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Indian influence founders in Afghanistan

by Kanayo F. Nwanze and Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — When Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna underscored the folly of making a distinction “between good Taliban and bad Taliban” at the Afghanistan Conference in London earlier this year, he was completely out of sync with the larger mood at the conference. As a result, Indian diplomacy was set back when Indian concerns were summarily ignored.

The West had made up its mind that it was not a question of if, but when and how to exit Afghanistan.

The diplomatic debacle at the London conference and the continued targeting of Indian interests in Afghanistan forced a major rethink of Delhi’s Af-Pak policy. No wonder Krishna was a different man at the Afghanistan conference in Kabul early last month. He dropped his mantra of “no differentiating between good and bad Taliban” while continuing to reject hardline elements as credible Afghan interlocutors. This change in tone reflects the bind in which India finds itself in Afghanistan.

There should be no doubt that this is Pakistan’s moment. Pakistan has been successful in ensuring that it is at the center of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government so that Pakistan’s core interest of containing Indian influence is not jeopardized. The Taliban remain Pakistan’s greatest source of leverage in Afghanistan.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are hedging their bets against a possible U.S. withdrawal. The July 2011 deadline for the commencement of American troop withdrawal was intended to force Karzai to address urgent problems like corruption and ineffective governance. But it may have had the opposite effect, convincing Karzai that he will be on his own a year from now.

Though the U.S. is at pains to emphasize that July 2011 “will be the beginning of a conditions-based process” and that the deadline will be debated in the military’s formal review of progress in December, few are willing to bet that the Obama administration has the stomach to stay much longer in Afghanistan. Karzai seems convinced that the Americans will not be able to stay the course. He has lost faith in NATO’s ability to defeat the insurgency and has turned to Pakistan to help broker a deal to end the conflict.

Not surprisingly, Karzai is trying to craft a more autonomous foreign policy. Karzai lost no time in dismissing two high-profile ministers — the interior minister and the intelligence chief — from his Cabinet who were most closely allied with the U.S. These were the men Washington had insisted that Karzai include in his Cabinet after his re-election last year. They were resisting Karzai’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban and closer ties with Islamabad. Karzai now views Pakistan as an important player in ending the war, either through negotiations with the Taliban or on the battlefield.

The decision to send officers for training in Pakistan is of great symbolic value and is the result of talks between the Afghan government and Pakistan’s security agencies that began in May. Pakistan has asked Karzai to develop a strategic framework that can facilitate negotiations with the Taliban.

India can do little but watch these developments with wariness. India’s “soft power” strategy has not brought it any strategic gains. Rather, India stands sidelined by the West despite being the only country that has been relatively successful in winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghans.

From the very beginning the prime objective of India’s Afghanistan policy has been to prevent Pakistan’s return to Afghanistan’s strategic and political firmament. Ironically it is India’s success in Afghanistan that drove Pakistan’s security establishment into panic mode as the perception gained ground that India was “taking over Afghanistan.”

The Obama administration’s desire for a rapid withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan has given Pakistan the opportunity to regain its lost influence in Kabul. To keep Islamabad in good humor, Washington has insisted that India limit its role in Afghanistan.

The conclusion of the Afghanistan- Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement is a shot in the arm for Pakistan as it explicitly denies India’s export of goods to Afghanistan across the Wagah border.

Though India continues to insist that it won’t retreat from Afghanistan, there are signs that it is scaling down. Almost half of Indian personnel working on various projects in Afghanistan have gone home. India is not taking on any new projects and various Indian schemes have been put on hold. Training programs for Afghan personnel are now being conducted in India.

India’s strategic space in its neighborhood has shrunk the past few years. By failing to craft its own narrative on Af-Pak after 9/11, New Delhi has let the West, and increasingly Pakistan, dictate Indian policy for the region.

By failing to assert itself in Afghanistan, India has failed to win the confidence of Afghan constituencies who considered India a natural ally. India must readjust its Kabul policy soon.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.