If the London Conference on Afghanistan held last week demonstrated anything, it is that it’s only a matter of time until India loses whatever strategic leverage it previously enjoyed compared with Pakistan in the country.
The plan floated at the conference is based on the flawed assumption among much of the international community that there’s a ‘good’ Taliban, one which can be weaned away from the ‘bad’ elements. Yet the consensus reached in London, born out of fatigue among Western nations (especially the United States and Britain) now eyeing a hasty late 2010 or early 2011 withdrawal, is not much different from the numerous failed peace deals that former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cobbled together with the tribal communities of North-West Frontier Province.
This consensus also signals the beginning of the end of what little influence India has managed to wield in Afghanistan-the fortunes of which have in the past been closely linked to the terrorist threat to India.
To be fair to Indian diplomats, there wasn’t much New Delhi could do. External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was only one among dozens of foreign ministers who gathered in London, and so he had little choice but to fall into line in the face of an overwhelming consensus that had formed behind an Afghan roadmap that legitimizes sizable sections of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The West’s strategy is to weaken the Mullah Omar-led Taliban by recognizing sections of the Taliban that are supposedly moderate and not affiliated with al-Qaida. These moderates are then supposed to share power with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an attempt to bring about a national reunification (although of course this is something that isn’t going to happen overnight, and the broad contours of power sharing are yet to be drawn).
But there’s a real danger that while the West’s Utopian vision of peace, progress and prosperity in Afghanistan is laudable, the plan could ultimately serve to plunge the country into chaos. After all, if sections of the Taliban in Afghanistan are legitimized and allowed to share power, how could the Pakistani Taliban, which is also Pashtun, be ignored? And so what then would be wrong with the Punjabi Taliban?
Two days before the London Conference, the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee decided to remove 5 former Taliban officials from a sanctions list that places curbs on some 150 individuals who served in the Taliban government. These individuals were banned from international travel and their assets were frozen under UN Security Council Resolution 1267. The most prominent individual removed from the list is former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, loathed in India since being seen on television picking up the baggage of three Pakistani terrorists freed from Indian prisons to secure the release of passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines plane in Kandahar in 1999.
But it is not just India that has cause for concern. The Anglo-American diplomacy at the conference also has adverse implications for China, as well as other states with interests in central Asia such as Russia, Iran and Turkey. China fears, with some reason, that Islamist radicalism in Afghanistan could unsettle the country’s Muslim-dominated northwest. A legitimized Taliban in Afghanistan could stoke separatists fires in China and provide much needed oxygen to militants in the Uighur/East Turkestani area (although China may well be able to count on its all-weather friendship with Pakistan to keep the genie in the bottle while also enjoying the spectacle of India grappling with another strategic headache in the area).
Meanwhile, the London conference has again brought Pakistan centre stage and means that for the first time in more than eight years Islamabad has an opportunity to move closer to the Afghan regime once the ‘good’ Taliban is drafted into government. Under such a scenario, India would see the influence it has secured over the past eight years quickly eroded.
And this is New Delhi’s biggest worry. India has much at stake in Afghanistan and has not invested close to two billion dollars in Afghanistan since 2001 to see it all go to waste now. India moved in quickly and determinedly to fill the political space left in Afghanistan by the pro-Pakistan Taliban government, setting up consulates in four major cities in Afghanistan.
But once the ‘good’ Taliban is given an opening in Afghanistan, Pakistan will undoubtedly look to gain leverage, moves that would raise the worrying prospect for Indian policymakers of more unrest in Jammu and Kashmir. After all, militant activity reached new heights in Jammu and Kashmir during the Taliban’s reign, and there is no reason to think this would not be repeated once the Taliban had a foothold in the Afghan government.
A clear sign of Pakistan’s intent came at the London conference, when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said his country had offered to train the Afghan military and police. Such close involvement would give Pakistan clear and firm influence on the Afghan security establishment and add an unpredictable element to Indian security concerns.
For now, at least, India must fortify its defences in the border areas and abandon any plans to remove Indian Army units from Jammu and Kashmir. It cannot risk lowering its guard now.