Bottomline | Afghan Chessboard

Instead of waiting and watching, India has to start making its moves

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

At a time when stakes in uncertainty are high for all players in Afghanistan, it was unusual to get an invitation for a public interaction on India’s role in Afghanistan by two senior diplomats responsible for this policy. What happened was on expected lines. We were told that Afghan people love India for what it has done in eight years since the fall of Taliban in 2001. India’s focus has been on development: within a year of Taliban exit, India opened four consulates, has spent nearly four billion dollars on major and minor projects from power grids, roads, schools, hospitals, Afghan Parliament building (to be completed by 2011) and so on. More Afghan girls now go to schools, and India trains about 180 Afghan military officers in its academies each year. India will be happy to train the Afghan National Army, but it has not been asked to do so. But, is not all this known?

Ok, in that case, here are India’s objectives in Afghanistan from the horse’s mouth. New Delhi’s vision is that Afghanistan becomes a hub of trade and transportation between Central Asian Republics (CAR), Iran and India. To achieve this, India wants the Afghan people to stand on their own two feet without outside interference and shape their destiny (the unsaid bit was that since they love India, they will seek its assistance). Once India gets invited by Afghans, New Delhi will

ensure that Afghanistan does not (once again) become safe haven for terrorists. This was amplified by one diplomat saying that during the Taliban regime, Pakistan was using Afghanistan to train Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba for Kashmir. When a nation has such stakes, shouldn’t it be doing more than development work? In response, the cat was let out of the bag. ‘We are watching the situation on the ground and will shape our position accordingly,’ was the reply.|

This is exactly the problem: fence-sitters can never be major players. All these years, New Delhi was undecided between the United States and Iran, even when the choice was obvious, for its Afghanistan policy. Given Afghanistan’s history, it was evident that the US’ presence there would not be permanent. President Obama’s US troops draw-down July 2011 date may be a political statement, but looks quite real if he desires a second term. Iran, with its risen stature after Saddam Hussein’s fall, will play a role matched only by Pakistan in post-US Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai’s exit is as certain as is the Taliban’s return on its own terms and not those being imposed by US General David Patraeus. Pakistan’s General Parvez Kayani does not want 1996 to repeat itself, when after the fall of Kabul to Taliban, its leader Mullah Omar came into his own and stopped doing Islamabad’s bidding. This time around, Pakistan is bringing additional goodies on the Taliban table by roping in Beijing. The realigned Afghanistan chessboard after the US departs will have a hardened (more radicalised) Taliban leadership in power in Kabul that will need to balance two major stake-holders for its survival: Pakistan and Beijing combine on one side and Iran. At Pakistan’s behest, Afghanistan has asked China to build a 700km rail-link between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Sidestepping Indian concerns, Russia is warming up to Pakistan after General Kayani’s visit to Moscow in 2009. After all, both Russia and China have their own terrorism concerns emanating from Af-Pak. Where does all this leave the regional alliance for Afghanistan of which India desperately wants to be a key member?

But, the US says it will not leave Afghanistan completely; it will leave south and east Afghanistan, but will continue to have presence in north Afghanistan. This will give it three benefits: One, it will oversee that the moderate Afghan government formed after the (US initiative) High Peace Council is allowed to rule without interference from hardened Taliban who will continue to live in Pakistan tribal areas. Two, given its notorious past and dishonest present intensions, Pakistan proclivity to use terror as state policy will be kept in check. And importantly, Iran will be kept at bay.

The problem is that the US script will not run as desired, unless Washington stops talking at Iran and instead starts talking at Pakistan. Iran is too big a nation to be ignored, and Pakistan is too small to be placed on the pedestal. The US-UK combine made the mistake of not taking the Iran factor into its calculation in post-Saddam Iraq (disclosed by Tony Blair in his book, A Journey). By ignoring Iran, the US appears set to make the same error in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Washington’s assessment of humouring Pakistan with military and financial largesse is misplaced. It is believed that only a strong Pakistan Army will be able to keep its nuclear weapons from not getting stolen by terrorists or being sold to them. This responsibility no longer rests with the US. Paradoxically, Beijing, the proliferator, will also be the ultimate watchman of Pak nukes. For India, it is late but all is not lost. Rather than tom-tom its achievement in Afghanistan, it will do well to make moves on the Afghan chessboard.

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