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Don’t lose the Game

The February 26 killing of Indians in another terrorist attack in Kabul stresses the mounting dangers for India in Afghanistan, writes Kanwal Sibal.

india Updated: Mar 04, 2010 23:25 IST

The February 26 killing of Indians in another terrorist attack in Kabul stresses the mounting dangers for India in Afghanistan. Our vulnerabilities will increase as the West prepares to exit and strike a deal with the very forces responsible for this attack — the Taliban.

The United States-Nato strategy is to strengthen their ground position as they negotiate with the Taliban. With an additional 30,000 US and 10,000 Allied troops, the plan is to put military pressure on Taliban strongholds, eliminate the insurgents from key areas, hold those with trained and expanded Afghan forces, provide proper civilian administration, undertake development activities and, in the process, win over local populations to the government side and shrink the Taliban base within the country. The Marjah operation was to test the viability of this ambitious political/civilian/military strategy. But can it succeed without a credible, popular, galvanising national political authority in Kabul, and that too by July 2011?

How realistic is the policy of reintegrating and reconciliation with the Taliban? The December 2009 Nato statement describes reintegration as efforts at the tactical and operational levels to persuade low-level fighters, commanders and shadow governors to lay down their arms and to assimilate peacefully into Afghan society. Reconciliation is presented as high-level strategic dialogue with senior leaders of the insurgent groups (no distinction here between ‘good’ Taliban and ‘bad’ Taliban) designed to terminate their armed campaign against the Afghan people and their government. Both processes, according to the document, are to be Afghan-led. The January 28 London Conference on Afghanistan endorsed this policy.

The process of reintegration, according to Afghan representatives, will be advanced through strengthening Afghan institutions and their delivery capability, enforcing the rule of law, combating corruption, carrying out geographically balanced development activities, investing in education, creating legitimate economic opportunities, extending the reach of the government to remote areas etc.

Can this work of years be compressed into 18 months, and that too in an environment of increasing violence? Physical security has also to be provided by the Afghan National Security Forces, set to increase to 171,600 by 2011, to those who break links with the Taliban against any future reprisals by the extremists. Can such a well-trained and adequately armed, motivated and loyal force be created in a few months?

This outreach to the Taliban imperils India’s interests in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai has singled out reconciliation as a key priority of his new government. While instrumental in forging close political ties with India to Pakistan’s intense discomfiture, he is now pushing for a policy that can gravely undermine India’s position in Afghanistan, give Pakistan the role it seeks in Afghanistan’s future, and allow the political expansion of the Taliban’s extremist religious ideology in the region. With his political legitimacy seriously eroded by last year’s fraud-smeared presidential election, his feeble Pashtun support and an ambivalent western one, why he believes he can favourably negotiate with the Taliban as president is unclear.

Such a post-US drawdown survival strategy is unlikely to succeed. A distrustful Pakistan would oust him at the earliest opportunity to facilitate its own grip over a future Afghan government. India has also to be wary of Karzai’s search for a Saudi role in the reconciliation process. Given their close nexus, Saudi intervention suits Pakistan. The Saudi foreign minister’s remarks to the Indian media during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recently-concluded visit to the kingdom, that they are not in touch with the Taliban, can be discounted. A gap is opening between what Karzai sees are Afghan interests and his own and those of India.

Western overtures to the Taliban constitute a significant diplomatic success for Pakistan. Its grit in resisting US pressure to act against the Afghan Taliban has been rewarded. With US Central Command Chief, General David Petraeus, now averse to Pakistan stirring up any more ‘hornets nests’ in the border areas, a self-confident Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is offering to mediate between the US-Nato and the Taliban. His only condition being that Pakistan’s need for a soft strategic depth in Afghanistan is recognised as an insurance against the Indian threat and limits are put on India’s presence in Afghanistan. Kayani’s stature in Pakistan has risen and Pakistan’s attitude towards India has hardened, as was evident during the recent foreign secretary-level talks in New Delhi last week.

India would need to rethink its options in Afghanistan. We cannot count on President Karzai as before. Our local popularity is a fragile base for retaining our long-term influence, unless we can affect power equations within the country. Anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan need stronger backing by Russia, the Central Asian countries, Iran and India. The US is disregarding India’s long-term strategic interests in the region; it is yielding to Pakistan’s disruptive ambitions in Afghanistan.

An unreformed Pakistan that still promotes terrorism against us is being armed and conditions for the spread of an extremist version of Islam in our region are being created, with serious consequences for our security. Is the US failing a critical test of its ‘strategic partnership’ with India?

Kanwal Sibal is a former Foreign Secretary, Government of India
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 04, 2010 23:21 IST