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No easy way out

The consequences for India of Af-Pak under ‘good’ Taliban need US attention

Written by K. SHANKAR BAJPAI |
April 7, 2009 1:50:44 am

Although much discussed,the Obama approach to the Afghanistan-Pakistan quagmire needs further attention to two aspects. In a carefully thought-out effort at distilling a coherent strategy from intransigent,often conflicting,requirements,its imperfections pose first the question: anyone got a better alternative? Second,they underline how hard India must work for its interests.

The fundamental problem is: the world needs Al-Qaeda-Taliban defeated but is not providing the forces required. Stabilising Afghanistan/ Pakistan,better governance,socio-economic uplift,modern education,etc are the enduring means of success,but cannot even start without basic security. Afghanistan’s own army would be best,but it will take years to develop. International forces are too few — Americans cannot cope even with the new additions; the NATO constituents are mostly token,incredibly constrained by parent countries rejecting greater involvement; no one else is interested. Washington’s answer is to rely on Pakistan while recognising how much needs rectifying there. But DC’s omissions and implications need examination.

First,one wonders about the implications of the “Af-Pak” endgame. Even if uneasiness that Washington is working towards an early exit — and much Pakistani ambivalence is anticipating that — is unjustified,American forces will not stay for ever. Intentionally or not,the Obama approach looks to leave Pakistan with the Taliban dominating the Af-Pak region,and that would be disastrous.

There is the move towards accepting the division of the Taliban. Interestingly Taliban is hardly mentioned otherwise; it’s all Al-Qaeda. India’s bitter experience reveals no difference between various fanatics. Doubtless,not all obscurantists are terrorists,but the lesser evil of letting obscurantism prevail is still evil. The consequences for India of “Af-Pak” under “good” Taliban need Washington’s attention.

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Not least is the studied avoidance of any hint of India’s special interest. This will be explained as necessitated by Pakistan’s allergy to any such recognition — which also accounts for discouraging our doing more for Afghanistan. We ourselves forget that,constitutionally,Pakistan’s occupation of J&K territories being illegal,India has some 50 miles of Afghan frontier. Legal fiction maybe,but it symbolises how directly what happens in and to Afghanistan concerns us. The others states mentioned as stakeholders have not suffered terrorist onslaughts and don’t have major unresolved differences with a hostile Pakistan — sad distinctions but they entitle India to a greater say.

Pakistan’s propaganda against Indo-Afghan cooperation and our consulates is baseless. Afghanistan and India have long had separate disputes with Pakistan without supporting each other: New Delhi never shared Afghan claims against the Durand Line,and Kabul never supported India on Kashmir. India’s security requires a truly independent Afghanistan,whereas Pakistan seeks control for “defence in depth”.

Pakistan has also turned India-Pakistan “war” fears inside out. All past conflicts — even Siachen and Parakaram — were forced on India. (Brass tacks are often thrown back; it was an exercise that did almost get out of hand but it was not started with hostile intent.) India has exercised infinite restraint: not out of weakness or not knowing what to do (even though our congenital refusal to explain ourselves may leave that impression) but as a deliberate act of policy. But another Mumbai,and what’s our alternative? The onus is on Pakistan and must not be transferred to us. Pakistan is perfectly free to work wholeheartedly in its northwest if it wants to. Admittedly India-Pakistan wars cannot be excluded from military contingency planning,but only Pakistani provocation can again cause one.

A third misconception arises from this. If Kashmir underlies Pakistani policy,again it is not Indian but Pakistani designs that will shape events. It is not India that is trying to change the situation. Pakistan will say we are missing the point: all their provocations arise from India’s greater provocation,the “wrong” we continue in Kashmir. Public versions of back-channel achievements are wrong in major ways,but demonstrate one great reality: even this issue can be resolved bilaterally if Pakistan is willing.

We have been through all this endlessly,Pakistan will no more believe our version than we can theirs; but,knowing both,Washington still defers to Pakistani obsessions. Catering to delusions does not dispel them: progress depends on uprooting them. This Herculean work (which we will be pressed to facilitate) is surely the first priority. Washington cannot work miracles: even if imagined. There is the reality of Pakistan professing fears,but don’t call them “legitimate”.

This leaves the question: what can India do? We cannot provide troops: “Hindu” soldiers in the land of the Hindu Kush would merely feed Taliban propaganda (Hindu is not religious in original meaning,

relating to the old name of “Hindostan”,but religious fanatics would exploit it religiously.) But,beyond training and equipment,we can furnish operational advice from long experience of insurgencies. Obama calls for engineers,teachers,doctors,etc — all of which we can provide,as we are doing,besides other help.

True,these only serve long-term purposes,not the immediate security problem. There,containing Al-Qaeda-Taliban until Afghan forces become adequate appears to be the only possibility left. This is poor substitute for the defeat the president called for. But we are justified in fearing that victory may be even more elusive than hopes of Afghans developing their own forces — and that the means envisaged for victory may do more harm. (We should recall,not as recrimination but as warning against repeating mistakes,that the Taliban were first nurtured to defeat the Soviets: without debating ends and means,some means simply must not be used.)

American urgings to help Pakistan stabilise by easing its fears will run into India’s demands for convincing Pakistani action on terrorism,and vice versa. While raising our queries regarding where the Obama approach might end up — a Pakistan lax on extremists,but seeking domination over Afghanistan and even gaining it when others exit — we need to try to establish our interest in the region,the baselessness of fears against it and our readiness to help in development while working with others to build up Afghanistan. If meanwhile America and others can help rid Pakistan of its obsessions against us,perhaps new possibilities could open up. The proposed Contact Group (plus the security-economic forum suggested in the White Paper) is also worth exploring.

Washington is clearly attempting the best of a bad job. That being indeed the most to hope for,containing the terrorists until the Afghans,with greater international help,can take over is far less dangerous than relying on dubious means for better results.

The writer served as India’s ambassador to Pakistan,China and the US

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