Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Indian Motion

From New Delhi's perspective, the "AfPak" debate is all about the "Pak."

By , the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
Noah Seelam/GETTY IMAGES
Noah Seelam/GETTY IMAGES
Noah Seelam/GETTY IMAGES

There was a lone dissenter at last week's Afghanistan conference in London: India.

As representatives from more than 60 countries convened at the historic Lancaster House, New Delhi's representative to the summit, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, emphasized to his British counterpart that it would be a monumental folly, at this juncture, to make a distinction "between a good Taliban and a bad Taliban" or to legitimize the former through reaching out. From India's perspective, because the Taliban was originally an extension of Pakistan's intelligence agency and because it has been used by Islamabad to mount attacks against India, there can be no "good Taliban."

There was a lone dissenter at last week’s Afghanistan conference in London: India.

As representatives from more than 60 countries convened at the historic Lancaster House, New Delhi’s representative to the summit, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, emphasized to his British counterpart that it would be a monumental folly, at this juncture, to make a distinction "between a good Taliban and a bad Taliban" or to legitimize the former through reaching out. From India’s perspective, because the Taliban was originally an extension of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and because it has been used by Islamabad to mount attacks against India, there can be no "good Taliban."

But Krishna, seated in the second row, was politely ignored. Alas, it wasn’t the first time.

The contours of the Afghanistan debate as it plays out in Washington, London, and Islamabad are well known. But India arguably has just as much at stake as the Western countries — if not more. New Delhi is worried that legitimizing elements of the Taliban may increase India’s vulnerability to terrorist attack. While the world discusses security strategies for Afghanistan, India focuses on how these proposals will impact its relationship with Pakistan. For New Delhi, the "AfPak" debate is really just about "Pak."

Thus far, India’s policy toward Pakistan has been hands-off, leaving it to the paymasters in Washington and London. In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, New Delhi even acceded to Washington’s requests and took no action against Islamabad in order to facilitate the war in Afghanistan.

But now that dynamic is changing. As control of Afghanistan is being gradually handed back to the Taliban, an increasingly alarmed New Delhi will start looking for ways to prevent trouble. Although deployment of troops has been categorically ruled out by Defense Minister A.K. Antony, pressure will probably mount on the government to reconsider that decision. New Delhi will actively work to resuscitate remnants of the Northern Alliance, India’s longstanding allies against the Taliban. Most immediately, India will apply pressure on Pakistan, demanding that Islamabad act against the plotters of the Mumbai attacks. While New Delhi’s recent offer to resume diplomatic talks with Pakistan is a positive sign, should another terrorist attack take place, India will not be as patient as it was last time.

India may well feel slighted when it comes to gratitude from the global community on Afghanistan. Currently, New Delhi is the fifth-largest donor of civilian aid to Kabul. India has constructed the new parliament building, the Palace of Democracy; trained the country’s parliamentarians; and donated aircraft to resuscitate Afghanistan’s national airline, Ariana. Its workers are engaged in major infrastructure projects ranging from highways and electricity grids to dam projects, telecommunications, and the expansion of a TV network. As India’s junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, put it, "The reason that Kabul has 24 hours of electricity a day is because of Indian engineers who have actually delivered the power supply."

Besides, the wild popularity of Indian cinema and TV shows in Afghanistan means that India enjoys a soft-power edge over every other country currently engaged there. Unsurprisingly, in the most recent opinion poll, India emerged with the highest favorability rating of any country involved in Afghanistan: 74 percent.

Yet in the endless debates focusing on Afghanistan, India’s role in the region has usually been ignored by the United States and Europe — often deliberately, as New Delhi is quick to point out, in order to appease Pakistan.

Washington is keenly aware of the benefits that New Delhi brings to Afghanistan. But so far it has been wary of openly embracing India as a partner. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in his assessment of the war last fall, "Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people." But a larger role for India in Afghanistan, he warned, "is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan and India."

What this means is that India, the only stable secular democracy in the region, is being actively prevented from helping in Afghanistan in order to appease the Pakistani regime, lest it re-enact the carnage that was visited upon Mumbai in 2008 and the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009. Which raises the question: Is the U.S. objective in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, or is it to secure the country for Pakistan? To New Delhi, the answer looks increasingly like the latter.

Washington’s critics trace the origins of today’s crisis to the United States’ abrupt abandonment of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. The trouble with this version of history is that it skips over the 1990s. But contrary to what is now conventional wisdom in the West, the Taliban in its current incarnation is not a remnant of the Cold War. It is a creation of Pakistan. It was during the 1990s that the Taliban — actively backed by Pakistan — seized control of Kabul. Since then, New Delhi has witnessed Afghanistan become a launching pad for anti-India terrorism.

Today, the tragic irony of President Barack Obama, who invokes the virtues of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi while simultaneously making overtures to the Taliban in an oxymoronic pursuit for "moderate extremists," has not been lost on India. A tiny but vocal band of skeptics in India is already questioning the wisdom of New Delhi’s alignment with the United States over the last ten years. Of course, it is unlikely that New Delhi would directly oppose U.S. policy in the region. But in the first year of the Obama administration, much of the progress achieved over a decade of aggressive diplomacy to bring India closer to the United States has been undone.

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.

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