February 7, 2010


Is India's neighbourhood set to get even more dangerous? (Indrani Bagchi, 6 February 2010 , TOI Crest)

The Afghanistan conference in London last week was a shocker for Indian mandarins who had hoped to muscle in and get a larger say in Afghan policy given the money and effort New Delhi has put into the reconstruction efforts. But what happened was that India got blindsided by the British swallowing the Pakistani line that Islamabad could deliver peace by negotiating a deal with the Taliban. Shivshankar Menon, the new national security adviser, along with foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, is leading a massive review of India's own Af-Pak policy, which will determine not just India's approach to Afghanistan, but also craft out a new policy of engagement with Pakistan. The announcement on Thursday of resumption of foreign secretary-level talks between New Delhi and Islamabad is a movement in that direction.

Pakistan has pushed hard to remain in the driver's seat on Afghan policy. And, at least for now, it appears to be winning by hard-selling the line that without the involvement of the ISI, re-integration will remain a non-starter. That was evident first at the Istanbul Af-Pak meeting leading up to the January 28 London conference , where Pakistan insisted India be kept out of the talks, and even a feeble attempt by Karzai to get India to the table was brushed off. India fretted and fumed impotently, but found itself completely dealt out of the game by Pakistan and the UK leading the charge, letting Karzai announce that he was going to draw his brothers back into the tent, and requesting the Saudis to mediate a 'reintegration and reconciliation' with the Taliban.

This was only formalizing a process that had started in 2009, when the Taliban leadership had met with the Afghan government in the desert kingdom . These meetings broke the ice, even quietly blessed by US special envoy to Af-Pak , Richard Holbrooke. After the London
conference, Saudi envoy to India Faisal Tarab told Crest in a carefully worded comment, "We are ready to mediate with the Taliban, but we will not talk to terrorists.'' Saudi King Abdullah has just met Karzai and the outcome of that conversation could determine the success or otherwise of the proposed venture.

For India, global approval of the reconciliation process implies Pakistan, with its ISI and army, is likely to take a leading role. As Holbrooke told MK Narayanan, who was till recently NSA, and Nirupama Rao quietly during his last visit a couple of weeks ago, Pakistan has worked itself into a paranoia about India's presence in Afghanistan; India would have to be removed from all decision-making on Afghanistan, they insisted. As London showed, Islamabad got its way.

For the US and UK, even though India's assistance programme punches all the right buttons, India had to be sacrificed . Therefore, when British foreign secretary David Miliband was asked about India's role, he hummed and hawed saying "by and by" . In London, India insisted on putting in phrases like the process should be "Afghan-led'' and "transparent and inclusive'' - words to prevent the British and Pakistanis from controlling it. But as every diplomat understands, these are words than cannot , and indeed, will not be enforced.

The Pakistani demand has been succinctly laid out by Munir Akram, one of its top diplomats: "Pakistan's cooperation should be offered only in exchange for tangible and immediate US support for Pakistan's national objectives: an end to Indian-Afghan interference in Baluchistan and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas); a Kashmir solution; a military balance between Pakistan and India; parity with India on nuclear issues; transfer of equipment and technology for counter-terrorism ; unconditional defense and economic assistance; free trade access.''

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 7, 2010 11:03 AM
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