India needs to lead

India needs to lead

The regional players should step up to the plate and start providing some solutions embedded in the regions genius.

After all the hype about negotiations with the Taliban, finally the pretence is gone. The Obama administration has finally conceded that it has failed in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table and it now expects that any progress on the political front is going to come only after 2014 when most of the western forces would be out of Afghanistan. The whole logic behind Obama’s surge was that a final push with additional 30,000 American troops would be able to set the terms of engagement with the adversary in Afghanistan. But the surge is now over and there are few results to show for it.

The surge was half-hearted to begin with. Obama had approved a 30,000-troop increase sought by the military in 2009 but at the same time he had made it clear that the surge forces would begin returning home by July 2011. Even the pace of that reduction was ambiguous, with defence department officials describing the initial reductions as minor and some of the president’s other advisers, including vice-president Joe Biden, suggesting the pullout would be as rapid as the deployment of the surge troops.

Tensions within the Obama administration over the size and pace of the planned pullout of US troops from Afghanistan were always there, with the military seeking to limit a reduction in combat forces and the White House pressing for a withdrawal substantial enough to placate a war-weary electorate. At a time of economic turmoil in the US, the war’s cost has led to increasing public disenchantment with the war. Nearly two-thirds of Americans, according to various surveys, no longer find the war in Afghanistan worth fighting.

Washington’s decision led the US adversaries to conclude that president Obama’s heart was not in the war. He had no will to fight. A perception gained ground in the region that the west is losing the war and negotiations only reinforced the notion that the west was willing to negotiate even from a position of weakness.

Now the world is being told that attempts to broker meaningful talks with the Taliban have been given up and Washington is merely laying the groundwork for peace talks after the departure of western forces in 2014. The US expects the Afghan government to take the lead in these negotiations. But it is a moot point as to what credibility the west has at the moment when Nato is openly talking of considering an earlier withdrawal because of the growing insider attacks that have increased the trust deficit between western and Afghan forces to an all time high.

The present governance structure in Afghanistan is unlikely to survive the departure of western forces and the 2014 elections are also not likely to produce a national government capable to addressing myriad challenges facing the troubles nation. This begs the question as to who will negotiate with the Taliban if at all the group shows an interest in talks. Pakistan, meanwhile, will continue with its old game and has so far not given any indication that it has an interest in a regional framework.

Long-term presence

The west has concluded that it has done what it was able to and today has neither the will nor the capability to sustain a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. Domestic economic issues are more significant at the moment and geopolitical developments of greater long-term importance need to be dealt with. The Obama surge was the last attempt to shape political equilibrium in Afghanistan by using the military instrument. It has turned out to be less effective partly because it was half-hearted and partly because the main problem turned out to be Pakistan which no one had any intention of tackling.

The idea that the Taliban can be divided into good and bad categories might look appealing to outsiders desperate to make an exit but to regional powers such as India, Iran and Russia such an approach is anathema. Those elements of the Taliban who might be willing to strike a deal with the west just to see the western forces leave the region will haunt the security of regional states like India and Iran long after the western forces would have left, just as they had done in the past. The idea that the US could do business with the Taliban is not new. This was what led the Clinton administration to turn a blind eye to Taliban’s rise to power in Kabul and its medieval practices, all in the name of good old-fashioned realism. Though former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf committed Pakistan to support efforts to stabilise Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and agreed to strengthen the Karzai administration, Islamabad’s capacity and commitment to crackdown on terrorists and militants was always questionable.

It is chimerical to assume that the US can negotiate its way out of the present mess by luring the ‘moderate’ Taliban. But as the deadline for the withdrawal of US forces draws near, it is incumbent upon the regional states to step up to the plate and start providing some solutions embedded in the region. India, which has most to lose with the new regional configuration post 2014, should be doing much more in galvanising regional support for a lasting solution to the Afghanistan problem. The first step in this direction should be assessing what Pakistan’s intentions are and if Pakistan’s military elites are intent on a self-destruct posture then New Delhi should be working with other regional players much more proactively than it has done so far. Time is running out and India will have only itself to blame if the region ended up returning to the dark days of 1990s. Then it will not be the west’s problem, it will be India’s.

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