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Left out in the cold, India needs its own plan in Afghanistan

Washington: The impending departure of US troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s emerging role in its old “playground” has given India a massive strategic headache. No easy remedy is on the shelf.

On  one hand is Afghan President Hamid Karzai desperately trying to secure his legacy and maximise his advantage and on the other are Americans desperately searching for an exit. Pakistan is in the middle, but once again in an advantageous position of determining and controlling the process. And possibly the outcome. Soon it will sign an agreement with Afghanistan to train Afghan military forces, an offer that Karzai shunned for years. But not today.

India has made its unhappiness known to the US and even signaled potential adversity in other arenas. It might also talk to the British since they reportedly came up with the latest peace plan bringing to bear their ancient wisdom about the subcontinent.

Afghans have painful memories of Indian silence while Pakistan actively undermined their country. AFP

Afghans have painful memories of Indian silence while Pakistan actively undermined their country. AFP

No matter how realistic one is about American compulsions to leave Afghanistan, the turnaround is breathtaking. From demanding that Pakistan take clear action against terrorist havens, Washington has taken to praising its sacrifices and role in finding Osama bin Laden. During his confirmation hearings the newly appointed secretary of state, John Kerry, went to elaborate lengths to begin a new chapter with Pakistan.

The current state of play appears to put Pakistan’s interests on top so long as Islamabad can deliver a year of relative calm, allowing the US and the Europeans the freedom not to feel responsible for what happens afterwards.

This means India needs its own plan for a post 2014 Afghanistan. The India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 can provide the framework even though Karzai hasn’t talked about it lately as he flurries from capital to Turkish capital to forge the peace process.

The good news is that a large number of Afghans see India in a positive light. They don’t believe India has a hidden agenda. They think Pakistan does. They can see the default position of the Pakistani establishment – to treat Afghanistan not as a sovereign country but largely as a backyard to be managed.

Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar has tried to change the tone by saying all the right things about a stable and secure Afghanistan but mostly to facilitate the latest phase of US-Pakistan rapprochement. She knows what Washington wants to hear.

India is not ready to add two plus two and come up with five. Nor are many Afghans. Besides no one believes that Khar calls the shots on Pakistan’s security policy. It is the army.

The peace plan was worked out by Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Salahuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the Karzai’s High Peace Council with British oversight. Most likely, the Pakistanis decided to overcome US resistance by going through the British.

The US, which tried its own negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar two years ago, is taking a back seat. Washington would be satisfied so long as the power-sharing agreement with the Taliban cuts out al-Qaeda, provides a semblance of stability for the short term and ensures that no terrorist attacks threaten western interests.

Note the word “western.”

India will needs it own plan to protect its national security interests and the $2 billion in investments in Afghanistan. Over the last decade Afghans have seen India build roads, a parliament house and schools – a strategy that has won the hearts and minds. More and more Afghans are visiting India. The Indian Embassy has been issuing an average of 300 visas a day.

No wonder that significant sections of the Afghan civil society and the government have started calling on India to play a pro-active role. They don’t want India to be a silent spectator as it was in the 1980s and 90s when the Taliban turned Afghanistan into a medieval landscape. Afghans have painful memories of Indian silence while Pakistan actively undermined their country. Why didn’t India take the issue to the UN Security Council, they have asked on occasion.

Today India is better placed to help Afghanistan stabilize its economy, integrate it regionally and safeguard its security interests in the bargain. The Afghans want to learn about building institutions, creating a civil service, starting rural development programmes and agro-business. They want to invite Indian academics and media personalities for more interaction. Afghan women are deeply worried about losing the gains they made over the last five years. They want to go to school and work.

India can be a more vocal advocate of all those Afghans but it will need an integrated plan for post-2014 – one that ties all the strands.