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Shanthie Mariet D'Souza: India's Afghan gamble

Finding common ground with Russia and Iran won't affect Indo-US ties but it would require delicate balancing

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza 

India is seeking to turn proactive in Afghanistan. Amidst possibilities of a US downsizing and Pakistan’s growing clout in Afghanistan, India is making clear efforts not to be left in the cold. It has extended a hand of friendship to Iran and is also seeking to forge a common front with Russia to ensure that its decades-long “aid and development policy” in Afghanistan does not go in vain.

The prospect of US withdrawal from Afghanistan has accelerated two new processes in that country: one, reconciliation with the Taliban; and two, handover of the responsibility of running the country to the Afghans. Unfortunately, the groundwork for the implementation of both the programmes remains unfinished.

The Pakistani military is clearly taking advantage of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s desperation for making peace with the Taliban. It appears to have convinced the Afghan President that it holds the key to reconciliation with the Taliban. It has reportedly facilitated one-to-one meetings between Taliban affiliate Sirajuddin Haqqani and Karzai. The fact that Pakistan has successfully resisted attempts of individual Taliban leaders based in Pakistan to open talks directly with the Afghan government is not forgotten by the Karzai government, since the February 2010 arrest of Taliban commander Mullah Biradar in Karachi. Karzai now looks amenable to shake hands with Pakistan. Both countries have signed a series of pacts seeking political, strategic and trade cooperation.

Similarly, the urge to painstakingly stick to President Obama’s promise of “conditions-based process” for leaving Afghanistan is compelling the US to take extraordinary steps to placate the Taliban. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke travelled to New York on July 6 specifically to negotiate the removal of select Taliban members from the UN anti-terror blacklist.

The warming up of ties between the Afghan government and Pakistan, and the possibility of return of the Taliban in some form or the other to Kabul’s power-sharing arrangements are seen to be detrimental to India’s interest. In re-calibrating its Afghan strategy, India is once again looking towards Russia and Iran that have a similar antipathy towards the Taliban, though tactically Iran and Russia are said to support elements of the Taliban-led insurgency in north and west Afghanistan to raise the ante for the US.

The Taliban leadership remains an anathema to Iran and Russia like it is to India, which believes that the distinction between the good and the bad Taliban is non-existent, and the extremists would pose significant risks to the region if allowed to come back to power. It was Russia’s opposition that stalled US’ moves to remove individuals listed in the UN Security Council Resolution 1267 — most of these individuals are either Taliban or associated with them. Moscow repeated its charges that any such move to rehabilitate an unrepentant Taliban must be resisted at the Kabul conference, much to the comfort of India. While India has broadly supported the Afghan-led reintegration process, it stands opposed to any reconciliation effort with the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan.

After years of chill between India and Iran, since the days when India voted with the US against Iran’s nuclear programme, a new wave of warmth between the two countries is perceptible. Starting August 4, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Fathollahi visited India on a three-day tour to discuss wide-ranging issues, including coordinated efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. This second ministerial visit from Iran to India in less than a month followed the July 9 joint commission meeting at which both countries had discussed to expedite the Chabahar port in Iran, which could deepen India’s reach in both Afghanistan and central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. This comes at a time when rights of trade and transit through the Pakistan’ territory have again been denied to India at the recently concluded Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement. India and Iran have also decided to hold “structured and regular consultations” on closer cooperation in Afghanistan. Both have been seen inching closer in their assessment of the unravelling Afghan quagmire, and both see a strategic advantage in coordinating efforts against the Taliban. The two countries had backed the Northern Alliance in days leading to the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Starting August 2, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao also undertook a visit to Russia to prepare the ground for Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s year-end visit to India. Issues such as the security situation in Afghanistan and ways of developing a coordinated strategy between both countries were discussed during foreign office consultations in Moscow.

It is not clear whether a continued US presence in Afghanistan would actually checkmate Pakistani miltary’s overt attempts to regain “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. The leakage of classified documents by WikiLeaks indicates that ISI’s nexus with the Taliban and its anti-India programme have not come as a surprise to many in the US. The recent revelations notwithstanding, US’ continued reliance on the Pakistani military could compel India to search for its own regional strategy. India has so far actively supported the “build and transfer” component of the present US counter-insurgency strategy. However, in the light of growing evidence and increased threat perception to India’s interests in Afghanistan, New Delhi is seen to be moving forward in the formation of a “regional concert of powers”.

Finding common goals with Iran and Russia on Afghanistan by India wouldn’t hurt the Indo-US strategic partnership, but it would require a delicate balancing. Such issues are bound to figure prominently as US President Barack Obama visits India in November 2010. However, a common front with Iran and Russia would certainly raise the profile of India to be recognised as a key power that needs to be involved, consulted and heard in discussions on Afghanistan. What years of soft power approach and dithering over whether to put “boots on ground” in Afghanistan could not achieve for New Delhi, its reinvigorated regional diplomacy might just do.

Dr D’Souza is visiting research fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal. 

First Published: Sat, August 14 2010. 00:41 IST