Steering our own pathhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/steering-our-own-path/

Steering our own path

In a recent speech in London,President Asif Ali Zardari stated that a solution for Afghanistan lay with regional actors.

In a recent speech in London,President Asif Ali Zardari stated that a solution for Afghanistan lay with regional actors. The ‘Friends of Democratic Pakistan’,he suggested,could serve as the platform to craft such a settlement. As NATO capitals agonise over the Afghan insurgency,such suggestions will get sympathetic hearing. But they will scantly accord with India’s interests in Afghanistan.

After all,the Af-Pak policy initially sought to adopt a regional approach. By inducing India to parley with Pakistan on Kashmir,the Obama administration hoped to convince the Pakistani military that the real threat was not India,but the insurgent groups operating out of western Pakistan.

This specious linkage sat well with Islamabad’s desires. And it has been repeatedly presented as the acme of strategic wisdom by liberal Pakistani commentators like Ahmed Rashid. Zia ul-Haq was altogether more candid when he said that Pakistan had the right to have a friendly government in Kabul. Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has been driven by its desire to acquire a client state. But it has veiled this intent by nicely obfuscating its Afghan policy with its India problem.

Islamabad’s contention has been wholly swallowed in most NATO capitals. The recent strategic review by General Stanley McChrystal,the commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan,explicitly links India’s role and Pakistan’s trepidations. While accepting that “Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people”,the review warns that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.” Clearly Pakistan’s continued invocation of the Indian bogeyman has led the US military to conclude that India’s profile in Afghanistan needs to be diminished. The tail is wagging the dog.

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In this scenario,it is imperative that the Indian government seriously ponders its interests and options,particularly the merits of working within the interstices of American policy towards Afghanistan.

The first,perhaps obvious option is to maintain the status quo. Continue to help build roads,provide development aid,train limited sections of the Afghan government and security services,and keep relations with President Karzai in good repair. The problem with this option is that while Indian activities are perceived favourably by the Afghans,even in the Pashtun areas,these are largely reliant on the continued presence of Western security forces.

The ongoing debate in Washington and London makes it abundantly clear that western forces cannot sustain the current tempo of operations in Afghanistan beyond 18-24 months. Thereafter,US forces will be focussed on the major urban centres and on subsidiary non-combatant activities. This draw-down of troops is likely to create a security vacuum in the hinterland,leaving India with the option of either suspending its activities,or approving the deployment of its own paramilitary forces. The latter option will entail a larger commitment than the existing Indo-Tibetan Border Police contingent of about 400 troops,which safeguards Indian construction workers in the Nimruz province. Persisting with the current approach,then,will lead to tough and possibly unpalatable choices a couple of years hence.

The second option is to accept the underlying premise of the Af-Pak policy. Temper Indian involvement in Afghanistan,enter into dialogue with Pakistan on Kashmir,hoping all the while that doing so will draw India closer to the US. The Americans,in turn,might be able to facilitate a limited Indian presence in the north and west of Afghanistan along the border with the energy-rich republics of Central Asia,and Iran.

The problem with this option is two-fold. First,it is increasingly apparent that the US cannot promise,let alone deliver,anything significant in Afghanistan. Kabul rather than Washington will be our most crucial partner. Second,and perhaps more importantly,working along these lines with the US is likely to backfire both in India (witness the row over Sharm el Sheikh) and in Afghanistan. The McChrystal review rightly observes that western forces’ legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people has been ‘severely damaged’.

The third option is to craft a genuine regional approach outside the current American framework. India’s key interest in Afghanistan is to forge closer relations not just with the government but also with the populace. Opinion polls and surveys indicate that India enjoys a good standing with the Afghan people. To maintain and strengthen these links,it is essential that India considerably steps up its developmental assistance for Afghanistan. Security for these efforts,in the aftermath of an American draw-down,can best be ensured not by beefing up our troop presence but by enabling the creation of a capable Afghan National Army (ANA). India,with its long experience of a multi-ethnic yet national force is best poised to help in this regard. Its extensive experience in counterinsurgency will prove equally handy.

This two-pronged approach of simultaneously increasing developmental and security sector assistance should be coupled with wider diplomacy involving our longstanding partners in Afghanistan: Iran and Russia. Oddly enough,the McChrystal review considers these countries’ roles through the lens of Pakistan’s ‘strategic interests’ in Afghanistan. China too may not be averse to such a big-tent approach. Beijing’s increasing concerns about extremism in Xinjiang are matched by its growing unease with the situation in Afghanistan.

New Delhi should leave the door open for Islamabad’s participation; yet Pakistan should harbour no illusion that its ‘special interests’ in Afghanistan will be privileged over the rights and welfare of the Afghan people. In the long run it will be desirable to reach a multilateral agreement guaranteeing the territorial integrity and neutrality of Afghanistan. But it is naïve to hope that this can happen without the ANA gaining ascendancy over the Taliban: only then will Pakistan forsake its prize protégé.

To be sure,such an approach will invite Pakistani ‘countermeasures’. The Americans too will resist India’s efforts in this direction. But Indian policy can ill afford to be held hostage by such concerns,especially when the payoff for solicitude will at best be paltry. New Delhi should set its own terms for deeper engagement with Afghanistan.

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Rudra Chaudhuri is Lecturer,Department of War Studies,King’s College London; Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi