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India's isolation is not good news for the West

By Harsh V Pant
February 23, 2010 15:56 IST
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Instead of ignoring Delhi, the West would be better served if it ceases to pander to Pakistan for short-term gains. Not supporting the only secular liberal democracy in the region will only embolden the radical Islamists in the long-term, writes Harsh V Pant.

It would be an understatement to suggest that Indian diplomacy faced a major setback at the Afghanistan Conference in London. India was humiliated and its concerns were summarily ignored. In one stroke, Pakistan rendered New Delhi irrelevant in the evolving security dynamic in Afghanistan.

When Indian External Affairs Minister, S M Krishna, underscored the folly of making a distinction "between a good Taliban and a bad Taliban," he was completely out of sync with the larger mood at the conference.

The West has made up its mind that it is not a question of if but when and how to exit from Afghanistan which to the leaders in Washington and London is rapidly becoming a quagmire. Days before this much-hyped conference, senior US military commanders were suggesting that peace talks with the Taliban may be imminent and that they might even be invited to be a part of the government in Kabul. It is not without significance that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband emphasised in London that the war in Afghanistan had already gone on longer than the Second World War.

And so instead of devising plans to win this war, it was decided in London that the time had come to woo the moderate section of the Taliban back to share power in Kabul. Pakistan seems to have convinced the West that it can play the role of mediator in negotiations with the Taliban, thereby underlining its centrality in the unfolding strategic dynamic in the region.

Pakistan is attempting to preserve its rapidly diminishing influence in Afghanistan and also to force the West into taking its concerns vis-a-vis India more seriously. For the Pakistan's security establishment, this is its biggest opportunity in Kabul since November 2001. Islamabad has successfully nurtured a charade that it can persuade the Taliban to control its actions and make a complete break with Al Qaeda, providing a face saving formula for the West to exit. This when observers are warning that Taliban is more closely aligned with Al Qaeda today than it was eight years ago.

This rapid turn of events has sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. For a long time, India was complacent about its neighborhood policy. The assumption was: why worry when the US forces are fighting radical extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan? India decided to put its faith in the ability of the US to pull its chestnuts out of the fire should the need arose. It was to keep Washington in good humour that India decided not to take any serious action against Pakistan in the aftermath of Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. It continued to put pressure on Islamabad using American leverage to bring the masterminds of those terror strikes to justice.

But the debacle in London is reportedly forcing a major re-think in New Delhi of India's Af-Pak policy. By failing to articulate its own Af-Pak policy so far, India has let the agenda be set by Pakistan. The recent announcement of the resumption of India-Pakistan talks that had been in deep freeze since November 2008 is part of a new approach that New Delhi is considering.

Though there is little chance of these foreign-secretary level talks producing anything concrete in the near future, India is worried that a failure to resume talks with Pakistan now will only lead to growing international pressure, especially from the US. Therefore, while the negotiations with Pakistan remain hugely unpopular at home, the Indian government has decided to make this push.

More importantly, India should reconsider the terms of its involvement in Afghanistan. It is fairly evident that India's sole reliance on its "soft power" is no longer working. Pakistan's paranoia about Indian presence in Afghanistan has led the West to underplay India's largely beneficial role in the country even as Pakistan's every claim about Indian intentions is taken at face value.

The Taliban militants who blew up the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and tried again in 2009 have sent a strong signal that India is part of the evolving security dynamic in Afghanistan despite its reluctance to take on a more active role in the military operations. After targeting personnel involved in developmental projects and emboldened by India's non-response, these terrorist have trained their guns directly at the Indian State.

By pursuing a strategy that will give Pakistan the leading role in the state structures in Afghanistan, the West, therefore, is only sowing the seeds for future regional turmoil. It would be catastrophic for Indian security if remnants of Taliban were to come to power with the backing of the ISI and Pakistan's military.

Just like in the 1990s, when the Taliban regime backed by Pakistan and tolerated by the West targeted India before hitting Western shores, a Taliban government in Afghanistan will once again train its guns at India. And this time they will be triumphant after having forced the West out of Afghanistan.

It is to be hoped that India has learnt from its past. In order to salvage its interests, over the next few months India should step up the training of Afghan forces, coordinate with states like Russia and Iran, and reach out to all sections of the Afghan society. Though it would indeed be problematic for the West, New Delhi should also try to add greater military muscle to its developmental activities in Afghanistan. There is no substitute for hard power in international relations and India should learn to use it in the service of its interests.

Instead of ignoring Delhi, the West would be better served if it ceases to pander to Pakistan for short-term gains. Not supporting the only secular liberal democracy in the region will only embolden the radical Islamists in the long-term. And that's no way to enhance western security.

Harsh Pant teaches at King's College London and is presently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Harsh V Pant