INDIA LOST IN AFGHAN ENDGAME
The situation in Afghanistan is full of uncertainties and the prospects of India ’s neighbourhood becoming even more difficult for us are real. We have little control over the situation in Afghanistan , however popular we may be with its government and people. We have invested considerable political and financial capital in Afghanistan for protecting our longer term interests in the region, but adequate returns are not guaranteed.
Afghanistan has been a conflict zone for over three decades now. To our misfortune it became a cold war battleground between the Soviet Union and the US , with the result that both an extremist version of Islam and Pakistan became powerful actors in shaping developments there under the US lead. Until then, Pakistan was not a dominant factor in Afghanistan internally and externally. Later, as US attention moved towards Iraq , Pakistan saw an opportunity to control Afghanistan strategically by using Islamic fanaticism embodied by the Taliban as a tool.
Hare & Hounds
The deliberate Islamisation of Pakistan by Zia-ul-Haq prepared a favourable ground for the creation of the Taliban under Benazir Bhutto’s civilian government. The nurturing of extremist religious groups by the Pakistan military for terrorist attacks against India was another facet of the growing Islamization of Pakistan’s society and the practical use of these forces for political ends, as in Afghanistan ’s case.
Religious fanatics in our region gained further force with Al Qaida’s entry on the back of the Taliban. These forces overplayed their hand in attacking the US on September 11, inviting an American military riposte that ousted the Taliban from power. That Osama Laden got refuge in Pakistan for many years in different places points to the existence of an effective network of Islamist cells in Pakistan , which raises concerns for the future.
When, with Taliban’s ouster, US attention turned towards Iraq for the second time, Pakistan once again saw an opportunity to regain its lost ground in Afghanistan through the Taliban groups it continued sheltering on its territory. With Taliban groups targeting NATO forces from safe-havens in Pakistan , US pressure on Pakistan to control these groups was inevitable. This exposed the inherent contradiction in Pakistan ’s posture on religious extremism and terrorism, with the Pakistan state and society, at one level, nurturing these forces, while, at another level, acting against them under external constraint.
This policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound has exposed Pakistan to accusations of duplicity and double-faced policies by its western supporters, a discovery India made years earlier. But this awakening has not brought about any drastic change in the West’s handling either of Pakistan per se or its destabilizing ambitions in Afghanistan .
The Third Time
The irony from India’s point of view is that having fortified the virus of Islamism in the region and then having combated it at great human, financial and military cost, the US and the West are once again reaching out to the same forces, this time not to defeat a cold war rival but to cover up their own retreat with a veneer of semi-success.
The accommodation of the Taliban in the mid-1990s was for immediate economic allurements, with no concern that such obscurantist forces would spread terror to the US . The US overlooked the problematic aspects of Pakistan ’s conduct because of tepid India-US relations. Pakistan was a useful balancing factor.
Today India and the US have a strategic partnership. The US has a grand vision of linking Central Asia and South Asia through a new silk road, with energy projects like TAPI as a centre-piece. It seems to want to repeat its previous mis-reading of Taliban’s Islamic fanaticism by believing that its commitment to break links with Al Qaida would protect the US from future terrorist attacks. This will be the third time that the US will take Afghanistan off its radar screen, benefiting once again the Taliban with its religious ideology and Pakistan with its strategic ambitions while compromising India’s interests despite the so-called transformation of India-US ties.
In a hard place
India will be hard put to secure its interests in Afghanistan in the conditions under which the US intends to withdraw. The Afghan security forces may be able to prevent an outright Taliban military victory, but providing security all over the country against Taliban depredations would be outside their capacity, given their present ability to stage terrorist attacks even in highly protected areas such as Kabul . Sending more security personnel to protect our projects is not a solution. Though we have a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that provides also for arms support, even if we were to step up our training assistance considerably and provide some combat equipment, it would not substitute for the Afghan army’s lack of air support, heavy weaponry and intelligence capability.
Pakistan is determined to neutralize India’s influence in Afghanistan, as the attack on our Jalalabad consulate indicates unfortunately. It is allergic to the idea of an India-friendly Afghan government. It finds it intolerable that we train Afghan military officers in India when their offers to provide such training are being rebuffed. Nawaz Sharif has begun voicing the charge that India is behind some disturbances in Pakistan .
We can help reduce the threats to Afghanistan ’s internal stability in consultation with Iran , Russia and the Central Asian states. China cannot be relied upon because in any scenario it will be with Pakistan and leverage its influence with the Taliban to protect Chinese interests.
Pakistan is central to China’s strategy to economically exploit Afghanistan and link it and neighbouring Central Asian states to its upgraded Karakoram highway connected to Gwadar.
All in all, our stakes in Afghanistan are high but our means to protect them insufficient and uncertain.
The writer was India ’s Foreign Secretary