An idea that has received little media attention in Britain, but is giving Foreign Office diplomats sleepless nights, is David Miliband’s push for a "regional stabilisation council" involving Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, to be unveiled at the international conference scheduled for January 28. The idea is seen as an innovate way to bring the three countries together, while at the same time allowing the Foreign Secretary, who will formally host the conference, to show leadership and initiative. The pretender to the post-election Labour throne needs something to get rid of his “Banana Boy” epithet.
So far, however, the idea is not meeting with local support. Pakistan, in particular, is opposed to giving any role to what it calls “extra-regional powers” and has even said India might use the council for "subversive activities in Pakistan". Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani personally conveyed Pakistan’s concerns to Britain’s top diplomat. The extent to which the Indian government is interested is also unclear. New Delhi has for a long time baulked at internationalising the India-Pakistan dispute by bringing in third party mediators, such as has been the custom over the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, the Indian government may see the council as a Western ploy to get the Pakistani and Indian governments involved in discussions about Kashmir.
Yet Miliband’s idea deserves all the support it can get. The road to success for NATO’s strategy runs through India. That’s because reversing the Taliban’s momentum requires getting rid of the movement’s sanctuary in Pakistan, where the insurgent leadership is known to be based in and around the city of Quetta. But while Pakistan is aggressively tackling its domestic Taliban, it has consistently declined to act against Afghan Taliban groups. Why? Well, because it sees the Afghan Taliban as a useful counterweight against what it believes to be the dominant influence in today’s Afghanistan: India. Unless India can be persuaded to take steps to ease tensions with Pakistan, Pakistan is unlikely to shut down the Afghan Taliban.
India, however, is in no mood to budge. Senior Indian officials say the killing of 58 people in a suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, last year, was intended by Pakistan’s military establishment as a warning to New Delhi not to deepen involvement in Afghanistan. A "regional stabilisation council" is not going to solve these problems, but it may provide a useful platform to discuss a range of issues, or even simply provide greater transparency about (some of) the work that Indian and Pakistan undertake in Afghanistan. Even such modest progress could reap substantial benefits in its relations with both countries.
Whatever the Foreign Secretary’s domestic motivations, this is a good idea that deserves support.