Counting your chickens before they hatch
Pakistan is awash with renewed optimism in being able to favorably influence political and structural rearrangements in Afghanistan. Along with “brother countries” Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan was able to both craft a proposition at the Istanbul Summit that called for negotiations and eventual reintegration of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political foray, and also successfully lobbied to keep India out of the summit itself. The icing on the cake for Islamabad was the broad endorsement of Pakistan’s plan at the London Conference, the following week.
Pakistan’s self-belief in its own indispensability and leverage over a resolution to the Afghanistan quagmire is mirrored in both official pronouncements from leaders of its armed forces and in its press corps. At the NATO Commanders’ Conference, COAS Kayani enunciated his country’s need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, while raising concerns about India’s influence in Afghanistan. Indeed, a Jang editorial one day before the London Conference called for all preparations to be made for dialog with the Taliban.
Pakistan’s army has also candidly put forth its position to the Obama Administration that India’s role in Afghanistan cannot go beyond development and infrastructural work. Pakistan has also volunteered to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) to counter what many believe is a role best suited for the Indian Army. In short, Pakistan apparently successfully executed a prima facie diplomatic coup-de-etat, while India played the proverbial “deer caught in the headlights” on the world stage.
Without a doubt, India’s position on the Taliban has always been untenable. A blanket rejection of an ambiguous collection of disparate groups seemed convenient and excused our leadership from having to go through the exercise of evaluating the various equations at play in Afghanistan. Over the course of the years, this stance by India has seen it wholeheartedly back the Karzai regime while not wanting to have anything to do with any Pashtun elements that it suspected of being engaged (at whatever level) with the ISI. Rightly, India’s over-simplistic, “with us or against us” approach was rejected by the international community at large.
But Pakistan’s own influence in matters relating to Afghanistan has been overstated. Indeed, going by recent pronouncements, Pakistan is counting its chickens before they are hatched and the mirage of indispensability will unravel sooner than later. Not being able to dictate the modularities of counter-insurgency operations within its own sovereign territory, it is unlikely that it can wield the magnitude of power it believes it enjoys in relation to India in Afghanistan.
So what must India do? The London Conference has already invalidated India’s over-simplistic approach to the Taliban, so the first course of action is apparent. India must begin to engage with those Pashtun elements who seek reintegration into the existing political foray in Afghanistan. In actuality, there isn’t a significant divergence of opinion between the United States and India on the issue.
India’s real apprehensions are centered around the possible reintegration of Mullah Omar’s group — the so-called Quetta Shurah. This is entirely consistent with the US’s own position. India’s apprehensions on al-Qaeda elements and Haqqani network are also shared by the US. This essentially leaves a rag-tag group of warlords who are all too small anyway to individually impact power dynamics in Afghanistan. India can begin by opening up communication channels with these groups.
India must also work with other important regional powers who share similar apprehensions versus the core Taliban group. Indeed, the alliance of yore between Iran and India, who share common concerns of the spread of wahabbism in the region, and Russia must be resurrected. Russia has articulated its clearest position to date on its willingness to “help rebuild” Afghanistan and Iran has shared India’s concerns about the spread of radical Sunni Islam in the wider region.
Over the last nine years, India has very naively bought into the argument that the dramatically altered equation post US’s invasion of Afghanistan was permanent, and that its reliance on “soft power” alone could very safely ensure maximized gains in Afghanistan without having to actually assume an overt presence in Afghanistan.
The situation in Afghanistan today, with Western forces working towards a withdrawal deadline, and Pakistan growing increasingly assertive, demands that India adopt a more proactive role, working in concert with the US and regional powers to ensure that the power equations that eventually shape up are largely in India’s favor. The question is, what is Manmohan Sigh’s government planning to do about it?