While there is no evidence that Barack Obama consulted New Delhi about the impending shift in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, India must now begin a ‘dialogue' with the Taliban along with a policy to instil confidence in the Pakistani mind about our intentions.
The United States President, Barack Obama's announcement regarding the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan was not India-specific, as compared to Washington's initiative in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to bar the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technology to New Delhi. But it is more lethal, casting a shadow on India's regional strategies.
Why Mr. Obama took such a decision doesn't actually need much explaining. Put simply, his sharp political instincts prevailed. He had a pledge to redeem; he sensed the public mood; he heard “bipartisan” opinion in Capitol Hill that the soldiers be brought home; he faces an adverse budgetary environment and he understood that his priority should be to mend the U.S. economy rather than wage wars in foreign lands. The “surge” may have made gains, arguably, but gains are reversible; so, what is the point? Meanwhile, Afghan opinion is turning against foreign occupation and the killing of Osama bin Laden offers a defining moment.
On the diplomatic front, regional allies proved exasperatingly difficult, while European allies got impatient to quit. The regional opinion militates against a long-term U.S. military presence, while the contradictions in intra-regional relationships do not lend easily to reconciliation. The foreign policy priorities need vastly more attention: exports and investment, upheaval in West Asia, China's rise, etc.
There is no evidence that Mr. Obama consulted New Delhi about the impending shift in the U.S. strategy in India's immediate neighbourhood. We need to calmly ponder over what the U.S. means when Mr. Obama calls India its “indispensable partner in the 21st century.” In the period ahead, keeping the dialogue process with Pakistan on course; pursuing normalisation of ties with China; consolidating the gains of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's path-breaking visit to Kabul — all these templates of our regional policy assume great importance. Indeed, the raison d'être of a “new thinking” in policymaking cannot but be stressed.
The implications of Mr. Obama's drawdown decision are far-reaching. The U.S. has accepted the Taliban as being a part of the Afghan nation and concluded that it does not threaten America's “homeland security.” No segment of the Taliban movement that is willing for reconciliation will be excluded. Mr. Obama expressed optimism about the peace process. He estimated that al-Qaeda is a spent force and any residual “war on terror” will be by way of exercising vigilance that it doesn't rear its head again. The timeline for the drawdown — 10,000 troops by end-2011, 33,000 by mid-2012 and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 troops at a “steady pace” through 2013-14 — plus the change of command necessitated by David Petraeus's departure in September as the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hardly leaves scope for keeping a high tempo of security operations. Obviously, the Taliban has borne the brunt of the U.S. firepower and has survived.
The stunning geopolitical reality is that the U.S. is barely staving off defeat and is making its way out of the Hindu Kush in an orderly retreat. The Taliban responded to Mr. Obama's announcement saying, “The solution for the Afghan crisis lies in the full withdrawal of all foreign troops immediately. Until this happens, our armed struggle will increase from day to day.” Again, Mr. Obama appears to be optimistic about the Kabul government's ability to assume the responsibility of security by 2014.
Mr. Obama completely avoided mentioning an almost-forgotten pledge that the former U.S. President George W. Bush made in the halcyon days of the war, that the U.S. would someday consider a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. He, instead, pleaded that this is “a time of rising debt and hard economic times at home” and he needs to concentrate on rebuilding America. The Afghans fear that western aid and projects would dry up. If that happens, Afghanistan will revert to the late 1990s when the Taliban regime first accepted the financial help offered by bin Laden. All hope now hinges on the international conference that Mr. Obama will be hosting in May next year in Chicago.
However, there is no need to press the panic button. A repetition of the civil war scenario of the 1990s appears a remote possibility. The Taliban's ascendancy in the 1990s was more an outright Pakistani conquest of Afghanistan in which the Pakistani air force, artillery, armoured corps, regular officers and intelligence agencies directly participated. The Taliban was a cohesive movement. Besides, there were regional powers determined to provide assistance to the non-Pashtun groups. In all these respects, the situation is radically different today. Pakistan hadn't yet known at that time the blowback of terrorism. The very fact that Pakistan learnt about the secret talks between the Taliban and U.S. representatives from news reports speaks volumes of its command and control of the Quetta Shura.
