New Delhi needs to ensure that any new initiative in Afghanistan is calibrated to deliver positive outcomes in Pakistan
In 2005, during the visit of former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh to Kabul this writer had occasion to ask an American general whether the US would welcome Indian involvement in training Afghan forces. The American officer visibly recoiled. “At the moment,” he said, “that would not be a good idea at all.” This was the occasion when India formally presented the first batch of 300 light trucks it had promised for the Afghan National Army (ANA).
The US general at the time was reflecting the Pakistani unease with the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. Since then, India has made a mark with its purposeful and effective foreign aid programme. But it has also been the target of Pakistani rage, manifested in various statements made by its leaders complaining about the alleged activities of Indian personnel posted in Afghanistan, and also in a deadlier form by two bomb attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul.
So the US decision to seek Indian assistance to train Afghan forces, even if it is couched as a kind of regional initiative, is significant. It is clearly the linchpin of a larger strategy of getting the ANA to take care of the security responsibilities and enable the United States to exit gracefully beginning 2011, significantly, the year in which Obama is also likely to begin his re-election campaign.
The direct application of force never works against insurgencies and political movements. Stamina and subtlety are things that can and do work. India needs to work with the US and other regional powers to break the thralldom of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It can do this through economic and social development programmes, which will, of course, require the protection of armed units to be able to establish themselves. This is broadly the McChrystal strategy. But the American general is likely to be short-changed by his political masters in terms of available manpower. The European allies of the Americans are unlikely to commit any new forces.
As for the American call for Indian participation in training the ANA, it is both a bit too late, and too early.
It is late because a significant Indian commitment in the wake of 9/11 could have arguably helped stem the return of the Taliban. It is early because at this point it would be imprudent for New Delhi to commit itself. It would, first, stoke Pakistani paranoia and aggravate the already difficult India-Pakistan relations. Second, it could conceivably land us in a losing enterprise. India needs to work out its entry strategy, just as carefully the Americans are thinking through their exit one.
Obama has been right to put forward an exit strategy even while committing forces. History is littered with examples of states that entered into war without knowing or planning the way out. However, put as baldly as it has been done, it also tells us about the thinness of the American commitment in Afghanistan. The US won’t say so, but they must also be hoping that the Hand of God plays a role by delivering Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, by 2011. Should this happen, it could be passed off as a victory and set the stage for a quick American pullout from what is already a Vietnam-like quagmire.
There should be no illusions about the ability of the additional troops to change things in Afghanistan. What they will do is to provide space and time for the Americans to Afghanise the war. Vietnamisation, in contrast, began too late to affect the outcome of the Vietnam war.
In these circumstances, it is important for India to keep its powder dry. It must first ensure that it does not become part of the problem, and remains a part of the solution in Afghanistan. It can help the American enterprise by carrying on its civilian aid programme and perhaps intensifying it and be involved in regional diplomacy with Iran and Russia to assist the process of stabilising Afghanistan. And it can come forward with a programme that could take large number of Afghan personnel and train them here in India. In this way it can avoid the stigma of associating with what could turn out to be a lost war, or of being part of the foreign occupation of the country.
New Delhi has to play for the longer run. The contours of the US commitment are now quite clear. Even if it is not 2011, it will be 2012 or even 2015. And even this will be defined by the forces the US has at its command, which are not likely to go over the 100,000 peak that will be achieved next summer.
But Afghanistan will remain a near-neighbour of India for a longer time.
Through history, the security of India, at least its northern part, has been determined by what happens on the other side of the Khyber Pass. However, and this is also known, successive rulers of New Delhi have never quite grasped this. However, Pakistan now intervenes geographically, and that geopolitical reality has become more complex. What happens in Afghanistan is still relevant to the future of Indian security, though now somewhat indirectly. A stable and prosperous Afghanistan will have beneficial consequences for Pakistan which interfaces directly with India. On the other hand, instability, especially in eastern Afghanistan peopled by Pashtun tribes, cannot but spill over into Pakistan, with all the baleful consequences that we are witnessing at this very time.
It was in the first flush of mujahideen victory that the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate began shifting the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba training camps to Afghanistan’s Kunar province in the early 1990s. Subsequently some Harkat-ul-Mujahideen camps also came up in Khost to train terrorists for the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir.
If the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan, India can expect a renewed surge of jihadi attacks. It could be, as in the past, as part of a triumphant ISI operation. Or, worse, run by a clutch of jihadi groups over whom no one exercises real control. The situation in western Pakistan is no longer stable and the outcomes there are difficult to predict. But one thing is certain: all the bad things that can happen to India because of Afghanistan will have to come through Pakistan.
So, India needs to focus sharply on the source of our greatest danger — Pakistan. That is the main reason why any Indian ground commitment, must be carefully thought through. Aggravating tensions with a neighbour is never a good idea, but to enhance the paranoia of an already psychotic Pakistan would be foolhardy. There are many in India who say they are past caring for what Islamabad says or does.
The luxury of ignoring Pakistan does not exist and New Delhi needs to ensure that its policy in Afghanistan is carefully calibrated to generate desired outcomes in Pakistan. India must be part of the Afghan solution, but it must avoid anything that smacks of a clumsy intervention. New Delhi must be a major player in the Afghan game. But it must play to win; the consequences of a defeat or a draw will not be too pleasant.
This piece appeared in Mail Today December 3, 2009