Staying with Kabul

India had a great run in Afghanistan as America sought to rebuild the war-torn nation. But that moment is coming to an end. India must prepare for a difficult period as the Afghan people try and cope with the resurgence of the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and the imminent steep decline in the Western military footprint. As it adapts to life after the Fifth Afghan War, the last thing Delhi would want to do is remind its Anglo-American friends that they have been had by the Pakistan army.

Delhi might be accurate in pointing out that America lost the war in Afghanistan because it could not stop the Pakistan army from nurturing the Taliban and other militant groups that destabilised Kabul and killed American troops. But Indian diplomacy, one hopes, is not in the business of telling the truth about other people's strategic blunders. Instead, it must recognise what is inevitable in Afghanistan, find some common ground with the West, limit the potential damage to India's interests where it can, and counter the unacceptable trends where it must.

After the 9/11 attacks, we might recall, Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government offered all possible help to the US, although it knew very well that the geographic imperative would compel Washington to reach out to Rawalpindi. In refusing to accept the logic of a zero-sum-game with the US and Pakistan, Vajpayee laid the foundation for a strong relationship with Washington. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too resisted the temptation to protest the resumption of American arms supplies to Pakistan in March 2005. Manmohan Singh's focus on India's bilateral cooperation at that moment led to the historic civil nuclear initiative that ended India's prolonged nuclear isolation.

India's new approach must begin with the recognition that political support for the occupation of Afghanistan has all but evaporated in the West. Second, India must acknowledge the importance of engaging the Taliban and underline its own readiness to talk to its leaders when they come out of the Pakistan army's shadow. At the same time, India must remind its Western interlocutors that appeasing the Taliban will break the fragile internal balance between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtun minorities and that Delhi will be compelled to make choices of its own. Third, India must signal its recognition that any durable political settlement in Afghanistan would require addressing Pakistan's legitimate interests, but will not accept their definition by Rawalpindi. Fourth, India should welcome the prospects of a genuine reconciliation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, so critical for the stability of its north-western frontiers.

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