Saturday, June 23, 2012

What lies behind the Taliban statement on India?

A statement attributed to the Afghan Taliban has appreciated India’s reluctance to accept the US offer to play a more active security role in Afghanistan. Calling India ‘a significant country in the region’, the purported Taliban statement says that ‘it is totally illogical they [India] should plunge their nation into a calamity just for American pleasure’. While expressing glee at US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s failure to ‘gain any success or progress in his efforts’ to enlist India’s support for the war effort in Afghanistan, the Taliban statement presented a reasonable face to the international community by claiming that they wanted ‘to have cordial relations on the basis of sovereignty, equality and mutual respect and no interference in each other’s internal affairs’. The Taliban also stated that they wouldn’t allow ‘use of Afghan soil for anyone’s detriment’.
Although for the last couple of years the Taliban have been trying to reassure the international community that they do not pose any threat to international peace and that their aims are limited to expelling foreign forces from their land, most nations are not convinced of the Taliban’s bonafides. India, partly because of past experience (the Kandahar hijacking and unremitting hostility of the erstwhile Taliban regime during the 1996-2001 period), partly because of the Taliban’s fraternal linkages with international jihadist groups, partly because of the Taliban’s strings being pulled by Rawalpindi and partly because of the very nature of the Taliban, is certainly very sceptical of the idea of Taliban having turned a new leaf. While the media is abuzz about the import of the latest Taliban statement on India, most analysts and policy making circles are not impressed and see the statement as self-serving, beguiling and insincere.
For one, the wording of the Taliban statement seems to indicate that the mind, if not the hand, that drafted the statement was not Afghan but Pakistani. Sample this: Panetta ‘spent three days in India to transfer the heavy burden to their shoulders [emphasis added] to find an exit and to flee from Afghanistan’. Another sentence states: ‘...Indians know or they should know that the Americans are grinding their own axe’. This is precisely the sort of language that is often heard in Pakistan and it is for the first time that such words are being used by the Taliban.
Clearly, both Pakistan and their Taliban proxies have been badly spooked by US plans to give India a much larger security role in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, whose entire Afghan policy has been predicated on keeping India out, this US plan is not only a clear provocation, but also a nullification of its decades-long strategic policy of not allowing India to play anything more than a marginal role in Afghan affairs. A security role for India in Afghanistan makes the spectre of India catching Pakistan in a nut-cracker so much more real for Pakistan. In the case of the Taliban, any Indian military involvement is worrying partly because of its unacceptability to their Pakistani patrons and partly because if India bolsters the Afghan regime or anti-Taliban forces, it could lead to the war getting prolonged. At the very least, it could lead to a de facto division of Afghanistan between areas controlled by the Taliban and those controlled by anti-Taliban forces, something that will suck Pakistan even deeper into the Afghan vortex and have a devastating impact on Pakistan's western borderlands—both the Pashtun and Baloch dominated areas. It is in this sense that India has quite a few aces up its sleeve in Afghanistan and the feeling of despondency regarding the so-called Afghan end-game in some circles in India is rather misplaced.
There is another even more tantalising possibility that emerges from the Taliban statement, namely, the Taliban are trying to reach out to India and send a signal both to India as well as to Pakistan that while they might be dependent on Pakistan for now, they are not beholden to Pakistan for all times and will not be averse to exercising options (read India) to balance Pakistan's overbearing influence in Afghanistan. While on the face of it, this tantalising signal, if indeed it is one, runs counter to the Taliban trying to prevent or pre-empt India from committing significant military support to the anti-Taliban forces (either in conjunction with the US or on its own), it is not entirely so. At one level, the Taliban are warning India that any military involvement by the latter in Afghanistan will invite unending hostility and enmity and ruin any chance of maintaining normal relations with a Taliban regime. At another level, the Taliban are also signalling that while they appreciate and welcome India’s developmental and economic role in Afghanistan and would like to see India continue to play this constructive role in Afghanistan in the future as well, they are also dropping hints of a closer relationship with India in the event of differences between Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As things stand, the Taliban cannot afford to break with Pakistan as long as they remain embroiled in a fight against ISAF troops. But there are enough indications that even though the Taliban take support, sustenance and sanctuary from Pakistan, there is little love lost between the two. The games that the Pakistanis have played with the Taliban—arresting them, exploiting them, browbeating them, allowing the Americans to attack the Taliban only in order to strengthen the Pakistani stranglehold over them, holding the families of senior Taliban hostage etc.—haven’t quite endeared the Pakistanis to the Afghans. This statement could therefore be the first signal by the Taliban to their Pakistani patrons not to take them for granted. In other words, India will remain a card in the hand of any future Afghan dispensation (whether Taliban or anti-Taliban) to strengthen their negotiating position with the Pakistanis. This factor opens all manner of possibilities for India to stay relevant in Afghanistan even after the Western forces withdraw.
The India factor also has an important economic dimension for any future government in post-2014 Afghanistan. Whoever takes power in Afghanistan will ultimately have to run the country, something that requires money. Even the Taliban know that unlike the last time when Pakistan was still in a position to assist them financially and also arrange for some money from Saudi Arabia and UAE, the situation now is very different. Pakistan doesn't have money to run itself and therefore it is simply in no position to fund Afghanistan. Nor are the Saudis and UAE likely to open the purse strings for the Taliban. The West is unlikely to pump in any money into a Taliban-run Afghanistan. Add to this the possibility of a civil war in the country (which is inevitable if ‘reconciliation’ efforts fail as they are likely to) and the picture becomes even starker. The Taliban’s positive statement about India as well as efforts to inform other countries that the Taliban have learnt from the mistakes of their previous stint in power could be the first tentative step to become acceptable to the international community.
All this is not to deny the very real possibility that the latest Taliban statement is only a too-clever-by-half attempt to drive a wedge between the US and India and also take a pot-shot at the US by firing from India’s shoulder. In other words, the Taliban are trying to rub it in to the Americans that no one is willing to support the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, much less carry the burden of managing security in that country after the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign forces. At the same time, the message is also that while on the one hand the US despite its superpower status is unable to persuade new allies to get militarily involved, on the other hand the Taliban despite their rag tag status are able to dissuade other countries from entering the Afghanistan fray.
As far as India is concerned, the emerging end-game of the latest round of Afghan Buzkashi confronts it with a dilemma. India would like nothing more than to see the US war effort succeed in Afghanistan. There was a time some years back when India was ready to play a more active role to enhance security in Afghanistan. But at that time, the Americans were reluctant to let India play such a role. This was in large part in deference to Pakistan's wishes. At that time, the Americans seemed to still harbour fond hopes of Pakistan playing a constructive role in Afghanistan. Now that those false notions have been dashed, the US wants India to play the role it has offered to play in the past. The only problem is that India is now more circumspect about how deeply it should commit itself in terms of men, material and money in Afghanistan at this stage. It is not so much that India is reluctant to get involved militarily in deference to the Taliban but more because India hasn’t yet entirely worked out how it can maintain and sustain such a role in the post 2014 Afghanistan.
In so far as opening a line to the Taliban is concerned, India cannot afford to be nonchalant about what the Taliban represent. As a country that holds secularism and pluralism as an article of faith, India will find it very difficult to be seen doing business with an obscurantist and medieval Taliban. Apart from the domestic repercussions, India will also have to bear in mind the diplomatic dimensions of shaking hands with the Taliban. And there are of course the security issues related to the Taliban—support to jihadist terror groups, acting as proxies of Pakistan, spreading radical Islamist ideologies—that continue to cause extreme apprehension inside India. But of course, in diplomacy as in politics there is no final word. If indeed the Taliban have turned a new leaf, moderated their positions on a host of issues relating to religious freedoms, women, minorities and human rights, respecting the rights of other ethnic groups inside Afghanistan, and ending all support to international terror groups, there is a real possibility of India doing business with a Taliban ruled or Taliban dominated Afghanistan.

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