As US departs, India needs to play its cards well in Kabul

The 24X7 channels, whose interest in foreign affairs is usually confined to their declaring war on Pakistan presumably in pursuit of ratings, took my breath away the other day when they delved deep into caverns and, in one audacious burst of investigative journalism, held aloft Obama’s new secretary for defence, Chuck Hagel’s 2011 video interview at Oklahoma’s Cameron University, in which he had said a few things about India.

The former senator from Nebraska had said “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan.” So, what’s new? Gen Stanley McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan was critical even of India’s development works in Afghanistan because the goodwill so generated causes gripes in Pakistan. Gen David Petraeus talked of India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine causing nervousness in Islamabad.

The same channels were in convulsions when Richard Holbrooke’s Af-Pak designation had a hidden ‘K’ word attached to it. The late Mani Dixit thought he had buried Robin Raphel’s career by creating an almighty row on her having expressed doubts on Kashmir’s status. But I thought Ms Raphel was very much around during Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state. And, if the Americans are talking to the Taliban, her experience with this lot is unmatched.

Reverting to the noisy discussion chastising Hagel for what he said years ago and slotting it exactly at the time when the Senate was deciding on his nomination made us look like sidekicks to the principal lobbies who have been opposing his nomination. Meanwhile neither Hagel nor John Kerry, the new secretary of state, will find it easy to sketch a credible exit strategy from a war which according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has already cost $700 billion. Surely this vast expenditure has to be explained in terms of some gains for Washington.

Ever since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in October 2001, the US has shifted goalposts with such frequency that very little credibility attaches to its announcement of intentions. Remember, the first Bonn Conference set up a ‘provisional’ government under president Hamid Karzai. Nine years later, on July 20, 2010 at the Kabul conference convened by the UN, Karzai obtained a mandate until 2014.

Where will he go after 2014, which is just over the horizon? It cannot be anybody’s case that in this one year, a president who for security reasons cannot leave the palace, will rapidly win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and mingle among them? The silver lining I spot in the Afghan claustrophobia maybe the meeting of the major powers just held at Almaty to set nuclear talks with Iran on steady tracks. Can there be a meaningful US withdrawal from Afghanistan so long as Iran remains a black hole in the design. Can a country which has a 936 km border with Iran really see the US vacate the theatre without being on talking terms with Teheran? Unless a key is found to open that lock, it seems a trifle illogical to expect American presence in Afghanistan to scale down substantially.

Extremely sceptical

New Delhi is extremely sceptical of the US placing its eggs in the Taliban basket and leaving the basket in Pakistani care. This incidentally is not a new US approach. A steady stream of US policy makers have been meeting officials and opinions makers in New Delhi with variations on the same theme. They told New Delhi that the Afghan Taliban do not trust Pakistan, specifically because the ISI has been manipulating them for decades.

Other interlocutors have also argued that India has had excellent relations with Pushtoons traditionally and should therefore sign in on the talk-to-Taliban agenda. But has Indian, Iranian, Russian, Tajik (all with CIA help) co-ordination to oust Taliban from Kabul created a permanent breach in the Pushtoon’s ancient ties with India? Afghanistan (Pushtoons most of all) has suffered so much continuous trauma over the past decades that it probably has no space in the heart to nurse grievances about the Northern Alliance interlude.

The dreamy scenario of leaving Afghanistan with Taliban as the most influential group has several flaws attending it, but two can be pointed out. When Mohammad Daoud Khan was killed in the Saur Revolution in 1978 paving the way for Afghan Communist (Khalq) leader Noor Mohammad Taraki to take over as prime minister, Afghan history took a turn many do not realize. For the first time in 200 years a Durrani was replaced by a Ghilzai Pushtoon. By installing Karzai, a Populzai, the international community unwittingly reinstated a branch of the Durrani clan.

Taliban are mostly Ghilzais and will seek their place in the sun. Should events take this turn, civil conflict cannot be avoided with Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras arrayed on one side. The intra Pushtoon strife may appear manageable in the face of such formidable ethnic opposition. But the inter-ethnic divide will proceed inexorably towards a state which is equidistant from Kabul and Islamabad and where Pushtoons reside, exactly as the Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar had predicted. Does American departure really seem like a stabilising voyage?

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