It may be the lack of a real opposition in the country that allows the government to make abrupt shifts in foreign policy under external persuasion without so much as offering a reasoned explanation to the Indian public for the switch.
India first fell in line on Afghanistan at the London conference, organized principally to gain an international stamp of approval for US President Barack Obama’s strategy to negotiate a deal with the “moderate” Taliban (as if there can be moderates in an Islamist militia that enforces medieval practices). The external affairs minister returned from London saying India was willing to give that strategy a try.
Soon thereafter, New Delhi announced it was resuming dialogue with Pakistan at the foreign secretary level. What prompted New Delhi to do that? Mum is the word. What has Pakistan done or delivered on the anti-terror front to deserve this gesture? The answer: nothing. Yet once again, dialogue has been delinked from terrorism, as if the Indian leadership has learnt nothing from the Sharm-el-Sheikh goof.
Government decisions anchored neither in a well-thought-out strategy nor in principles can only undermine national interests. No sooner had New Delhi announced its U-turn on Pakistan than Washington upped the annual US aid for Islamabad from the next fiscal year to $3.2 billion—a historic high. What Obama is providing Pakistan in one year is exactly the amount one of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan, gave Pakistan over six years. Yet New Delhi has not made a peep.
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
It was left to a US ex-Senator, Larry Pressler, to urge India to speak up on the dangerous drift in Washington’s Af-Pak strategy, including propping up Pakistan with generous aid and lethal-arms transfers. “When the US leaves Afghanistan, India will have a Pakistan ‘on steroids’ next door and a Taliban state to deal with in Afghanistan,” according to Pressler.
With Obama pushing for a deal with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban, Islamabad already is feeling vindicated. Obama is sending an additional 30,000 US troops not to militarily rout the Taliban, but to strike a deal with the enemy from a position of strength. As his top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has admitted, the aim of the surge is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, not to beat back the insurgency.
But as US ambassador Karl Eikenberry has put it in his leaked November cables to secretary of state Hillary Clinton, “More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain.” Yet Washington already is holding indirect talks with the Afghan militia’s shura, or top council, whose members are holed up in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. The talks have been conducted through the Pakistani, Saudi and Afghan intelligence agencies. Gen. McChrystal has cited Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates as a possible venue for formal talks.
The more sensible thing to do would be to dismantle the Pakistani military’s sanctuaries and sustenance infrastructure for the Afghan Taliban and militarily decapitate the latter’s command centre in Baluchistan. But Obama has not hidden his intent to end the US war before he comes up for re-election in 2012. Indeed, as if to hearten the Afghan Taliban and their sponsors, the Pakistani military, he has reiterated July 2011 as the timeline for a gradual US military withdrawal to begin.
To facilitate his pursuit of such narrow interests, Obama has been pressuring India to come on board. And to rationalize the planned Faustian bargain with the Taliban, the White House has drawn a specious distinction between Al Qaeda and the Taliban and sought to discriminate between “moderate” Taliban and those that rebuff deal-making. So, Gen. McChrystal classifies the thuggish Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as a moderate because he is “most likely to cut a deal”.
The Afghan Taliban leadership— with an elaborate command-and-control structure oiled by petrodollars from Arab sheikhdoms and proceeds from opium trade—operates from the comfort of sanctuaries in Pakistan. Fathered by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and midwifed by the US Central Intelligence Agency in 1994, the Taliban rapidly emerged as a Frankenstein’s monster. Yet, Bill Clinton’s administration acquiesced in the Taliban’s ascension to power in Kabul in 1996 and turned a blind eye as that militia, in league with ISI, fostered narcoterrorism and swelled the ranks of the Afghan war alumni waging transnational terrorism.
With 9/11, however, the chickens came home to roost. In declaring war on the Taliban in October 2001, US policy came full circle. Now, desperate to save a faltering military campaign, US policy is coming another full circle as Washington advertises its readiness to strike a deal with the Quetta shura.
India, which is on the frontline of the global fight against international terrorism, is likely to bear the brunt of the blowback of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy, just as it came under terrorist siege as a consequence of the Reagan era US policies in that belt. A Talibanized Pakistan with a Taliban government in Afghanistan would encourage every violent Islamic group that can inflict mass casualties in India.
The US, separated by a cushion of thousands of miles, thinks it can get away by playing dangerous games in the Af-Pak belt. But as a friend, India should be openly advising the US against unwittingly repeating the very mistakes of past American policy that have come to haunt Western and Indian security. That’s what friends are for. To toe the US line on Af-Pak deferentially is to become an accessory in the current lurch towards disaster.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org