Home > Uncategorized > The Indian bogey in Afghanistan

The Indian bogey in Afghanistan


Tension between the US and Pakistan has mounted after Admiral Mullen testimony that the Haqqani terrorist network was a veritable arm of Pakistan’s ISI. A flurry of accusations and counter-accusations has obscured the differences that separate the two allies in Afghanistan. It is not clear whether the objectives of the US in Afghanistan are so irreconcilable with those of Pakistan that it would persuade the latter to defy a superpower at great peril to itself. Conversely, given Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan through its proxies, its geographic position and longstanding trade and cultural links with the latter, what is it that Pakistan seeks in Afghanistan that the US would be loathe to concede to an ally?
A recent exercise by think tanks looked at the possible objectives of Pakistan in Afghanistan as the US winds up its counterinsurgency operations there. These objectives were found to be, inter alia, stability in Afghanistan, representation of Pashtuns in the government and containment of Indian influence in that country. None of these is in any way irreconcilable with those of the US. Parties to a pending negotiation are usually reluctant to disclose their real aims because the party disclosing its cards first usually ends up getting less than the party that conceals its objectives. So it is entirely possible that neither the US nor Pakistan have disclosed their real objectives in Afghanistan and that this process will unfold as we go further into the endgame. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to ask what is it that Pakistan seeks in Afghanistan that cannot be achieved by normal diplomacy. Is a coercive strategy, either through direct confrontation or proxies, really necessary to achieve any of Pakistan’s real objectives in Afghanistan?
On the US side, the Blackwill proposal for sharing of power in Afghanistan is probably what the US is aiming for in Afghanistan. These proposals include handing over of power in southern Afghanistan to the Taliban, Northern Alliance [NA] control of northern districts, and sharing of power at the federal level. Under this arrangement, the US would continue to retain a reduced presence in Afghanistan, pay for the Afghan army and support the federal government, while continuing to deny sanctuaries to al Qaeda or rebel elements. Pakistan of course has reasons to look askance at this configuration. It denies it absolute control of Afghanistan as enjoyed in the 90s. Furthermore, Pashtun unhappiness with their share of power would cause them to demand separation from the NA that could have repercussions for Pakistan’s own Pashtun population. Undeniably, Pakistan would have much less leverage under this configuration. The US would favour such a dispensation as it gives it proximity to Iran, Pakistan, China and Central Asia thus allowing it to keep a watchful eye on a very sensitive neighbourhood.
Much has been made of Chinese support for Pakistan and the Indian opposition to Pakistan in this game. China has crucial interests in the South China Sea and building a navy to counter the US fleet is a full time job. China will not want a confrontation with the US in a place where it has no natural advantage over the latter. So a substantial Chinese involvement in the game can be ruled out. China’s help to Pakistan in past conflicts has been largely moral. Besides, China has shown considerable interest in Afghanistan’s mines and will look to its own interests first. Russia and China will balance their apprehension of Islamist terror with the US presence in Afghanistan. Iran will actually prefer a US presence that is predictable to the armed hordes controlled and paid for by its Sunni adversaries in the Middle East. India’s capacity to influence events in Afghanistan is very limited. So optics apart, it is really a Pakistan versus US situation in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has to balance potential gains in Afghanistan with the cost of confronting the US there. The US will not risk a shooting war. It does not believe in messing with a power that has nukes. On the other hand, it will not be shy of applying the widest array of sanctions it can muster. These include denial of aid, restrictions on trade, and closure of access to markets. China can mitigate these sanctions to a certain extent. Pakistan will have to reconcile itself to a stagnating economy that may set it back for decades. Clearly shorter term issues like logistical routes, etc, are important but Pakistan lacks the ability to compel the US without risking reprisals. So it is the long-term economic costs that must weigh with Pakistan in deciding how far to push the US for the best bargain.
Why is India irrelevant? With nukes, an Indian attack that dismembers Pakistan in an armoured blitz is clearly impossible. So how does the Pakistan army need ‘strategic depth’ to survive such an eventuality? War is not an option for either Pakistan or India. That makes strategic depth irrelevant. Second is competition for influence. In the long run, in a modernising Afghanistan, it will be impossible to shut out India. A stable Afghanistan will invite substantial investment from its neighbours, especially China, Iran, Russia and even the US. India would be just one of the players and not a major one at that. Therefore, Pakistan could counter Indian influence by virtue of its ethnic, cultural and trade ties. Besides, Afghanistan would need access to ports in Pakistan. There is, therefore, little reason for Pakistan to fear being isolated in Afghanistan or being edged out by rival India. With China being the elephant in the room, the Indian ability to influence Afghanistan in a manner calculated to confront Pakistan with a two front situation is simply overstretched. Therefore, the Indian bogey needs to be laid to rest once and for all in Pakistan’s own interest.
That leaves the question of what to do about pipelines that may extend from the Caspian to Karachi or Mumbai? Pipelines are a big issue. They are easily denied but very difficult to build. Minus US support, they cannot be built, not even with China throwing its weight behind them. The right time to put them on the table is now. By playing a spoiler, Pakistan may retain a veto over them but the risk is that they may not get built at all. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Geopolitical and geo-economic influence that comes from sitting on important trade routes is of diminishing value unless encashed. What really matters in a knowledge economy is how you educate your citizens. Old mercantilist thinking about territory, trade routes, etc, are insufficient to guide strategy. People who convert these advantages into cash and use the proceeds to invest in education are the ones who have raced ahead. Look at South Korea for instance.
Now may not be the time for Pakistan to seek a confrontation with the world’s lone superpower. Pakistan has already made its point emphatically, which is that its interests in Afghanistan cannot be overlooked. Having done so, it is time for Pakistan to look at the interests of Afghanistan as a polity along with those of its neighbours. Pakistan cannot have peace and prosperity with an unstable Afghanistan to its northwest. A frank dialogue with India on Afghanistan may be one way of laying the Indian bogey to rest.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Raj Kumar
    October 3, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Why do you call it a bogey?
    How is China’s help largely moral, when they supply M-11, AEW&cs, aircrafts, missiles, AAMs, SAMs etc etc to Pakistan?
    Pakistan having a frank dialogue? Its utopia!

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