The Afghanistan crisis: India between two stools
In the present situation in Afghanistan, we seem to have found a place between two stools with nowhere to go. We can only wait and watch. There is Pakistan to watch as well
For several years we have all wondered if Afghanistan will pull out of its continuing crisis and whether the untiring steps taken to give it stable governance will succeed.
During the UPA years we invested hugely in rebuilding critical institutions like the new Parliament building and schools as well development projects like the Salma Dam. Now all that is in the hands of the Taliban and the support to democratic institutions lies in shambles. We can only worry about our friends like former President Hamid Karzai, who remains in Kabul with his family that includes little girls. Surely the Indian Government must be able to draw upon some reserves of political IOUs to secure our citizens as well as abiding Afghan friends of India.
Indian diplomats have considerable experience and understanding of the ground situation in Afghanistan. Yet it would seem that we knew as little as the Americans, who have inflicted untold misery and pain upon their own military personnel as well as Afghans, not to mention the huge sums of money they poured into the embattled land with so little to show. One can therefore understand that the US was determined to leave because it was unwilling to pay a further price in cash and American lives. In any case the writing was on the wall since at least the Doha agreement.
Democracy and freedom are surely not just the Americans’ responsibility to defend, much as they might pretend to be the global policeman from time to time. Clearly the world does not care enough for freedom to fight for it away from home. It is sadly no different for us.
But as the world has discovered repeatedly in the past, what happens somewhere else does not always remain somewhere else. That somewhere in our case is not far away, both physically and politically. We reportedly spent some effort in looking for openings with the Taliban even as the Chinese and the Russians had their respective back channels. But given our peculiar conditions and approach to world politics, it is difficult to imagine what we could have achieved.
Now that the dice is cast, we seem to have found a place between two stools with nowhere to go. It is obvious that we have little that we can do for the present but to wait. There is Pakistan to watch as well to ensure that just when their box of tricks was beginning to run out, there is not a fresh infusion of supply from across the Durand Line.
Although we have been friends of the common Afghan people and some in north India even share common roots with Pashtuns, who make up the bulk of Taliban, with others having developed relations with Afghanistan over several generations, we seem to know precious little about the Taliban themselves. We therefore speculate whether the new generation of Taliban are any different from their predecessors, who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues and made life miserable for girls and women.
One way or the other what explains their ability to so quickly overcome the Afghan Army and obviously secure some support amongst the common citizens? The last time round India empathised with and supported the Northern Alliance. Our admiration for Ahmed Shah Masood was quite apparent. So, as the Taliban announce that the war in Afghanistan is over, are we to believe that the cracks of civil war too have been permanently healed?
In a way, developments in Afghanistan are an opportunity for India to test its resolve to be noticed at the global high table. We might have too easily assumed that we had already made it to a place in the sun. As President of the Security Council at present our responsibility becomes even greater. But even in the months that follow, India has to take on a definite role but it may be important to get clarity at home first about our world view.
We share many priorities with the US and the present government has clearly leaned towards the US, despite periodic public reaffirmation of our relationship with the Russian Federation. But where do we stand today?
Presumably the US was not particularly concerned about the impact of their troop withdrawal on our interests in the region. On the other hand, our relations with China hardly encourage the expectation of joint planning and approach to the crisis. But that such an opportunity might not present itself on the Russia front is not something we would have envisaged in the past.
It is not that our past record has been blemish-less or without contradictions entirely. But we did manage Vietnam, Laos, Poland et al without upsetting the carefully crafted balance in foreign relations. Today there is neither the balance nor the feet on the ground to make a meaningful intervention and provide collective leadership to the world.
It is too early to predict the ambitions of the Taliban once they take charge. Is their focus to be limited to the troubled country itself or is there an ideological platform that will export their brand of politics and world view? Will they play into the hands of Pakistan or make it a plaything for themselves?
The US has stated that it will not desert Afghanistan but the events of the past weeks suggest that there may not be the same Afghanistan to support. The External Affairs Minister, Jai Shanker has interestingly admitted to differences in perception with the US. That is an expensive realisation that was constantly ignored till now, despite our nudging the government to heed over the past years and months.
Indeed, there may well be a signal for us to review our entire foreign policy premised on the belief that the world loves us. The fact is that the world has of late become transactional. We have to choose between dealing with the world and inspiring it. But if we choose to be transactional in our domestic politics, we are hardly likely to be noticed as a role model as we were in the hey days of the NAM movement.
The hardened diplomat might dismiss this as romantic non-sense but pragmatic diplomacy has brought the world to its present state; perhaps we might do better to revive the vision of Nehru, perhaps with suitable modification, to reflect the changes that our world has undergone.
(Views are personal)