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Islam and Politics ( 26 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Afghanistan — Time for irrevocable decisions

By M.K. Bhadrakumar

New Delhi should trust its innate capacity to conduct its discourses with Kabul and Islamabad bilaterally.

Islam primarily serves as a flag or banner for other deeper kinds of rivalries and confrontation in Afghanistan. None of the principal elements of the ground situation — resistance to foreign occupation, irredentist Pashtun nationalism and the Durand Line, regionalism and ethnicity, “failed” Afghan state, drug trafficking, abysmal poverty, warlordism, corruption, etc, — can be seen as an “Islamic” phenomenon. Again, to characterise a group such as the Taliban as “terrorist” has always been analytically crude and counterproductive.

Modern history is replete with instances — and India knows only too well — that eventually it is a political call. Therefore, if we are hung up on the idea that the Taliban is driven by some implacable radical Islamic agenda, we will never find ways to reduce the problem. As the well-known author and specialist on global Muslim politics Graham Fuller put it in his recent book A World Without Islam, “Nearly all of the movements [such as the Taliban] have nonreligious, ultimately negotiable goals.”

However, India never quite got right these quintessential templates of the Afghan problem. So, many mistakes ensued. As the Afghan endgame advances, irrevocable decisions are to be made and India cannot afford more mistakes. Looking back, one part of our flawed thinking lay in the optic we employed, viewing the Taliban as a monolithic entity. In Afghanistan, history didn't begin on 9/11. The United States butted into a fratricidal strife, initially posing its invasion as an attempt to bring vigilante justice which subsequently morphed into a seamless war against terrorism. But it has all along been a slow-motion geopolitical confrontation for gaining regional dominance. In sum, India needs to rethink and reassess its interests. The challenge is formidable since this demands great suppleness of mind.

For a start, India must get straight the core issues in the power struggle erupting in Kabul between the U.S. and its Afghan proxies, on one side, and President Hamid Karzai and his allies, on the other. India needs to grasp why it is so terribly important that Mr. Karzai doesn't end up as a loser. The western media are caricaturing him as a tinpot dictator. The thrust of it is that he decided to postpone by a month the convening of the new Parliament. But does Mr. Karzai have any choice other than ordering a special tribunal to review the election results? Close to half the Afghan population consists of ethnic Pashtuns and, yet, non-Pashtuns have won 75 per cent of the parliamentary seats. Hazaras, who form 10 per cent of the population, won almost 20 per cent of the seats, including in the overwhelmingly Pashtun-dominated regions. Obviously, the results are deeply flawed and Mr. Karzai apprehends that Pashtun alienation, which is at the root of the insurgency, will further deepen and the Taliban's support base will expand.

Enter the Americans. Washington has waded into the ethnic politics by instigating non-Pashtun leaders to challenge Mr. Karzai's decision. The game plan is clear: if Parliament is convened, Mr. Karzai will be digging his own political grave as the U.S. proxies incrementally weaken the President and may even impeach him at a suitable moment of Washington's choice. But if Mr. Karzai insists on greater Pashtun representation, non-Pashtun groups will be displeased and the delicate web of pan-Afghan alliance that he tenaciously wove while consolidating political power over the past 2-3 years will be torn asunder, apart from derailing the nascent reconciliation process with the Taliban. In short, the U.S. is using the ethnic card to “entrap” Mr. Karzai and eventually force a “regime change.” It is virtually resuscitating elements within the erstwhile Northern Alliance to thwart his programme for intra-Afghan dialogue. It doesn't need much ingenuity for an outsider to inflame ethnic rivalries latent in Afghan politics but Washington is virtually undermining the country's stability. Simply to taunt Mr. Karzai, American think tanks, with tacit encouragement from the Washington establishment, are fawning over the former Afghan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, who was removed from his job last year.

Why such venom toward its own one-time protégé? The answer is simple: Washington finds Mr. Karzai increasingly acting as an Afghan nationalist rather than a U.S. surrogate. It pays lip service to an “Afghan-led” peace process but, in reality, wants to dictate the contours of any future settlement in Kabul. This is crucial for securing long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Washington is seeking a new status of forces agreement with Kabul but Mr. Karzai stoutly resists the U.S. plan to maintain permanent bases. He has openly stated foreign occupation should end.

