By M K Bhadrakumar
The two-day visit by India's National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to Kabul last week took place in the immediate context of the lethal terrorist strike on Indians in Kabul on February 26, but it underscored the need for a comprehensive rethink on Delhi's Afghanistan policy.
No doubt, India's policy is at a crossroads. Assumptions behind the establishment thinking in Delhi in the recent years are fast withering amid the evolving situation in Afghanistan and India's growing security concerns. On the one hand, Delhi was complacent about its influence in Kabul outstripping Islamabad's and too confident that it rather than Pakistan was the "natural ally" to the US in the fight against terrorism.
The big question is whether Delhi is pragmatic enough to accept that new thinking has become necessary. First and foremost, it does not help if India ignores the nascent processes of Afghan national reconciliation. Delhi on its own is incapable of calibrating the Afghan reconciliation process and the Indian and US approaches diverge. Enduring peace can only come out of an inclusive political settlement in Kabul.
Delhi lost much time quibbling over the "good" and "bad" Taliban while the international community and regional players moved on. There was initially some uneasiness that the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai was seeking reconciliation with the insurgent groups.
But more worrisome for Delhi is the fact Karzai has begun seeking help from Pakistan. The fault lies entirely with the Indians in having failed to support him in recent months. Delhi backed losing candidate Abdullah Abdullah in last year's presidential elections on the facile assumption that Washington wished to see him in power. That was a disastrous error of judgment.
Karzai is expected to unfold a road map on reconciliation within the next six weeks. He hopes to hold a loya jirgha (grand council) on April 29 with a view, as he put it, to "get guidance from the Afghan people on how to move forward towards reintegration and reconciliation [with the Taliban]". And in his estimation, if there is greater participation by insurgent elements in parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in August, then further coalition-building becomes possible.
Delhi can anticipate that in all this, Karzai hopes for cooperation from Pakistan and as a quid pro quo he can be expected to factor in Pakistan's interests. The day after Menon concluded his visit, Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiani met Karzai in Kabul to discuss "matters of mutual interest". Karzai followed it up with a two-day visit to Islamabad that started on Wednesday.
Pakistan's assertiveness is bothering Indian strategists but Delhi seems to have overlooked that many factors work in Islamabad's favor. The Afghan elites in Kabul have close social and family kinships with Peshawar. The Afghan economy is dependent on imports from Pakistan. Pakistan has influence over Taliban groups and unlike in the past it has also cultivated the non-Pashtun groups of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. It also shouldn't be forgotten that more than 80% of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supplies for the war in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan.
And most of all, Delhi underestimated that Pakistan is the US's key non-NATO ally in the war and that implicit in this is Pakistan's expectation to be recognized by Washington as a regional power. In fact, the US has been harping on a fundamental theme: Pakistan has a choice to make, namely, whether it wants to have a comprehensive partnership with the US and NATO; and if so, that it must cooperate with Washington's strategies in the region.
The prevailing view in India is that the Pakistani military continues to play it both ways. But they may be in for disillusionment as there strong likelihood is that Pakistani army chief Kiani may have begun to explore the potential of the US offer.
Pakistan estimates that it is closer than at any time before to gaining "strategic depth" in Afghanistan - and this time, Washington may acquiesce. Indeed, the US is encouraging Pakistan-Afghanistan harmony in any way it can. However, Pakistan carefully assesses that the US's regional strategies have significant implications for its "all-weather friendship" with China, its adversarial ties with India, and its troubled relationship with Iran. The US strategies aim at countering China's rise, fostering a strategic partnership with India and navigating the standoff with Iran on Washington's terms.
Delhi will closely watch Karzai's consultations in Islamabad as a turning point. Karzai urgently needs Pakistani cooperation for his reconciliation agenda and Islamabad expects the Afghan leader to pay heed to its legitimate interests. These interests undoubtedly include a rollback of the Indian presence in Afghanistan.
During his meeting with Karzai in Kabul, Kiani reportedly offered that Pakistan could undertake the training of the Afghan army. Delhi, too, has repeatedly shown interest in assisting the build-up of the Afghan army. Conceivably, the US concurs with the Pakistani offer, whereas it discourages any such Indian role in Afghanistan. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated in Jordan on Sunday that he would like to "encourage Muslim countries to engage in Afghanistan ... Muslim countries have valuable cultural and religious awareness and expertise to bear".
Soon after Kiani's meeting with Karzai, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates paid an unannounced visit to Kabul. At a joint press conference with Karzai he also complimented Pakistan's cooperation - "the security situation is no longer deteriorating and there are also a number of other positive developments ... Improvements in the relations with Pakistan have yielded tangible results and increased cooperation along the border ... there are grounds for optimism as our countries pursue what President Karzai has called an Afghan-led, and an Afghan-owned initiative to ensure peace and stability."
Thus, from the Indian perspective, a tough regional security scenario presents itself. There is no doubt that Karzai has a lot of goodwill towards India and, in fact, he was the recipient of the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005. But Delhi needs to come to terms with the reality that his preoccupation in the coming period will be to work closely with Pakistan and to ensure that the loya jirgha turns out to be a success and a cornerstone in the reconciliation process with the Taliban.
If Delhi failed to anticipate this shift in Karzai's order of priorities, it has only itself to blame. Thus, even in the face of impending realignments in the Afghan political and military situation that were obvious to most perceptive foreign observers, Delhi kept up the presence of a few thousands Indians in Afghanistan whose security becomes now almost entirely its responsibility to shoulder.
Delhi will be averse to taking such a responsibility that requires deployment of more Indian security forces to protect Indian establishments in Afghanistan. It may well be compelled to rethink the extent of its presence, notwithstanding the current official stance that no rollback is planned.
A better understanding of the Afghan security situation would have helped and at any rate a course correction is now needed with regard to Indian projects in Afghanistan during the transition period ahead.
One way out could be for Delhi to complete the projects in the pipeline and not undertake fresh ones. This is a sensitive issue since the Indian strategic community stands in favor of a forceful presence in Afghanistan and any rollback by the government may appear a weak-kneed response to Pakistani "blackmail".
But there is a big picture, too. The Indian strategic community overlooked that the US war had a hidden agenda. Simply put, NATO's enlargement into Central Asia, the US's containment strategy toward China (and Russia and Iran) and Pakistan's key role in US regional strategy - all these impact India's interests. Most important, there is a likelihood of regional hotspots such as North Caucasus, the Ferghana Valley, Xinjiang and Kashmir lighting up.
Delhi had put all its eggs in the American basket and now needs to activate its regional policies. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is scheduled to arrive in Delhi at the weekend. The Indian foreign minister is scheduled to visit China next month and possibly Iran by the end of March. The annual summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, becomes of added interest to Delhi.
However, the heart of the matter is that the Afghan policy is a microcosm of a larger malaise that the Indian foreign policy and security establishment needs to tackle. There is no evidence that Delhi has the political will to have a course correction in this aspect.
In retrospect, Delhi's hare-brained idea of a US-led "quadripartite alliance" against China, the "Tibet card", the dilution of a 2003 strategic understanding with Iran, neglect of the traditional friendship with Russia, the lukewarm attitude toward the SCO, exaggerated notions within the establishment regarding the US-India strategic partnership as an alternative to an independent foreign policy and diversified external relationships - all these appear now like dreadful pantomimes out of India's foreign policy chronicle of recent years that Delhi would rather not think about.