Originally Published 2005-11-28 06:57:57 Published on Nov 28, 2005
Politicians and diplomats usually move on when an infinitely sad event eventually settles in the private domain. But that should not happen in the case of the tragic death of Maniappan Raman Kutty near Kandahar in Afghanistan last week at the hands of the Taliban.
The Taliban turns its attention on India
Politicians and diplomats usually move on when an infinitely sad event eventually settles in the private domain. But that should not happen in the case of the tragic death of Maniappan Raman Kutty near Kandahar in Afghanistan last week at the hands of the Taliban. 

The incident leaves a lot for the United Progressive Alliance Government to ponder over. New Delhi's reaction has been on predictable lines: a verbal attack on the Taliban, condemning it as representing the forces of darkness; a defence, belatedly though, of what the government did to get Maniappan released; and a proclamation that India's friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan will continue no matter what. 

It was possible to have said that it was an almost near-certainty the Taliban did not act on its own. But, in the present climate of India-Pakistan relations, that would have sounded incongruous. At any rate, in twilight zones where shadows of conventional politics and orthodox diplomacy mix with less certain shades, it probably becomes difficult to distinguish things. Beyond a point, it is not that important either. The Taliban's mentors are indeed around, jealously guarding its movements and activities - evaluating tactics and strategy. 

In none of the Taliban's notorious acts was it possible to say with absolute certainty whether it acted as a free agent or was carrying out the wishes of its mentors or in what measure its wishes and those of its mentors overlapped. This was so when Ayatollah Mazari (1995) or Dr. Najibullah (1996) was tortured and killed or when eight Iranian diplomats in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif were executed in 1997 or even when the Bamiyan statues of the Buddha were vandalised. 

It was not difficult to ascribe motives to the Taliban's hostility toward India during the five-year period until its retreat in the winter of 2001 toward Pakistan's border regions. India was being supportive of Afghan militia forces opposed to the Taliban. (Ideology had by then lost relevance in the Afghan war.) The graph of the Taliban's hostility roughly ran parallel to the ebb and flow of "pro-activism" in India's Afghan policy. 

But the Taliban had been ignoring India during the recent period. The Taliban hardly ever spoke about jihad in Kashmir or `oppression' of Muslims in India. All evidence pointed to a snapping of ties between the Taliban and Kashmiri militants. No recent reports appeared about militants from India having been spotted in Taliban strongholds in Pakistan. 

There were two reasons for this. First, India ceased to be a `player' in Afghanistan's fratricidal war once the Americans moved in and devised their own game plan. The National Democratic Alliance Government in power in India was aspiring to be a `natural ally' of the United States on any conceivable front. Specifically in Afghanistan, this demanded confining itself to the role of a junior partner. This meant engaging surplus financial resources in the Afghan reconstruction, playing an occasional role in `finessing' Northern Alliance groups. But India was never quite allowed on to Afghan political turf where Washington saw Pakistan as its key partner. 

Secondly, since 2001, the Taliban has been preoccupied with the foreign military occupation - with the jihad against American presence in Afghanistan. In this respect too, while the Taliban turned its ire on countries that formed part of the U.S.-led "coalition forces" in Afghanistan (such as Italy, Japan or the United Kingdom), the list did not include India. 

Thus, there is an abruptness in the turn towards vicious hostility the Taliban has taken. New Delhi appears shocked. India-Afghanistan relations seemed placid till a week ago. 

Why has the Taliban once again turned its attention on Indian interests? It is easy to be dismissive of the Taliban as an obscurantist force out of the fastness of the Hindu Kush that continues to haunt the subcontinent's cultured way of life with random acts of barbarism. 

But there was all along a method to the Taliban's madness. The Taliban resorted to certain modes of behaviour when it wanted to display annoyance towards the supporters of the Afghan "opposition," the so-called Northern Alliance. It either resorted to vituperative rhetoric condemning "enemies" or, alternatively, retaliated by harbouring its enemies' enemies. The Taliban invariably settled scores within Afghan territory itself, making it clear the demand was to leave it and its country alone. 

