Friday, February 20, 2009

The Pakistan-Afghanistan war-front is not far from India

For millennia, India’s security has depended on developments in what is today the modern state of Afghanistan. Time and again, it has been shown that rulers in Delhi, be they Muslim or Hindu, have remained oblivious to the threat before being overwhelmed by it. We are in that kind of a moment right now.

The slowly-imploding Karzai government seems to be making way for another, perhaps more virulent, bout of medievalism that goes by the name of Taliban. The United States and the NATO have perhaps realised this somewhat late, and their policy to counter this is not clear, though the presence in the region of Richard Holbrooke, the new US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan indicates that the Americans intend to get back into the game.
Last week’s coordinated mini-Mumbai-style attacks in Kabul was a riposte of sorts since it showed that the Taliban now has developed sufficient infrastructure in the form of intelligence and safe-houses to mount such attacks in a well-guarded city like the Afghan capital. The fact that they are moving from their rural sanctuaries to taking on the Afghan/US/NATO establishment in Kabul is indicative of their strength and resolve.
For some time now the US has been coming around to the view that the solution lies as much in Afghanistan, as Pakistan, where the leadership of the Taliban are sheltered and where the movement has been making major strides. The government in Islamabad has lost authority in parts of the North-West Frontier Province, and its control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is becoming nominal.
The danger is that the radicalisation will extend now to the other parts of the country, particularly the heartland Punjab where economic problems and bad governance have created a climate of frustration and despair. Speaking before the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Director National Intelligence Denis Blair noted last week that no improvement in Afghanistan was possible “without Pakistan taking control of its border areas and improving governance, creating economic and educational opportunities throughout the country.”
Pakistan, in turn, plays the victim and blackmailer, ally and enemy at the same time. On Saturday, President Asif Ali Zardari went on about how Pakistan’s very survival was at stake in the face of the rising radicalism in the north-western part of his country. However, on Sunday we heard of how the government, which has agreed to a ceasefire with Mullah Fazlullah in Swat in exchange for a commitment that sharia law would be introduced in the district. If that is going to be the case, just who is Pakistan going to be fighting against in the American scheme of things?


Pakistan has claimed that India’s consulates and projects are being used to expand its hold over Afghanistan. The reality is that in recent times, there is only one government that has managed to control Afghan politics, and that country’s capital is Islamabad. There is nothing India can do which will give India the kind of position Pakistan had in Afghanistan in the 1992-2001 period.
The problem really is Islamabad’s desires in Afghanistan. Control over Afghanistan is viewed as providing strategic depth by the Army, but they are also abundant cautions against the rise of Pakhtun irredentism. No Afghan government recognises the Durand Line as the legitimate border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the developments of the past two years seem to be merely underscoring that fact, albeit in a negative way.

US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee

The current Holbrooke mission to the region is being billed as a “study” tour for the Obama Administration’s policy review. The US knows what it wants—a redeployment of the 600,000 strong Pakistan Army to the west to defeat what Zardari said was an existential threat to Pakistan. Unfortunately for Pakistan and the US, the Army is bent on maintaining its deployment in the east against India. Most of the fighting in NWFP and FATA is being done by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, with the army only providing logistic and fire-support through artillery and helicopter gun-ships.

New Delhi

The Americans realise that the situation is far too serious to see of it as a Great Game. The threat to their supply lines have forced them to look to the north to Central Asia for alternate routes. This is a region traditionally under Russian sway, but the Americans have taken diplomatic initiatives in Moscow and Beijing to aid the creation of what they call a Northern Distribution Network to prevent being choked at Khyber Pass. The Obama Administration has shown a willingness to even deal with Iran, which could provide a much easier route via Chah Bahar in Iran to Afghanistan via the new Indian-built road. Accepting that Afghanistan is our security frontier is one thing, doing something about it is another. The big question is: What can we do? We are already large aid givers and we run one of the more successful programmes on rebuilding the shattered infrastructure of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis believe that we are running a massive campaign of destabilisation of Pakistan from our embassy in Kabul and our consulates in the other cities of the country.
The facts are otherwise. Had this been true, the United States with a vital interest in getting Islamabad’s cooperation would have had something to say about it.
The US had made it clear earlier that they were not interested in Indian assistance to the fledgling Afghan army and police, though we did give the former several hundred light utility vehicles some years ago.
But the problem for the US and NATO is that they lack one of the most vital ingredients of counter-insurgency—boots on ground. India could have been tempted to participate in the International Security Assistance Force in 2001-02, but to go in now would be a folly.
Better value could be obtained by undertaking training of Afghan army and paramilitary forces here in India. The Indian forces have a great deal of knowledge and experience in running counter-insurgency policies.


The Americans know that only when India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US are on the same side will they be able to win the war against the forces of violent extremism that are spreading in the region. Knowing what we must do is the easy part, the infinitely more difficult one is to actually make common cause on the ground.
One major reason is the dilemma that the US itself confronts. What is it to make of the Pakistan Army? What if the Army is so deeply involved in backing terror as an instrument of policy that it cannot be redeemed? If so, the US will have to think of an alternate and more drastic policy. If not, it can systematically pressure the Pakistan army leadership to seriously take up the counter insurgency challenge.
India’s reasonable and responsible response to the Mumbai attack has undermined efforts by the Pakistan Army to deflect this pressure. But there could be more Mumbais and the Indians may not react in the same way. But New Delhi needs to look at the larger picture emerging.
A look at the map will tell you
why. Swat directly borders the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir. The inter-communal (Shia-Sunni) relations there have been systematically poisoned since the Zia ul Haq years. If Swat is handed over to the Sufi Mohammed and his Taliban, there can be no doubt that the Northern Areas will become the next target. India cannot but be singed by the fire there.
The war in Afghanistan is already our war.
This article appeared in Mail Today February 17, 2009

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