Many Indians, looking at the chaos spreading closer to its western border, are probably wishing their country was less proximate to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But geography and history have decreed otherwise. Barack Obama may be the latest US President to host the rulers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the ghost at the banquet is surely India. The reason is simple: Pakistan is unwilling to cease supporting the Afghan Taliban, so long as it believes any other regime in Kabul will be too friendly to India. And unless Islamabad can be persuaded otherwise, the US war in Afghanistan could be a never-ending struggle.
At the present time, however, the Af-Pak drama is unfolding in a manner favourable to New Delhi. The most important development is that Pakistan is showing signs of recognising that its own creation, the Taliban, and not India is its true threat. A meatier sign is the Pakistani military’s belated offensive in Swat valley and the government’s declaration that it is no longer in the ceasefire business. But India needs to remain guarded in its response. Pakistan showed reluctance to take on the Taliban until prodded by the US. The Taliban continue to command much support and admiration within the Pakistani military. It will take many more offensives, before it can be said the generals in Rawalpindi have turned a corner.
As the US tightens the thumbscrews on Pakistan, Washington will be tempted to extract a squawk or two out of India just to keep Islamabad happy. The odd line about Kashmir or troop withdrawals can be ignored. What the US will need to understand is that, first, it is unclear who in Islamabad will be a credible interlocutor for India. Second, in the present circumstance, overt US pressure will undermine the legitimacy of any Pakistani negotiator even more than it will an Indian one.
The next six months will be crucial to determining whether the Afpak story will go where India would prefer it to. And at the heart of the plot will be a change in the mindset of Pakistan — regarding the Taliban and finally regarding India.