Need a Muscular Indian Strategy in Afghanistan by Pinaki Bhattacharya in IDR 19/3/13
Even at the cost of sounding bellicose with that expressed need in the title of this paper, this writer will argue that Afghanistan stands as a shining example of the success of the country’s post-1990s foreign and security policy. This performance can be compared with its 1960s policy towards Bangladesh, the then East Pakistan, though the latter was more militaristic, stretching up to the 1971 liberation war. But the success in Afghanistan is yet to be harvested and may take a long time in coming. For, the Afghan problem is not just old but far more complex than the comparatively simpler desire of the people of Bangladesh for independence from Pakistan.
One of the crucial elements of the Afghan imbroglio is the zero-sum game that Pakistan has created with its western neighbour, by which an Indian diplomatic achievement in Afghanistan is considered deleterious to Pakistan’s interests in the country, and vice versa.
New Delhi has also come to a realisation that the U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces would not be available to underwrite the security of the subcontinent through active measures against the Taliban or assorted other kinds of jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
So, serious debates are going on the within the government circles and amongst independent strategic analysis groups at the margins about what should be the next stage of the country’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Till now, India was working on a low key, seeking to provide ordinary Afghans public goods like roads and bridges while staying away from the arena of armed conflict. Despite this, Indian government properties like the embassy and consulates and Indians working in Afghanistan have been targeted by organisations like LeT and on occasions by the ISI itself, as the Afghan authorities have claimed to have discovered.
But the country has refused to get embroiled in retaliatory strikes. Nor has it increased its military presence in Kabul and elsewhere. In fact, it has not deployed any personnel of its armed forces, having to do the work of providing security through paramilitary forces like the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
In other words, Indian diplomacy was making the point that the country was ready to contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan but the security of its material and personnel would have to be borne by the U.S. or NATO-led forces. This suited the Americans because early in the George W. Bush administration’s extension of its “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Washington had conveyed to New Delhi that it did not want Indians to be involved in military operations as that would raise Islamabad’s hackles.
Even Barack Obama administration had continued with that policy while welcoming the country’s efforts at building infrastructure in Afghanistan. In reality, initially, as the Obama “troop surge” was taking place, they were so focussed on pandering to Pakistan’s whims that they did not even urge the organisers of the conference in Turkey in early 2010 to invite India to an international conference on Afghanistan. Of course, India’s disappointment with the absence of that invitation made Istanbul turn around in November 2011 to include India.
Reporting in the Hindu newspaper, Sandeep Dikshit wrote on 3 December 2011 that a lot of international attention was invested on India as the country that became the only one to sign a “strategic” deal with Afghanistan. Even a similar deal with the United States was hanging fire then as the Hamid Karzai could not find a consensus to get it through with the government.
Bruce Riedel, former National Security Council (NSC) staffer on South Asia in Clinton Administration and currently analyst at Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera on the conference on 5 December, 2011: “This conference, ironically, is a clarification of the war in Afghanistan – which now, in many ways, is a proxy war between NATO and Pakistan.”
The Indian side was not harbouring this kind of hard-core realism. They were there to watch over the “transition process” – how smooth will it be? And they were there to be acknowledged as a party to the Afghan process post 9/11.
Not much was expected from the conference, for, according to some observers, the two key entities of the Afghanistan problem were missing from the table. They were Pakistan (who boycotted the talks for the recent cross-over of the NATO forces into their country and killing Pak troops) and the Taliban (who could not lift a finger without an indication from Islamabad/Rawalpindi).
While India did not get any support from the NATO-supported ISAF when building the Zaranj–Delaram road, it should not expect that the Western nations will underwrite its continuing involvement in Afghanistan. In other words, it will have to mostly walk alone despite the United States seeking to involve it in tripartite negotiations on the troubled country’s future.
It is certainly evident that the country will have to stay involved in the Afghanistan process till the bitter end or a better future. For example, the options for the country are three:
- Support Karzai and his Pashtun leadership till the time they can control at least Kabul.
- Keep the former Northern Alliance firmly entwined with the Indian largesse for its functioning. General Rashid Dostum may have reached his superannuation, but newer leaders have emerged who need mentoring.
- Finally, confront Pakistan-harboured Taliban in the process of nation-building in Afghanistan with a selective force appropriate for the situation, considering that the country has the Bangladesh example working in its favour.
India as a rising regional power has its national interest in seeing that Afghanistan is stabilised and on a path that promises secular growth of South Asia. This is something that Pakistan has failed to do, blinkered by its anti-Indianism, foisted on the people by the army for its own existential interest.
In India’s idealist-realist tradition of policymaking, pure militarism has no place. In that process, this writer as a correspondent of Millennium Post had spoken to a few former army officers some months ago. They were of the opinion, as reported then, that the country needed to deploy Indian armed forces in Afghanistan, even in mufti or as members of the ITBP.
