| ||The Taliban's Backhanded Compliment|
The Wall Street Journal
By Harsh V. Pant
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You know New Delhi needs to change its Afghan policy when insurgents begin praising it.
This month, India received some unusual praise from its longtime nemesis, the Taliban. One of the world's most feared terror groups patted New Delhi on the back for resisting Washington's calls for greater involvement in Afghanistan. If there were ever a signal that India would do a world of good in the region, this is it, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be unwise to miss the opportunity.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was very vocal in his appreciation of Indian efforts in Afghanistan during a visit to New Delhi earlier this month, and let's just say the Taliban recognizes India's potential too. Delhi has poured in $2 billion in aid and reconstruction, while private sector groups plan to invest some $10 billion. More aid and more training for Afghan troops could stabilize Afghanistan's beleaguered government and destabilize the insurgency.
No wonder the Taliban is worried. It realizes that India commands awesome soft power in the country. Insurgents can make ordinary Afghans lose faith in Hamid Karzai's government, which is known to be corrupt, as well as doubt the sincerity of NATO troops who come from half the world away. But thanks to its historical ties, not to mention Bollywood, India ranks as Afghans' favorite foreign country, according to a 2010 poll conducted by BBC, ABC and German TV ARD.
Equally important, terrorist groups see a new U.S.-India axis against them. As NATO forces move out, Washington would like India to step up its role as a provider of regional security. India too has signaled its long-term commitment to stability in Afghanistan, but the differences between the two sides were always in how to reach that end state. The U.S. viewed Pakistan as essential to succeeding in Afghanistan, while India remained suspicious of Pakistan's intentions—and Pakistan even more paranoid of India. So Washington shied away from encouraging Delhi and offending Islamabad. This was the ideal scenario for the Taliban, since it was protected by Pakistan.
Mr. Panetta's statements mark a reversal. Washington is so frustrated with Pakistan and suddenly so appreciative of India that it's even willing to countenance Delhi's ties with Tehran. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake recently acknowledged that the U.S. "understood" that India has "important interests" in Iran and that if it wanted to "continue all the important things that it is doing in Afghanistan, it must have access to Iranian ports to get its equipment and other supplies into Afghanistan because they cannot do so directly overland through Pakistan."
This combination is the Taliban's worst nightmare. It's no coincidence that its statement came right after the third U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which established new consultative mechanisms between the two countries on Afghanistan.
But the Taliban knows the weakest link here is, unfortunately, India. New Delhi has historically aimed to be non-aligned as far as superpower interests go, and the Taliban is goading it to take this go-it-alone attitude. The Taliban's statement calls it "totally illogical" for Indian policy makers to "plunge their nation into a calamity just for the American pleasure."
The Pentagon was quick to rebut any suggestions that India had declined to get involved in Afghanistan, but Americans ought to be concerned that Mr. Singh won't play ball. Besides the legacy of non-alignment, his present government in New Delhi remains rudderless. It's distracted by coalition politics at home as well as a sharp economic slowdown. During Mr. Panetta's visit, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony suggested America's Asia pivot had to be carefully calibrated. Mr. Singh has also not announced any new measures in Afghanistan.
This is unfortunate, since this occasion would have been an excellent riposte to those who have started doubting Delhi's partnership with Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has noted that the strategic fundamentals of America's relationship with India are pushing "the two countries' interests into closer convergence," but now New Delhi is forcing a divergence by doing nothing.
The occasion is also ironic. There has been a persistent complaint in the corridors of power in New Delhi that the Obama administration sacrificed Indian interests at the altar of pleasing Pakistan, which further allowed Pakistan's proxies to destabilize Afghanistan. Now that Washington is making it clear that it views Pakistan as part of the problem and India as part of the solution, Delhi dithers.
These evolving realities present India with a historic chance. If it doesn't have the will to consolidate it, it will lose credibility not only with the U.S. but also with ordinary Afghans.
Mr. Pant is a professor of defense studies at King's College, London.