Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Denis MacShane: India is key to solving Afghanistan

It beggars belief that a fellow Commonwealth country - both a democracy and a nuclear-armed power - can be talking about an invasion of Pakistan

When will the Commons start telling the truth about Afghanistan? Other than immigration, no other subject was raised so often on the doorstep in the election. But no other issue was less discussed by the party leaders. There is an ever widening gap between the military-political establishment and the people of Britain who fail to understand why so many of their own people are dying or returning home hideously maimed. This is not the Falklands or even a conflict to stop the UK being blown apart by unionist bigotry and IRA terror bombs.

Conservatives talk grandly about creating a "war" cabinet to wage war in Afghanistan. Mr Cameron should find a word other than "war" to use. We are winning battle after battle: when British troops take on the Taliban face to face, there is only one winner, despite the sad sacrifices that are made. But the notion that we will win a war in Afghanistan commands no serious support anywhere, even among those who support our presence there. Talking of war implies victory. It is the dream of the generals as they send young officers and men achieve the unachievable – to win a war in the sense of the destruction of Nazism in 1945.

Can containment replace confrontation as policy? After 1945 the democracies adopted a philosophy of containment rather than military destruction of opposing ideologies. So too in Afghanistan; we cannot keep on sending British soldiers to die in the will-'o-the-wisp search for an ultimate military victory. Instead of warcraft we need statecraft and that must involve a stronger relationship with Pakistan. There has been much talk about Pakistan and the solution to Afghanistan. But there will be no solution in Pakistan until India changes its strategic approach in the area.

According to a report in Le Monde earlier this year, The Times of India reported a secret conclave of the Indian general staff at Simla in December, at which they discussed a "double-front" strategy – an assault on both China and Pakistan. General Kapoor, the Indian chief of staff, has talked about a limited military attack on Pakistan. It beggars belief that a fellow Commonwealth country and nuclear-armed power – and a democracy to boot, can be talking about an invasion of Pakistan, when what we need is a complete re-setting of India-Pakistani relations. As is well known, in 1989 democracy was suspended in Kashmir, and 500,000 Indian troops moved in. Since then, between 50,000 and 70,000 people have been killed in probably the biggest bloodbath of Muslims in recent times under the Indian army occupation. Some of that was in response to Pakistan-initiated terrorism – the horrible explosions at Srinagar and elsewhere, but India is not even on the way to finding a political solution to the problem of Kashmir, and it is under pressure given the Mumbai massacres and other issues.

Britain has long been in thrall to its 250-year-old love affair with India. Today India fits the lines from Oliver Goldsmith: "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates and men decay." India has more billionaires and millionaires than Britain does, but this fabulous wealth co-exists beside more absolutely poor people than live in sub-Saharan Africa. After more than six decades of democracy, India still has hundreds of millions of its citizens who cannot read or write or who do not have access to clean water and sewers. But whereas Pakistan has to put up with a condescension and patronising sneers from a pro-Indian establishment in London, India's failure to create peace on its border with Kashmir rarely if ever gets criticised.

I have sought on several occasions in the House of Commons to get the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to acknowledge that India should do more to bring stability to the region by seeking to become part of the solution to Kashmir instead of remaining part of the problem, but the Conservative leadership is totally India-obsessed.

As any visitor to Pakistan can see, the nation has a vibrant civil society and a very good, free and energetic media and legal-judicial system. It has a strong women's movement and a strong human rights movement. Yes, it is very poor, so the real answer is to improve Pakistan's economic and growth perspectives. David Miliband took the lead in pushing the European Union hard to open a dialogue and to try to increase trade between Pakistan and the rest of Europe. That is certainly where we should focus some of our efforts with our Pakistani and Kashmiri diaspora in Britain.

We have to look again at the ideology that spurs on the Taliban and other extremists. That ideology is not of the Islam religion, which should have the same respect as any other Abrahamic faith, but is a coherent world ideology of Islamism that is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood that was founded by Hassan al-Banna in the 1920s and that has developed steadily since. London focuses too much on Muslim Brotherhood-linked organisations when the real representatives of the Muslim community in Britain are to be found in elected councillors, community leaders and mosque councils.

The new Government needs to work with our Pakistani-British citizens to increase economic relations with Pakistan. We should set up effective structures using the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office, the departments that deal with education and other departments to find ways of explaining that what is happening in Afghanistan is a threat, not just to the region and not just in terms of providing incubators for terrorism in our country, but to everything that we should value if we want a peaceful and prosperous world.

Britain should build a strong UK-Pakistan relationship to promote economic growth, shared prosperity, increased democracy and human rights and a withering down of the ideologies that justify terrorism. That will also mean asking India to make a contribution by finding peace in Kashmir. These are ambitious goals. But a happy 21st century for Britain and Pakistan and for British citizens connected to both nations requires no less.

Denis MacShane is the Labour MP for Rotherham and was deputy to Jack Straw as Minister for State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office