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RISKY BUSINESS IN KABUL

- Limited reconciliation is not impossible for India

Unrestrained “generosity,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru of Afghanistan “is a risky business in the long run.” An approach shaped by the need for balance, the then vice-president of the interim cabinet argued, better suited India’s interests. It was not that Nehru took a less than charitable view of a nation then beginning to invest in what Mohammad Zahir Shah called modernization, but that both the advantages and pitfalls associated with closer Indian engagement with Afghanistan were clear to India’s future prime minister. At some level, and notwithstanding the six or so decades since Indian independence, the issues that most exercised India’s early foreign policy bureaucracy were only somewhat different from those confronted by officials in the present day.

‘Fruitful cooperation’, as both Nehru and K.P.S. Menon — India’s first foreign secretary — agreed, was to be designed in such a way as to institutionalize economic assistance whilst staying clear of military alliances with the Afghan state. The latter, the prime minister made plain, was “neither feasible nor desirable”. Similarly, nothing in India’s advance was to undermine Pakistani sovereignty. After all, and as is well documented, Afghanistan’s approach to an independent Pakistan was anything but affable. Zahir Shah’s government not only demanded the erasing of the Durand Line, the 1,500 mile-long border inked in 1893 that separates the two states, but also laid claim to the Pashtun majority regions in the frontier territories of northwestern Pakistan.

India’s objective was to expand its presence within Afghanistan whilst making sure not to peeve Pakistani elites. Hence, and at various times, Indian leaders stressed that ‘Pashtunistan’ — a term apparently coined by All India Radio — or Zahir Shah’s call in 1947 to extend Afghanistan’s borders was misplaced. The imperial border, Nehru made clear, was sacrosanct. Aside from the few years of Taliban rule in the last decade of the last century, successive Indian governments did well to establish India’s credentials as a donor nation in the imagination of ordinary Afghans. Likewise, such popularity expectedly riled Pakistan’s military tsars.

In the present milieu, the test seems to lie in maintaining a sense of and intuition for balance, whilst remaining alive to the fresh challenges apparent in a less than predictable future. This is not to suggest that conciliation with Islamabad be placed at the centre of India’s advance. Rather, that the changes and challenges faced by Pakistan could be creatively considered as New Delhi charts a course for itself. In this respect, and whilst admittedly less important than shoring up economic investments or working more closely with the Afghan army, the curious and unappealing questions around reconciliation — or the process of talking to the Taliban — is in need of desperate attention.

From the outset, it would seem that the preferred argument amongst New Delhi’s security elite is to either shun the possibility of reconciliation or consider the same as a method sought by Pakistan to empower itself. Neither of these calculations is necessarily useful. No doubt, the matter of talking to the enemy — hardly an alien concept within India — is fraught with contradictions and bitter possibilities. In the case of Afghanistan, the many groups that straddle the Durand Line make it all that much harder to identify those worth engaging. The likes of the so-called Haqqanis (responsible for attacks against Indian personnel in Afghanistan) and associated groups are necessarily irreconcilable. Others, such as the Hizb-i-Islami, divisions within which are represented in the Afghan parliament, are said to have been in discussions with Indian representatives for some time.

With the view to shaping developments in the near future, political divisions in another organization, namely the Quetta Shura Taliban, merits further study. The QST is said to be made up of the political committee based in and around Quetta in Baluchistan and the military commission unofficially garrisoned in Peshawar. Individuals associated with the political committee are those currently involved in the murky business of negotiations in Doha. Allegedly, these actors are authorized to speak with British and American officials. The idea is to open a consulate of sorts. As bizarre as it sounds, an address in Qatar, insiders argue, is not as far-fetched as once thought. More recently, such representatives travelled to France to speak with Western interlocutors. Another set of discussions appear to be on the simmer in Istanbul. In sum, talks are on.

To be sure, dealing with the likes of the Taliban — however one may wish to categorize or divide this taxonomy — is hardly appealing, if not repulsive. Few in India can forget the role played by the QST in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in 1999, which forced the then government to release terrorists lingering in Indian jails. Yet, in the present day, some of those once directly associated with the political commission promise to take part in mainstream Afghan politics. They live freely in Kabul, and are frequently visited by international diplomats and bureaucrats alike. Importantly, and as confirmed by a variety of academic sources, they are hardly averse to the suggestion of India. There is little value in pretending that they do not exist, or worse, leaving it solely to British or American negotiators to craft a plan of action beneficial to the interests of London and Washington. This is not to suggest that Western interests are necessarily divorced from those of India’s, but that national interests — however defined — require national efforts neither shoved nor shaped by political demands produced elsewhere.

Reconciliation, at least at some minimal level, need not be a game in which India can’t play, or one in which Pakistan, Britain and America are necessarily better positioned to take part. Similarly, the advantages embedded in engagement may not be immediately visible, but could go some way in re-socializing those who command popular support in the troubled areas in the south and east of the country. This is of course a part of Afghanistan where, till recently, the majority Pashtun population had little or no ties with India.

That an active attempt to speak with those whom Pakistan considers its own will further rankle uniformed elites in Rawalpindi need not take away from Nehru’s dictum of balance. Given Pakistan’s disquiet with regard to the Durand Line, which is still challenged by the Karzai-led regime in Kabul, India may unofficially and quietly lend support to the idea of recognizing this international border. Equally, and to be clear, undermining the ideational basis of ‘Pashtunistan’, which continues to remain one of Pakistan’s central concerns, may do little for Pakistani elites, especially if India seeks out former political leaders of the QST. At best, it can help disenfranchise the all too common charge of aggression against India seemingly institutionalized amongst Pakistan’s military leadership.

The initiatives outlined above with regard to limited reconciliation are not altogether riskier than following the preferred dogma of doing nothing. It merely opens small, maybe less significant, and perhaps less valuable, options for a country like India that already enjoys the support of a number of northern characters and legends within the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara political groups. Yet, given that the withdrawal of Western troops and assistance has begun, and is expected to consolidate sometime in 2014, India will need all the diplomatic cards it can get its hands on. Speaking with former QST leaders in the United Arab Emirates or somewhere in the Middle East is not bereft of risk, but can surely be managed if and when the politics underlying reconciliation are somewhat more settled on Raisina Hill.