India left standing in Afghan musical chairs Think of Afghanistan policy as a game of musical chairs. When the United States this month killed Osama bin Laden, it stopped the music. Now everybody's scrambling to make sure they have a seat. Pakistan, despite its myriad failures as a partner in the "war against terror" is guaranteed a seat. It has managed to establish itself as an unavoidable interlocutor in negotiations with the Taliban. Thanks to signature American diplomatic clumsiness, Pakistan will also be reserving a chair for America's main strategic competitor in Asia - China. As the American orchestra is packing up, its favored South Asian partner, India, is nervously trying to squeeze its way onto a chair. The Barack Obama administration is extremely anxious to declare victory and shed responsibility for the Afghanistan mess. Now that the al-Qaeda monster has been slain, the US has an excuse to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban and crank back its faltering and expensive counter-insurgency operations. Unfortunately, the United States clings to the conflicting goal of ensuring the survival of a moderate, multi-ethnic regime in Kabul. And that dream has poisoned its relations with Pakistan. When the whole sorry history of the Afghan adventure is written, a special chapter must be reserved for the combination of delusion and arrogance that guided US relations with Pakistan. When former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage conveyed the George W Bush administration's threat to bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if it didn't assist in the overthrow of the Taliban regime, he was simply displaying understandable American arrogance. America's image of hyperpower impunity had taken a hit on 9/11, and destruction of a third-world regime in Afghanistan was a suitable demonstration of the maxim that America dishes it out ... it doesn't take it in. When the Bush and Obama administrations decided it was a laudable and feasible goal to deny Afghanistan as a terrorist haven by establishing a moderate, pro-Western regime in Kabul, that was delusion. By conflating al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban militants, the United States did more than commit itself to a grinding, unwinnable war in Central Asia. It forced Pakistan to transform a nagging, peripheral security problem in its western borderlands ... into a grinding, unwinnable war in Central Asia. As an added bonus, Pakistan was obliged to wage civil war on its own people, with the unwelcome assistance of US cross-border raids and drone attacks. Now Pakistan's economy is in a shambles, its government in the hands of President Asif Ali Zardari, a generally derided and incompetent American stooge, and its civil society increasingly riven by sectarian tensions. In matters of domestic security, Pakistan suffers around 2,500 to 3,000 civilian and security force fatalities a year from terrorist attacks - basically, a slow-motion 9/11 ever 15 months or so. Heckuva job, Uncle Sam. From the perspective of many who run things in Pakistan, the US war in Afghanistan is the problem and a Taliban victory - either military or political - is the solution. No surprise that Pakistan hatred of the United States is visceral and widespread. No wonder that members of Pakistan's security establishment were willing to provide covert aid to the Afghan Taliban and perhaps even harbor Bin Laden. And no wonder that, as America contemplates the implications of Bin Laden's long-term residence in the heart of Pakistan and calls to disengage the US from the bloody and expensive Afghan tar baby mount, its resentment at this unwilling and seemingly worthless ally is boiling over. It is a fury, by the way, that is shared by Pakistan's embattled advocates of democracy and civil society, who view the reckless and cynical Afghan adventurism promoted by the entrenched military and security elite as a national disaster. The Indian press have reported Pakistani discomfiture over the Bin Laden raid - and American threats to cut off aid as retaliation for Pakistani shortcomings - with ill-disguised glee. Times of India Washington correspondent Chidanand Rajghatta, who apparently learned how to mix editorializing with reportage while studying Mass Communications at Bangalore, detailed Pakistan's woes: Senator [John] Kerry, who has virtually become the Obama administration's special envoy for Pakistan, fended off pressure from his Hill colleagues to curtain [sic] aid to a perfidious and dysfunctional ally ... Pakistan is said to be the third-largest recipient of US aid worldwide after Afghanistan and Israel, taking in more US$20 billion since 9/11. Some of that money is in the form of reimbursement under a head called Coalition Support Fund (CSF) for expenses it incurred in the "war on terror", but that account is now bedeviled by charges that Pakistan faked or inflated its bills, causing the US to reject nearly 40% of the claims in 2010. Pakistan's embrace of China while living on US dole and its threat to shoot down American drones with US supplied F-16s has also created a disquiet in Washington that the country's supporters like Kerry are finding hard to counter.  