LONDON — It would be an understatement to suggest that Indian diplomacy faced a major setback at the Afghanistan Conference in London. India was humiliated and its concerns were summarily ignored. In one stroke, Pakistan rendered New Delhi irrelevant in the evolving security dynamic in Afghanistan.
When Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna underscored the folly of making a distinction “between good Taliban and bad Taliban,” he was completely out of sync with the larger mood at the conference. The West has made up its mind that it is not a question of if, but when and how to exit from Afghanistan, which is rapidly becoming a quagmire leaders in Washington and London. Days before this much-hyped conference, senior U.S. military commanders were suggesting that peace talks with the Taliban may be imminent and that Taliban members might even be invited to join the government in Kabul. It is not without significance that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband emphasized in London that the war in Afghanistan had already gone on longer than World War II.
So, instead of devising plans to “win” this war, conference leaders decided that the time had come to woo the “moderate” section of the Taliban to share power in Kabul. Pakistan seems to have convinced the West that it can play the role of mediator in negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan is attempting to preserve its rapidly diminishing influence in Afghanistan and to force the West into taking its concerns vis-a-vis India more seriously.
For Pakistan’s security establishment, this is its biggest opportunity in Kabul since November 2001. Islamabad has successfully nurtured a charade that it can persuade the Taliban to control its actions and make a complete break with al-Qaida, providing a face-saving formula for the West to exit. This when observers are warning that the Taliban is more closely aligned with al-Qaida today than it was eight years ago.
This rapid turn of events has sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. For a long time, India was complacent about its neighborhood policy. The assumption was why worry when U.S forces are fighting radical extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
India decided to put its faith in the ability of the United States to pull its chestnuts out of the fire should the need arose. It was to keep Washington in good humor that India decided not to take any serious action against Pakistan in the aftermath of Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. It put pressure on Islamabad by using American leverage to bring the masterminds of those terror strikes to justice.
But the debacle in London has forced a major re-think in New Delhi of India’s Af-Pak policy. By failing to articulate its own Af-Pak policy, India has let the agenda be set by Pakistan. The recent announcement of the resumption of India-Pakistan talks — which had been in deep freeze since November 2008 — is part of a new approach that New Delhi is considering. Though there is little chance of these foreign secretary-level talks producing anything concrete in the near future, India is worried that a failure to resume talks with Pakistan will only lead to growing international pressure, especially from the U.S.
While the negotiations with Pakistan remain hugely unpopular at home, the Indian government has nevertheless decided to make this push.
More importantly, India is reconsidering the terms of its involvement in Afghanistan. It is fairly evident that India’s sole reliance on its “soft power” is no longer working. Pakistan’s paranoia about the Indian presence in Afghanistan has led the West to play down India’s largely beneficial role in the country even as Pakistan’s every claim about Indian intentions is taken at face value.
The Taliban militants who blew up the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and tried again in 2009 have sent a strong signal that India is part of the evolving security dynamic in Afghanistan despite its reluctance to take a more active role in military operations. After targeting personnel involved in development projects and emboldened by India’s nonresponse, these terrorist have trained their guns directly at the Indian state.
By pursuing a strategy that will give Pakistan the leading role in Afghan state structures, the West is only sowing the seeds for future regional turmoil. It would be catastrophic for Indian security if Taliban remnants came to power with the backing of the ISI and Pakistan’s military. As in the 1990s, when a Pakistan-backed and regime targeted India before hitting the Western shores, a Taliban government in Afghanistan would once again train its guns on India. This time they will be triumphant if they’ve forced the West out of Afghanistan.
India has also learned from its past. To salvage its interests, the next few months will see India stepping up the training of Afghan forces, coordinating with states like Russia and Iran, and reaching out to all sections of Afghan society. More problematic for the West will be its efforts to add greater military muscle to development activities.
Instead of ignoring Delhi, the West would be better served if it ceases to pander to Pakistan for short-term gains. Failing to support the only secular liberal democracy in the region will embolden radical Islamists in the long run. And that’s no way to enhance Western security.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is presently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
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