Friday, 12 August, 2022
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US returns to South Asia pushing peace in Afghanistan, stability in India-Pakistan

The next few months will give India, Pakistan backchannel space to talk some more, enough for the Americans to unveil their new strategy on Afghanistan.

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South Asia is back in US reckoning, front and centre, not just with India and Pakistan committing to peace on the Line of Control, but US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this weekend making an important move on the Afghanistan chessboard.

Days after the LoC fell silent, Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, suggesting senior Afghan leaders should hold face-to-face discussions with the Taliban as well as involve the UN in organising a conference on Afghanistan, in which India will also likely participate.

Certainly, Blinken’s letter is a major vote of confidence in India’s staying power in Afghanistan. These past two decades, New Delhi has refused to be baited by Pakistan next door for not being an immediate neighbour to Kabul, overcome the geographical disadvantage by opening its doors to thousands of Afghan students, ramped up its interest in the Chabahar Port in Iran to circumvent Pakistan and send goods via Iran, and kept in close touch with all shades of the Afghan leadership.

(An anecdote is in order here. In an effort to also attract young Afghan female students who wish to study in India but don’t get permission from their conservative families to travel and live alone, Indian diplomats have sometimes bent the rules a little by also giving scholarships to their fiances and brothers.)

So over the last year, even as the pandemic raged, India turned around its policy on Afghanistan in order to be present at the table when the big boys dealt the cards. Only in 2018, when Moscow had invited an Indian delegation to participate in a consultation with the Taliban, the Indian team had been given express instructions not to talk to them at all.

Also read: Biden’s first security plan shows US desperate for partners. But India must read fine print

Talking it out with the US

Last September, External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar addressed the inaugural peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha. It was an assertion of several decisions.

First, India would not remain on the sidelines even when it abided by the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process” underlined by President Ghani, that was also intended to keep himself in the limelight. Second, if the US was bringing Pakistan back into the peace talks because it was the only country with the influence to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, then that was a message to Delhi too: Talk to the Taliban. Don’t marginalise yourself.

There was a third assertion. Despite its weakening, US influence in Afghanistan would remain second to none for a long while to come. As part of the growing India-US partnership, Jaishankar decided to reach out to the US also on Afghanistan.

Despite the huge divergence in their positions, Jaishankar realised that it was important to be seen to be holding Zalmay Khalilzad’s hand. So when Donald Trump’s special envoy — and now Joe Biden’s — came to Delhi just before the pandemic grew out of control, Delhi rolled out the red carpet.

What Khalilzad wanted was somewhat different from Jaishankar’s expectations. Khalilzad wanted Delhi to not put spokes in Taliban’s return to the peace table with the Afghan republic, but continue to support the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Delhi wanted Khalilzad to open his eyes and smell the coffee about Pakistan not changing its stripes. It wanted to remind him that Pakistan had not kept the Taliban on a tight leash in various Pakistani towns such as Quetta and Miranshah since 2001, only to now abandon its intention to control the throne of Kabul.

But Jaishankar understood the unspoken plight of the Americans. The world’s most powerful nation was declining and it wanted to get out of the longest war it had fought – longer than Vietnam. Thousands of American soldiers had died, more than $2 trillion spent. Worse, the US was not on talking terms with Iran, Europe was too far away, Russia was a competitor and China wasn’t showing its hand.

Even if India was the good guy, it was too weak to shape the politics of the region. What should it do to make itself relevant again? It was a question that had even fewer answers as the Chinese climbed the icy heights of Ladakh.

Also read: Jaishankar speaks to US special envoy on Afghanistan, takes stock of Taliban peace talks

And moving in the neighbourhood

Back in Afghanistan, Delhi’s policy of maintaining a deep and special friendship with the Afghan people has kept it in good stead. This policy of strategic patience was forged under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2001 after the Taliban were overthrown; it continued during the Manmohan Singh decade and has been reinvented under Narendra Modi. It has ensured that New Delhi won’t be ignored when the dice is rolled on the Afghan table.

Significantly, Jaishankar hasn’t sat on his hands waiting to be invited by the Americans to play a role. He has reached out to Afghanistan’s neighbours, several of whom have had unhappy or no ties with the US. In Russia, India and Iran have attended a trilateral meeting on Afghanistan. Iran’s defence minister came to the airshow in Bengaluru. Delhi keeps in close touch with Russia’s special envoy Zamir Kabulov, although Kabulov seems more than a little contaminated by America’s fascination for Pakistan.

The change of guard in Washington DC has made it clear that the road from Delhi to Kabul must take Islamabad into account. That’s why talks to renew the LoC agreement began in October, on the eve of the US presidential election, when it was clear that Trump was waning. Media reports are conflicted about whether National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa or special assistant to PM Imran Khan on national security, Moeed Yusuf. There is speculation that a face-to-face meeting took place in Colombo.

Certainly, the discussions are imbued with a sense of pragmatism. Pakistan has come to terms with the fact that it must move on from its unhappiness over the abrogation of Article 370 and the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union.

Similarly, the Modi government has taken an about-turn on returning to talks with Pakistan without cross-border terrorism coming to an end. The disengagement in Ladakh and the decision to keep the LoC quiet is proof that India did not want to keep both its fronts open.

