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India Caught In The Taliban Myth

By M K Bhadrakumar

11 July, 2008
Asia Times Online

The horrendous terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul on Monday has no precedents. Never has the mission there been attacked in this fashion - not even during the darkest periods of the civil war in the 1980s and 1990. Nor has any other diplomatic mission in Kabul been so targeted in the current phase of the civil war that began with the United States invasion in 2001.

The suicide attack claimed the lives of 41 people, with more than 140 injured. Among the dead were Indian Defense Attache Brigadier R D Mehta, diplomat Venkateswara Rao and two Indian paramilitary guards.

Unsurprisingly, Indian opinion makers have been swift in depicting the terrorist act as a moral evil, which it probably is. All the same, it is necessary to draw a line while presenting what happened as a kind of morality play of good versus evil. The danger is when the narrative begins depicting a moral universe where we are hated solely on account of our altruistic motives and intrinsic goodness.

Whereas, the reality is that we live in savage times where realpolitik and not morality often enough happens to be the guiding force inciting our monstrous enemies. A need arises, therefore, to take a more honest look at any hidden sewers that may exist. Such an exercise cannot and should not in any way detract from the total condemnation that the terrorists deserve. But it will serve an important purpose in so far as we do not fall into a false sense of innocence.

Even the death of a sparrow is a tragedy. Too many Indian lives are being lost in Afghanistan. The death of a brigadier, certainly, is a huge loss to India's armed forces. It is about time to ask questions why this is happening. First and foremost, do we comprehend the complexities of the Afghan situation?

The primary responsibility for this task lies with the Indian mission in Kabul, which should assess the situation correctly and report to Delhi. The Ministry of External Affairs will be the best judge to decide whether there have been any lacunae in putting in place the underpinnings of India's Afghan policy. After all, a distinct pattern is emerging in the recent past. Is it mere coincidence?

Each time an Indian life was lost, top officials in Delhi reiterated their resolve not to be deterred by terrorists. A high-level meeting of officials ensued to take stock of the security of Indian personnel in Afghanistan. Apart from diplomatic and other staff, several thousand Indians are involved in reconstruction work in the country.

We then moved on. But does that approach suffice? Is anyone listening out there in the Hindu Kush? Isn't a comprehensive re-look of policy warranted? Something has gone very wrong somewhere. The government owes an explanation.

One thing is clear. The Taliban are a highly motivated movement. They are not in the business of exhibitionism. Their actions are invariably pinpointed, conveying some distinguishable political message or the other. This has been so all along during the past decade. Anyone who interacted with the Taliban would agree.

Even on the eve of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, they were prepared to deal, but by then the Gorge W Bush administration was bent on the military path. In the present case of India's embassy, the terrorist attack was carefully targeted. Equally, its timing must also bear scrutiny. The overall fragility of the security situation or the prevailing climate of violence in Afghanistan alone cannot account for it. India is not part of the tens of thousands of coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan. But why is India being singled out? After all, Iran has been no less an "enemy" for the Taliban or al-Qaeda - or Russia and Uzbekistan for that matter.

The first point is that the Taliban have once again chosen to target Indian interests, which are located on Afghan soil. They haven't stretched their long arm to act on Indian soil. Even though India's army chief recently speculated that Kashmiri militants could have tie-ups with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, such a link seems highly improbable. (Why there should have been such a speculative statement at all on a sensitive issue at such a responsible level, we do not know). The Taliban message is that they have a score to settle with India's Afghan policy; that it is best settled on Afghan soil; and that they do not have any hostility toward India as such.

Two, the Taliban have ratcheted up the level of their attacks on Indian interests. Targeting the Indian chancery makes it a very serious message. It is unclear whether the Indian defense attache was specifically the target. Conceivably, he was. If so, the timing of the attack is relevant. India has sharply stepped up its military-to-military cooperation with Afghanistan. Media reports indicate that India is training Afghan military personnel and possibly supplying military hardware to the Afghan armed forces. The Indian authorities have not cared to deny these reports.

Needless to say, the Taliban would be keeping a close tab. The Taliban have infiltrated Afghan security agencies and would know the nature of the India-Afghanistan military cooperation. In any case, in the Kabul bazaar, nothing remains secret for long. The Taliban seem to have sized up that the Afghan-Indian "mil-to-mil" cooperation is assuming a cutting edge, and the resent it, seeing it as unwarranted Indian interference in their country's internal affairs.

