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Watching from the sidelines

india Updated: Feb 01, 2010 23:46 IST

There is a global consensus that an olive branch should be offered to the Taliban. India has reluctantly gone along. However, the London conference on Afghanistan should leave no one in doubt: India is on the backbench of the Great Game.

New Delhi was unhappy with the meeting, but had no options to offer and was largely relevant in the context of Pakistani paranoia. India has been reduced to hoping that the Taliban will rebuff any talks offer. In other words, one of the country’s overriding national security interests has been left to the whims of terrorist leader Mullah Omar. A motive for becoming a global player is to directly influence international outcomes so they are in line with a country’s interest. Afghanistan is proving to be the graveyard of Indian foreign policy aspirations.

How did this come to pass? The answer is that New Delhi has, over the years, systematically reduced its options in Afghanistan. First, India declined to play any military role in Afghanistan. While Pakistan has vetoed the idea, the truth remains that New Delhi has used this as a fig leaf to maintain a policy of passivity. Over several years it has neither pressed the issue nor sought to leverage it in anyway. Second, by surrendering any deciding say in Kabul, India has relegated itself to being a civilian service provider. This effectively means being an appendage to the huge body of US involvement in Afghanistan. If Washington decides to pull out tomorrow, it will be followed by a withdrawal of the entire Indian presence in Afghanistan. This fatalistic Afghan policy has been sustained even after it became clear to India that its traditional hedge against the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, is in a terminal condition.

India has no independent strategy regarding Afghanistan. Its large aid programme may be praiseworthy, but highways and electric pylons are no substitute for grand strategy. India’s stakes in Afghan stability are obvious. The last time the Taliban ruled, they made Afghanistan an essential part of Pakistan’s strategy to sustain the insurgency in Kashmir. There is no reason to believe that a new Taliban regime would not resume that old role. India’s Afghan policy is the worst of all worlds. India’s influence in Afghanistan is dependent on the US. But its influence on US policy in Afghanistan is non-existent because it is shy of paying a blood price — even for a flagrant national security interest. Polls show that India is the most popular nation with Afghans. Sadly, Afghans would be advised to find friends who can provide them more than song and dance routines.