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India shuffles its Northern card

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan being a possibility, India is cautiously testing the waters to revive the Northern Alliance of the nineties. Jayanth Jacob reports.

delhi Updated: Aug 09, 2010 23:19 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times

India is quietly sounding out Afghanistan's neighbours about reviving the defunct Northern Alliance, the coalition that held out against the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. New Delhi is being driven by a concern that a precipitate Western withdrawal could pave the way for a new Taliban regime.

Indian officials term its activities as "option hunting" and "exploratory." This caution is born of a desire not to give Kabul the impression India is washing its hands of Hamid Karzai. The larger driver behind the policy is how war-weary governments, notably that of Britain, will force a withdrawal of the US-led Western army in Afghanistan. But New Delhi has no doubts that it needs to hedge against a Taliban return.

"Something Pakistan is happy to support," said an Indian official.

So far India has taken the following diplomatic steps:

Afghanistan was a key element of the agenda of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's Moscow visit early last week. Russia expressed an interest in exploring options in a matrix that included India, Iran and some Central Asian countries. This has been a major shift: even a year ago Moscow was passive regarding a new anti-Taliban front.

India has had the longest engagement on this possibility with Iran and is now in bilateral discussions about "realistic option hunting." Tehran had raised the Northern Alliance option the earliest, as long as three years ago. India had then declined after consulting alliance veterans, like Abdullah Abdullah.

A senior Indian diplomat with considerable Afghan experience recently visited Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with the Northern Alliance on his agenda.

Other countries have already announced similar moves. Moscow wants to hold a meeting of Afghan, Indian, Iranian and Tajik officials. Iran is planning a trilateral that would include Afghanistan and India.

There is an acceptance in New Delhi that this will not be an easy task. The original Northern Alliance was led by a charismatic fighter, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Since his assassination by the Al Qaeda, there is no obvious replacement. The present moves, admit Indian officials, are more about "reviving the remnants" of the alliance.

India also believes it would be useful for the alliance to have a Pashtun head. The Pashtuns are the largest Afghan ethnic group and India believes it has been able to win the hearts and minds among this group, thanks to the "participatory model" it used in its Afghan aid programme. This is a gain it does not wish to fritter away.

New Delhi still hopes the US will not withdraw and still believes Karzai's present tilt towards Islamabad, at least in supporting the Pakistan military's plans for integrating the Taliban into the Kabul regime, is merely "tactical". A government source said, "Karzai is seeking support from everywhere...But the Pakistani role in all this is inimical to Indian interests."

New Delhi sees little positive in the present process about "mainstreaming" the "rank and file of the Taliban". Even if the process follows the criteria set by the international community — for example, the rehabilitated Taliban must support the Afghan constitution — the result is seen as abetting Pakistani influence in Kabul. But that would be nothing compared to the setback that a full Taliban return, even if it rebadges itself, would mean for India. Said an official, "A Taliban regime can just suit Pakistan."

(With inputs from Pramit Pal Chaudhuri)

First Published: Aug 09, 2010 23:15 IST