India’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy is well and truly falling apart, at the seams and down the middle. With US President Donald Trump capitulating to Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Faiz Hameed’s Afghan deal at the White House – both accompanied by Prime Minister Imran Khan – New Delhi has been pushed into a corner and it could be a while before it gets out.
First things first. It was a shame that the Indian statement on Sunday’s suicide bombing and hours-long gunbattle at the office of Afghanistan’s vice-presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh didn’t even name him. Saleh escaped with a minor injury on his arm, even as 20 people were killed and 50 others have been injured.
In the statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs, there was the usual condemnation of a “dastardly attack” – what dictionary is the Pakistan desk at the MEA using by the way? The statement itself was so vague and general that you wouldn’t know reading it that its target was Saleh, the country’s former intelligence service chief, a friend of India, and Afghan patriot who has been fighting on the frontlines since the 1990s, on the side of the biggest patriot of them all, Ahmed Shah Masood.
Masood had to be killed by Osama bin Laden’s Taliban in 2001, two days before the attacks could be mounted against America on September 11. Amrullah Saleh is one among hundreds of Afghans who have since tried to step into Masooud’s shoes in an effort to keep Afghanistan safe from the ISI predators next door.
Amrullah Saleh’s importance
A simple Google search on ‘Amrullah Saleh’ throws up a raft of anti-Pakistani statements accusing the country’s Deep State of nurturing terror sanctuaries in Quetta and Karachi and Miranshah, ready to be pushed across the Durand Line into Afghanistan at will.
Saleh has never held his tongue back just to be polite. He shoots straight from the hip. He has a political party called Green Trends. Saleh told me in an interview that in 2008, when he was the head of National Directorate of Security, he had told then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf about Osama bin Laden living in his country. “Musharraf banged his fist on the table in front of us and said, ‘That’s not possible.’” Saleh said.
Three years later, bin Laden was found by the Americans in Abbottabad, within spitting distance of the Pakistani military academy and less than 100 km from capital Islamabad.
Here, then, is history laughing at the irony: Dr Shakil Afridi, who allegedly helped the US intelligence forces trace bin Laden and is in a Pakistani jail ever since, may now be released as part of the Trump-Bajwa-Hameed deal on Afghanistan.
The wheels of the Great Game in inner Asia are turning again. The tragedy is that the Modi government, so obsessed with its – justifiable – anger around Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism, never really came around to seeing it like that.
But anger can never be foreign policy. To conduct surgical strikes in PoK and airstrikes in Balakot is a good message to send that “business can never be usual” until cross-border terrorism comes to an end. But since diplomacy is the art of keeping the conversation open in the worst circumstances, the Modi government failed to even begin that key conversation with Pakistan over Afghanistan’s future.
Delhi was so clouded with anger about Pakistan that its top strategists never really understood that every big power would sooner than later cut a deal of its own with Rawalpindi, because Rawalpindi held many of the cards on Afghanistan. Delhi wanted every big power to point an accusing finger at Pakistan, describing it as the “epicentre” of terrorism and push for its isolation.
Instead, the opposite happened.
The US became increasingly desperate to bail out of the war-torn country and cut its losses, both in body-bags and billions of dollars spent, so Trump sent his pawn-broker Zalmay Khalizad to the region. The Russians, especially their short-sighted special envoy Zamir Kabulov (who could do with a few lessons in strategy from former intelligence chief and former ambassador to India Vyacheslav Trubnikov) played along with Pakistan because he believed Rawalpindi would control the tide of terrorists infiltrating into Russia’s pro-Islamic southern region, like Chechnya. While China went along with client-state Pakistan, because it wanted a ringside view on how America was weakening, every day, in a country it once hoped to rescue.
As for Pakistan, Rawalpindi’s strategy since the Bonn conference in 2002, was to wait it out – and occasionally tell the Americans to back off. (For example, it told the US in 2002 that India should not open consulates in southern Afghanistan; Delhi went ahead because the Afghans wanted a way out of the encirclement.)
Pakistan’s most outspoken critic
That waiting is now over. Within days of the Trump-Bajwa-Hameed meeting in Washington DC, Amrullah Saleh was attacked in his office on the outskirts of Kabul. Imran Khan is now going to Kabul. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has said that he hopes for a peace deal between the Afghans and the Taliban by September 1.
The attack on Saleh was inevitable. He has been the most outspoken critic of Pakistan. Significantly, the attack came mere hours after the Taliban Sunday rejected outright direct peace talks with the Ashraf Ghani government, which an Afghan government minister had announced only the day before.
Amrullah Saleh understands the perverted nature of the Deep State in Pakistan so well because he has dealt with it directly. So do Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai and Hamdullah Mohib and everyone else who has dealt with Pakistan over the years and seen how it outsources its “good terrorists” in an effort to subvert and eliminate the enemy.
The tragedy is that India, as a long-time victim, wasn’t able to change its tactics to adapt. As the situation changed, it should have reached out to the Taliban – everybody else was, including China and Australia and the US and Europe and Russia. When the Taliban held talks in Moscow, Delhi sent two retired diplomats but put a fatwa on their heads – No speaking to the Taliban! Could this be foreign policy?
The absence of Amrullah Saleh’s name on the Indian statement condemning the Sunday attack against him is a manifestation of the same fear. Delhi doesn’t want to upset the Americans who don’t want to upset the Pakistanis. The Russians don’t care one way or the other.
So, you forget who your real friends are, in the pursuit of some distant chimerical goal. You want to play a role, but the goalposts have shifted, so you don’t know what to do.
Fortunately, India is too big to fail. All Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to do is to pick up the phone and call India’s friends in Afghanistan – would be nice for a wounded Saleh to get a “kya haal hai,” asking how he’s feeling. Perhaps the PM should follow up by looking up Satinder Lambah – he was there at Bonn in 2002 and he has dealt with Pakistan, Afghanistan’s arch-enemy, for the longest time.
It’s time for a new AfPak strategy for India. Modi must see that he needs one.