If American Afghan policy was a mixture of delusion and arrogance, Indian policy was a matter of simple delusion. India yielded to the temptation to meddle in Afghanistan and discomfit Pakistan. One does not have to buy into the hysteria and calculated paranoia of Pakistan's security apparatus about India's Research and Analysis Wing spreading its tentacles inside Afghanistan to see that India was trying to gain a cheap and easy geostrategic victory in Afghanistan by allying itself with the anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan power propped up in Kabul by US arms and money. The Afghan intervention was not simply a matter of Indian support for a regime that denied "strategic depth" to a Pakistani security establishment that probably didn't deserve it. By promoting the anti-terrorism narrative in Afghanistan and making it the basis of its dealings with Pakistan, India helped enable the aggressive, cross-border counter-insurgency strategy that pushed the Taliban puss deeper into deeper into the wounds of Pakistan's wounded society. Small wonder if the Pakistani security forces decided to return the favor by unleashing the Lashkar-e-Toiba to inflict the bloody Mumbai horror of August 2008. India compounded its Afghanistan woes by turning its back on President Hamid Karzai when the United States tried to remove the Afghan leader and replace him with somebody they considered more capable, honest and responsive. As a result, the fundamentally pro-Indian Karzai - who didn't want to be pushed out of office by the Americans or hung from a lamppost a la former Afghan ruler Mohammad Najibullah by the Taliban - threw in his lot with Pakistan and its stubborn, decade-long effort to shoehorn the Taliban back into the Kabul government. This leaves India with a distinct shortage of interested interlocutors and very little leverage in Afghanistan. Outlook India took a close and clear-eyed look at India's precarious position in Afghanistan: "There's no question of retreating from Afghanistan," says a senior Indian diplomat. Such brave words are perhaps for public consumption, for there are tell-tale signs of India scaling down its presence here. Nearly 50% of Indian personnel working on various projects in Afghanistan have been sent home. The Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul - the only children's hospital in the country - is without an Indian doctor; any medical guidance from New Delhi is rendered through teleconferencing. And though four other medical missions are working now, India isn't taking on any new projects, content to complete the two on hand - the Salma dam and construction of the Afghan Parliament - of the $1.3-billion worth of Indian projects initiated here. The SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association) scheme, hugely popular as it empowered Afghan women, has been put on hold; Indian-run vocational courses have been suspended; and the training of Afghan civilian personnel, whether in government or civil society, will only be imparted in India now. The article also described the marginalization of India in Afghan politics, at least that quadrant of Afghan politics where the Indian presence would be most welcome: among anti-Pakistan and anti-Iranian Pashtuns, Tajiks and the liberal cosmopolitans who nervously inhabit Kabul: There are many here who blame India for its plight. They say India was not assertive about its presence here, thus failing to win the confidence of those who, hemmed in between Iran and Pakistan, considered it a natural ally. Says Moridian Dawood, advisor to the Afghan foreign minister, "India seems apologetic about its presence. It's a regional player and must behave like one, instead of insisting on a benign presence with a penchant for staying in the background." Many in the Afghan establishment echo Dawood's view, pointing out that even Karzai had told Indian officials that since New Delhi didn't have the stomach to back him in the face of US opposition, he had no choice but to throw his lot with Pakistan. Not only Karzai, many liberal Pashtuns complain that India didn't openly back them, preferring to cultivate its old friends in the erstwhile Northern Alliance. No doubt, India tried to correct this perception, locating many projects in the Pashtun-dominated provinces rather than at places where ethic minority groups are in a majority. But this has not quite earned it enough dividends. India's claims to relevance in Afghanistan separate from the Western military presence appear to rely on exaggerated ideas of what soft power can accomplish in a war zone.