LONDON – Every few years, foreign policy establishments in Washington and London get down to brass tacks and try to find answers to the perennial instability in South Asia. And every time the bright minds ignore the evidence staring them in the face and conclude that it is India that is a large part of the problem.
It is happening again as the West prepares to leave Afghanistan and wants a convenient alibi as to why the situation in Afghanistan is so difficult to resolve. This time it is William Dalrymple who churns out this strategic absurdity in his essay for the Brookings Institute. He writes: “The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of current war in Afghanistan.”
His is not a solitary voice. The West is once again ready to buy, lock, stock and barrel into the Pakistani line that sorting out Kashmir is the way to final peace in Afghanistan.
The United States had an opportunity during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to India for the fourth round of bilateral strategic dialogue to assuage Indian concerns, but Kerry’s visit turned out to be as dull as the man himself.
This visit was essential to inject some fresh political momentum into a drifting partnership, but Kerry may have only cemented his reputation for banality. His focus on climate change was completely disproportionate to the impact this issue is likely to have on reviving a dormant relationship. On the implementation of the nuclear deal, all Kerry could announce was that Westinghouse Electric Co. would sign a “commercial agreement” to sell nuclear reactors to India’s Nuclear Power Corporation by September. This agreement has been under discussion since last year’s strategic dialogue.
Where former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had publicly asked Pakistan to do more to assuage Indian concerns, Kerry refrained from even mentioning Pakistan’s nefarious activities. Instead he resorted to the good old tricks of American bureaucratese by suggesting that India and Pakistan should be trading with each other in order to improve bilateral ties. The equivalence was striking but the implication was likely lost on the speaker.
It was on Afghanistan, however, where U.S.-India divergences are getting striking by the day. The Obama administration is under pressure to make pragmatic compromises with the Taliban. The U.S. has been in touch with the Taliban for years now. After some back-channel attempts, Washington recently confirmed its intention of going ahead with its talks with the Taliban. Despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reservations, his government has no military to make it a serious player in the game.
The 2009 surge of an additional 30,000 troops was a halfhearted measure by Washington, and the results are evident on the ground with southern provinces facing a rising tide of insurgency and the formerly secure north and west of the country back into being contested areas. With the deadline of 2014 looming, the U.S. abandoned its demands that Pakistan crack down on Taliban safe havens as it needed Pakistan’s help to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Pakistan’s security establishment is in chest-thumping mood for being recognized as the central player in the Afghanistan dynamic. Its critical role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is well-appreciated in Washington and London. It doesn’t really matter that for years the Pakistani military had vehemently denied having any leverage over the Taliban.
Forced by India, Kerry underlined that “any political settlement must result in the Taliban breaking ties with al-Qaida, renouncing violence and accepting the Afghan Constitution including its protection for all Afghans, women and men.”
The reality, however, is that the peace process is a sham aimed merely at getting the Taliban on board. Washington agreed to let Mullah Omar come to the negotiating table without acceding to any of the “red lines.” There has been no acceptance of the Afghan Constitution as was reflected in the title of the office that the Taliban opened in Doha — the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The Taliban have refused to recognize the Afghan government and cut ties with al- Qaida. There has been no ceasefire on the ground or even an attempt to delink Afghanistan from global terrorism. Even the Haqqani network has been given a seat at the table at Pakistani Army’s behest.
The Taliban are well aware of how eager Washington and London are to end the war in Afghanistan at any cost and they are willing to play to their weakness. A myth is being sold in Washington and London as high strategy that the Taliban are interested in sharing power.
There is no empirical or historical basis to support this claim. Yet it is being made repeatedly and is now almost conventional wisdom in Washington and London’s power circle. There is going to be no reconciliation out of this peace process, only a face-saving interregnum for a smooth disengagement of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan.
It must be remembered that the Clinton administration also tried to negotiate with the Taliban with disastrous results for the U.S. and the world.
Kerry’s visit has failed to reassure New Delhi that Washington will not compromise in its demands that the Taliban break its ties to international terrorist networks and participate in a normal political process.
New Delhi has made itself marginal in Afghanistan and it has no one but itself to blame. Recognizing the inevitable, India is now signaling that it is willing to engage with the “good Taliban” — those groups that are willing to join the mainstream.
With the prevailing wisdom in the West making India the culprit in Afghanistan, what is not clear if anyone is interested in talking with India.
Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.