India can play key role in Afghan settlement: AfPak expert

    By Vikas Datta, IANS,

    Jaipur : India can play a key role in a political settlement in Afghanistan by leveraging its relations with leaders there to hammer out a power-sharing agreement post the April 2014 presidential election, says a leading Afghanistan expert who was an advisor to US’ first special Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke.

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    “India can play a very positive role in Afghanistan. It has provided political support and has good relations and influence with Afghan political figures,” Barnett Rubin, who was also involved in peace negotiations with the Taliban, told IANS in an interview during his visit here for the just-concluded Jaipur Literary Festival.

    Rubin, who held that the “presidential election will only begin after voting in April when the 11 candidates negotiate on power-sharing”, said India can use its influence with candidates like 2009 polls runner-up and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, “who maintains a house in New Delhi.

    “India can advise him… he might not obey but he will at least listen,” he said.

    Asked how relations between India and Pakistan impinge on New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan, Rubin, currently a senior fellow at the Centre for International Cooperation at New York University, said Pakistan’s perception affected it but now there seemed a “significant change” in Islamabad’s view.

    “When I was working in the government, I saw accusations – not accurate at all – made by Pakistan about India’s role in Afghanistan… Pakistan is an insecure state. It has seen an internal revolt in 1971 (that led to it losing its eastern part, which became Bangladesh), and has an exaggerated fear of a similar happening,” he said.

    “But now there seems a significant change in the Pakistani perception… there used to be complaints about India’s consulates (in Afghanistan) but not now. They (Pakistan) may not like the Indian role but they do not raise it,” he said.

    What is important is the US accepts India’s role and its status as a major power, Rubin stressed.

    Asked what will happen after US-ISAF drawdown by 2014-end, Rubin said there is great uncertainty and opinion is divided even in the US government on what will happen, and quipped: “The changes since 2001 in Afghanistan are irreversible… and unsustainable.”

    “The Afghan National Army is relatively effective… there is sceptism about the government, is the government weaker than the Taliban? But there is no proof, no studies,” he said.

    “(Afghan) Troops will lose access to some territory, like Helmand… (however), it will not be a big disaster.”

    He said it was important that the US and India maintain support to the Afghan government and the peace process, and China as well as Pakistan are brought in.

    On President Hamid Karzai’s recent outbursts against the US, he said his angry behaviour stemmed out of frustration that the US and Pakistan were preventing him from striking a deal with the Taliban. “This is not entirely true but there is some truth to it.”

    Asked what he thought Taliban’s strategy was, Rubin said: “From what I understand, they don’t want a military victory, to come to power… they want to be recognised, they want legitimacy.

    “The way the Taliban is speaking of having decent relations with its neighbours.. you may not believe them but it shows they know the world wants guarantees.

    “They say they can’t rule Afghanistan alone, don’t want monopoly on power. Don’t believe them but it does serve as a basis for talks,” he said.

    Asked how it was negotiating with Taliban, he said he was not personally involved but recalled their representatives were confident and well-educated. Rubin held there was no possibility of US disengagement with Afghanistan, but said the problem was that not only was American foreign policy too militarised but the civilian leadership was also in a hurry to turn to military means.

    Remembering Holbrooke, he said his death in 2010 had left a “big gap in leadership”. “He made some mistakes, especially in relations with Karzai but they were not his personal decisions but of the Obama administration,” he said.

    He said Holbrooke, who had brokered an end to the Bosnian war in the early to mid 1990s, had recognised the value of his (Rubin) and fellow foreign policy expert Vali Nasr’s work and “thus we could work in the government”.

    “We miss him a great deal,” Rubin concluded.

    (Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])