The shift in Indian policy supporting reconciliation with Taliban announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has caused an unwelcoming mood in Kabul’s anti-Taliban constituency. Some think it was unexpected. Analysts from the opposition bloc take it’s as u-turn in the Indian Afghan policy that a leader from New Delhi visiting Kabul not only avoided speaking out against the Taliban terrorism rooted outside Afghanistan, but also voiced support for President Karzai’s reconciliation efforts with insurgents, who is in favor of giving Pakistan a decisive role in the process. India staunchly opposed such talks during last 9 years.
However, it was quite predictable. With the beginning of the so-called endgame in Afghanistan, New Delhi was fearing to be left out, and the only position in-line with the US and NATO roadmap for exit strategy was to support the reconciling process with Taliban, regardless of the fact that Taliban are hostile to India’s presence in Afghanistan and the deadly attacks on Indian Embassy in Kabul have been linked to elements of Taliban who are under the influence of Pakistani security agencies. But, the message from Prime Minister Singh was clear. While addressing the joint session of Afghan parliament—first foreign leader to do so—he said,
“Afghanistan has embarked upon a process of national reconciliation. It is up to you, as the peoples’ representatives to make decisions about your country’s future without outside interference. India will respect your choices. We hope that Afghanistan will be able to build a framework of regional cooperation that will help its nation building efforts.”
Actually there had been messages of shift in policy from New Delhi long ago in 2009 when their Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had said India would support the process of reconciliation, though it was in tone with such conditional signals from the US, approving of talks only with “moderate Taliban”.
The latest shift announced by Prime Minister Singh is not a u-turn in Indian Afghan policy, as some describe it. The message about talks with Taliban is very clear. While delegations from other countries visit Kabul and make “demands” about their role, and international stakeholders dictate us on the terms of reconciliation with insurgents, Indian Prime Minister was talking to the people of Afghanistan through their elected representatives in the parliament. And it was not a support! Dr. Singh said it’s up to the people of Afghanistan to make decisions—on reconciliation—and India will respect the choice. He emphasized on the process to be “Afghan-led”, and India understands that with Pakistan’s influence on Taliban, President Karzai’s reconciliation efforts won’t work without Islamabad’s role, if they play it honestly. It’s obvious that such a reconciliation set-up, if it works somehow, will be in line with the script of the US and NATO strategy. And India cannot voice opposition to such a process.
There was another message in Dr. Singh’s speech. He said when Afghanistan is preparing to take control of security—after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014—India is ready to support in this aspect. Reports from Afghan security officials and international forces suggest that Afghan troops won’t be ready for the security transfer with the pace of current training. Reportedly, the US will also halt and reduce support for training of Afghan forces. The Government should consider the offer of the Indian Prime Minister for helping in security affairs, by asking New Delhi to help in training of Afghan security forces. And it must not be ignored with the thought of opposition from Pakistan. In a previous such offer from Islamabad, President Karzai has already given signals of a positive response to the proposal of Pakistani Army training our forces.
There was much more than the “unexpected” shift in Indian stance towards reconciliation with Taliban. Decisions were made on preparation of a document of Strategic Partnership between India and Afghanistan which will be implemented by the Strategic Partnership Council, headed by foreign ministers of both countries. With the latest announcement of $500 million in aid to Afghanistan, the total Indian financial assistance has reached to $2 billion, making India one of the top 5 largest donors to our country. Comparing to our immediate neighbors, who make the loudest noise regarding their roles in the endgame, Indian contribution to Afghanistan’s reconstruction is the most significant.
This visit of the Indian premier was expected last month, but due to the uncertain incidents followed by the spat in the US-Pakistan relations, it was postponed until the death of Osama bin Laden. Though the Indian Prime Minster did not name Pakistan, but the understanding is clear that insurgency in Afghanistan has sanctuaries outside. The recent death of bin Laden gives weight to the concerns that most of insurgent leadership are hiding across the border in Pakistan. Dr. Singh was saying that we cannot and must not allow the flames of extremism and terrorism to be fanned once again.
Despite the fact that Dr. Singh didn’t express it in his visit, India has legitimate concerns regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, if it leaves behind an uncertain security situation. Regarding the talks with insurgents, regrouping and comeback of Taliban in 2005 was hugely assisted by Al-Qaeda and its Kashmir-centric militant outfits. The head of Al-Qaeda’s global operations and previous Kashmiri Jihadi and wanted-terrorist in India Ilyas Kashmiri played a significant role in regrouping of Taliban and intensifying the insurgency in Afghanistan. Therefore, even if New Delhi makes the shift, being a victim of terrorism it has concerns on the security affairs in Afghanistan such as the fate of the so-called reconciliation with insurgents and transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces. The Government must take our strategic ally into confidence for all these matters.
And with the new developments, the rivalry-game between New Delhi and Islamabad about the “influence” in Afghanistan is now purposeless and nonsense. Prime Minister Singh did not take the name of Pakistan despite the international criticism on Osama’s presence in that country. Indian support for the reconciliation and talks with insurgents, despite President Karzai’s overtures for a decisive role to Islamabad, is a clear message that cooperation of our rival neighbors in Afghanistan is in the interest of all sides.