The direct consequence of Taliban rule of Afghanistan for India was Kashmir’s highest levels of insurgency. There is no greater strategic threat to India than the struggle that today encompasses southern Afghanistan and, increasingly, swathes of northwestern Pakistan. Islamabad’s severe allergy to an Indian presence in Afghanistan and New Delhi’s normal incoherence about its foreign policy interests mean that India’s primary influence on Afghan events is via Washington. India is, thus, among the countries that has the greatest stake in the Afghan policy review announced by US President Barack Obama on Friday. Despite the concerns expressed over the past few weeks, much of the policy echoes what India has long argued about Afghanistan.
First, the review recognises that the troubles in Afghanistan and Pakistan are two sides of the same coin. More specifically, that the Taliban resurgence is a direct product of cross-border safe havens. Second, no player in the ‘Afpak’ region should assume the US will leave the region in a hurry. Mr Obama has appeased his party’s left by mentioning a 2011 departure date for US troops but has conditioned it on the elimination of al-Qaeda. Third, the review outlined a stepped-up civilian reconstruction programme, having more Afghan hands take over the country’s security and broaden Afpak diplomacy to include even non-neighbouring States like India and Turkey. This is sensible. Afghanistan is and must be more than a US problem. But ultimately the military and diplomatic burden of stabilising Afghanistan can only be borne by the US. Finally, there is no mention of allowing elements of the Taliban to share power in Kabul. The Afghans will decide their rulers by ballots alone.
The weakest leg of the policy must surely be Pakistan. Many elements in Islamabad still believe that defeating the Taliban is more about getting Americans out of Afghanistan than it is about tackling the militant cancer inside Pakistan. The Pakistani military has proven unwilling or simply incapable of taking on the Taliban groups inside its borders. The review speaks of increasing aid to Pakistan and encouraging Indo-Pakistan “constructive diplomacy”. Indians can take umbrage at one sop to Pakistan — the failure to mention 26/11. But there was a time this was a reason for India to worry. Today, New Delhi needs to accept that this sort of language is increasingly less policy than it is therapy — for a nuclear-armed neighbour increasingly unsettled in mind and body.