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The Pakistan card

 

As US prepares to leave Afghanistan in 2014, India mulls its security options and the future of its decade-long economic relationship with the land locked country. Ranjit Bhushan reports
RANJIT BHUSHAN | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : US | Pakistan | Afghanistan | Kabul | NDMC | TAPI |
 

 

India's troubled neighbourhood is set for yet another change when US troops depart Afghanistan in 2014, three years after President Barack Obama grandiosely announced his 'surge and exit' policy from the war-wracked country. 
 
With mounting domestic public opinion against a war which is not 'their own' in addition to a sharply rising public expenditure and inflation, the US has realised that while occupying Afghanistan may have been easy, to administer it in any strict sense is well nigh impossible: Soviet troops in the 1980s and the British Indian Army in the 19th century would unhappily vouch for it.
 
By virtually pushing out the mighty American army from Afghanistan – despite innumerable drone raids, huge military casualties and diplomatic heartbreaks – the Pakistani Army would see the US pull out as a political triumph. It is a scene tailor-made forthe General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi: they can now have a free run of the country which they consider a natural ally, cut a deal with the Taliban and promote the interests of war lords who have connections in Pakistan and are backed directly or indirectly by the army.
 
For the Pakistani army, the biggest road block in its total domination of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth remains the Indian presence – a presence loathed in ample measure by generals there. New Delhi has considerably expanded its influence in Afghanistan since the US ousted the Taliban regime by the end of 2001. There can be little doubt that this interest has flourished by the backing that India has got from the US and international military forces. "That period by all accounts is over. We are looking at a new phase in Afghanistan policy and there will be changes," says one senior Indian diplomat formerly posted in Kabul. Indian apprehensions have been compounded by President Obama's and British efforts to engage the Taliban in negotiations – for New Delhi, Taliban is but another face of the Pakistani army. For India's strategic community, US's reported move to carve out Talibani and Pakistani spheres of influence respectively in the battle-weary country even as they leave, is a potential nightmare with no quick fix solutions in sight.
 
Realists on Delhi’s strategic circuit believe that India's responses to the developing situation in Afghanistan have to be tempered by ground realities, not rhetoric. In a recent writeup in bi-monthly magazine The American Interest, strategic expert C Rajamohan wrote: "Despite much talk in Washington about India’s 'rivalry' with Pakistan in Afghanistan, Delhi is acutely aware that it is not a 'primary' player there in the manner that Islamabad is. The absence of a physical border is India’s greatest strength and main weakness in Afghanistan. Paradoxically, the 2,500 kilometer-long open border with Afghanistan – the Durand Line – is Pakistan’s greatest advantage and principal weakness. Because Afghanistan is once-removed from India, few Afghans distrust Delhi. The absence of a border means India cannot undertake and defend a unilateral security role in Afghanistan.'' In other words, any military engagement in that country can safely be ruled out for the time being.
 
Delhi, nevertheless, remains an important player in its immediate neighbourhood. Backed by Washington and NATO, the Indo-Afghan engagement has been broadening in the last decade or so. In 2011, the two countries signed a strategic partnership, which promised – on top of its agenda – a distinct Indian role in raising Afghan forces, mostly in India. Close to 200 Afghan soldiers are currently attending Indian military colleges.
 
In 2012, India played host to an international investment meeting on Afghanistan in New Delhi – a key visitor from Kabul told potential Indian investors that it was not easy to do business in his country. Despite it, India has pledged $2 billion in aid to build roads, power stations and even the Parliament of Afghanistan. As a return gift, India has got rights to mine prime iron ore reserves in the country. To be sure, the Indian private sector response has been tepid given the political climate in the country, but the government is known to be persuading public sector mining companies, including the NDMC and National Aluminum Company Co Ltd, to explore avenues of investment.
 
Officials in the two countries are reported to be discussing the 'new silk route' between the two nations. There is a vibrant Afghan community which lives in New Delhi, many of them beneficiaries of medical tourism, while Kabul itself is awash with Indian colours, food and music. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is fluent in Hindi, having spent his student years in the Himachal Pradesh University. A visiting British journalist traveling in Afghanistan remembers that "while you never hear a good word for Pakistan, you rarely hear a bad one for India".
 
