The new government has a chance to strengthen ties with both Pakistan and Afghanistan
Events in Kashmir and Afghanistan, where India and Pakistan have high stakes, are moving at a fast pace. While the Pakistani establishment (read, Pakistan Army), which wields a decisive say in its nation’s security policy, is determined to make the most of the opportunities, India, with a new government and a proactive Prime Minister Narendra Modi is measuring its paces.
US President Barack Obama has announced that the US will leave 9,800 troops for training of the Afghan security forces and counter-terrorism operations by end-2014 in Afghanistan, to remain there till 2016. He hopes to formalise this arrangement by signing the bilateral security agreement with the new Afghan President expected to be announced soon. The US broadcast is unwelcome to both the Afghan Taliban and its backers, Pakistan’s ISI, which had hoped to achieve strategic depth in Afghanistan soonest. Strategic depth refers to the Pakistan Army’s leeway to use an extra-friendly Afghan territory against India, which it sees as the ‘existential threat’, and as the preferred highway to China, Iran, and Central Asian Republics, in short, to dominate the geopolitics of the region.
With this aim, and to free itself of distractions, the Pakistan Army had opposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s peace overtures to the Pakistan Taliban; as luck would have it, the recalcitrant Pakistan Taliban did not reciprocate Islamabad’s extended handshake, paving way for its bombings by the Pakistan Army. In the existing scenario, it is evident that General Headquarters, while focussing on Afghanistan, will avoid a two-front confrontation, and make a virtue of necessity by giving Islamabad space for peace with India provided Kashmir talks are not removed from the table.
In a zero-sum game, bad news for Pakistan is good news for India. While welcoming the US decision of extending its stay in Afghanistan where India, in the last decade has invested over USD 2.5 billion in infrastructure development, Delhi, under the October 2011 India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, has extended assistance in the military field to Kabul. Afghanistan will now get lethal weapons for its army and security forces from Moscow to be paid by Delhi. As this arrangement is expected to remain in place with the incoming Afghan dispensation, strong intelligence sharing between Delhi and Kabul will ensure India need not downsize its various consulates in Afghanistan outside Kabul. Moreover, under the new National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, who is a reputed intelligence wizard with ample experience on Pakistan, Delhi could surely upgrade its activities in Pakistan’s restive provinces to counter-balance the ISI doings in Kashmir. Overtly, Delhi, under the emerging power balance in the region, could strengthen cooperation with Russia, Central Asian Republics, Iran and China on Afghanistan. Thus, with a mix of regional proactive diplomacy and intense intelligence cooperation, Delhi could position itself well in post-2016 Afghanistan.
Closer home, cooperation between India and Pakistan seems promising, with both Prime Ministers hopeful of addressing each other’s concerns, and thereby seeking increased bilateral trade. The ghost in the room is the Pakistan Army determined to control the tempo of bilateral talks by regulating terrorism across the Line of Control (LC). Considering that Prime Minister Modi has made it clear that talks cannot be audible in the din of bombs, India, instead of being an impassive observer, can help Prime Minister Sharif restore civil-military relations in Pakistan in his favour.
This needs an understanding through regular interaction between the political and military leadership in India. A good beginning was made by Prime Minister Modi meeting the army chief, General Bikram Singh, within the first week of assuming office. The available opportunity of the Pakistan Army being busy in Afghanistan should not be frittered away by the army’s insistence on the old mantras. For example, in one of the interactions, General Bikram Singh had told me that the army had to abide by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s agenda of economic progress, which meant maintaining a defensive posture on the LC. He said this in response to my suggestion that the army should adopt an offensive posture on the LC, implying increased training for conventional operations rather than a passive anti-infiltration posture which leaves the Pakistan Army time for plotting mischief. The army chief understood that I was not suggesting war but tactics which would keep the adversary in check, conscious that there will be a price to pay for any misadventure.
Given Prime Minister Modi’s enthusiasm for strengthening national security, he should know that between now and 2016, until when the Pakistan Army faces uncertainty in Afghanistan, India could improve its military posture on Kashmir by a twin approach: talk with the Pakistan Army, and adopt an offensive posture on the LC. Through the DGMO route, which was opened between the two armies in December 2013, regular talks for peace on the LC should be encouraged. This will result in better understanding of Pakistan Army’s perspective, which could benefit bilateral talks between the two governments. Meanwhile, the Indian Army should gradually be moved away from Counter-Insurgency (CI) ops to its primary task of defending the LC. While the steps to be taken for this in terms of orientation, training and capability-building are known to the army, probably the biggest move will require the government decision. It will be to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from select urban areas. This will demonstrate India’s resolve in taking the Kashmir bull by the horn.