Arguably, India's cooperation is within legitimate parameters. Delhi is dealing with the duly elected Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, which enjoys international legitimacy. But such things are never quite that simple in war zones. It took all the persuasiveness on the part of India's envoys to get the mujahideen to accept, with the benefit of hindsight, that India's erstwhile ties with president Mohammad Najibullah's regime in the 1980s were history and were not directed against the mujahideen but merely signified government-to-government relations, which were usual.

Again, as India learned at enormous cost, in the ultimate analysis, it became completely irrelevant that the Indian Peace Keeping Force saga in the mid-1980s in Sri Lanka began at the insistence of the established government in Colombo under the leadership at the highest level. The dividing line between the judicious and injudicious becomes thin when an outsider becomes involved in a fratricidal strife.

In this particular case, there is an added factor. The Afghan army has pronounced ethnic fault lines. Ethnic Tajiks account for close to 70% of the officer corps of the army. So, when India trains Afghan army officers in its military academies to fight the Taliban - who are a predominantly Pashtun movement - India is needlessly stepping into a political minefield of explosive sensitivity. Either India does not comprehend these vicious undercurrents in Afghan politics or it chooses to deliberately overlook them. In any case, it demands some serious explanation.

Three, the United Progressive Alliance government in Delhi has incrementally harmonized its Afghan policy with the US's "war on terror". This is most unfortunate. India ought to keep a safe distance from the Bush administration's war against militant Islam. Besides, the US has complicated motives behind its intervention in Afghanistan - its geostrategy toward Russia and Central Asia, its agenda of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's expansion as a global political organization, its crusade against "Islamofascism", etc.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recently revealed in the New Yorker magazine what was an open secret - Washington has been using Afghanistan as a base for training and equipping terrorists and planning and executing subversive activities directed against Iran with a view to speeding up "regime change" in that country.

India does not share these diabolical US policy objectives and hare-brained dogmas. But unfortunately, influential sections within the India security community have labored under the notion that acquiring a sort of frontline status in the US's "war on terror" in Afghanistan would have tangential gains with regard to Pakistan. The temptation to harmonize with the US is all the greater when we see that US-Pakistan security cooperation has come under strain on account of Islamabad's growing resistance to the American attempt to shift the locus of the war into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the tribal areas within Pakistan that border Afghanistan.

Again, some others in India's strategic community hold a belief that it is time India began to flex its muscles in its region. Indeed, US think-tankers routinely encourage their counterparts to believe that India is far too shy and reticent for a serious regional power in the exercise of its muscle power.

At any rate, there is a widespread perception in the international community - including former US officials who held responsible positions and even British statesmen - that Afghanistan is the theater of a proxy war between Pakistan and India. But we can certainly do without such a proxy war. There are five good reasons for saying so.

First, it is tragic, immoral and contemptible if India indeed is cynical enough to overlook the suffering that it would be inflicting on the friendly Afghan people - who barely eke out a living as it is - by making them pawns in India's "low intensity" wars with Pakistan. Second, such a proxy war is contrary to India's broader regional policy, which is to make Pakistan a stakeholder in friendly relations with India. Third, India would be annoying or alienating the Pakistani military, which is a crucial segment of the Pakistani establishment. Fourth, it undercuts the climate of trust and confidence, which is gathering slowly but steadily in the overall relationship with Pakistan.

Finally, it is plain unrealistic to overlook Pakistan's legitimate interests in Afghanistan. It would be as unrealistic as to expect that India would sit back and take with equanimity if it perceived creeping Pakistani influence in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bhutan. (Three top Indian officials recently visited Colombo to make precisely such a point about trends toward Sri Lanka's expansion of ties with China and Pakistan.)

Call it "sphere of influence", call it the "Monroe Doctrine" [1], but there are geopolitical realities that cannot be overlooked. Afghanistan poses fundamental challenges to Pakistan's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Therefore, Pakistan is highly sensitive about Afghanistan's external relations. It is inconceivable that Pakistan would take in its stride any Indian activities in Afghanistan, which it perceives as threatening its security interests. (Sophistries apart, Delhi's calculated political decision to maintain consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif is a case in point.) A futile cycle of tit-for-tat will ensue

whereby India and Pakistan would end up bleeding each other.

From the Indian perspective at least, its national priorities at the present crucial juncture of economic growth and development should be very obvious. It can do without mindless distractions and extravaganzas. It needs a peaceful external environment. China's fascinating example of national priorities is in front of India - almost mocking it.