India has a record in the resistance movement of Afghanistan, where it has trained the Northern Alliance troops to take on the Taliban when it was in power. Folklore says that the Indian air force flew “search and rescue missions” in the mountains of the north for Northern Alliance fighters when they were in trouble. India also built a hospital in Farkhor, at the Tajik-Afghan border. Now, the Indian Express reported recently, New Delhi is planning to build another hospital in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
The increasing involvement of the Indian private sector organisations – for example, to mine iron ore at Hajigak fields – will also increase the clamour for security from the government in New Delhi. A notable issue on the subject was the refusal of the ISAF to provide security to the Border Roads Organisation–constructed Zaranj–Delaram expressway, which led access to the road being controlled by the Taliban.
This kind of situation, where India seeks to stabilise Afghanistan by reaching out to its people through the creation of public goods and providing services but is scuttled by the Taliban, will be difficult to countenance after 2014.
While the training of the Afghan National Army (ANA) by India is the desire of not just the Hamid Karzai government but also, increasingly, of the United States, it will take a while for the ANA to gain the characteristic élan that normally security forces of more established countries with governing states exude. The sense of commitment to a stake in the nation-building will also take some time to get ingrained, especially in a country where for all this while, tribes and clans dominated the minds of the people.
The Manmohan Singh government made two critical changes to the country’s policies towards Afghanistan that have been commented upon but rarely noticed. One, it reached out to some of the Pashtun tribes whose ire it had earned earlier when the country had to support the Northern Alliance against the Pashtun Taliban. This has been achieved by an unflinching support to the Pashtun leaders around Karzai who acted as the bridge builders to their communities. Two, Singh had very quickly stepped back from his government’s initial objection to talks with the Taliban, whether by the United States or the Karzai government. This action by Singh had helped to create an environment where the diplomatic and political options of the country increased. Though this was done under the coaxing of the United States, it still served Indian national interest.
As a result, New Delhi became the first government with which Karzai was able to strike a “strategic partnership” agreement. In fact, on an occasion, Singh had quoted Karzai, saying that the agreement with India was universally welcomed in Afghanistan while a similar agreement with the United States has become mired in calls for Parliamentary “ratification.”
With the “stick” of a possibility of rearming Northern Alliance in hand, India can afford to talk softly in the post-2014 situation and be heard. It can even try to become an honest broker between Karzai and the other tribal factions, who may seek to go under the umbrella of the Taliban for the sake of buying future peace and prosperity for themselves.
This establishment of communication lines to the tribes, who lack a stake in the Kabul government, should be made into an interim goal for the country as 2014 is also when Afghanistan goes to the polls to elect a new president. While Karzai has stated that he would not be contesting the presidential polls, he and his cohorts will hardly be expected to cede their powers to such an extent that they go out of reckoning. India would do well if it plays a role even in this transition, independently, without being seen as a standard-bearer of the Western alliance.
It is uniquely evident that Pakistan cannot provide necessities that the new state of Afghanistan needs, for example, trade, economic benefit and non-partisan political support to the government. Pakistan’s obsession for “strategic depth” actually empowers Kabul by its denial. If a time comes that Kabul is able to have reasonable sway over most of the country, it could wrench Pakistan’s arms and legs out of their sockets by leveraging the latter’s desire to get that depth to counter Indian incursion.
No talk of Karzai about India being a friend and Pakistan a “brother” could ensure Kiplingesque Afghanistan to back Islamabad over its tribal nations’ desire to bleed to death a country that has not allowed its western neighbour to grow and thrive.
Ironically, Pakistan’s desire to keep Afghanistan subjugated to its will stems from the same blind self-belief that east Pakistan could be kept as an adjunct to the larger desire of being with the co-religionists. It does not take into account the strong bonds of kinships that grow between tribes and clans or the culture of self-help.
The same tribal affinities that range along the Hindu Kush mountains from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan are far stronger than any of Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated army could withstand. As the past year’s military operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have shown, the mountains of Hindu Kush provide such perfect hideouts that they could be sanctuaries for a continuous insurgency, which can go ad infinitum.
At the moment, tribal attachments are divided in terms of old-world “loyalties” and “honour” on the one hand and over the cash the U.S./ISAF have doled out on the other. Pakistan does not have pockets deep enough to cater to those primal interests of the tribal lords. What it had was an appeal that it was a co-religionist. And it had built relationships on the basis of cash and materiel out of the largesse of the CIA during its proxy war with the then Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Generations have changed since. The public affairs teams of the United States and the NATO have corrupted the innocent tribal minds already with the desire for a good life. Will Pakistan be able to satiate those needs?
