India needs a neighbourhood strategy document
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India needs a neighbourhood strategy document

While Afghanistan presents a particularly fiendish challenge, New Delhi has little clarity on which tools to use in crisis situations in the entire neighbourhood

analysis Updated: Feb 05, 2019 12:42 IST
Kunal Singh
Kunal Singh
Hindustan Times
India,strategy,neighbourhood
The Taliban knows that the US is in a hurry to beat a retreat and is looking for a face-saving deal. This has strengthened Taliban’s hand in the ongoing negotiations(Reuters)

“For most Americans, the Soviet withdrawal is the victory. For our South Asian friends, it is only the first act in a much larger drama,” said Arnold Lewis Raphel, former US ambassador to Pakistan. More than three decades later, it is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that is looming large, and another drama is waiting to unfold in South Asia. The Taliban and the US have agreed to a draft of the peace framework after multiple rounds of talks. The US is willing to withdraw its troop within 18 months in return for a Taliban promise that it will not allow al-Qaeda and Islamic State to operate from Afghan territory. The US also wants the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and a dialogue with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. The Taliban hasn’t yet agreed to these two demands.

The Taliban has a sole objective in the short term: to see the back of foreign troops in Afghanistan. It knows that the US is in a hurry to beat a retreat and is looking for a face-saving deal. This has strengthened Taliban’s hand in the ongoing negotiations. The Ghani government, on the other hand, is feeling the heat and is warning against a rushed deal. A similar attempt at the US-Taliban talks during Barack Obama’s tenure was opposed by the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He fell in line only on Obama’s personal intervention.

Let’s look at what the Taliban has agreed to: to not provide sanctuaries to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. One, the Taliban is opposed to the latter but has maintained a symbiotic relationship with the former. Even though Taliban’s reliance on al-Qaeda today is a lot less than ever before, it has never completely severed the relationship which was carefully nurtured by its late leader Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden, Omar continued to insist, was his guest who couldn’t simply be handed over to a non-Muslim nation. This irrational position eventually led to Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in 2001.

Two, the Taliban cannot be trusted to keep its words. The Obama-tenure negotiations eventually fell flat because the Taliban decided to elevate, in violation of the terms negotiated, its political office in Qatar to an office of the unrecognised Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Three, the fear of fragmentation in Taliban is real. If it gives up on al-Qaeda under American pressure, it might lose a number of fighters to either Islamic State or al-Qaeda itself or to smaller militias. The Taliban has suffered a heavy number of defections ever since the death of Omar became public in 2015 and a succession battle ensued. Betraying al-Qaeda — a no go for Omar when he was alive — might exacerbate the trend.

Four, the US has few enforcement means if the Taliban simply chooses to not honour its commitments. Unlike economic sanctions, which can be snapped back in a jiffy, putting back the boots on the ground after withdrawal is a tough ask.

All of this means that the US withdrawal in this manner doesn’t bode well for Afghanistan and the region. How should India manage this transition? New Delhi has two objectives in Afghanistan: 1) not letting extremist forces take over, and 2) preserve and expand its economic projects and state building activities in the country. But we do not know the tools India is ready to deploy in order to achieve these aims. Writing for The Wire, Pranay Kotasthane and Anand Arni of the Takshashila Institution have suggested a number of ways in which India can enhance its support for the fledgling Afghan administration short of putting boots on the ground.

The very idea of putting boots in Afghanistan evokes horror and incredulity among many in New Delhi. While Afghanistan presents a particularly fiendish challenge, this is a wider problem for India in the entire neighbourhood. The option of military intervention was similarly dismissed when the former President Abdulla Yameen was wreaking havoc in the Maldives. Are Indian forces never going to be used outside India’s territories? If yes, then in what circumstances?

New Delhi needs to draw up a neighbourhood strategy document, or perhaps a different one for different neighbours. It needs to think through, and write down, different tools available to it in case of various contingencies. The tools could include all kinds of carrots (loans, grants, military assistance, etc.) and sticks (economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, military intervention, etc.). In the absence of such a document, all we have in the name of strategy is wishing that our favourites (Sheikh Hasina, Nepali Congress, Ranil Wickremesinghe) come to power and the prospects of “anti-India” forces (Taliban, KP Sharma Oli, Mahinda Rajapaksa) are scuttled.

A neighbourhood strategy document is not about locking in your options in advance for all the foreseeable crises in the region. It should instead provide a framework for thinking about problems, and thus impart a degree of policy coherence and institutional memory. If a drama is about to unfold in Afghanistan, the least we can do is to keep a screenplay of our own ready.

kunal.singh@htlive.com

First Published: Feb 02, 2019 20:13 IST