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India cannot watch with complacency the growing turmoil in Afghanistan

September 27, 2011
A Real Challenge To Indian Diplomacy
Statesman: Salman Haidar

Note: this text has been reproduced and broadcast on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs of India.

Some recent violent incidents in Afghanistan have come as a sharp reminder of the fragility of the situation in that country. Earlier this month, the Taliban were able to mount a truck bomb attack on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) near Kabul that left five people dead and as many as 77 injured. Then, just a few days ago, there was a series of determined assaults on US facilities in Kabul including the US Embassy that was quelled only after prolonged fighting and the loss of many lives. This show of defiance by the insurgents came as the USA is beginning a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could well leave the place more vulnerable to further attack.

An even more devastating strike was the suicide attack that resulted in the death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Chairman of the High Peace Council and former President of the country. This took place in a highly protected area and was aimed at a prominent leader whose loss would make peace and reconciliation within the country even more problematic. It is a measure of the standing of Mr Rabbani and of the hopes invested in the peace effort he was leading that President Karzai felt it necessary to return immediately from New York where he was due to address the UN General Assembly.

The troubles in Afghanistan have continued unabated for years and the latest incidents have only added to the pessimism about what may lie ahead. The Taliban strategy of suicide attacks on prominent targets has come as a fresh challenge to the state, and indeed to the entire region, as evidenced in the sharp public falling out between Pakistan and USA. Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pulled no punches in his denunciation of the Pakistani role in the attack on US targets in Afghanistan. He has ascribed the assaults to the Haqqani group, which he described as the veritable arm of the ISI, and he criticized what he referred to as the Pak strategy of trying to gain influence in the future set-up in Afghanistan by setting up proxies like the Haqqanis.

Unmoved by Pakistani denials, the USA has been firm in its accusations. Even before the latest sharp exchanges, there were several adverse developments in the Pak-US relationship: Pak PM Gilani felt obliged to cancel a scheduled visit to the UN, apparently, according to claims in the Pak media, because he was denied a meeting with President Obama, which in turn may have had something to do with Pak refusal to act against the Haqqani group.

Before relations plummeted further, as they have in the last few days, Pak FM Ms Rabbani Khar had a long meeting with Secretary of State Clinton which seemed to have repaired some of the damage ~ in fact, the Pak FM received some criticism in her country’s media for being too ready to meet US wishes.

Thereafter, in an effort to reduce mistrust, there were meetings between the ISI chief Gen. Pasha and his US counterpart and, most significantly, between the Pak army chief and Admiral Mullen. But the hopes raised by these meetings have been set aside by the subsequent recriminations. Currently, neither side is concerned to disguise its aversion for the other, though no irrevocable steps have yet been taken and each of them has affirmed the importance it attaches to their bilateral relationship.

The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani could have no less profound an impact on Afghanistan than the falling out between Pakistan and the USA. Throngs of people have come out on the streets to show their anger and to demand retribution. Mr. Rabbani was an ethnic Tajik and had served as President during the Tajik ascendancy in Kabul (1992-1996) before the largely Pushtoon Taliban gained power. His assassination revives apprehensions of renewed strife between ethnically divided communities, such as had devastated Afghanistan during a decade of civil war.

Bringing the communities together in a cooperative arrangement is a great challenge for President Karzai and he has been hard pressed to establish his authority and to keep the regional aspirants in good order. Only recently, the President’s brother, who ruled the southern province of Kandahar on his behalf, was assassinated in a suicide attack whose consequences are yet to be fully assessed. Now the loss of Mr. Rabbani adds enormously to the difficulties before the President, for the slain leader was central to the delicate task of trying to reconcile diverse and conflicting interests between regions and communities.

These events on its periphery raise a familiar but nevertheless dangerous set of challenges for India. Civil war in Afghanistan during the 1990s had considerable impact on India, for the ideologically driven Taliban that eventually swept to power were prone to interfere in Indian affairs, especially in Kashmir. India was able to keep aloof and avoid direct involvement in the civil conflict but there could be no basis for any sort of relationship with Kabul.

Indeed, in the prevailing circumstances, Indian sympathy, and that of other regional players, Iran prominent among them, was with the Northern Alliance, which never submitted to the Taliban even when most of the country was under their sway. The experience of those not-so-distant days is a reminder of how Afghan troubles can spill over into the region.

Nor can India watch with complacency what could threaten to become a meltdown in Pak-US ties. Having been so long at the receiving end, India may regard it as only appropriate that Pak double-speak on terrorism should be exposed, but it is important nevertheless for India that the current recriminations between the supposed allies in the ‘war on terror’, Pakistan and the USA, should not give scope for the recrudescence in Afghanistan of the damaging and destructive forces that have caused so much harm to the region as a whole.

Over the years, the Indian government has tried hard, sometimes braving domestic critics, to keep open its lines of communication with its neighbour, in the belief that there is no alternative to dialogue to resolve the differences between them. While the situation in Afghanistan is not on the formal agenda of Indo-Pak bilateral talks, it poses a difficult challenge to both countries and can cause dangerous rifts between them.

It is thus important that they should bring this issue within the ambit of their discussions. Other regional as well as more distant countries also need to be drawn in appropriately, in order to assure peace and stability, especially at the present juncture when external forces in Afghanistan have started to thin out. It is a difficult task and a real challenge to Indian diplomacy.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary

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