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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Battle lines move from Kashmir to Kabul
M K Bhadrakumar
There is wide acclaim today among Indian strategic analysts and diplomatic editors that New Delhi has scored a major diplomatic victory in Afghanistan and that its "influence" in Kabul has "peaked". This victory has come on the back of Washington's strategic pro-India tilt and, in the period since end-2001 to date, India's earmarking of a staggering US$1.2 billion as assistance for Afghan "reconstruction". Some Indian cheerleaders expound the thesis that it is the hallmark of an aspiring great power to "first learn to become a net provider of regional security" - and Delhi must therefore step in and lend a hand in fixing the Afghan problem. Others visualize Afghanistan providing a "unique opportunity" to be of help to the United States, and that Delhi will eventually benefit from the payback by a grateful superpower that is sure to come.
Yet another Indian viewpoint is that it simply pays to rattle Islamabad by creating space for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. An invidious Indian argument is that Delhi should use Afghan soil to retaliate against Islamabad's support of Kashmiri militants. In diplomacy, maybe, it pays to sidestep historical memory. Archives may contain only chronicles of wasted time. Very few Indian strategic analysts who at present hold forth on Afghanistan seem to be even remotely aware of how, like Karzai, the then head of state in Kabul, Dr Mohammad Najibullah, was a frequent visitor to Delhi in the late 1980s. That, too, was a twilight zone in the 30-year-old Afghan war when the conflict, like today's, uneasily lingered in the shade. Fortunately for Delhi, though, the slow-rolling coup that worked its way through the Afghan labyrinth for months before culminating in the morning of April 16, 1992, with Najib's ouster, didn't come entirely as surprise. Indian diplomats soon began diligently seeking out the Afghan mujahideen in the dangerous Hindu Kush mountains, to explain to those new masters the cold rationale of India's exceedingly warm friendship with Najib. They explained patiently that it was after all a strictly state-to-state, government-to-government relationship with Najib, shorn of ideology or religion or commitments. The Northern Alliance's Ahmad Shah Massoud still looked away as elements in his militia systematically ransacked the Indian Embassy, forcing its diplomats to flee Kabul. Yet, within no time, by the mid-1990s, Massoud had become India's key Afghan ally - or, as much as he could be anyone's ally. Certainly, it remains a tantalizing proposition whether with all the Indian help Taliban rule could have been overthrown but for al-Qaeda's historic decision to attack New York and Washington in September 2001. Historically, there has never been a dearth of justification for Indian involvement in Afghanistan. At the time of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s against the Soviets, Indian policy maintained that secular India had everything to lose with the advent of Islamism in the region - encouraged as a factor of Cold War geopolitics by the US - and that Najib provided a bulwark against the Islamist mujahideen based in Peshawar in Pakistan. But Delhi swiftly switched tack after the mujahideen takeover in 1992. It found itself networking instead with a mujahideen group that was famously rooted in political Islam - the Jamiat-i-Islami, belonging to the Afghan-based Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen, which had strong links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Following the appearance of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, India confidently took the side of the Northern Alliance. In political terms, this phase signified a wholesale embrace of Islamists, as the Northern Alliance comprised a variety of radical Islamist groups (including die-hard mujahideen groups like the Ittihad-i-Islami, which followed the Wahhabi ideology and enjoyed generous funding during the Afghan jihad from wealthy Saudi benefactors, including from Osama bin Laden). The changed rationale was that the Taliban represented the dark forces of "obscurantism" and "extremism", which posed a threat to regional security and stability. However, since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Delhi incrementally distanced itself from the Northern Alliance. Instead, Delhi began supporting the US-backed power setup in Kabul. The pro-US policy was rationalized in terms of the upcoming struggle against "terrorism" proclaimed by US President George W Bush. No one knows how much of its surplus capital Delhi ended up spending on various Afghan groups through the three decades - and, more important, what durable dividend it brought for India. Unfortunately, the Indian political system doesn't insist on stocktaking. The 59-year-old Indian parliament is yet to evolve a system of in-camera hearings, which is a redeeming feature of most serious democracies in the world, including neighboring Iran. All through the painful twists and turns, Indian policy towards Afghanistan was steeped in pragmatism and remained largely Pakistan-centric. But things seem to be changing. The horizons appear to have vastly expanded. According to Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid, Kabul is "replacing Kashmir as the main area of antagonism" between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment has convinced itself that Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies are engaged in undermining Pakistan's security. American analysts say Afghanistan has explicitly become a theater of Pakistan-India adversarial relations. But there is a much larger dimension. The Pakistani establishment is also sizing up the new geopolitical reality - the unprecedented pro-India tilt in the US's regional policy. It is having a hard time coping with the trilateral consensus between Kabul, Delhi and Washington, which pillories Islamabad as the "primary and near-exclusive trouble maker" in the region. The Pakistani establishment cannot accept that while Islamabad remains a key partner for Washington in the "war on terror", it is Delhi that is on the way to becoming a stakeholder in US global strategies. Indeed, the National Defense Strategy document released by the Pentagon in Washington on July 31 confirms the worst Pakistani suspicions. It underscores, "We [the US] look to India to assume greater responsibility as a stakeholder in the international system, commensurate with its growing economic, military and soft power." India is the only country hailed in this fashion in the entire 29-page document. The Pentagon seems to have overlooked how such a vehement US national defense strategy pronouncement citing India as a pivotal country would go down with the Pakistani generals. To be sure, Delhi finds the US doctrine to be immensely attractive. This is how the Indian elite always wanted the US to view India. But the Pakistani perspective sees the emerging regional equations as a dangerous slide toward Indian military superiority and regional "hegemony". How does the Pakistani military, weaned on adversarial feelings towards India, countenance such a challenge? First, Pakistan will assert its legitimate interests in Afghanistan, no matter what it takes. Make no mistake about it. The Pakistani generals know what transpired when American and British top brass met in Britain last month to exchange notes on Afghanistan. The conclave assessed there were huge problems with the Karzai regime's performance and the war might last for another 30 years, which is a hopeless scenario, as "war fatigue" is setting in among North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and the tide of public opinion is turning against the war. But that isn't all. From the Pakistani perspective, whereas in the past India essentially developed its own line toward Kabul, it is today acting in concert with the US. Meanwhile, India is also working towards establishing formal ties with NATO. For the first time, the Pentagon invited India to take part in the two-week Red Flag air exercise, which is currently underway in Nevada. And in September, NATO will deploy in southern Afghanistan one of its seven ultra-sophisticated Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, capable of peering deep inside Pakistan. On the eve of the US-India military exercises in Nevada, which also includes NATO participation, the commander-in-chief of Russia's air force, General Alexander Zelin, was quoted as saying that Russia's strategic bombers may soon start patrolling the Indian Ocean. A prominent strategic analyst at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of World Economy and International Relations Center for International Security in Moscow, Vladimir Yevseyev, commented that Zelin's statement was intended to "warn" India, as the US has "come to regard the Indian Ocean as a zone of its priority interests". In other words, though Indian rhetoric on Afghanistan is carefully couched in terms of countering terrorism, Pakistan doesn't see it that way. Instead, it views it in much larger terms as an Indian thrust, supported by the US, as the pre-eminent regional power in South Asia. In recent weeks, Pakistani military raised the ante along the Line of Control bordering the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The resurgence of tensions seems a calibrated move. Islamabad is sending some signals. Nasim Zehra, a relatively moderate, sensible voice in the Pakistani strategic community, wrote recently, "It is time for Pakistan to categorically state: enough of Pakistan bashing, enough of vacuous Kantian moralizing in a Hobbesian world, enough of the do-more mantra and enough of partisan analysis, enough of selective perceptions, enough of double standards ... Pakistan will play 'as clean as the world around it'. Take it or leave it. There is no 'going it alone' for any of Pakistan's neighbors. "No matter what anyone's GDP [gross domestic product] may be or their nuclear arsenal, we are in this mess together ... That is the message of the spreading militancy ... The region will unravel if the governments in the area and those involved outsiders like Washington do not make it a common cause to jointly work to address the causes of growing militancy. The answer lies in a regional solution." The message is simple: If Pakistan goes down, it will take India down with it. There is no such thing as absolute security. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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