Again, Mr. Karzai has been developing wide-ranging ties with Iran and Russia, including military cooperation, so as to reduce his dependence on the U.S. by the 2014 timeline. Moscow has proposed to Kabul a key role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Recently, Mr. Karzai visited Moscow and, over a fortnight ago, the former Northern Alliance stalwarts, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Mohammad Fahim (First Vice-President), visited Tehran. And following a telephonic conversation between Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Russia and Iran found themselves having similar concerns on regional issues.

Washington is upset at these developments. Besides, the climate of Afghan-Pakistan relations has visibly improved and the U.S. feels “excluded” even as Kabul and Islamabad show signs of kick-starting an intra-Afghan dialogue. The recent visit to Islamabad by Mr. Rabbani (who heads the Afghan High Council for Peace appointed by Mr. Karzai) underscored a new flexibility on the part of Pakistan. Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani received Mr. Rabbani. Evidently, Islamabad is working directly with Mr. Karzai and it unnerves Washington. The spectre of a peace settlement born out of regional initiatives haunts Washington.

Logically speaking, the U.S. should be desperate to get out of Afghanistan. But American signature tune has changed lately and Vice-President Joe Biden has flirted with the idea of long-term American military presence. Middle-level U.S. officials have got into public diplomacy to reinforce Mr. Biden's kite-flying. The recent speech titled “The Obama Administration's Priorities in South and Central Asia” by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy falls into this category. Mr. Blake underscored that Washington intended expanding its engagement with Central Asia, “this critical region,” at a “critical crossroads, bordering Afghanistan, China, Russia and Iran.”

From the Indian perspective, Mr. Blake's speech made a stunning claim that New Delhi is Washington's key partner in Afghanistan and Central Asia. He pandered to Indian vanities and, by doing so, made an attempt to play India against Pakistan. This diplomatic skullduggery is happening at a time when the U.S.-Pakistan ties are frayed and India's ties with Pakistan are under strain. To say the least, it is a familiar colonial game of “divide and rule.” Mr. Blake seems to think Indians no more read history.

Anyhow, he used hyperbole: “We would work with India on women's empowerment and capacity building in Afghanistan. These projects with India in Afghanistan mark a small but important part of a significant new global development — the emergence of a global strategic partnership between India and the U.S. … India's democracy, diversity and knowledge-based society make it special, a model of a tolerant pluralistic society in the region, and one that now actively seeks to work with the U.S. and others to help solve problems on a global level … The strength of India's economy makes it the powerhouse of South and Central Asia's growth.”

Quite obviously, Mr. Blake pandered to our hubris. But we can have a sense of proportion. To be sure, Americans are feeling rather lonely in the Hindu Kush nowadays but then, their misery is of their own making. In any case, India's unwavering priority ought to be peace at home and peace in its neighbourhood. The U.S. has destabilised Pakistan and practically wrecked up Afghanistan and is loathed by the vast majority of Pakistani and Afghan people. Of course, it will be a catastrophic mistake on our part to even remotely identify with the U.S.' Machiavellian enterprise to prop up disgruntled elements against Mr. Karzai. New Delhi should rather trust its innate capacity to conduct its discourses with Kabul and Islamabad bilaterally.

However, in order for it to make these important choices at a crucial juncture in the geopolitics of the region, India needs to reassess the profound meaning of the Taliban-led Afghan resistance to foreign occupation. A good beginning will be to discuss the Afghan situation transparently with Pakistan at the Foreign Ministers' meet in Thimphu. India should have the foresight to welcome any effort by Kabul and Islamabad to kick-start intra-Afghan talks. If peace dawns, the excuse for foreign military presence will become unsustainable and the root cause of terrorism and extremism will be removed. But statesmanship of the highest order is required to realise that Pakistan and India can be on the same side with regard to the Afghan problem.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

Source: The Hindu