When India proposed itself as the venue for a sequel to the conference at Kabul attended by a galaxy of foreign ministers last December, Delhi's strategic intentions were clear.
A conference of this nature would highlight India's regional role in Afghanistan. Second, since Afghan reconstruction was an integral part of the 'war on terror', and was of core concern to the US policy, Delhi would have aspired to harmonise one more facet of its regional policy with that of Washington's vital interests, consistent with the behaviour of 'natural allies'.
That, in turn, would put pressure on Pakistan to 'do more' in the war on terror, apart from throwing into relief the Islamabad's negativism towards Delhi's insistent claim to have an access route by land to Afghanistan -- a route that also would link India to Central Asia.
Third, Delhi would have hoped that by hosting such a donor conference, India would not only tap lucrative business opportunities that come in the wake of all post-war reconstruction but could further explore the scope for the Turkmenistan gas pipeline project.
Certainly, Delhi would have carefully factored that the "Great Central Asia strategy" -- lately projected by Washington as a means of both resuscitating American strategic influence in that region and in curbing the expanding Russian and Chinese influence there. The US plan involved drawing the south Asian countries (especially India) and that region closer together in interlocking regional projects.
But in the event, the forthcoming conference at Delhi on November 18 is somewhat turning out to be like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. The US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice will not attend the conference. Nor will the Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. In the absence of these star attractions, many other luminaries also could be staying away. And that includes important players on the Afghan chessboard -- Iran, Russia or China.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is also staying away. The conference thus has slid down to a mere 'technical' level interaction focusing on the nitty-gritty of reconstruction in Afghanistan. The political agenda germane to Afghan reconstruction is completely lacking, though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be "co-chairing" the conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as originally envisaged.
The deliberations on the Afghan problem by the European Union Foreign Ministers on November 13 and the forthcoming summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on November 28, in fact, have completely overshadowed this weekend's cogitations in Delhi.
Why does the Delhi conference look so surreal?
The locus of the Afghan problem has shifted dramatically during the past one year, especially in the recent months. First, the inevitable has come to pass the long-expected resurgence of the Taliban. That, of course, focuses international attention on what has gone so terribly wrong with Afghan reconstruction.
Clearly, Afghan problem lies in four concentric circles. At the inner most core lies a non-functioning, corrupt government with hardly any popular support, exercising no influence beyond Kabul. This has generated a host of problems in the nature of a total breakdown of law and order, warlordism, drug trafficking and other venalities, and a virtual standstill in reconstruction activities.
Into this resultant political vacuum, the Taliban is stepping in, dexterously tapping the mounting popular disaffection against the 'satraps' and their cohorts in Kabul. On the periphery, this disaffection is fast turning into a hatred that comes naturally to a proud people toward the continued foreign occupation of the country with all the ignominies that it entails, which in turn is catapulting the Taliban into the hallowed stature of 'Afghan resistance'.
Enveloping all this is the great unspoken uncertainty over if and when the US might decide to 'cut and run'. There are disturbing signs already of gnawing doubts in the popular opinion in important NATO countries about the raison d'etre of the Afghan war.
For Delhi, all this must come as a wake-up call.
The grudging acknowledgement in important western capitals (as indeed in Kabul) that no enduring settlement is possible without a political accommodation of the Taliban runs in the face of Delhi's obstinate perception of the Taliban as constituting dark forces of obscurantism and terrorism in the region. Not too long ago, an Indian foreign minister described 'moderate' Taliban as an oxymoron.
Yet New Delhi, and especially the Indian strategic community, has no choice but to reconcile its visceral opposition to the Taliban with the emergent Afghan political reality. Alongside comes the realisation that Afghan war is in actuality a fratricidal strife and India was unwise in the first instance to have taken sides in that country's internal affairs.
The fact remains that in an escalating spiral of 'tits-and-tats' over the past decade, Delhi and the Taliban got entangled in adversarial equations ever since India decided to pursue a 'pro-active' role among the anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan.
India spent a good fortune in the war effort against the Taliban regime in the late 1990s. To be sure, Islamabad astutely exploited the crass stupidities in the Indian policy leading to tragic consequences such as the Kandahar hijacking or the defacing of Bamiyan statues of the Buddha.
Saturday's conference in Delhi provides a window of opportunity to the government to revert to the traditional moorings of Indian policy, which used to repose confidence that no matter his ethnicity or tribal instincts or linguistic and regional affinities, for an Afghan the great Indian plains shall always remain an enchanting dream. And that no amount of manipulation by outside parties can turn an Afghan to be hostile toward India, be it of an Afghan Talib or a non-Taliban Afghan.
At the conference, therefore, India must revert to its exclusive focus on people-to-people relations and our economic, cultural and historical bonds with the Afghan people. Second, Delhi must resist the temptation to be drawn back into a zero-sum game with Islamabad vis-a-vis the Afghan problem.
As it is, Indo-Pak differences are not lacking in variety. Our triumphalism over the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 was untimely; our certainty over the inexorable loss of Pakistani influence in post-Taliban Kabul was plain unrealistic (by the dictates of geography, ethnicity and geopolitics); our exhibitionism in maintaining four consulates and a full-fledged embassy in a tiny country such as Afghanistan was simply incomprehensible.
We must visualise that ultimately, Islamabad is involved in a wasteful extravaganza, conjuring up grand visions of 'controlling' Afghanistan. After all, it took only three months for the Afghan interim government in Kabul that followed the Mujahideen takeover in 1992, to reach out to Delhi as a counter to Pakistan's hegemony.
There are signs galore already that Islamabad cannot be prescriptive or selective toward Kabul on what constitutes good-neighbourliness. Clearly, Afghans resent Pakistani interference and there is growing international awareness of Pakistan's diabolical role.
We would also do well to take note that in all these years of mutual acrimony, despite India's overt and covert indulgence in activities aimed at bleeding the Taliban, the latter never ever carried the fight to Indian soil.
In a nutshell, the Taliban's message to Delhi has consistently been: 'Leave us alone, stay out of our domestic problems'.
Lastly, it is abundantly clear by now that no tangential gains will accrue to the US-Indian strategic partnership by virtue of Delhi soldiering in the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, Washington itself is caught up in a time warp and a conceptual impasse over what constitutes the 'war on terror'.