Reviving old ties

Reviving old ties

It is in Indias strategic interests to strengthen ties with Tajikistan and assist that country to pursue its path of strategic autonomy.

The four-day visit by vice-president M H Ansari to Tajikistan is a timely move to activate India’s regional diplomacy against the backdrop of the grave uncertainties in the post-2014 period when foreign occupation ends in Afghanistan. India and Tajikistan have shared concerns over the regional security scenario. Thus, the main template of the vice-president’s visit related to the Afghan situation and hopefully it opens an active phase of regional diplomacy on India’s part.

Amongst Central Asian states, Tajikistan has had a special kinship with India. The two countries drew exceptionally close together in the 1990s when Tajikistan became India’s ‘gateway’ to Afghanistan during the period after the Taliban takeover in Kabul. That axis was built on the shared commitment of the two countries to support the resolve of the non-Taliban forces of the Badakhshan region and the Panjshir Valley, mainly Tajik, with whom Tajikistan’s destiny is inextricably linked and who are also of incessant interest to India, having been staunch Afghan nationalists who deeply resented foreign interference in their country’s internal affairs.

It was from Tajik soil that India could render practical support to the legitimate Afghan government headed by late Burhanuddin Rabbani to resist the onslaught by the Taliban and the Pakistani military. Tajikistan also served as ‘sanctuary’ for Rabbani’s government and the Indian-run field hospital there and the Ayni air strip formed part of the ‘infrastructure’ of anti-Taliban resistance.

This folklore may generate a misperception that the vice-president’s visit to Dushanbe aimed at reviving the ‘Afghan-centric’ security axis with Tajikistan, which was moth-balled through the period since the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan. However, history does not repeat itself although today’s ambience may seem familiar. The sense of familiarity is mainly due to the apprehension that Pakistani military may once again strive for a Taliban takeover in Kabul and Afghanistan could become all over again a revolving door of international terrorists.

The apprehension is justified insofar as transparency is lacking in the Pakistani moves. Pakistan continues to manipulate the Taliban and pays only lip service to peace talks; it is creating disunity within and among non-Taliban groups; and, it consistently undercuts the established Afghan government, since it is in the interest of its agenda of gaining ‘strategic depth’ across the Durand Line that Kabul’s writ doesn’t run large in the Hindu Kush. Pakistan hopes that the US will sooner rather than later disengage militarily from Afghanistan and thereafter it will be called upon to mentor intra-Afghan peace talks. Looking at the downstream, given the rapport that is developing between the US and the forces of Islamism all across the Middle East, Pakistan is probably justified in assessing that Washington will eventually decide that a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul is something it can do business with in Central Asia.

Lacking sincerity

In sum, Pakistan’s intentions are lacking in sincerity and transparency and that ought to be worrisome for the regional states such as India, Iran and Tajikistan. The big question is what they can do individually or collectively in the circumstances. To begin with, there is neither a regional and international climate nor a viable ground reality that permits the creation of yet another ‘resistance’ movement like the Northern Alliance. Beneath that threshold, nonetheless, there are possibilities.

For one thing, New Delhi cannot delay any further taking a regional initiative to bring together a grouping that includes Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Second, India’s ties with the established government in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai should be strengthened at every level. What India cannot and should not do is to interfere in Afghan domestic politics but then, at the government-to-government level there should be no let-up in rendering assistance to that country to enable it to withstand Pakistan’s bullying and safeguard its independence.

Tajikistan can be a facilitator in this process. Equally, it is in India’s strategic interests to strengthen ties with Tajikistan and assist that country – no matter what it takes – to pursue its path of strategic autonomy despite being caught up in the cross currents of the great game in Central Asia. Delhi’s record so far in assisting this key partner in Central Asia has been niggardly.

Again, India should stop looking over its shoulder nervously at Washington and instead moot robust efforts to strengthen the Afghan armed forces, which involves, in turn, close cooperation and tie-up with Iran and Tajikistan at the political level. The timeline is short. The crunch time comes in the coming one-year period when Karzai’s term ends and a transition is expected. India, Tajikistan and Iran have enjoyed considerable leverage with various Afghan groups and can play a helpful role in facilitating a smooth transition, which of course is ultimately a matter for the Afghan people to work out.

The bottom line is that the vice-president’s visit has underscored the political will in Delhi and Dushanbe to frustrate external attempts to isolate Kabul government and bully it into submission. A visit by the vice-president to Tehran and Kabul should be the natural follow-up of this important initiative in regional diplomacy. Vice-president Ansari is uniquely placed to shape the matrix, having played a pivotal role in building India’s strategic partnership with both Afghanistan and Iran.

The US secretary of state John Kerry will keep overflying India but won’t touch down until he can undertake a visit to Islamabad as well – and that is unlikely to happen before a new government is formed in Pakistan in June. But then, why should India have to wait in the anteroom in angst until June? The point is, unless Indian diplomacy is able to connect the dots, we will remain in ground zero merely reacting to circumstances rather than mould the regional security scenario. 

(The writer is a former ambassador) 

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