The biggest danger is that in the present climate of euphoria over India's so-called strategic partnership with the US, Washington may egg Delhi on to a "proactive" role in Afghanistan. Indeed, this may be happening already to some extent. India (and China) has been approached by the Bush administration to send troops to Afghanistan. Understandably, with the Afghan war posing such a profound dilemma to the US, Washington would be immensely pleased if India, with its surplus manpower, geared up for a bit of load-sharing in the "war on terror".

Nothing would be more foolhardy on India's part than to be drawn into the US stratagem. There cannot be any two opinions that when the chips are down, the US would know that Pakistan is a fundamentally more valuable ally in Afghanistan than India ever could aspire to be. Simply put, geography favors Pakistan, and geography delimits a direct Indian role in Afghanistan.

India can only end up as a doormat for US regional policy. However, there are disturbing signs that sections of the Indian strategic community, egged on by the armchair cheerleaders in its media, are raring to go for a bit of action in the great game. Indeed, the great game in the Hindu Kush is a heady, exhilarating game. But it is also a high-risk one. It can even end up tragically, which was what happened to imperial Britain and the Soviet Union - and quite probably will happen to the US.

It is understandable if India were to retaliate against the Taliban for its hostile activities towards India. But that is not the case here. The case is more of the powerful pro-American lobby in India's security community hoping against hope that somehow or the other a justification could be found for a raison d'etre for India to get involved in the Afghan war. The easy route is to cast the Taliban as inimical to India's national security.

Part of the problem is also India's lack of understanding about the phenomenon of political Islam and its manifestations in its neighborhood. Carnegie scholar and author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy, Fawaz A Gerges, has tackled the intellectual challenge of disentangling myth from the reality of Islamism. He came up with some facts to consider: a) Islamism is highly complex and diverse; the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates which form the overwhelming majority (over 90%) of religiously political groups embrace democratic principles and oppose violence; b) Mainstream Islamists have become unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation in Muslim societies, learning to make compromises and even rethink some of their absolute positions; c) Mainstream militants serve as a counterweight to ultra-militants like al-Qaeda; d) Islamists, like their secular counterparts, are deeply divided among themselves and the intensity of the fault lines are very real.

Interestingly, Gerges had this to say about the Taliban: "There is nothing uniquely 'Islamic' about their internal governing style except the rhetoric and the symbolism. They have not offered up an original model of Islamic governance." Thus, once in power in the late 1990s, the Taliban did face a Herculean task of coping with political reality. If not for their cynical manipulation in the 1990s by outsiders - the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - the Taliban would not have been driven into the welcoming arms of al-Qaeda.

Much of the currently perceived threat to regional stability from the Taliban is a dark illusion that has been exaggerated and distorted. But then India became trapped by a fear and adversarial perceptions had crystallized by the late 1990s. India promptly, unconditionally, surrendered the right to question the myth about the Taliban. Indeed, Taliban functionaries kept conveying to India directly and through intermediaries that they didn't harbor ill will toward India to provoke such vehement Indian support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

Maybe India overreacted; maybe the searing pain of the blood-letting in Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s and early 1990s percolated into India's thinking; maybe the specter of Islamic extremism genuinely haunted the country; maybe Pakistan's hostile manner prompted India to retaliate; maybe the hijack of the Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar in Afghanistan in 1999 and the humiliation that followed was too much to accept; maybe the destruction of the famed Bamyan statues in Afghanistan in 2001 was already an affront to India's civilization. Certainly, one thing led to another.

But 2001 was a cut-off point. India should have stopped in its tracks and reassessed. The Bonn conference in the winter of 2001 following the invasion of Afghanistan was the occasion for an ancient country like India to have pointed out to the world community that there could be no durable peace unless the vanquished and the defeated party was also brought into the settlement. The Europeans would have understood. But India's political leadership let the country down. Instead, India revived belief in its role to battle evil. On the other hand, if India had plodded through, the myth might have easily fallen away. And that might have offered a permanent solution to India's Taliban problem.

1. The Monroe Doctrine is a US doctrine which, on December 2, 1823, said that European powers were no longer to colonize or interfere with the affairs of the newly independent nations of the Americas. The United States planned to stay neutral in wars between European powers and their colonies. However, if later on, these types of wars were to occur in the Americas, the United States would view such action as hostile. President James Monroe first stated the doctrine during his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress, a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States. Most recently, during the Cold War, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (added during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt) was invoked as a reason to intervene militarily in Latin America to stop the spread of communism. - Wikipedia

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd


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