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India’s Kabul googly must be kept in play

Neena Gopal is Resident Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru
Published : Dec 15, 2018, 6:38 am IST
Updated : Dec 15, 2018, 6:48 am IST

Dodge or feint, Pak foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s comments signal a break from the past.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (Photo: AP)
 Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani (Photo: AP)

Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s complete about-urn on the role that India could play in Afghanistan, when, he acknowledged that “India has stakes in Afghanistan and its cooperation is needed” while addressing Pakistan’s National Assembly this Tuesday, can be no Kartarpur googly. Or can it?

Is the Afghan gambit part of the “Naya Pakistan” stratagem under its new Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose astute play on Sikh sentiments alongside “dildar” Navjot Singh Sidhu, forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hit wicket — rushing to give his blessing to a 4-km cross-border corridor that had been in limbo for over 70 years? Khalistan 2020, and fears that it would open up a new terror front on the Punjab border, notwithstanding.

Dodge or feint, Mr Qureshi’s comments signal a break from the past. Pakistan has consistently looked askance at New Delhi’s development outreach in setting up not just schools, hospitals and consulates, and a network of roads across the war-torn country, reserving its potent ire for the 215-km Zaranj Delaram highway, which was built in the teeth of fierce Taliban opposition and Indian lives, at a cost of Rs 600 crores. Aimed primarily at providing alternate access for Indian goods into Afghanistan via Iran’s Chabahar port, given that Pakistan has consistently denied transit through its territory to Afghanistan, it fed into Islamabad’s fears of India’s own “string of pearls” encirclement to squeeze a China-leaning Pakistan.

What has changed? One, the thinking in Pakistan’s corridors of power — make that the all-powerful military under its pragmatic Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa — that the India of 2019, just like the Pakistan that elected telegenic Imran Khan, will be a vastly different animal from the current Narendra Modi establishment that, wary of any electoral blowback, has cried off from any Pakistan policy, refusing to look beyond the “no talks until terror ends” trope. Pakistani analysts now firmly believe that the Assembly election debacle for the BJP could be a harbinger of change, although the next few months could see an increased vilification of Pakistan’s intent as Prime Minister Modi heads into a re- election year.

The second influencer could be the Pakistan military’s realisation that with the country’s flailing economy, barely afloat with a cash infusion from the likes of Riyadh in the face of huge cuts from Washington to the tune of $1 billion in aid, growing international isolation and its near-pariah status as an Army-backed sanctuary of terror, the military can neither sustain a two-front challenge, nor the internal insurgency unleashed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban and their brothers-in-arms who straddle the Pashtun heartland. Gen. Bajwa’s doctrine now is to bring some quietus to its western and eastern borders, by reaching out to both Kabul and New Delhi.

But the Taliban outreach may flow largely from prodding from Washington, not least the separate talks with the Taliban that Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy, has initiated in recent weeks to end the 17-year-long war, where just as he did in the past when Hamid Karzai was President, he has tried — and part succeeded — in persuading the outgoing Ashraf Ghani administration of the benefits of talking to the Taliban.

Once propped up by Pakistan’s military, but now increasingly marching to its own drummer, four members of the Taliban council based in Doha, Qatar, including the Taliban’s former envoy to Saudi Arabia, arrived in Islamabad in early December. India has watched with keen interest as Islamabad, as a goodwill gesture of acceding to a precondition for the talks, released Taliban officials imprisoned in Pakistan jails, particularly emaciated Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, incarcerated for seven years, alongside other members of the Taliban’s high council. Mr Khalilzad held three days of talks with the Taliban thereafter, but no details have been made public of these so-called “talks before talks”. And while he has heli-hopped his way through Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Kabul and Doha, as well as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and of course Russia, “Zal” has kept New Delhi out of his peregrinations on his “roadmap for the future”.

Should India be miffed at being kept out of the loop?

Has it run out of ideas on how to stay relevant in the region? For instance, would it have been politic for India to have offered its vast election expertise, as it did in the past, when in remote polling booths, voters showing off their inked fingers to this reporter, showered praise on India for dispatching its indelible ink. This time, the story is far less inspiring. Even two months after Afghanistan went to the polls, already delayed by four years, Kabul’s shambolic conduct of parliamentary polls, stymied by Taliban attacks on polling stations and officers, ensured that the parliamentary election results are yet to be announced.

There are reports too, albeit unconfirmed, that the presidential elections, due on April 20, will not be held, as part of a quid pro quo for the cessation of hostilities by the Taliban, which now effectively control some 50 per cent of Afghan territory and is pushing instead for a caretaker government. Senior players like former envoy to India Shaida Abdali, a presidential candidate backed by Mr Karzai, has apparently said he is willing to go along with any delay to the April 20 date, if it brings peace to his country. Others like former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who late on Wednesday night told a meeting of NextGen leaders from the Northern Alliance that he was still in contention for the top job, is less likely to be amenable. President Ghani’s handpicked peace panel to talk to the Taliban could also be a mere sham, with members saying they had no idea they had even been nominated, while confusion abounds on the exact role to be played by new bodies such as the High Peace Council and a High Advisory Board.

Indeed, where once Kabul’s powerful made a beeline for New Delhi for backroom consultations on the way forward, this time, India, in sending former diplomats to the Russia round table in Moscow, may have managed to keep its foot in the door. But for its strategic concerns in this neighbourhood to be addressed, Kabul, in its hour of crisis, cannot be placed way down in the list of foreign policy goals. India needs to have its own googly in play.

Tags: shah mehmood qureshi, imran khan, ashraf ghani