The Indian focus is on stabilizing the situation so that Afghanistan becomes a “stable, democratic and pluralistic state.” Source: Reuters
India has put its cards on the table regarding the developing Afghan situation. It came in the course of the intervention by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid at the 20th Asian Regional Forum [ARF] meeting in Brunei Darussalam on Tuesday.
Khurshid chose the ARF forum as the first available peg to hang the Indian thought processes following what appears to have been detailed discussions regarding the Afghan peace talks on the anvil at Doha with the United States during the visit by secretary of state John Kerry to Delhi last week.
Evidently, India has fleshed out its approach toward the peace talks with the Taliban taking into account the inputs from Kerry’s visit as well as the consultations in Delhi that followed immediately thereafter with the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins who was on a regional tour.
The fundamentals of the Indian approach so far have been three vectors. First, in the haste toward peacemaking, there should be no let-up in the struggle against terrorism. Second, the international community should remain engaged in Afghanistan for the long-term both in terms of rendering development assistance as well as for beefing up security. Third, India will be supportive of a peace and reconciliation process with the Taliban that is “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned” but with the important caveat that those engaging in talks should be willing to accept internationally accepted “red lines”.
Khurshid’s statement is notable for the nuances that have appeared in the above approach. Clearly, the probability of the establishment of the US military bases in Afghanistan does not bother India and, on the contrary, Delhi would presumably accept it as a necessary underpinning for the US’ continued engagement in Afghanistan. The Indian focus is on stabilizing the situation so that Afghanistan becomes a “stable, democratic and pluralistic state” and the notable omission in Khurshid’s formulation is the word “neutral”. India’s stance is closer in this respect to China’s rather than to Russia or Iran’s. (Pakistan keeps a strategic ambiguity pending a US-Taliban deal.)
Delhi has embraced the idea of reconciling the Taliban without “ifs” and “buts”. At any rate, the so-called “red lines” have become somewhat hazy, because the US now maintains that the “red lines” cannot be regarded as a precondition for the commencement of the talks at Doha but would, hopefully, emerge as the outcome of the talks – that is, if the talks prove successful.
Again, the operative word in Khurshid’s statement is “all armed opposition groups” – not militants or extremists or insurgents. All Afghan groups have also been bracketed together. This is a paradigm shift, necessitated by the realistic appraisal that there is support for the idea of reconciling the Taliban in the world community and within the Afghan nation itself. (British Prime Minister David Cameron today says the reconciliation of the Taliban should have been done a decade ago.)
There is not a word in Khurshid’s statement differentiating the Haqqani Network, either. Until recently, the Haqqanis used to touch a raw nerve in Delhi, having been implicated, in the Indian assessment, in the two murderous attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul. Suffice to say, Delhi has quietly harmonized its stance vis-à-vis the Haqqanis with the US’s decision to include them in the Doha talks.
Khurshid has underscored that the reconciliation process must not “undermine” the legitimacy of the Afghan state and government. Prima facie, this is a principled stance but a nuanced stance, nonetheless, carefully refraining from identifying with the present leadership of Hamid Karzai.
Washington has been finding Karzai a difficult customer and even tried to prevent him from getting re-elected in 2009. Finally, Kerry had acted as the intermediary to work out an understanding that Karzai would definitely relinquish power in 2014. The Obama administration has since then been striving to isolate Karzai and purge him of any residual ambition to remain in power beyond the current term ending in April either as president or as a powerbroker pulling the strings from behind the stage during the complex political transition looming ahead. Suffice to say, Karzai keeps Washington guessing as to what his intentions are.
Delhi, on the other hand, identified itself closely all along through the past decade with Karzai. However, Khurshid carefully omitted making any references to Karzai and differentiated the “Afghan State and Government.” This becomes significant because both Kerry and Dobbins urged Delhi to train eyes on the Afghan presidential election due next April and look at life beyond Karzai. While Kerry suggested that India could render “technical assistance” in the holding of the election, Dobbins went a step further and confabulated with Indian officials on what credentials a prospective Afghan candidate aspiring to succeed Karzai ought to have.
Equally, while underscoring India’s future role in Afghanistan, Khurshid stressed the areas of “reconstruction and rehabilitation” of Afghanistan but kept silent on security cooperation. Of course, this is also the sort of restricted Indian role that Washington expects Delhi to play in post-2014 Afghanistan.
On the whole, what emerges is that Kerry and Dobbins have succeeded in their mission to get Delhi on board the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy.
It could be argued that Delhi has made a virtue out of necessity by choreographing a new approach that would ensure that no serious contradictions arise vis-à-vis the American approach during the volatile period ahead. The point is, Delhi needs to be modest about its self-appreciation of the Indian capacity to influence the current peace process, especially at a time when the US recognizes Pakistan as the “core player.”
Both Kerry and Dobbins suggested that an improvement in India-Pakistan relations would help the stabilization of the Afghan situation. But it is doubtful if Delhi sees things quite in that simplistic way.
Khurshid, in fact, made a pointed reference to the “need for joint and concerted efforts to dismantle terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens, particularly beyond Afghan borders.” It doesn’t need much ingenuity to discern what precisely he had in mind. Khurshid said this, notwithstanding the latest affirmations by top US officials that Washington estimates a “genuine shift” in Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan.
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