Pakistan cannot be so naïve as not to factor in the fact that a revitalised, triumphalist Taliban just across the Durand Line (which, by the way, has all but disappeared) could ultimately prove a headache for its own security. Pakistani commentators candidly admit that the Afghans deeply resent Pakistan's interference. There has been an overall political awakening among the Afghan people and a replay of the old Pakistani policies will be challenged. The gravitas of Afghan domestic politics has shifted. Thus, all things taken into consideration, Pakistan will see the wisdom of allowing a kind of intra-Afghan “equilibrium” to develop rather than try to prescribe what is good for that country.
Mr. Karzai has proved to be a remarkably shrewd politician gifted with a high acumen to network and forge alliances. He has emerged as a pan-Afghan leader who maintains working relationships with influential figures cutting across ethnicity and regions — Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Rasul Sayyaf, etc. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, which is a Pashtun-dominated group antithetical to the Taliban, already forms a part of Mr. Karzai's government. Mr. Karzai has his own bridges leading toward the Taliban camp to which he once belonged, after all. There will always be disgruntled elements, but then there are the traditional Afghan methods of patronage and accommodation. Mr. Karzai takes an active interest in regional affairs. His bonding with Pakistan and Iran shows that his political antennae are already probing for openings in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal.
In this complex setting, India's own policy orientations are realistic and near-optimal. The primacy on building warm and cordial ties with the government in Kabul; nurturing people-to-people ties; contributing significantly to reconstruction; non-interference in internal affairs; an aversion to Indian military deployment; a non-prescriptive approach to an Afghan settlement and the insistence on an “Afghan-led” reconciliation process; and, most important, the trust that Mr. Karzai knows the “red lines” — these parameters of policy are eminently sustainable.
However, a couple of points need to be made. India should establish communication lines with the Taliban — assuming, of course, it wants to talk with us. After all, we talked with Mr. Sayyaf, leader of the Ittehad, which Jalaluddin Haqqani served as commander. It is inconceivable that any Afghan could harbour ill will towards India and the Indian people. The rest is all the disposable stuff of how the Afghan has been manipulated by outsiders through the 30 years of civil war — including when he vandalised the Bamiyan statues. But in the kind of Afghanistan Mr. Karzai wants his country to return, it becomes possible for us also to rediscover the Afghan we knew before foreigners came and occupied his country. (Incidentally, this is also the basis of Mr. Karzai's optimism when he reacted on hearing about Mr. Obama's drawdown plan: “This soil can only be protected by the sons of Afghanistan. I congratulate the Afghan people for taking the responsibility for their country into their own hands … Today is a very happy day.”)
And, our “dialogue” with the Taliban must go hand in hand with a policy to do all we can by word and deed to instil confidence in the Pakistani mind about our intentions that for the foreseeable future, Afghanistan's stabilisation can become a shared concern for the two countries. Much has changed already in the most recent months in the prevailing air. No one talks seriously that the drawback of Mr. Obama's drawdown plan could be India-Pakistan “rivalry” in Afghanistan. There is actually no scope for zero-sum games, since Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan are legitimate — and are reconcilable with India's concerns.
Second, Indian diplomacy should utilise the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) process to evolve a new strategic culture of collective security for the region, which it lacks. Mr. Obama's words should be properly understood, when he said that the U.S. can no more “over-extend … confronting every evil that can be found abroad.” As India and Pakistan move to a new trajectory of growth, a favourable regional environment becomes the imperative need. India can learn a lot from the Chinese “technique” of creating synergy between the SCO track and Beijing's bilateral track with the Central Asian capitals — and with Moscow — which till a generation ago were weaned on unalloyed anti-China dogmas of the Soviet era. Indian diplomacy can do one better. It can adapt this “technique” to normalisation with Pakistan — and with China.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)