Thursday, February 11, 2010




    Concerns being expressed in India over its imminent marginalisation in the future set-up in Afghanistan are understandable, but only in a static geo-strategic context in which the pre 9/11 world is the point of reference. Before 9/11, Pakistan ruled the roost in Afghanistan through it Taliban proxies. Afghanistan was transformed into a hub of Islamist terror groups who received sanctuary, ideological indoctrination and motivation, and most of all, terrorist training in camps that were run as a joint venture between jihadists and ISI operatives. India, which faced the brunt of the export of Islamic terrorism by Pakistan, had gone blue in the face trying to draw attention of the international community to the dangers that the radical Islamist terror groups posed to the civilized world. The Americans and all the other Western countries knew what was happening but chose to ignore the emergence of Taliban controlled Afghanistan as Terror Central simply because they were not being directly affected by the terrorism emanating from there. But then 9/11 happened and everything changed.

    A decade after that epochal event, the Taliban with lots of help from Pakistan, are poised to make a comeback in Afghanistan. The Americans, staring defeat in the face, are all set to abandon Afghanistan to the depredations of the Taliban, albeit under the fig leaf of "reintegration and reconciliation" and the hope that the Taliban will live up to their promise of severing links with Al Qaeda. The fear in India is that once the Americans quit Afghanistan, and outsource it to Pakistan, there will be a return to the bad old days when Afghanistan served as the base camp for terrorists from all over the world. The exit of the Americans will remove the purported reason of conflict between the Islamists and their patrons, the Pakistan army. What is more, it will also ease the pressure (domestic or international) on the Pakistan army to clean up the swamps of Islamist terror that exist in Pakistan. The Pakistan army will be more than happy to make its peace with the Islamists and allow them to function with impunity, provided they don't peddle their terrorist wares inside Pakistan.

The way the Indians see it, the Pakistani establishment will be quite comfortable making deals with the Islamists and leaving them to their devices. So much so that it really has no problem with the emergence of tiny Islamic emirates in remote parts of the country. Such emirates will keep the potentates and warlords of these medieval enclaves satisfied with their fiefdoms and leave them with little reason to mess with the Pakistani state. Anyone who doubts this just needs to look at the attitude of the Pakistan army towards the Taliban in Swat.

The fact is that the Pakistan army did not appear to be very agitated over the Taliban takeover of Swat. It was not until alarm bells started ringing around the world after the Taliban entered Buner, that the Pakistan army was forced to launch an operation against the new rulers of Swat. The military offensive in South Waziristan, Bajaur and other Tribal Agencies was partly forced upon the Pakistan army by the Americans and partly motivated by the Pakistan army's need for reining in Jihadists who were targeting mainland Pakistan under the misguided notion that the Pakistan army was actively and sincerely aiding the American war effort. With the Americans gone, the Pakistani Taliban will also become more amenable to peace deals with the Pakistan army. If they continue to resist, the Pakistan army will have them removed from the scene by not only mounting operations against them but also by exploiting cleavages within the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban and propping up a pliant warlord against a recalcitrant one.

The Indians fear that while all this is happening, the Americans and other Western countries will conveniently turn a blind eye to the activities of the Taliban and their Pakistani associates, who under Pakistani influence will have expelled the Al Qaeda, or at least have kept them under a very tight leash. The urge for jihad of the Islamists will be used initially to purge Afghanistan of those who dissent with the Taliban version of Islam. After the general massacres in Afghanistan are over, and complete domination is established over that hapless country, the energies of the jihadists will be directed to Islamist causes in places like India, Russia, perhaps China, Shi'ite Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Indonesia and what have you.

It is precisely to prevent this scenario from unfolding that India invested so heavily in Afghanistan. The Indian interest in Afghanistan has always been that it shouldn't fall prey or become a playground for Pakistan's policy of using jihad as an instrument of state policy against India. Afghanistan also served as an important listening post for India which was able to keep a close watch over developments inside Pakistan. Since India does not share a land border with Afghanistan, it is close to impossible for India to get militarily involved in Afghanistan. Given this limitation, India used its soft power and its financial clout to support regimes in Afghanistan that resisted Pakistan's onslaught. India's development activities in Afghanistan – roads, schools, hospitals, scholarships for higher education, technical training and capacity building of Afghan civil servants, communications and power projects etc – have created a lot of goodwill among common Afghans. Unfortunately, the massive investment that India has made in improving the lives of Afghans is likely to run aground because the Americans have allowed Pakistan to get away with its double game on the issue of Taliban.

The Pakistanis know that they can only destroy Afghanistan, not develop it. Not surprisingly, Pakistan's army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani has made it clear that Pakistan has no problem if Indians continue their development activities in Afghanistan, but with the implicit caveat that such activities will have to be with the concurrence and under the supervision of the Pakistanis. Clearly, like in their own case, the Pakistan army don't mind the moolah flowing in but cannot quite countenance the influence that comes with it, even less so if it involves India. Perhaps the Pakistan army believes that they can dictate terms to the Indian government, just like they do in their own country where the civilian government is reduced to a glorified municipality.

Without delving too much into the delusions and illusions that the Pakistan army suffers about India, the reality is that once the Americans throw in the towel, India will have to cut its losses and leave Afghanistan. Rather than spend good money after bad in Afghanistan, it probably makes more sense for India to use this money to start building up its defences against the export of terrorism from Pakistan that is bound to re-start in the coming months.

Of course, the scenario painted above is really the worst case scenario for India and is predicated on things returning to the pre-9/11 situation. India must therefore start to prepare for the worst case scenario. This involves not only putting in place a security architecture that can effectively combat terrorism flowing in from Pakistan but also bolstering the Indian military machine to acquire an overwhelming, overbearing and overpowering superiority over Pakistan. What is more, India should stop frittering its resources on what is for the foreseeable future a hopeless cause – Afghanistan.

But while preparing for the worst, India has good reason to hope for the best. Indeed there are very good chances that instead the worst case scenario unfolding, exciting new strategic opportunities will open out for India with Pakistan's greater involvement in Afghanistan. And the reason for that is simple: it is no longer the pre-9/11 world. Next week, we will lay out how the likely victory in Afghanistan of the Taliban, and by extension Pakistan, is not such a huge strategic setback for India that it appears to be at this point in time. Rather it could eventually translate into a huge strategic gain if India holds its nerve and plays its cards to exploit the unfolding situation to its advantage.


    <1350 Words>                    11th February, 2010



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