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India sidelined in Afghanistan

July 19, 2010 19:55 IST
As yet another conference on Afghanistan opens in Kabul on Tuesday, Harsh V Pant believes India will have to go beyond rhetoric to be a party to the process unfolding in that country, especially in light of the growing Islamabad-Kabul relationship.

As India prepares the groundwork for the July 20 Kabul conference by expressing support for any reintegration move that leads to 'genuine peace' in Afghanistan, India will have to go beyond rhetoric to make itself to the process unfolding in its neighbourhood. The Kabul conference will be happening at a crucial time.

The Pakistan army's offensive against Taliban militants is now almost two years old. Yet there are few signs of any significant successes so far. The army is being forced to come back and counter militants in several areas like South Waziristan and the Swat Valley where it has already declared victory long back.

Counter-insurgency warfare is a tough business and an army that is largely configured to fighting the Indian military is finding the going tough in its tribal areas where the Taliban fighters are getting dispersed.

The army is chasing the fighters away from one area, only to find them appear elsewhere soon thereafter. The civilian casualties are rising as Pakistan continues to rely in US supplied F-16 fighter jets and Cobra helicopter gunships to bomb militant hideouts.

In a rare apology, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani regretted the loss of lives of more than 70 tribesmen from aerial strikes in April this year.

Despite being pressed by the US, the Pakistani security establishment remains reluctant to take on the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. The Haqqani group is an important player in the emerging security dynamic in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military views it as an important asset in countering Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, Kayani has offered to help broker a deal between the Haqqani group and the Afghan government.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, is grudgingly accepting a larger role for Pakistan in his country. His decision to send a contingent of Afghan military officers to Pakistan for training underlines his desire to seek a rapprochement with Islamabad. The July 2011 deadline was intended to force Karzai to address urgent problems like corruption and ineffective governance.

But it may have had the opposite effect, convincing Karzai that in a year from now, he will be on his own. Though the US is at pains to underline that July 2011 'will be the beginning of a conditions-based process' and that the deadline will be debated in the military's formal review of progress in December, there are few who are willing to bet at the moment that the Obama administration has the stomach to stay for much longer in Afghanistan.

Karzai in particular seems convinced that Americans will not be able to stay the course. And the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has laid bare the tensions in Obama's policy making circles regarding the right strategy for Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, Karzai is trying to craft a more autonomous foreign policy. Karzai lost no time in dismissing two high-profile ministers -- the interior minister and the intelligence chief -- from his cabinet who were most closely allied with the US.

These were the men Washington had insisted Karzai include in his cabinet after his re-election last year and they were resisting Karzai's attempts to negotiate with the Taliban and closer ties with Islamabad.

Karzai now views Pakistan as an important player in ending the war through negotiations with the Taliban or on the battlefield.

The decision to send officers for training in Pakistan is of great symbolic value and is the result of talks between the Afghan government and Pakistan's security agencies that began in May.

It has even been reported that Karzai had a face-to-face meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani in the presence of Pakistan's army chief and the Inter Services Intelligence chief.

The Taliban's growing power is evident in their dismissal of proposed negotiations with the US. The Taliban seem convinced that they are winning the war in Afghanistan and that public opinion in the West is turning against the war.

Pakistan is also reportedly moving ahead with the extradition of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a top aide to Mullah Omar, to Afghanistan. By arresting Baradar earlier this year, Islamabad successfully disrupted direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Pakistan would like to ensure that it is at the centre of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government so that Pakistan's core interest of containing Indian influence is not jeopardised.

The Taliban remain Pakistan's greatest source of leverage in Afghanistan and they have used that leverage effectively. Pakistan's security establishment is relishing the double game it is playing in Afghanistan.

Pakistani support for the Taliban in Afghanistan continues to be sanctioned at the highest levels of Pakistan's government with the ISI even represented on the Quetta Shura -- the Taliban's war council -- so as to retain influence over the Taliban leadership.

Taliban fighters continue to be trained in Pakistani camps. The ISI does not merely provide financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency. It retains strong strategic and operational control over the Taliban campaign in Afghanistan.

Despite launching offensives against militants in North and South Waziristan, the Pakistani military continues to look upon the Taliban as a strategic asset.

Asif Ali Zardari has visited captured Taliban leaders assuring them of Pakistan's support. Pakistan's security establishment is manipulating the Taliban's political hierarchy so as to have greater leverage over future peace talks.

Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are hedging their bets against a possible US withdrawal. The US has also acknowledged that in addition to taking military action against Taliban sanctuaries inside its borders, it is essential that Pakistan be involved 'in some sort of reconciliation arrangement' with the insurgents.

Though General David Petraeus, the new commander of the International Security Assistant Force, has admitted in his recent confirmation hearings that India has legitimate interests in the region, it is not clear at all what India is being offered to be a constructive player in this enterprise.

New Delhi still continues to believe that the US cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan and will not leave unless the problem of Af-Pak is fundamentally resolved.

But that assumption needs to be revisited in light of recent developments and India should be assessing what it can do to prevent its further marginalisation in the rapidly evolving regional dynamic.

Harsh V Pant