US Secretary of State John Kerry landed today in a warm and humid Delhi. But Kerry and his team are unlikely to receive the same warmth from the Indian side led by Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, when the two groups sit down on Monday at Hyderabad House for the fourth India-US Strategic Dialogue.
Government sources in New Delhi said South Block has reserved for Kerry the frostiest reception accorded to a visiting US Secretary of State in recent times.
That Kerry has a pro-Pakistan bias is “well known” atop Raisina Hill, said a source. It is, however, the US State Department’s recent engagement with and “indulgence” of the Taliban that has upset India.
South Block is livid with events in Qatar, where the Taliban decorated their new office with a flag and plaques, that betrayed the presumption that the insurgent group had secured some sort of international recognition.
The Afghan government objected to the Taliban inscribing on the plaques the “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and walked out of the talks. The Taliban have lowered their flag but not removed it, and one of the plaques with the offending inscription still remains.
These events in Qatar have reinforced South Block’s perception that New Delhi and Washington D.C. will have increasingly divergent positions on AfPak, with Kerry at the helm at the State Department.
In a snub directed at the Americans, India’s external affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin on Friday bluntly criticized any attempt in the reconciliation process to equate the Taliban with the Hamid Karzai-led government in Kabul.
“The reconciliation process should not seek to create equivalence between an internationally recognized Government of Afghanistan and insurgent groups, confer legitimacy to insurgent groups or convey the impression of two competing state authorities for Afghanistan, which could undermine the legitimate Afghan state, Afghan Government and the political, social and economic progress witnessed in Afghanistan over the past decade, to which the international community itself has contributed in great measure,” said Akbaruddin.
India views the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan with serious apprehension.
It backs a “broad-based Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled reconciliation process, within the framework of the Afghan Constitution and the internationally accepted red lines”. It wants such a process to “recognize the centrality of the Government of Afghanistan in the process and involve all sections of the Afghan society, as also the insurgent groups, including the Taliban, who wish to join the mainstream.”
There is little question that the renewed US engagement of the second Obama administration with, what is known as, the ‘bad’ Taliban will not only weaken Karzai, whom India has supported to the hilt, but also strengthen Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan in the coming years – a prospect that not only New Delhi but many others in the region, including Iran, China, Russia and Tajikistan are apprehensive about.
Government sources said Kerry’s short shrift to the ‘red lines’ for the Taliban that his predecessor Hillary Clinton was uncompromising upon isn’t a surprise. Clinton had remained adamant that there could be no talks with the Taliban until they met all conditions. But Kerry has been more ‘pragmatic’. South Block, with little or no line of communication with the Taliban and being a close ally of Karzai, finds itself out of step.
“Kerry is an opportunist, particularly when it comes to AfPak region. Clinton, however, was principled, especially when it came to women’s rights in Afghanistan,” said a highly placed source.
In the next few days, both at the Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi and later at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei in July, the Indians are likely to unabashedly convey to the US that the two countries need each other more than ever, as the new security architecture for Asia takes shape in the coming years, not to mention the thriving India-US relationship in all sectors, particularly defense.
New Delhi expects Washington to show more respect and accommodation of its concerns in the AfPak region in the post-2014 situation, if it wishes to take this relationship forward.