Thus, even when it caught crew members of a Russian aircraft ferrying weapons to the Northern Alliance, it meticulously recorded their life in captivity near Kandahar on a video camera and sent that across to Moscow in the summer of 1997 through the then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel (who was an enthusiastic visitor to Kandahar in that period) as "proof" that the detenus were unharmed. 

The point is Maniappan's murder, which has all the signs of being the Taliban's handiwork, stands out as a political killing. Therefore, a need arises to explore the reasons why hostility toward India has erupted in Afghanistan. There was always a thin line to tread in Afghanistan. 

It seems, unfortunately, the case that ever since India provided the indelible ink for the presidential election in Afghanistan last October, New Delhi somehow convinced itself that it had become a stakeholder in the U.S.-sponsored democracy experiment in Afghanistan. New Delhi seems to have concluded that the winner in the presidential elections, Hamid Karzai, needs its backing for consolidating power in Afghanistan. How much of this was predicated on New Delhi's keenness to be of use to American regional policy or whether this was prompted by the complexities of the Karzai Government's ties with Islamabad, becomes difficult to tell. However, the end result somehow has been a tendency of late to equate Afghanistan and the Afghan people with Mr. Karzai. 

Powerful signal 
The two-day friendly visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Kabul in October represented an extraordinary statement of solidarity with Mr. Karzai's leadership of post-Taliban Afghanistan. New Delhi was, consciously or unknowingly, giving out a powerful signal in the Afghan bazaar. The Prime Minister's visit took place against the backdrop of the parliamentary and local body elections in Afghanistan during which Mr. Karzai had been accused of unprincipled electoral alliances and manipulative politics. Besides, controversies remained over Mr. Karzai's own election. Washington Post quoted National Alliance leader Younus Qanooni, who opposed Mr. Karzai, as saying: "I only accepted the results for the sake of national stability." 

From that point, New Delhi proceeded to assertively get Afghanistan's SAARC membership sorted out. This move held a resonance that India was factoring in the Karzai regime as a strategic partner in the region. Indeed, Pakistan was hard pressed to show a degree of enthusiasm in the matter. (Pakistani commentators have since criticised their government for at least not stalling on the issue until Afghan policies gained some clarity.) 

Thereafter, New Delhi has swiftly followed up with a decision to honour Mr. Karzai with the prestigious Indira Gandhi Peace Prize for 2005. Within days, the Taliban struck demanding that India must "leave" Afghanistan. 

There should be no doubt that Mr. Karzai is fond of India. He may remain at the helm of affairs in Kabul, especially with the prospect of long-term Western military presence in Afghanistan. He is a key figure in American regional policy in Central Asia. With the massive American backing he enjoys, he has occasionally stood up to Pakistan's bullying including on the sensitive Durand Line question. He is an immensely popular figure in the U.S. and in influential Western capitals. He is an inveterate enthusiast of globalisation in the region. 

But the paradox is that the Afghan people themselves hold a variety of opinions about Mr. Karzai. This is where the Taliban comes in. According to the Taliban, Mr. Karzai is a faction leader. More importantly, the Taliban sees him as the symbol of the humiliating foreign occupation of the country - an `American puppet.' 

It is entirely possible that the Taliban has decided that India is once again taking sides in Afghanistan's internal affairs. How is this predicament to be handled? 

It is well within the grasp of Indian diplomacy to tread softly when it treads on other peoples' dreams. India could do well by emulating other regional powers or, better still, by reverting to the traditional policy toward Afghanistan followed by Delhi till the mid-1990s: emphasise people-to-people relations; proceed vigorously with technical and economic cooperation; maintain correct government-to-government relations but on a low key at least till the anarchic conditions change for the better. 

Successive Congress governments used to seek a "neutral, independent and strong Afghanistan free from foreign interference." There is no reason for New Delhi to have any compulsive urge to harmonise with the U.S. regional policy in Afghanistan just because it finds itself unable to be of use to the U.S. in its `exit strategy' in Iraq. India can have an independent foreign policy toward both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Source: The Hindu, Chennai, November 28, 2005.

The author is a former Ambassador with extensive experience in handling India's relations with countries of South West and Central Asia. He is presently a Visiting Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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