The London conference on the Afghan problem certainly gives grounds for optimism.

Last Thursday the region took a ride in the raft of optimism to peace. The London conference on the Afghan problem certainly gives grounds for optimism. From the Indian perspective, however, what matters most is to be able to behold just in time that, as the Old Testament says, “there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.” The little cloud is destined to rise higher and higher and become larger and larger with astonishing celerity and will burst in a deluge of rain on the parched earth. And like Elijah hastening Ahab home, India needs to head for the chariot and “get thee down that the rain stop thee not.” For, once the river Kishon gets swollen from the deep layer of dust in the arid plain being turned into thick mud that impedes the wheels, it becomes impassable.

The fact of the matter is that the decisions of the London conference not only constitute a 5-year road map for conflict resolution in Afghanistan but are destined to impact on regional security and stability for a long time to come. The decisions run on four different but inter-connected templates. First and foremost, what seemed to some a heretic idea until recently has come to habitate the centerpiece of the political agenda, namely, that the war needs to be brought to an end by “reintegrating” and “reconciling” the Taliban in the Afghan national mainstream. Second, whatever residual war effort remains will focus on persuading or coercing the Taliban to negotiate. Third, the so-called “Afghanisation” process will be speeded up so that by July next year the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan can commence. Fourth, enduring peace in the Hindu Kush can be attained only in a regional environment in which Afghanistan’s neighbours cooperate by setting aside their competing rivalries and by resolving their outstanding disputes.

Clearly, to use the U.S. Defence Secretary’s words, the Taliban now form part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric”. On the eve of the London conference, the United Nations Security Council removed the names of five Taliban leaders from the “black list” of 144 dangerous terrorists figuring in the sanctions regime under Resolution 1267 dating back to the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Admittedly, the wheel has come full circle. As the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan put it, “If you want results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority. I think the time has come to do it.”

For the Pakistan-hating, China-bashing veterans of our strategic community, all this must have come as a stunning bolt from the blue. But they are only at fault. The Indian strategic thinkers should not have been such incorrigible fundamentalists to fail to appreciate the shades of political Islam or discern the western propaganda about the Taliban. Mixing up the Taliban completely with the adversarial mindset of the Pakistani security agencies was equally wrong. Overlooking the indigenous roots of a homegrown movement was always injudicious. The triumphalism over Taliban’s ouster in 2001 was unwarranted, as it was never in doubt that such a grassroots movement cannot be expected to simply fade away in the Afghan-Pakistani political landscape; a return of the native was inevitable. Lastly, the U.S. intervention in 2001 was quintessentially a contrived revenge act on the part of the George W. Bush administration precipitated by a cataclysmic backdrop unparalleled in America’s history; to be sure, the world community condoned it but as time passed, it lost its “raison d’etre” and became hard to justify.

The Indian foreign and security policy establishment too owes an explanation why Prime Minister was misled to make such extremist viewpoints regarding the Afghanistan situation during his November visit to the U.S. Despite our claim to be “natural allies” of the U.S., we were either not taken into full confidence by Washington, or we couldn’t read Barack Obama’s mind. Worse still, we couldn’t fathom the enormity of the drain of U.S. global influence.

Where did the establishment go wrong? First, our flawed Afghan policy stands exposed. It has a thirteen-year old history. It was circa 1997-98 that Delhi probably began sliding into a strategic mistake by regarding Afghanistan as a theatre of India-Pakistan rivalry. That was a reversal of the Indian policy, which was best evident during the 1992-95 period when despite overtures from the Mujahideen, the Narasimha Rao government stubbornly refused to get involved in any form in Afghanistan’s fratricidal strife — although the temptation to pay Pakistan back in the same coin for the low-intensity war in J&K (and the Valley was witnessing incessant bloodshed at that time) was always lurking in the shadows. The level-headed estimation in South Block was that India-Pakistan differences were already far too vexed and blood-soaked to add yet another dimension to them.

Pakistan has special interests in Afghanistan — just as India would have in Nepal or Sri Lanka — with which it shares a 2,500-kilometre-long border with sub-nationalities straddling the border regions inextricably tied by bonds of culture, religion and social kinship. Forever will the Pakistani ties remain the number one foreign policy priority for any government in Kabul. Yet India got so entangled in the Hindu Kush that Pentagon spokesman last week openly demanded “transparency” regarding Delhi’s intentions. We overreached. A good beginning lies in the government picking up the threads of the discussions in Sharm Al-Sheikh and transparently addressing Pakistani concerns regarding Baluchistan. The cornerstones of India’s Afghan policy are unshakeable. The issue at the moment is to introspect whether we unwittingly came to erect a grotesque structure during the past decade.

Secondly, the impasse of India’s current near-total isolation as the international community surges ahead with the engagement of the Taliban exposes a few highly disturbing salients regarding our recent foreign policy postulates. One, contrary to our claim, Pakistan’s geopolitical positioning is superb, as testified by the star participants at the regional conference hosted by Turkey on January 26 from which India was pointedly excluded at Islamabad’s instance — Afghanistan, Russia, China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the U.S. and Britain. The London conference underscored that the prospects of the reconciliation with the Taliban critically depended on Pakistan’s cooperation. It couldn’t have been otherwise.

Two, Delhi is paying a price for putting all eggs in the American basket. The U.S. is entitled to look after its national interests. The spectre that is haunting Washington today cannot be overstated: a prolonged war in Afghanistan is unsustainable financially, materially and politically; the NATO allies lack faith in the U.S.’s war strategy; domestic public opposition to the war is cascading in the western countries; the war has become an Albatross’ cross hindering the optimal pursuit of U.S. global strategies in a highly volatile international situation posing multiple challenges; the war radicalises the Muslim opinion worldwide and pits America against Islam. India could have anticipated that the U.S. was reaching the end of the tether and was pondering what lay ahead.

What lies ahead? Make no mistake that the Taliban are returning to Afghanistan’s power structure — quite plausibly, under Mullah Omar’s leadership. The U.S. expectation to “split” the Taliban will likely prove misplaced. As months ebb away, fighting intensifies and Omar in no particular hurry, Washington’s pleas to Islamabad will become more and more insistent to bring the so-called Quetta Shura to the negotiating table. Pakistan (or, more appropriately, Pakistani military) will have the option to cooperate or lapse into sophistry and claim helplessness. How the Pakistani military chooses to play will almost entirely depend on the pound of flesh it can extract from the U.S. At a minimum, there will be an India-dimension to it — thanks to our flawed Afghan policy and our failure to develop diversified consultations with like-minded countries such as China, Iran and Russia that have high stakes in regional security and stability. The silver lining is that once in power, the “Afghan-ness” of the Taliban is bound to surface.

Finally, it all boils down to one single core issue. There is no alternative to the “Sharm Al-Sheikh approach” to address the India-Pakistan relationship. The government got unduly fazed by the charge of the Indian light brigade and valuable time was lost. When it is clear that jingoism is a road to nowhere, the leadership should have drawn the line. The London conference underlined that international opinion is heavily weighed against waging wars — leave alone simultaneous wars on two fronts. India can learn lessons from the annals of modern diplomacy: how adversaries incrementally became joint stakeholders in cooperation by pursuing creative ideas and initiatives. France and Germany; Germany and Russia; Turkey and Greece — they were locked in deathly embraces one way or another in modern history. The best way ahead for India is to emulate their example, which is that when erstwhile adversaries become stakeholders in shared enterprise, it renders obsolete their historical antipathies and autarchic mentalities.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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