An agenda point for the foreign secretaries
That no headway was intended by either state owes to both following a ‘wait and watch’ policy. They await Obama’s speech that is to bring out his design for ‘AfPak’, in particular if the nature of the impending drawdown in troops is to be symbolic or significant. If the former, it would gladden India; if the latter, it would gladden Pakistan.
Pakistan is waiting to encash on its relationship with the Taliban, nurtured assiduously over the past decade despite intense US pressure. It would prefer a negotiated end to the conflict to its north. Once its allies are ensconced in some kind of power arrangement there, it could turn its attention once again towards the west, assured of ‘strategic depth’ to its rear and the vitality of its ‘strategic assets’.
India for its part is aware that, to an extent, the return to ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir since 9/11 owed to Pakistan’s preoccupation with its western front. It has taken advantage of the benign fallout to firm in and rests content that a falling back to the troubled years is unlikely. It would prefer to see western presence in Afghanistan till as long as a verifiable promise of moderation is not extracted from the Taliban. It has played hardball with Pakistan so as to keep up the pressure to this eminently reasonable end.
Given that the Taliban has managed to whittle the west’s appetite for nation building, for the west to be looking for an exit is understandable. Towards this end, Obama would progress the political prong of strategy, even while keeping the military prong on course for a while longer. US military presence would therefore continue, but its combat role may progressively be less visible. This means that Pakistan’s significance to the end game in terms of delivering a moderated Taliban increases even while India is not entirely disappointed.
What emerges is that both states have handed over the course of the region’s future to the US. While this may have been sensible in light of the post 9/11 vigour of the US in hunting down the terrorists in their havens, the circumstance has changed a decade on. Should the two self-regarding states in the region be waiting for hand-outs as they are? Should they not instead be shaping the region’s future?
An argument would be that since they cannot together shape the region’s future, they are realistically hoping to make the best of what emerges from the impending changes in US course in the region. This is typical of a conflict management approach, beloved of realists. The belief is that with Pakistan busily proceeding downhill, there is no need for India to be overly concerned. Pakistan would be less able to impose on India’s interests.
The current ‘wait and watch’ policy has an underside. Pakistan may yet engineer a return of the Taliban to Kabul, taking advantage of the US desire, brought on by exhaustion of its European allies and a strained economy, to leave. Protecting India’s interests and its Afghan friends means ensuring that a civil war does not resume on US draw down. This can be done by the two regional powers networking with each other. This way the region’s future gets written in the subcontinent.
As a self-confessed regional power India needs taking charge. Here the suggestion is for Pakistan and India to arrive at a modus-vivendi. India wants Pakistan to re-examine its Kashmir obsession. Pakistan, beset as it is by the terror blowback, wishes to remain on even keel. India could permit increased political space for Pakistan in Afghanistan, while Pakistan could turn away from Kashmir.
That India has influence in Afghanistan can be seen from the manner Obama tried to include India into the remit of the now deceased Richard Holbrooke. India has fought that off. India maintains that there is little to link the end-game in Afghanistan with the solution to the conflict in Kashmir. At best, it does not want a resumption of training for terrorists there and an influx of Afghan terrorists into Kashmir.
This position owes to it not wanting Pakistan to use its ‘gun to its own head’ strategy to bring US pressure on India for ‘concessions’ on Kashmir. Pakistan would like take back something for its cooperation on enabling an honourable exit to the west from Afghanistan. The west seeking exit would bring pressure to bear on India to be responsive. India is wary of this since it is uncertain of Pakistan keeping to its share of the bargain in light of its earlier record.
The idea here is that India could use the opportunity of the squeeze on Pakistan, currently culminating, to induce a change of course in Pakistan. The coming talks between the two foreign secretaries can be used to discuss a trade-off. Specifically, it would mean assuring Pakistan of India’s support in its delivering the Taliban to the table. In return, Pakistan would require assuring India that any return of the Taliban to a share of power in Kabul would not be at the cost of India or its Afghan allies. More importantly, Pakistan needs to follow through on its oft-repeated intent of not allowing its soil for use by anti-India terrorists. The two foreign ministries can usefully use the two opportunities coming up to flesh out the idea.
In the realist world view there is no necessity for this since Pakistan going downhill can only pose a diminishing threat, easily manageable by increasing the power asymmetry between the two states. This is fair enough on realist terms. Bestirring to preserve neighbours from continuing instability is not persuasive for realists.
A counter question could well be why will Pakistan bite? In this view, increasing reliance of the US on it to influence the Taliban would bring it back into the reckoning. Therefore, it does not need India. India at best has obstructionist potential. Pakistan can go it alone. It is precisely for this reason that India needs to pre-empt the future. It would do itself the favour of timely preventive action in keeping Kashmir from being singed by the outcome. In doing so it would think and act like a regional power it claims to be.
It is not for ‘AfPak’, but Kashmir and its own wider social harmony that India needs to act. Now!
(The author is Research Fellow, IDSA)