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This column is about US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to India and the new peace initiative for Afghanistan. Kerry visited India to participate in the fourth round of the India-US strategic dialogue. The dialogue was held soon after the opening of US-Taliban peace talks in Doha. The Indians were not too happy at this development, as they found themselves sidelined. The US Secretary of State had to do some explaining to them and seek to dispel their apprehensions. There would be no compromises, he said, with the “red lines” meaning certain conditions, which the Taliban must adhere to, viz Taliban’s break with al-Qaeda, renouncing violence and accepting Afghanistan’s constitution. Kerry was not quite right as after an earlier exchange, it was agreed by the State Department that these would not be “preconditions” but “outcomes”.
During his stay in India, Kerry called upon New Delhi to play a vital role in the next Afghan elections and help “improve its electoral system and create a credible and independent framework for resolving disputes.”
Mention may he made of a video message to the Indians sent on the eve of the Secretary’s visit, in which he assured of US backing of Indian’s inclusion as a “permanent member of a reformed and expanded Security Council.” “The US,” he declared, “welcomes India as a rising power,” adding that, “a strong India is in American’s national interest.”
More from the message: “The friendship between our two nations is one of the defining partnerships of the 21stcentury. Today, the US and India collaborate closely in almost every field of human endeavour. Together, we are tackling shared challenges and making the most of new opportunities. From higher education to clean energy, from counter-terrorism to space science, we are seizing new opportunities to work together, and in doing so, we are increasing the prosperity and security of both of our peoples. The US and India share a strong and enduring commitment to Afghanistan’s peace and prosperity. And we also welcome India’s leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Despite the various agreements and partnerships inclusive of nuclear status and supplies, space, health, clean energy, defence, counter-terrorism, etc, New Delhi has not been too keen to acknowledge the favours done to it by Washington.
Just read how an Indian columnist, Indrani Bagchi, assesses Kerry’s visit to India in Economic Times/Times of India: What did one make of John Kerry’s whirlwind run-through of the India-US strategic dialogue? ‘Well, we didn’t expect much, so we were not disappointed’ runs the dominant response in this city.
On paper, the bilateral relationship is almost universal in its reach. Innovation, space, health, clean energy, defence, counter-terrorism. The US too has moved from the extensive vision of the Bush years to becoming a transactional power under Obama.
Possibly, the only worthwhile conversation at this point is the dialogue on defence technology that NSA Shivshankar Menon is holding with Ash Carter. Menon has to steer the defence-strategic relationship from a buyer-seller one to one that is more equitable……In their haste to turn off the lights in Afghanistan, the US will find another way to talk to the Taliban to bring them on board in Kabul, with a “ruinous deal” with Pakistan. Look closer home. India should push an investment treaty with the US, using it to straighten out its internal investment strategies and launch the next round of economic reforms. Strategically, let’s look at the Indo-Pacific as the theatre for the next big deal. Notwithstanding China’s categorisation of the Xi-Obama meeting at a ‘New Type of Great Power Relationship’, India and the US have the greatest strategic alignments there. Let’s not get spooked by G-2 either – the bald truth is ‘rebalancing’ is a China-hedge strategy.
As for Afghanistan, the Indian view has been, thus, well-expressed by Samir Saran and Abhijit Mittra in Economic Times/Times of India: “While John Kerry lauded India’s role in his June 23 speech in New 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. The US actions have allowed the Taliban to formally open an office in Qatar for direct negotiations, which the Taliban see 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 Kayani’s pivotal role, established by a hurried and reckless K-3 meeting (Kerry, Kayani, Karzai).
“India’s Afghanistan policy has historically always been long-term and more than capable of absorbing reverses in the short to medium term. 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.
“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. 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. Afghanistan post-2014 must not by default become a neutralised backyard of Rawalpindi and its proxies.”
So, while framing an Afghanistan policy, Pakistan has to keep the following factors in view:
1. After the return of the combat forces in 2014, the US will continue to keep a certain number of well equipped troops in Afghanistan. And the Taliban will continue creating difficult conditions for them.
2. The post-American exit scenario looks murky and uncertain. Pakistan must devise well thought out policies in regard to different emerging situation.
3. The initiative to forge an understanding with the Northern Alliance must continue with a view to securing positive results.
4. India has invested billions of rupees in Afghanistan. Both Kabul and Washington want it to play a significant role in the post-2014 Afghanistan. Karzai has already sealed a strategic partnership with India and Afghan army personnel are being trained by Indian military experts. India’s interests just cannot be ignored. These, to some extent, may have to be accommodated with Islamabad safeguarding its own interests.
5. It is time that a settlement with the Pakistani Taliban is negotiated jointly by the civil government and the military.
6. A competent retired diplomat should be immediately appointed as a special envoy for Afghanistan. He may pilot Pakistan’s case and look after its interests in the US-Afghanistan-Taliban negotiations.
The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a political and international relations analyst