Last year, India signed a deal to pipe gas 1,700 km from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan. India's leading gas company Gas Authority of India Ltd, is one of the leaders of a consortium trying to woo global investors to cough up $7.6 billion for the pipeline christened TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India). But there are many in Delhi who believe that this pipeline would make India dependent upon arch rival Pakistan and that is something which may not find backers in in the short term. Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told this magazine that India's presence is about strategic self-interest. "Afghanistan is in our neighbourhood and there is a history of Afghan soil being used for terror attacks on India. We cannot allow it to happen," he said.
 
For the Americans, their decisionto exit Afghanistan may create more problems than solve them. The US dilemma can be best understood in a recent Rand Corporation assessment of competing global and regional interests in the country. 
 
Says the Rand Corporation report, "India and Pakistan have very different visions for Afghanistan, and they seek to advance highly disparate interests through their respective engagements in the country. Pakistan views Afghanistan primarily as an environment in which to pursue its rivalry with India. India pursues domestic priorities (such as reining in anti-Indian terrorism, accessing Central Asian energy resources and increasing trade) that require Afghanistan to experience stability and economic growth. Thus, whereas Pakistan seeks to fashion an Afghan state that would detract from regional security, India would enhance Afghanistan's stability, security, economic growth and regional integration. Afghanistan would welcome greater involvement from India, though it will need to accommodate the interests of other external powers as well. India has a range of options for engaging Afghanistan, from continuing current activities to increasing economic and commercial ties, deploying forces to protect Indian facilities, continuing or expanding training for Afghan forces, or deploying combat troops for counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency missions. To avoid antagonising Pakistan, India is likely to increase economic and commercial engagement while maintaining, or perhaps augmenting, military training, though it will continue to conduct such training inside India. Increased Indian engagement in Afghanistan, particularly enhanced Indian assistance to Afghan security forces, will advance long-term US objectives in central and south Asia.''
 
Could Indian policymakers then look for clues in modern history? British rulers, confronted with virtually uncontrollable tribal upsurge of the trans-Indus tribal territories in the 19th century, wavered between a policy that sought to physically control the boondocks through force and through a hands-off policy which recognised that given the region's natural turbulence where virtually everyone carried a gun and was quite willing to use it, it would be futile to try to subjugate: reconciliation was always a better bet.Indian mandarins say in the current situation, a hands-offpolicy would imply that there is no tearing hurry to get into Afghanistan after the Americans depart. India will instead, rely on internal affairs of the country to take a turn where New Delhi's role would come into play. For instance, it is nearly certain that once the Pakistani Army gets a run of the country once again and decides to put the squeeze, certain ethnic groups – the non-Pashtun minorities in Afghanistan for instance – who are opposed to Islamabad will turn to New Delhi for help. 
 
According to MEA officials, India's long term policy on Iran has been geared keeping this specific subject in mind. Despite American objections, New Delhi has never overlooked or undermined its relations with Teheran, because it forms an affective counterweight to Pakistan and provides New Delhi with a window that may be closed – or semi-closed – once Pakistan begins to call the shots in Kabul, as it did before 2001 and the 9/11 attacks. There are those hawks who envision a more muscular role for India in the region and suggest the way to do it would be to increase Indian military heat on Pakistan's eastern border even as Islamabad gets busy with the task of settling its problems on the western border and the Durand Line which divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is doubtful if India will involve itself on a course of military adventurism of any sort. The prevailing view in the Indian foreign office is that such a policy would put paid to the peace process being pursued by successive Indian prime ministers since the mid-nineties. IK Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have between them stuck to a policy of settling issues with Pakistan and avoiding a confrontation, if possible. Aware of Islamabad's deep sensitivities on the subject, there is every likelihood of that position continuing. 
 
Contrary to conventional Indian wisdom, the Pakistanis themselves have been less than enthusiastic about UStroops moving out of Afghanistan. There is the fear that local warlords and groups or the Taliban may not see the US pullout of 2014 solely in terms of a Pakistani triumph as the Mujaheddin battling the Soviets did back in the 1980s. There is the feeling that by throwing out the Americans, they would be sufficiently emboldened to charter out their own course of action.
 
