M.K. Bhadrakumar

The latest U.S. initiative on Afghanistan serves to legitimise NATO’s maritime activities in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

Following a three-hour meeting on September 23 in New York, India’s foreign policy ship took a sharp curve. It headed in an unknown direction, no matter the choppy waters. Inebriated with the T20 Cup victory in Durban and the gala “Incredible India” roadshow in the United States, most Indians did not take notice but that should not detract from its profound, enduring significance.

On September 23, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon co-chaired a meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to review six years of reconstruction and “good governance” in the country. Participating were representatives from Britain, the United States, China, France, Russia, Canada, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Turkey. The Asian Development Bank, the European Union, the European Commission, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and the World Bank were also invited.

Mr. Ban later told the media that it was agreed at the meeting that “there should be more efforts by [Mr.] Karzai and other leaders in promoting inclusive political dialogue for national reconciliation.” He added there was a “strong desire” among the participants that the U.N. should do more. Mr. Karzai amplified that his government was working hard on peace talks to bring Taliban supporters “back to the fold.” The effort, he explained, was to bring back those Taliban who are not part of the Al Qaeda. He claimed that identifying the “good Taliban” was easy. “Deeds will tell, deeds do tell,” he said.

“We are already in contact … with those Taliban who are not part of Al Qaeda and terrorist networks, who are really in a majority … and we would like to add to this process as the opportunity presents itself,” Mr. Karzai added.

Speaking at the meeting, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee chose to sail with the wind. He spoke of the need for “a robust international solution as well as a stronger internal military response” in Afghanistan. But he acknowledged: “At the same time, we sense that security challenges need to be addressed realistically.” He put on record India’s deep concern at the security situation and cautioned, “We cannot and must not underestimate the ferocity of the Taliban and Al Qaeda resurgence. None of us can afford to improvise partial solutions that seemingly provide temporary relief. There is no option to remaining resolute and determined.” But Mr. Mukherjee sidestepped the core issue, namely, U.N.-mediated reconciliation talks with the Taliban as such.

That was not how India articulated its stance four months ago in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G-8 summit meeting. When Mr. Mukherjee spoke on May 29 in an exceptionally impassioned language, he outright rejected reconciliation with the Taliban. He concluded an unusually lengthy intervention by saying, “We cannot allow our enthusiasm to wane or improvise solutions by way of compromises — whether with the Taliban or with the others. We are dealing with a globally and regionally interconnected alliance of terrorist groups. The Al Qaeda and the Taliban feed off each other, nourish and protect each other and actively cooperate in carrying out attacks against their enemies … Appeasement will only embolden them and they will use every concession to undermine, cripple and destroy the very base of the democratic and plural structure that the international community seeks to build there [Afghanistan].”

What happened in the last four months? There are no easy answers. The Afghan situation shows that the Al Qaeda is a reinvigorated lot lately and is working closely with the Taliban. Yet New Delhi has moderated its unequivocal opposition to engaging the “good Taliban”.

Washington is masterminding the process of reconciliation with the Taliban. The process is moving on different tracks. There is an intra-Pashtun inside track bringing together tribal leaders on both sides of the Durand Line, aimed at reviving traditional modes of Pashtun life. There is a second track involving Pashtun nationalist parties in Pakistan with Mr. Karzai, on one side, and pro-Taliban Islamic parties in Pakistan (principally the Deobandi party, JUI, led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman) and the Pakistani authorities, on the other.

A clandestine track involves the British and U.S. intelligence and the Taliban (predicated on the pretence that Pakistan can at best be only a ‘facilitator,’ as the Taliban leadership has a mind of its own). Yet another track involves erstwhile Taliban functionaries who are presently members of the Afghan Parliament (such as Mullah Abdus Salam “Rocketti” and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef), and who have been holding talks with “Taliban elders” in Afghanistan. A more recent track involves elements of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, who are willing to reconcile with the Taliban. Conceivably, when the American Ambassador in Pakistan, Anne Patterson, called on Maulana Rahman after his return from Saudi Arabia, Washington might have reopened a meandering, old, dirt track, which dates back to the early 1990s when the Taliban was originally conceived in JUI-run madrasas. Rahman was then an ally of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

There is nothing novel in this labyrinthine network of “intra-Afghan dialogue.” Zia-ul-Haq crafted it in the smithies of the “Afghan jihad” in the 1980s. Its main virtue is that at any given time, the “big picture” is known only to a select few. Thus, Washington, London and Islamabad (Pervez Musharraf) are in the loop. They form a cosy, exclusive threesome. Others are roped in when the situation demands, strictly on a need-to-know basis — which is what happened on September 23 in New York.

Mr. Ban was quite candid. He admitted that “some countries” wanted a high-profile U.N. representative with “greater authority” to supervise peace-making efforts. It appears U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who attended the New York meeting, suggested an “international figure.” To be sure, Washington wants someone who can be trusted and relied upon, who would faithfully coordinate various tracks and lead them to the final objective of bringing the Taliban into a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul within a time frame that makes the “victory” in Afghanistan a fine legacy of the George W. Bush presidency. It will immensely help to legitimise what passes as the Afghan peace process if the “international figure” acts under the U.N. fig leaf. What else is the U.N. for, after all?

India is not the only country which realises that the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, which it viewed with great earnestness six years ago (and still seems to do so), is more about geopolitics. Russia, Iran and India ought to have a shared interest in forestalling the Taliban’s return to power.

Indeed, Mr. Mukherjee eloquently voiced the common concern of regional powers when he said in Hamburg on May 29, “An oft-repeated truism stares us in the face; if we forget history, we will be condemned to repeat it. The international community must do all that it can to prevent the re-enactment of the ghastly dance of death of the past.”

But what works to Washington’s advantage is that foreign policy priorities of regional powers are increasingly divergent today. Each of them has its own agenda in the emerging world order; they just wouldn’t take a coordinated stance of defiance of the U.S. regional policy. Washington knows it too.

Without doubt, the U.S. is pushing ahead with its Afghan script. On September 20, it pressed ahead with a resolution in the U.N. Security Council approving the extension of the mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan by another year. Curiously, ISAF’s mandate expires only after a month and there was no hurry.

Besides, the U.S. introduced a new element in the resolution at the last minute — the U.S.-led coalition Operation Enduring Freedom maritime interception component. Russia pointed out that such a blanket provision giving the right of maritime interception did not appear in all previous Security Council resolutions on Afghanistan or any other conflict situation for that matter. It sought clarifications and proposed that instead of blanket permission, the resolution should “reflect the imperative observance of international law and national legislation in carrying out any actions involving interception of ships in the Indian Ocean’s waters.” Russian concerns were ignored and the U.S. pressed for a vote. Since the resolution primarily dealt with the ISAF’s mandate, Russia abstained.

The new provision, which has no precedent in any conflict situation that figured on the Security Council agenda, gives the U.S-led coalition in Afghanistan the right to intercept and board vessels suspected of carrying arms or reinforcements for terror groups that operate in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas.

Neither Osama bin Laden nor Mullah Muhammed Omar has any need to work out supply lines through the Indian Ocean. But the U.S. initiative serves the purpose of legitimising NATO’s maritime activities in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. It is a necessary step in the direction of NATO developing closer links with Australia and Japan in maritime security in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

How does the government perceive India’s enlightened national interests? India collectively cooperates with the U.S, Japan and Australia on maritime security. Presumably, future “Malabar” exercises would include NATO as well. Harmonising Indian foreign and security policies with the U.S. regional interests would be the number one priority, as the Indian stance at the September 23 meeting underscored.