaf to which Jalaluddin Haqqani owed allegiance at that time. Five, we would focus on people-to-people relationship, tap into the reservoir of goodwill toward India and meaningfully contribute to Afghanistan's economic welfare within our capabilities and resources (which were limited at that time).
This policy continued till the Taliban captured power in 1996. In essence, what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh achieved during his visit to Kabul last week was to reset India's Afghan policy to its pristine moorings. Dr. Singh did this with great diplomatic aplomb and intellectual sophistication and it has come not a day too soon. There is always the possibility that he has again outstripped the opinion-makers in our country. Some uncharitable criticism can already be heard. Therefore, we need to ponder over what Dr. Singh achieved.
Most important, Delhi has made a leap of faith with regard to the controversial issue of reconciliation with the Taliban. In essence, Delhi feels that if reconciliation is the collective Afghan wish, India would go along with it. India would, however, wish that the peace process is “Afghan-led.” Dr. Singh declared support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation programme. This, in my view, is an eminently realistic position. It brings the Indian stance in line with the mainstream Afghan thinking. In any case, it was an aberration that a civilisation like India with such insight into the shades of political Islam had a mental bloc about the Taliban. No country today questions the wisdom of reconciling with the Taliban.
Implicit in this “leap of faith” is the awareness that Pakistan enjoys a close relationship with the Taliban. This brings us to a template that is going to be very crucial. The government has done extraordinarily well in doing all that is possible to dispel the cloud of suspicion in the Pakistani mind about India's intentions in Afghanistan — that our two countries needn't be locked in a zero-sum game. Our hope is that there could be a new calmness in the Pakistani eye as it scans the horizon and surveys India's activities. This approach must be counted as singularly imaginative on the part of the Indian policymaker. It is audacious, since there is no illusion that Pakistani policies in Afghanistan may still move on the same hackneyed, extravagantly wasteful and futile track of the past quarter century and more.
Of course, Pakistan would have lingering suspicions; and India's security worries, too, are profound. And it is going to be a long way down the line before India and Pakistan can actually think of cooperating in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. But the incremental removal of the “Afghan contradiction” from the cauldron of India-Pakistan differences itself would have a positive impact on the climate in which India-Pakistan dialogue is currently proceeding. Second, it will make a little bit lighter the burden of working out an enduring Afghan settlement.
Neither Dr. Singh nor Mr. Karzai showed the least bit of interest in rhetoric or grandstanding vis-à-vis Pakistan. Delhi knows Mr. Karzai can't do without Pakistan to steer the peace process forward but that doesn't discourage it from cooperating with him. On his part, Mr. Karzai underscores the willingness to be mindful of India's legitimate interests and concerns. It has been agreed that the key policymakers at the level of national security advisors will work together. Both Dr. Singh and Mr. Karzai seem to hope that in the downstream of the killing of Osama bin Laden, there could be a new awareness among regional powers, especially Pakistan, about the dangerous ramifications of terrorism. Dr. Singh called for a thorough probe into bin Laden's scandalous stay in the cantonment town of Abbottabad, but he also drew a distinction between India's approach to tackling terrorism and America's methods. This must be counted as one of his most significant remarks made from Afghan soil. Its resonance for regional security cannot be overlooked.
Dr. Singh conclusively buried the notions regarding Indian military involvement in Afghanistan. This may trigger despondency among our chest-thumping hard line pundits but Afghanistan is a classic situation where fools rush in, while angels fear to tread. Below the threshold of military involvement, India can help stabilise the Afghan situation. The primary benchmark ought to be the needs and demands of the Kabul government for “capacity-building.” India's offer to provide training for Afghan police officers is a big initiative, as in a post-settlement scenario, the police force is going to play an even more important role in enhancing security than the standing army.
Dr. Singh's decision to have an overnight stay in Kabul was imbued with the political symbolism that India has the grit to follow-up on its commitments. It would have gone down well in the local perceptions of India as a benign neighbour and steadfast ally who cares deeply for the sufferings of the Afghan people. Equally, his address to the Afghan parliament was a reiteration of the bonds with the Afghan nation that transcend the ebb and flow of current history and politics. The announcement of a $500-million aid package is a timely gesture to reiterate India's abiding interest in the stability and progress of that country on the path of development.
The only missing link in Dr. Singh's visit is that Delhi hasn't spoken a word about Afghanistan's “neutrality.” The big question remains unanswered: is Delhi for or against a long-term western troop presence in Afghanistan? This question will loom large in the coming months. The consensus opinion in the region is against foreign military presence. But the United States is working toward winding down the tempo of the war so that a troop drawdown is possible, while envisaging a long-term military presence. The pattern is the same as in Iraq where Washington is making desperate efforts to extract from the Baghdad government a framework agreement that allows U.S. troops to somehow remain in Mesopotamia beyond end-2011. Mr. Karzai is also coming under U.S. pressure. In the Hindu Kush, woven into this question is the U.S.'s regional policies toward China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia — what passes under the rubric of the “new great game.” It will be extremely unwise for India to be impervious to the tide of regional consensus. Let the native genius of the region guide the moving finger of history.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)