For the time being, people on both sides are holding their breath. Slow and steady is the new mantra. Peace on the LoC must be consolidated. Assembly elections in India and political instability inside Pakistan – Imran Khan has been unable to get his finance minister Hafeez Sheikh elected to parliament, some say, because the Pakistan army indicated that Sheikh’s opponent was a better man – means that the next few months will be on slow fuse.

This will allow the India-Pakistan backchannel the space to talk some more. It is also enough time for the Americans to unveil their new strategy on Afghanistan and ensure that it gathers steam.

Views are personal.

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  1. Government must focus on the real enemy who has grown in strength for past 70 years with congrass support.

    Ultra left wing radicals , jihadist and proselytizers as well as journalists spreading fake propaganda under instructions from pakistani and chinese handlers want to create chaos and bloodshed in INDIA.

    This people are being pushed back by HINDU consolidation but with resources coming from abroad and anger caused in the community mentioned above by being out of POWER have made them more vicious and they are coming together on various destructive platforms.

    Unfortunately the judiciary has no idea of the tactics used in modern warfare and is seeking old style proof . This lack of smart judiciary is being exploited to the hilt by anti HINDU radicals.

    Thus by exposing the activities of this anti HINDU radicals on social media and pre-emptive action like in case of FAKE ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST the government needs to break the chain of command to ensure peace and genuine democracy which is exactly opposite of what this radicals want.

  2. It is time India convince US that it’s interest in preventing Afghanistan into hands of fanatics and at the same time putting monkey ranch in China’s road & belt initiative is to support India seizing Gilgit & Baltistan from Pakistan in return for India providing military support to US backed government in Afghanistan, allowing US to get out of Afghanistan without too many body bags.

  3. India’s Entry into QUAD & Benefits

    Grab the opportunity to get on US’s right side just as China used the opportunity to get on US’s right side during Reagan Administration. At that time US (post Nixon-Kissinger era) was searching for an ally in Asia to counter the Soviet Union. China was the perfect example. It showered huge money in FCI, technology and opened its markets for imports. In turn China just postured but did nothing to upset the Soviet-US balance. Now the same or similar opportunity is knocking at India’s door. US is looking for an ally in Asia to counter China (not Russia) in South China Sea and the rest of Asia. China has grown far more aggressive and is challenging US to deter it to step its foot in Asia or open seas. Although the Chinese military is too preliminary in its capabilities, but still they are giving it a try.

    India with 60 years of military and border trouble with China is a perfect fit the become a US ally and counter China. The Chinese have become belligerent with too much US trade cash and have begun to exert pressure on the US itself.

    It took them 8 years of deliberations for US to come up with a solution to this rising Chinese menace. They need a big ally with capable strategy on which they could shower FCI, technology and build up as a major counter to China. India is the perfect example.

    That opportunity arrived in the form of a revival of the QUAD concept in Asia to encircle China. The concept had been around since 2008 but US did not fully elucidate it well and India seemed to be disinterested in the concept. It is geographical Japan, Australia and US pooling their naval might together to tell the Chinese first, that no more South China Sea capture will be permitted and second, force China to withdraw from the South China back to its shores.

    It was President Trump, who wished to tackle China head on. It tackled on its trade/exports and then went around asking the possible QUAD members to pool resources together. US alone could force China out with its naval might but wished to tackle China at sea with joint effort in order to forestall criticism of its actions. All tiny nations like Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Korea and Malaysia/Singapore, etc. are sick of being bullied by China but have no power to do that. If QUAD power emerges, then they have the power and force China away.

    For India other than limiting Chinese naval power expansion to Indian expansion has a direct benefit. In case the Chinese get too ambitious and stage another LAC type of operation and the situation escalate into a shooting, then, the presence of QUAD power in the Arabian Sea will prevent Pakistan from join the Chinese side to capture Kashmir or any other military operations against India. That is where the whole concept of allies is born. India alone can tackle China and Pakistan, individually, but difficult to handle them together without a nuclear war. Hence, if it, the Quad prevents a joint Pakistan & Chinese action then it should be welcomed.

  4. It would be a fair comment to say that Indian foreign policy in the neighbourhood too required steaming mugs of hot coffee. The Biden administration is sending over some of the best from Starbucks.

  5. I find Jyoti Malhotra’s article too simplistic and black & white (like Ekta Kapoor serials). The topic here is extremely complex with many facets.. she just states commonly perceived statements (on China, US, India and Pakistan). She uses many directly un-linked “facts” to make a parabolic argument.

    I like her interviews though sometimes tried too hard to get a masala statement!

  6. Is this piece actually written by Jyoti Madam? Forget about thaw in Indo China or Indo Pak relations, one can’t believe the truce she has finally reached with that evil called Modi!! It is interesting to see about turns taken by various so called (self proclaimed as well) defense and strategic experts about Modi and his policies. Anyway, so long as Jyoti is factual, unbiased and reasoned, it is fine. It is when she analyzes with anti Modi bias, one has problems. There is nothing wrong in criticizing Modi but it must not be based on personal dislike and hatred for Modi.

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