India is watching with some trepidation the American move to hold talks with Taliban in Qatar, of all places, for a possible settlement in Afghanistan once their troops leave that war scarred country next year.
What is disconcerting for India is that the go-between US officials and Taliban is – not surprisingly – office of the Chief of Army Staff Pakistan Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The Pakistani army has for long propped up the Taliban and there are various accounts of how it happened by the very men who set it up across the Durand Line.
Before the Taliban was vanquished post 9/11 in a renewed US and international troops offensive, it had set up its own rules of engagement in the country, the primary aim of which were to keep foreigners out, obviously prompted by their handlers in the Pakistani Army.
Of the 'foreigners’, naturally Indians can expect to be on top of the list of undesirables. The big challenge before New Delhi is to keep its strategic interests in Afghanistan safe once US and international troops leave in 2014. India’s investments in that country reflect its soft power status; schools, hospitals and other kinds of social investment. Bollywood and all other things Indian are extremely popular as compared to Pakistan, whose image is not too bright considering its constant meddling in what Kabul believes are its internal affairs.
Afghan residents constitute an important element in many prominent south Delhi colonies, having lived here for years. Take a walk down Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market for instance and see the number of Pushto signposts that have come up, indicating the increasing number of those who have sought asylum in India. So at the level of people to people contact between Indians and Afghans, there is plenty to cheer about.
During the last decade or so, India has greatly increased its footprints in Afghanistan by investing in its social infrastructure. Indian industrialists are tentatively evaluating their chances of investing in a country which is rich in minerals but whose politics remains unclear and dodgy. India is also training Afghan police and the army, reflecting its continued engagement with Kabul.
All this has been possible only because foreign troops have done a great job in Afghanistan and safeguarded the interests of everyone, including the Indians. Security experts will gladly admit that without their protection, there is no way in which New Delhi could have expanded its role in the rebuilding Afghanistan.
But all this could disappear once the Taliban becomes the nominated bosses of Afghanistan both by the Americans and the Pakistanis. During their last tenure at the helm of affairs, Taliban ensured that all 'foreigners' were kept out of the country – if required brutal tactics were used to ensure that they kept away.
What will happen once the country goes back into the hands of Taliban – read Pakistan? India has already ruled out an armed offensive on Afghan soil, even though there are enough indications that New Delhi’s contacts with some of the warriors of the Northern Alliance which opposes Taliban, are in place. Would it be enough to hold off the joint Pakistani-Taliban offensive? Would some elements of the Taliban malcontents be directed towards the holy war in Kashmir? By all indications therefore, this country will have to redefine its security imperatives come 2014 and that can hardly be considered joyous news.