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India's goodwill and Pak's bluff in Afghanistan

By Jyoti Malhotra
March 20, 2010 17:32 IST
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At a dinner party at the home of India's defence attache, Brigadier Surinder Singh, in Kabul in December 2009, the freezing cold outside was considerably lightened not only by a raging bonfire set up on the verandah, but also by the grace, charm, warmth and wit of the young men and women from India's Army Education Corps and Army Medical Corps who had left their spouses and children back home in order to work among the people of Afghanistan.

Major Deepak Yadav from Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh, taught English at the Afghan Military Academy, as did Major Nitish Roy, while Major Laishram Jyotin Singh, from Imphal, Manipur, looked after the ill, the infirm and unhealthy children at the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul. The hospital's out-patient department has since been temporarily shut down, after Major Singh was blown up (and several other Indian doctors were injured) when he tried to stop a suicide bomber from hunting down Indians -- two other terrorists went from room to room in the guesthouse, looking for the Major's colleagues -- and thus allowing several Afghans and Indians to escape during those crucial life-giving moments.

Much has been written about the February 28 Kabul attack, the third against Indians in the last three years, which, Indian and Afghan officials believe, was carried out by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiyba. Much has been said about the LeT's motives, as well as that of its alleged sponsor, Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, with United States, British and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's diplomats privately conceding that the ISI -- and its mother organisation, the Pakistan army -- is playing a double game in the Af-Pak frontier. (Last year's attack against the Indian high commission in Kabul was also said to have been carried out by the LeT.)

None of this is new. According to Pakistani media reports, Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani has told President Asif Ali Zardari that the army will take primary responsibility of all Af-Pak-related policies -- meaning, Af-Pak matters are too important to be left to the democratically-elected government in Islamabad. This ties in with the general western assessment that the Pakistan Army/ISI has refused to completely cut off its links with the Taliban -- because, it may need to revive them after the western forces leave -- and join the US-led war on terror in the Af-Pak region.

The most startling reaction came from the US special envoy for Af-Pak Richard Holbrooke. At first, Holbrooke rejected the claim by Afghan intelligence that the attack -- in which nine Indians, including Majors Deepak Yadav and Laishram Jyotin Singh, died, while Nitish Roy succumbed to his injuries at the Army hospital in Delhi -- was targeted at the Indians.

Two days later, when Delhi protested against the insensitivity of the top US diplomat's remarks, Holbrooke backtracked, saying he 'regretted any misunderstanding caused' by his comments. "The willingness of India to take risks and make sacrifices to help Afghanistan is testament to India's commitment to global peace and prosperity and a vital part of the international commitment to Afghanistan's future," he added.

Although Holbrooke's carefully-worded denial of his own intemperate remarks was aimed at appeasing a furious Indian establishment, the fact is, the clarifications still haven't found their way into the US State Department's website in Washington DC, nor the State Department's website in Pakistan. 

In fact, the US establishment seems increasingly divided down the middle over its Af-Pak war, with Holbrooke tending to very much overlook Pakistan's complicity, because he feels it will endanger and discourage the critical role Islamabad is playing in the war effort. 

On the other hand, Delhi believes that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is much more circumspect about Islamabad's intentions and much more willing to keep India in Afghanistan, in the short as well as the long term. When Kayani, followed by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, reaches Washington in the coming days, they are likely to find that it is Clinton who takes the tough calls.

Clinton understands that when the US forces get out of Afghanistan, sooner rather than later, India and to a certain extent, Russia, will be the only regional players -- not Pakistan, China or Iran -- that the US will be able to depend upon to settle the chaos that is likely to ensue.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has now indicated that the US troop' draw-down could begin even earlier than the mid-2011 deadline. With Barack Obama increasingly embroiled in the two wars that he had no part in making, Delhi's assessment is that the 'outsourcing of the Afghanistan war' has already begun in Washington's mind.

According to Holbrooke, the time is not ripe to call Pakistan's bluff in the Af-Pak badlands. So, when Pakistan and the US 'jointly' captured Mullah Abdu Ghani Baradar in Karachi in mid-February, said to be the second most important man in the Taliban hierarchy after Mullah Omar, Holbrooke described it as a "high watermark for Pakistani and American collaboration".

Only, it now appears that Baradar's capture was really a cull. Having moved the top Afghan Taliban leadership, known as the 'Quetta Shura' to Karachi from Quetta recently, the Pakistan Army/ISI is said to have 'given up' Baradar because he was willing to experiment with Karzai's grand plans for 'reintegrating' all shades of Afghans. 

The US-owned news agency, Associated Press, is now reporting that Karzai was furious at Mullah Baradar's capture by the Pakistanis; in fact, when Karzai asked that Baradar be extradited during his visit to Islamabad last week, the Pakistanis turned him down. So much for the 'twin brotherhood' between Pakistan and Afghanistan that Karzai was said to have espoused during his Islamabad trip

In fact, Holbrooke is well known to be resisting the Indian offer to train the Afghan Army because Pakistan, already edgy about India's enormous goodwill in Afghanistan, does not believe Delhi should be allowed to expand its sphere of influence there.

But, as America wrestles within itself over its next course of action, the time may have come for India to play a more active role on the Af-Pak frontier. Keeping the conversation alive with the Obama administration will, naturally, be key to enhancing Afghan partnerships, whether it is about training the trainers for the Afghan National Army or the civil police force. 

Meanwhile, Delhi must expand and intensify its dialogue with countries like Russia, Germany and Japan -- all of whom have enormous stores of experience, financial resources as well as determination -- to enhance both goodwill and leverage, so that it is ready to play an active role to fill in the vacuum when the US-NATO-led troops' draw-down begins.

Expanding India's footprint in Afghanistan will mean that Majors Deepak Yadav, Nitish Roy, Laishram Jyotin Singh, as well as all the other Indians who died there, did not fall to the terrorist's bullets in vain.

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Jyoti Malhotra