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SAMIR SARAN & Abhijit Iyer Mittra Jun 27, 2013, 12.00AM IST
While John Kerry lauded India’s role in his June 23 speech in Delhi, events of the last 90 days tell a very different story; one in which the US disregards the concerns of both India and the Afghan government and continues to woo the Pakistani military establishment in search of its elusive salvation.
The US actions have allowed the Taliban to formally open an office in Qatar for direct negotiations, which the Taliban sees as the first step towards a new emirate. The victory of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, in collusion with fundamentalists, allows radicals in that country certain influence over the civilian government and the military’s shadow over foreign policy looms larger and stronger as the US consolidates General Parvez Kayani’s pivotal role, established by a hurried and reckless K-3 meeting (Kerry, Kayani, Karzai).
Consequently, India has nowhere to hide. Three eventualities have to be prepared for in Afghanistan, possibly unfolding concurrently. The first is a Karzai government under severe pressure from a heavily armed Taliban backed by the new mandate available to the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan. The second is a Taliban takeover of Kabul. The third is some form of dismemberment of the country again. Each of these eventualities leads to India having to shoulder a greater share of the blowback, than the western countries that seek to drive the current agenda.
India’s exclusion is symptomatic of the short-termism that has plagued western policy that has sought to create a closed information loop to filter out inconvenient truths. The problem is, as history repeatedly shows, an unstable Afghanistan destabilises the region. Importantly, as 9/11 showed, it also has the potential to threaten western power centres. Yet it would seem nothing has been learnt and India would need to very quickly write its own script again.
India’s Afghanistan policy has historically always been cold, calculating, uncompromising, long-term and more than capable of absorbing significant reverses in the short to medium term. Its response today must also support those who it does business with in Afghanistan. It cannot be coy in providing soft and hard military support to its friends and it must not be seen as an unreliable and indecisive partner.
India has in the past succeeded in maintaining Afghanistan as a viable partner for over 60 of 67 years of bilateral history. Wading through the precarious years starting 1989 and through the economic crisis of 1991, India still managed to support one dispensation or another that held inimical forces at bay till 1997. After 1997, India continued to support the Northern Alliance in the hope of better times. That time came in 2001, when, following the US invasion, a government whose core elements had been supported by India, were installed in power.
Pakistan, in spite of its advantageous geography, had succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan for just four to six years at best. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of the region will know that it takes a lot more than common borders to manage bilateral relations.
Going into a winning war is easy but wading into uncertain waters to safeguard vital interests is the true test of realpolitik. That is why India’s Afghan gambit must be gutsy and counterintuitive. Given the high stakes and high probability of failure, too much talk is counterproductive and blueprints for the post-2014 chaos that will be Afghanistan are urgently needed.
India in 2014 is not the economic cripple it was in 1991; a $290-billion reserve buys more loyalty and battle resilience than 15-day currency reserves. Over the last 12 years India has worked exceptionally hard to win over significant pockets of support among the Pashtuns. Unlike the 1990s when India’s support base was the ethnic minorities, support for India is now deeper and wider.
Taliban 2.0, therefore, will find a house divided, facing the enemy without and also within. India has four consulates in addition to the embassy in Kabul. These are the prime nodes of aid dispersal, which is counted as the most effective of any country’s efforts there.
The nearly $2 billion dispersed so far have gone to infrastructure, agriculture and education, especially self-sustaining schemes at the village and micro levels in Pashtun areas. It is precisely these schemes that connect India directly to the Pashtun’s day-to-day life and make India a friend in their view. It will be Pakistan’s inability to deliver â€” systemically and financially â€” on this score that will make Pakistan the outsider.
Afghanistan post-2014 must not by default become a neutra-lised backyard of Rawalpindi and its proxies. Any interference must necessarily require significant injections of Pakistani treasure and blood. India could lay for Pakistan the same trap that the US laid for the Soviets in Afghanistan.
If Pakistan marches in directly or by proxy it gets bogged down and alienates any residual western sympathy. If Pakistan does not, it loses the prize. Win or lose by default Pakistan loses and win or lose by default India is likely to succeed.
The writers are vice-president and programme coordinator, respectively, at the Observer Research Foundation.