India looks to Russia to stay relevant in Afghanistan

NEW DELHI: Within days of the London conference on Afghanistan at which a majority of NATO countries looked to marginalize India’s role in that

war-ravaged country, New Delhi turned to old friend Russia to work out strategies to remain relevant in Afghanistan.

At his first formal meeting since he assumed the office of India’s National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon met Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, and discussed a variety of possible options in that country.

Publicly, India has articulated its grudging support to the outcome of the London conference and for the Afghan government’s efforts to talk to what sources called “lower levels among the Taliban fighters,” but privately, it opposes the categorization of the Taliban into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ It is also urging whoever will listen to stay the course and press Pakistan to act along its western border with Afghanistan, where the vast majority of the terrorist forces get sanctuary.

Russia, in its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union, had a long and bitter experience in Afghanistan. In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

While the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the formation of the mujahideen forces there, US support to the mujahideen forces fighting the Soviets, channeling arms and money through Pakistan, created the subsequent problems that culminated in forces like the Taliban taking control in Afghanistan in the decade of the 90’s once the Soviets withdrew. Pakistan was one of three countries (besides Saudi Arabia and the UAE) which recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Russia collaborated with India and Iran in the formation of the Northern Alliance, led by the legendary Ahmed Shah Masood, to oust the Taliban from Kabul.

New Delhi is looking to renew its linkages with remnants of the Northern Alliance, mostly comprising the Tajiks and Uzbeks, and extend them to the majority Pashtun community leaders in Afghanistan who are not linked to the Taliban. Moscow’s experience in the region and its close links with Iran, an immediate neighbour of Afghanistan, will be invaluable for India’s future role there.

India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is in Tehran today for ‘foreign office consultations’ during which the Afghan situation and future strategies there is high on the agenda, along with other issues (like Iran’s nuclear programme.)

India has no choice but to remain closely engaged with Afghanistan and the government of President Hamid Karzai, having already spent 1.3 billion dollars in reconstruction and development work there. It can not afford to leave the country and will “do everything possible” to ensure that the “obscurantist” Taliban-like forces do not regain control there and democracy prevails, even though it has no plans to send its troops there.

The London Conference, according to strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney, saw the US-led western alliance of countries adopt a strategy of “surge, bribe and run” in Afghanistan. An initial military surge, followed by efforts to buy off the so-called ‘good Taliban’ and make arrangements to leave the country, a strategy that many analysts suggest is doomed to failure.

Patrushev, a former director of the FSB, the intelligence agency that replaced the KGB, is one of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers. Counter-terrorism strategies, information-sharing, defence and nuclear issues, the role of Pakistan in the region (and, particularly, its efforts to keep India out of Afghanistan) were all discussed in detail in the “very good” talks he held with Menon but, according to sources, the Afghan issue was pre-eminent.

A growing number of voices in Afghanistan have begun to recall the Soviet era with nostalgia and, as the west grapples to find a face-saving exit formula from Afghanistan, India is looking to neighbours and stakeholders in the region, other than Pakistan, to coordinate how best to stay the course and stay on course and relevant in Afghanistan.

Concern is also mounting in Pakistan, with Army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani holding a rare media briefing spelling out that Pakistan would

not want the Taliban to succeed and that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan would add to Pakistan’s “strategic depth”.

Worried voices in Pakistan, reflected in newspaper editorials on Wednesday commented that “there are many other powers jockeying for some say in the future of Afghanistan (Russia and the Central Asian Republics, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, America, etc). The India-centric approach may cause Pakistan to become net losers in a wider struggle.”