A wild hunt

A wild hunt

India-Afghan pact

The argument couldn’t be more persuasive: The west is retreating from Afghanistan and India must do something to forestall the Taliban returning to power. It becomes alluring against the backdrop of the United States-Pakistan tensions — what better occasion to pile pressure on Islamabad? But the Afghan endgame is deceptive.

The West isn’t going anywhere but on the contrary is digging in for an open-ended stay, since it is a 21st century Silk Road project that is also geopolitical. Pakistan by its geography is integral to the Silk Road project. Also, in immediate terms, the imperative to make the long-term military presence in Afghanistan palatable to the western public involves ending the bloodshed and cutting down the financial cost. Thus, the US and its allies are keen to reconcile the Taliban, including the Haqqani network. The US expects Pakistan to use its influence with the insurgent groups (‘strategic assets’) to bring them to the negotiating table. 

The US-Pak standoff erupted because these ‘strategic assets’ are vital to securing Pakistan’s long-term interests – legitimacy for the disputed 2500-km border on the Durand Line, resolution of Pashtun nationality question and strategic balance vis-à-vis India – but without Pakistan’s cooperation, a durable Afghan settlement won’t be viable, either.

India’s strategic agreement with Kabul injects India-Pakistan rivalry into the problem and complicates it further. India’s commitment to train and equip Afghan armed forces essentially means reviving support for the Tajik groups of the Northern Alliance (NA) that dominate the military establishment. India taps into Pashtun-Tajik antipathies and may end up queering the pitch for a resumption of the civil war of the 1990s.

India counts on Hamid Karzai’s goodwill, but he is himself on a trapeze act – despised by powerful NA satraps, disowned by the US and derided by Taliban. His project of reconciling the Taliban is in a shambles and he is desperately keen to engage Pakistan. His poignant remark of Pakistan being the ‘twin-brother’ and India a mere ‘friend’ says it all.

The Afghan situation is fragile and the Indian move to be the mentor of the Afghan armed forces (read Tajik militia) puts strains on it. A proxy war with Pakistan may ensue, or at some point an army coup may take place in an outright Tajik takeover in the Pashtun-majority country. Unsurprisingly, the regional countries, which partnered India in bolstering anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s, remain sceptical about the Delhi-Kabul pact. No South Asian country hailed it as a factor of regional stability. India is out on a limb in this enterprise.

Zero-sum game
The Afghan endgame cannot be reduced to an India-Pakistan zero-sum game. It is unrealistic to expect Pakistan to give up its legitimate interests in ensuring that Afghanistan remains a friendly country within its sphere of influence. Arguably, Pakistan’s stakes in Afghanistan are far more crucial than India’s in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan combined. They relate to Pakistan’s very existence as a nation.

Again, Afghanistan is a land-locked country whose existence is critically dependent on Pakistan’s cooperation. From the Afghan viewpoint, India just cannot be a substitute for Pakistan. That is to say, Kabul-Islamabad equations are highly complex and it is foolhardy to predicate Indian policies on the current troubled phase of that relationship.

There is indeed an alternative policy course available for India. Consider the following: Assume that a negotiated settlement would bring the Taliban into mainstream political life. But for the foreseeable future, this settlement would be under close international watch. Besides, it would bring the Quetta Shura out into the open and place it in an unprecedented position to deal directly with the international community, including India, and diversify its relationships.

Most certainly, the movement would cease to be a Pakistani proxy. The Afghans, especially Pashtuns, are a fiercely independent people and they resent Pakistani interference. Even the Taliban refuse to recognise the Durand Line. The great mistake in the late 1990s was to have ostracised the Taliban. Afghanistan needs help from the international community. In short, India will always remain a ‘natural ally’ of the Afghan people. The best trump card for India is that it can provide a huge market for Afghanistan and in turn be a source of technical knowhow, technology and capital.

The foreign policy establishment should learn to trust its diplomatic skills and intellectual resources rather than take the option of ‘militarising’ the Afghan policy. India’s priorities in the present historic juncture of growth will suffer setbacks if a proxy war resumes with Pakistan and old bleeding wounds reopen. Civil war conditions in Afghanistan can only breed extremism and terrorism and vitiate India’s external enviornment. The security establishment’s covert NA saga in the 1990s turned out to be an utterly wasteful indulgence. It cannot be any different this time. Pushed to a corner, Pakistan will resume ‘asymetrical war.’

The India-Pakistan relationship can do without yet another bloody vector. The dialogue process is creating a better climate, which is worth preserving. There has been a shift in the Pakistani perceptions. Only a shrinking, residual section of Pakistani opinion harbours an ‘enemy’ image of India, whereas mainstream opinion favours normalisation. This is the time, therefore, for India to do out-of-the-box thinking rather than fall back on the beaten track and put the security establishment on the driving seat – and decide to go on a wild hunt in the Hindu Kush.

(The writer is a former diplomat)   

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