There are fundamental errors in the assumptions made on the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the India-Pakistan talks in the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations.
In the action-packed theatre of Afghanistan-Pakistan, or Af-Pak, the game keeps changing. That is one of the reasons why, in the wake of the WikiLeaks documents release story, analysts from New Delhi to Washington made two basic assumptions, and got both wrong.
The first assumption, widely written up, was that the release of the documents heralded the beginning of the end for international forces engaged in Afghanistan. Those who made the assumption dubbed Afghanistan the “unwinnable war”. Some like American political analyst George Friedman said the 90,000-plus classified military cables and reports had made “the most powerful case yet for withdrawal”. The assumption was also based on the fact that a pullout would be natural progression from the Kabul conference in London this January. At that conference Britain had pushed for talks with all the Taliban groups, a move the U.S. and Afghanistan seemed to support — with both endorsing Pakistan's stewardship of the process. With the Wiki-leaked documents showing on the one hand how badly the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) operations in Afghanistan, particularly the southern offensives in Marjah, Helmand and Kandahar, were faring and on the other hand revealing the extent of the ISI's role in squiring the Taliban counter-offensives despite claims to the contrary, it seemed clear that the next step would be negotiating a cut-and-run from the mess.
But the message that came home this July was very different. A slew of American officials visiting New Delhi — beginning with NSA Jim Jones, followed by Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke and backed up by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen — carried a three-pronged message: that the U.S. no longer saw July 2011 as a pullout or “drawdown” date. In fact, officials accompanying Mr. Holbrooke went on to say that it was merely the time the “surge” in U.S. troops, which is being completed this month, would be revaluated for effectiveness. And, that very few of the Taliban groups would be talked to as part of the reconciliation process but clearly, the solution to Afghanistan would be political and not military.
That message of a turnaround in thinking was bolstered by the dramatic row between the British and Pakistani leadership after Prime Minister David Cameron, reacting to the WikiLeaks release, accused Pakistan of “promoting the export of terror”. It ended with ISI chief Shuja Pasha calling off his visit to London, Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari facing a cold reception when he reached the U.K., and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi summoning the British High Commissioner to Pakistan over what he called Mr. Cameron's “surprising” comments. Clearly the most surprising part was the reversal in the close working ties between London and Islamabad — remember, Britain was till then most encouraging of Pakistan's efforts to bring even the extreme Hekmatyar and Haqqani groups to the table for talks with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's government. The change, however, should have been evident in British Defence Secretary Liam Fox's speech at the Heritage Foundation in July, where he said a “premature pullout” and handing over of power to the Taliban “would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere, re-energising violent, radical and extreme Islamism.” Significantly, in that speech Mr. Fox made no mention of the reconciliation process.
Perhaps the turnaround that cut Islamabad the deepest was that of the Karzai government — the President's spokesman reacted immediately to the WikiLeaks revelations, saying the ISI-Taliban details only proved what Afghanistan had complained of for years. A few days later Mr. Karzai was tougher, asking why the ISAF was not considering bombing the insurgents in Pakistan directly. In Pakistan, the remarks were seen as betrayal, and certainly a far cry from the “conjoined-twins” analogy Mr. Karzai had proffered earlier in the year. Clearly, for Pakistan all the fluctuating reactions from Washington, London and Kabul between January and July, proved a lot can change in a month, a day and a Wiki!
The second erroneous assumption was the one made in India that the confirmation of ISI's virtual control of Taliban attacks targeting Indians in the WikiLeaks documents meant India should call off the dialogue process with Pakistan entirely. The assumption was strengthened when General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who had been at the helm of the ISI during the critical 2004-2007 period mentioned in the leaked documents, was given a three-year extension as Army chief. But if anything, the WikiLeaks revelations prove how easily the dynamics on the ground change — not just in the Af-Pak context but also in the India-Pakistan one. In such a situation, New Delhi must remain as engaged as possible rather than disengage, and play its game with many of the original principles in place. At the top of those principles are its promises to the Afghan people to help reconstruct the torn nation and to not forget the consequences of allowing the Taliban back into government in Kabul — a subject South Block briefly showed an alarming degree of flexibility on. India needs a more direct role in Afghanistan that is not, as at present, contingent on the pleasure of the U.S. and the UK and the displeasure of Pakistan.
It is also time to work on a bigger template — one that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself has often spoken of when justifying talks with Pakistan — that India cannot aspire to double-digit growth without coming to terms with its neighbours. The newly concluded Af-Pak transit trade agreement that seems to cut India out of the equation may, surprisingly, be a good place to start. To begin with, Pakistan has at least conceded permission for Afghan trucks to bring goods up to Wagah — this pertains not just to fruit and vegetables but also to India importing the considerable mineral reserves — iron ore, copper, lithium and gold — that will be the next great game in Afghanistan. Also of significance in that agreement is a “national treatment” clause insisted on by Afghan officials that gives Kabul the benefits from any future India-Pakistan trade treaty. In effect, any liberalisation in trade between New Delhi and Islamabad carries an added bonus in allowing New Delhi more access to Kabul, something Pakistan has denied India for years.
That kind of liberalisation may seem unthinkable at present, especially given the continuing bitterness over the Foreign Ministers' meeting, but it is certainly among the more doable options for those trying to work on the “trust-deficit”. Had negotiations not gone off the rails at the Foreign Ministers' meeting, they were in fact going to propose a meeting of Commerce Secretaries in the next few months. Some in Pakistan, too, recognise that the economy is their second greatest threat — after the fear of Taliban-terror overrunning the country. Pakistan “needs to realise India is South Asia's anchor economy” says the former Pakistani Finance Minister, Shahid Javed Burki, even as he grades Pakistan “Asia's worst performing economy”, with a GDP growth rate half that of Bangladesh and one-third of India, growing more dependent on international aid by the day.
As India looks at the constantly changing dynamics in its neighbourhood, recalibrating its approach will involve a much larger and more long-term version of the “great game”. And, some flexibility in the “changing game”. As economist John Keynes said famously, when asked about changing British monetary policy on the Great Depression: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
(Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)