India has a substantial policy crisis on its hands with the US indicating that the Taliban did not pose a direct threat to its interests, writes M K Bhadrakumar
The United States couldn't have chosen a worse moment to reveal its mind on the Taliban than on Thursday evening even as the details were filtering in regarding the car bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul. Worse still, the Taliban lost no time claiming responsibility for the attack, which claimed 17 lives.
A senior US official in deep-briefing in Washington unveiled the thinking prevailing in the White House: The Taliban did not pose a direct threat to the US and, therefore, America's war on terror in South Asia would rather focus on tackling Al Qaeda inside Pakistan.
Of course, he added, Washington will "not tolerate their (Taliban's) return to power," but the US would only fight to keep the Taliban from retaking control of the central government and from giving sanctuary to Al Qaeda. The official further said Washington was bowing to the reality that the fundamentalist movement is too ingrained in Afghan national culture, as it has been for some time, and needs to be accepted in some role in parts of the country.
We have the first official signal that the Barack Obama administration is now inclined to send only as many more troops to Afghanistan as are needed to keep Al Qaeda at bay.
The stunning news is that the US has reframed the question 'who is the US's adversary?' What we are now to believe is that the Al Qaeda terror network is distinct from the Taliban and the US military has been for eight years fighting the Taliban even though it posed no direct threat to America.
In the history of wars, such an incredible somersault has never probably been attempted by human ingenuity. The US diplomats will now fan out from their embassies in world capitals and propagate that the Taliban has no agenda to harm other countries. This was exactly what they used to propagate a decade ago until their own embassies in Kenya and Tanzania got bombed and a gaping hole was put into USS Cole by a jihadi.
Clearly, Obama is content with ensuring that Al Qaeda doesn't regroup in Afghanistan as was the case before the 9/11 attacks. The limited American mission implies that the US will in immediate terms require only a small increase in its troop levels in Afghanistan. Most important, the US has decided to pivot its regional strategy by strengthening the Pakistani military and encouraging it to take the battle to extremists inside its borders.
All this adds up to a very substantial policy crisis for our government. The much-touted US-India strategic partnership is in tatters. The partnership is an illusion when the two sides cannot even see eye to eye on what constitutes a threat to their national security.
Curiously, the greatest irony of it all is that this should happen on the first anniversary of the nuclear deal breathing life. No less ironical is that we are still being hoodwinked about the so-called strategic partnership merely because the US President has decided that the first state banquet of his presidency will be held in honour of our prime minister.
The American gesture is completely comprehensible insofar as in all the 62 years of India's independent history, the US never had such a fabulously good fortune to have an Indian political elite ensconced in power in New Delhi that would bend with an ease and agility that will put David Beckham to shame, to ingratiate India into the US geo-strategies. Even then, as the Americans say, there is nothing like a free lunch.
After the dinner in the White House in November, our prime minister is sure to feel some pressure on his elbow as the American arm-twisting begins on awarding the upcoming multi-billion dollar defence contracts to Rayethon or Lockheed or Northrop. That is indeed going to be the price the nation will pay for our prime minister being honoured with the first state banquet of the Obama presidency.
What bothers us is how does the US-India strategic partnership work for the country's interests? We are sick and tired of this spin that our prime minister is a tall figure in the world community and that he rubs shoulders with Obama. What matters is what do we get at the end of the day out of the never-ending photo-ops in London or L'Aquila or Pittsburg.
It is a pathetic sight that we are today, one year down the lane, saddled with a nuclear deal that is best kept mothballed in a cloistered chamber as far away from public view as possible. We sacrificed our friendly ties with Iran on the altar of this nuclear deal. And what we find today is that the nuclear deal lies in limbo and Obama is bending over backwards to engage Iran while we don't know how to clear the debris of our lost friendship with Tehran.
India's regional isolation today is total and that is the price we have paid for aspiring to work 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, to quote our prime minister. The Obama administration is gearing up to engage Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian states over the Afghan problem but will neatly sidestep India in deference to Pakistani sensitivities.
Gone are the days when we used to daydream about becoming the 'Asian balancer' in the international system.
Gone are the days when we fancied we would have a quadripartite alliance of Asian democracies with the US, Japan and Australia with a view to 'contain' China.
Gone are the days when Washington would have us believe that the US is single-mindedly working to make India a first-rate world power.
Gone are the days when we believed that the US regarded India as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean region.
Gone are the days when we fancied that the US recognised India, finally, as a nuclear power and lifted the 'nuclear apartheid'.
Like autumn leaves, we are left with a huge, miserable-looking heap of broken dreams. Whoever thought a day would come when we couldn't even agree with the Americans as to who were the Taliban we both have been fighting against all these years?
M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat