Backing the right horse

The Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s arrival in New Delhi on Monday can be seen as of a piece with the ‘new thinking’ in the Indian foreign policy in the recent months. The revival of the traditional ties with Russia, the inclination to move away from futile finger-pointing towards meaningful interaction with China, signs of course correction on Iran — tendencies that seemed tentative are indeed gaining traction and assuming a purposive direction in diplomacy.

The timing and estimations behind New Delhi’s invitation to Karzai merit attention. No doubt, the Afghan situation is nearing a turning point. The foreign minister level meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) held in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, on Friday officially set in motion a process to roll back the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan.

While this would be a natural process and not a ‘run for the exit,’ as Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it, the political reality is that the western allies have reached agreement on basic guidelines for commencing the hand-over of responsibility for security to the Afghan forces on a case-by-case basis within this year.

“I expect that we will start handing over responsibility to the Afghans this year”, Rasmussen said. “Today, we took an important decision to help make that happen. We agreed the approach we will take to transition.” Karzai will have the opportunity to ‘tweak’ the alliance’s approach.

These measured steps of ‘Afghanisation’ ought to prompt Delhi to contemplate what role India can play. Clearly, Delhi should focus on economic and political rather than military engagement in Afghanistan to bolster long term security in that country and in the region. Indian can train Afghan specialists in various fields, provide training and equipment to the Afghan army and cooperate in a range of counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic activities.

The question of any military deployment should firmly remain excluded from the consideration zone despite India’s vast experience in peacekeeping operations. Entanglement in potentially exhausting military missions abroad needs to be avoided. Below that threshold, diplomatic ingenuity and creative thinking would lie in figuring out how economic expansion can be the key element of India’s security strategy in Afghanistan.

Secondly, Karzai’s visit is an occasion to refine our thinking apropos the ‘reintegration’ and reconciliation strategy towards the Taliban. To be sure, Delhi has come a long way in the direction of recognising that any Afghan settlement to be durable needs to be inclusive and Afghan-led and the international community cannot be prescriptive in what is quintessentially a fratricidal war.

Plural character
The Afghan leader’s reconciliation strategy aims at forming a broad-based, representative government that affirms the country’s plural character. Delhi should not only empathise with Karzai’s strategy but should extend whole-hearted support to it politically.

There is a growing awareness in Washington that instead of berating Karzai — and at times even undercutting him — the US should learn to work with him. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton made this clear during a press availability in Tallinn on Friday, pointing out that “President Karzai has one of the most difficult jobs in the world, balancing the internal forces inside Afghanistan, balancing the neighbourhood and all of the regional powers that surround Afghanistan.”
If these helpful words translate as US policy, all is not lost in Afghanistan. Especially so, as regards the prospects of the jirga or tribal assembly, which Karzai hopes to convene in Kabul.

Exactly 20 years ago in May 1990, the then Afghan President Najibullah convened a Loya Jirga in Kabul with a similar lofty aspiration of reconciliation and power-sharing. It remains a blot on the international community that it failed to seize the historic occasion and give Najibullah a fair chance. That failure pushed Afghanistan into the vortex of violence and anarchy and made it a revolving door of terrorism.
History shouldn’t repeat itself. India should do all it can to buttress the feeling in the regional capitals that the sinews of the government in Kabul must be strengthened. This should be done bilaterally at the government-to-government level and amply supplemented through regional and international forums.

India must raise its voice at the upcoming international conference in Kabul. India must strive to contribute to the deliberations of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation scheduled to be held in Tashkent in June. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna’s visit to Tehran in mid-May provides fresh opportunity to pick up the threads of the moribund Iranian offer to work together on issues affecting war and peace in Afghanistan.

A fundamental mistake India made in 2001 was to hitch its Afghan policy with the US’ ‘war on terror.’ Alas, Delhi rolled back its diverse contacts with Afghan groups.
Ironically, to quote Clinton, “I’ve met with a number of the ministers of the current (Afghan) government, and they’re very impressive… I would invite attention to the accomplishments of a number of them who have revolutionised the way business is done.” In the most recent years, in contrast, Indian diplomacy went into slumber. Hardly any Afghan leader visits the Indian capital.
(The writer is a former diplomat)

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