Writes senior Pakistani analyst and journalist Ayaz Amir, "When the American pullout is complete, these facts will become starker. Does anyone in his right mind think that in a year from now Amir Hakeemullah Mehsud – amir of the semi-independent Islamic Emirate of North Waziristan – will come down from the mountains and lay down his arms before the army command in Rawalpindi? The Afghan ‘Mujahideen’ in 1989 exulted over the circumstance that they had defeated one superpower. Now they can lay claim to a far bigger triumph. Forget about the Afghan Taliban. Does any fool think that when the Americans have drunk fully from their cup of humiliation, the Pakistani Taliban will be in a more penitent mood, ready to settle for modest or moderate terms with hapless representatives of the Pakistani state?''
 
Does it mean that Pakistan would not be able to get its pre-eminent role, as it did in the 1990s and even earlier when elements of the Pakistani Army were directly involved in raising the cadres and ideology of Taliban? That still remains to be seen. Given the Indo-Pak differences on Afghanistan which appear irreconcilable at the moment, there is a good chance that New Delhi would go back to supporting the Northern Alliance or even deal with segments of the Taliban which have historically been emphatic with the Pashtuns, who in turn have no major problems in dealing with Indians, given the significant presence of Afghans in India, most of them refugees after civil strife took over that country. 
 
Indian strategists are, however, convinced that Islamabad is not ready for peace, as the mutilation of two Indian soldiers on the LoC suggests. An increasing Pakistani role and influence in Afghanistan in conjunction with local warlords could heighten security fears in India. In addition, a country without any political direction could become the playground for the world's super powers, including China which is in close vicinity. 
 
But with the UPA government keen to look for signs that Pakistan's longest-serving civilian government would be more amenable to changing a conventional paradigm, any immediate confrontation in the region is safely ruled out. Pakistani Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari may be regarded as a weak ruler but his decision to liberalise trade with India marks a watershed in the troubled ties between the two south Asian neighbours. A lot would also depend upon the outcome of elections in Pakistan, scheduled for this year. In the eventuality of sustained civilian rule, the temptation of dealing with another civilian government in Islamabad is a good enough proposition for the Manmohan Singh government. 
 
At any rate, most Indian analysts say it is still early to formulate a clear headed policy and that things are "still in the works'' (see interview). While the US withdrawal is at the moment seen largely in political terms, the nuts and bolts of how the troops will finally leave – and how many – remains far from clear. 
 
Since becoming a graveyard for many empires, history is something that even the Pakistanis are looking at for guidance. Notes Pakistani writer Ayaz Amir, "Come to think of it, through our folly we are reversing 200 years of history. Once upon a time most of the territories now comprising Pakistan were part of the kingdom of Kabul. Then on these territories Maharajah Ranjit Singh established his kingdom and, as a measure of his power, wrested Peshawar from Afghan hands. With the Maharajah’s death his kingdom fell on evil days and it was not long before it was defeated and then annexed by the British.''
 
Intelligence officials in New Delhi who dealt with Afghanistan in the 1990s, have this interesting but chilling story to narrate. On September 26, 1996, when Pakistani-backed Taliban were looking for all suspected enemies, the Indian mission in Kabul (or whatever was left of it) were warned by insiders to `clear off' from their compound because of the inherent dangers. Without waiting for further confirmation, the Indians departed, which was just as well because the next day, a Toyota carrying Taliban fighters managed to enter the UN compound, then thought to be a safe haven for former Afghanistan president Mohammed Najibullah Ahmadzai, tortured him brutally and castrated him before dragging the body through the streets of Kabul. The same group also entered the Indian mission only to find locks hanging. Images of Najibullah's body as it lay strung from a lamp post, are the most potent memories of the bloody nineties. Clearly, for Indian policy honchos, the coming months would present the most serious challenges in an area perennially engulfed by civil war, violence and death.
 
ranjit.bhushan@thesundayindian.com
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017