Unlike Afghanistan after the U.S. and Saudi intervention against the Russians, this time around, Pakistan security agencies, including the army, will not have an unlimited war chest with a free hand to deal with the country.
This time, the United States and its Western allies will stay engaged so that Afghanistan does not become a haven for al Qaeda-like organisations once again. This time, they want India to play a larger role in stabilising the south Asian country. And this time, Pakistan is at the deep end, exposed as a country whose army harbours all kinds of malcontents, lets them thrive and allows them to launch insurgent operations against countries like China, Afghanistan and India.
In Pakistan army’s parlance, this is supposed to be “asymmetric” warfare with powers that it cannot confront conventionally. Its desire to produce tactical nuclear weapons is also supposedly based on this logic. But an India-centric Pakistan army must realise that the Indian nuclear doctrine is not an exercise in passivity. It says clearly that whether an attack with nuclear first strike is on a battlefield or on a city of the country, the attackers would have to countenance a massive retaliation.
The completion of the Indian triad, with the launch of INS Arihant, would remove any doubts about the country’s ability to survive an attack and retaliate.
So, like its insurgency theory, its nuclear weapons theory will also get thrown out of the window when it comes to the crunch. Of course, one understands that these theories of the Pakistan army need to stay afloat to maintain its public support base, which would otherwise dwindle to the extent that the army will not be able to expropriate 3 per cent of an ailing gross domestic product for a tinpot force. This supposedly mighty army cannot even subdue an internal insurgency without the help air force jets and heavy artillery, thus killing thousands of its own innocent citizens and displacing millions.
But a cautionary note seems overdue on the issue of Afghanistan post 2014. No power, be it the United States and its Western allies, or India, or China, or Iran or Russia can hope to stabilise the country without accounting for Pakistan. Islamabad/Rawalpindi will have to be brought on board for any long-term solution for Kabul.
Pakistan needs to feel secure as a nation state that its western and northern borders will not be in a quagmire similar to its eastern border. In turn, it will have to shed the highly ambitious project of finding its secure “strategic depth” in case of a war with India. First, Pakistan’s army shall have to realise that conventional wars are passé, especially after the two disastrous U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Second, it needs to comprehend that it is barely able to rule its own country by surviving on the handouts of the United States. It does not have the ability to subjugate another country to its own will and remain at the top of that country’s own national interest.
The creation of Bangladesh proved that a common religion is not glue that can bind two disparate regions of a country together. It is even more true for Afghanistan, with the majority Pashtuns remaining differentiated by tribes. On top of that, about 30 per cent of the territory under Kabul does not even have Pashtun influence, with minorities like Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks populating it. So, can Pakistan army exercise control on Afghanistan the way, let’s say, it can over Sindh? The answer is self-evident.
India, on the other hand, has to come out of its self-resignation that marked its Bangladesh venture. It did not indulge in nation building from Dhaka. It did not seek to impose on Bangladesh even a “friendship” treaty, which would be embarrassing to the countries involved. It was in lines with the treaty it signed with the Soviet Union. It did not suggest one of the kind it had with Nepal.
Despite this, it basically allowed Bangladesh to drift apart to the extent that it did not have the knowledge of the conspiracy against the leader of the country Sheikh Mujibur Rehman before he was gruesomely assassinated, meaningfully on 15 August 1975, the day of India’s independence anniversary celebrations.
India cannot afford to have a similar attitude towards Afghanistan. The country is far too important for the geopolitics of the region, including central Asia. India seeks access to the energy sources in those countries that are vital to its economy. Plus, New Delhi also seeks access to these markets, which have still remained mostly untouched by Western goods.
The country’s frenetic efforts at establishing a route to Afghanistan through Iran, bypassing Pakistan, is an attempt to open up land-locked Kabul to opportunities in accessing the modern-day commerce.
During the recent Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, a lot of time was invested in the talk about reviving the old Silk Route. But not much headway was made because a crucial link on that route, Iran, remains under the sanctions regime of the Western countries. Iran-Afghanistan-India still had a meeting to find a way forward.
The Chabahar port, which India was building for Iran, is about 75 per cent complete on Iranian money; the latter now expects India to chip in with its share. This port is to be connected by road to Afghanistan, partly built by Iran and India.
The reports coming out of the bowels of Indian bureaucracy show that India is keen on developing the Iranian port, with or without the American sanctions, for its national interest lies in the development of this route not just to resupply the Afghans but also to provide a much-needed land route to the central Asian countries.
When this kind of hard-headed realism directs policy in New Delhi, usually the mandarins of South Block make the right choice, irrespective of their ideological predilections. It only remains then to bring the political leadership on board. In case of Afghanistan, the political leadership seems well attuned with the new realities.