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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 38, September 11, 2010

Karzai Reaches Out To Delhi: A Refreshing Sight

Friday 17 September 2010, by M K Bhadrakumar


The consultations by Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul and National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta in New Delhi in successive weeks will be noted regionally and internationally. They took place at a critical juncture in the geopolitics of the region.

For Indian foreign policy-makers, Afghanistan assumes an unprecedented priority today as the stakes are high for national security, and harmonising our vital interests and core concerns with those of the international community becomes a formidable intellectual and political challenge.

To be sure, the consultations would have given clarity to our understanding of the intriguing undercurrents in the Afghan situation. Quite obviously, the war is in stalemate. In the past five days alone, 19 US servicemen have been killed and they are dying in vain. The ‘surge’ is fizzling out while the Pakistani floods provide the alibi for the top brass in Rawalpindi to plead overriding distractions. In short, the war is degenerating into a futile brutish operation by the US special forces.
Politically, the blame game has begun in direct proportion to the frustrations on the battlefield. A US-led vilification campaign against Afghan President Hamid Karzai has appeared, provoked by his dogged sense of independence and his growing proclivity to address policies through the prism of Afghan national sentiments and interests, and, most important, his disench-antment with his Western partners and his consequential gravitation toward regional allies.

The regional milieu impacts in many ways. The US public opinion is wearied of bloodshed but the Pentagon is nonetheless hell-bent on keeping its military presence in the region as part of the ‘containment’ strategy toward China —and is beefing up its military bases in Afghanistan and even constructing new ones. The Afghan opinion will always militate against foreign occupation. Russia and China resent the US military presence but cannot do without it either, given the unfinished business of the war on terrorism.

Pakistan continues to project power into Afghanistan for gaining ‘strategic depth’ and estimates that time works in its favour even as US frustrations keep mounting. The US attempt to leverage Pakistan by doling out a multi-billion dollar aid package will not induce any serious let-up in the Pakistani military’s support to the Afghan insurgents. Thus, the US and Pakistan make strange Siamese twins in their deathly dance of mutual accommodation.

Under the circumstances Karzai faces a tough choice in being called upon to talk to the Taliban through the Pakistani military and under close US watch, which effectively stymies his reconciliation strategy and threatens to alienate his allies in Kabul who include forces opposed to a Taliban takeover. Meanwhile, the ‘Afghanisation’ of the war remains a chimera and the Western attempt to undercut Karzai’s political standing and his need to expand an independent, native political base seem bizarre.

Strategic Understanding

THE visits by the Afghan dignitaries no doubt underscore the high importance given by Karzai to forging a strategic understanding with India. Karzai is keen to have India’s support while navigating the choppy waters ahead. Certainly, there is a mutuality of interests in this regard, too, insofar as New Delhi shares Karzai’s opposition to a force majeure Taliban takeover in Kabul and equally sees the imperative of a broadbased government reflecting the country’s plural society as the key to enduring peace.

Curiously, the calculus holds similarities with the one in 1989-90 under Najibullah. Now as well, India’s national security interests are best served by a democratic, independent, non-aligned and neutral Afghanistan free of foreign interference.

The consultations underscore that India will always remain a player in Afghanistan and that it is not gratis any third country in the region or outside of it that India remains so. Cutting across regions and ethnic groups, mujahideen and Communists, and royalists and democrats, there is goodwill toward India among the Afghan people.

Two, the consultations show up that India doesn’t need fig-leaves of ‘trilateral’ or ‘quadrilateral’ formats for pursuing its relations with Afghanistan, since it has never been an adversary, an aggressor or an occupier. India’s approach can be the same as China’s, which too places primacy on an independent line of thinking.

Three, India has a steadily deepening and expanding strategic partnership with the US—unlike Russia (which cannot quite make up its mind if it is the US’ ally or adversary) or Iran (which peers through the prism of its standoff with the US). Despite the apparent contradictions in the US and Indian approaches, both wish to see a stable Afghanistan that acts as a hub bringing together Central and South Asia.

New Delhi is uniquely placed to influence Washington’s thinking. US President Barack Obama is due in November and he will have use for constructive inputs to go into his upcoming review of the AfPak strategy in December.

Of course, there is no scope for a military role for India. Nor is there any need of triumphalism vis-à-vis Pakistan, which will remain an influential player, thanks to the realities of geography, ethnicity, culture and history. But within these parameters, India can do much although it is a fine line to walk.

The warmth with which Rasul and Spanta were received certainly comes as a refreshing sight. The ingenuity of Indian diplomacy lies in transmuting the new thinking into practical measures that strengthen Karzai’s leadership and contribute to the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

The author is a former diplomat.

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