Praful Bidwai


India must open a broad-horizon dialogue with Pakistan on all issues including Afghanistan to achieve real progress in bilateral relations.


As New Delhi and Islamabad prepare to resume their bilateral dialogue, India’s policy towards its western neighborhood faces an unprecedented challenge. How India crafts its response to the complex and rapidly changing situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan will influence to a major extent the fate of one of the most volatile regions of the world, indeed a part of the crucible in which global history is being made. Rising to the challenge demands a radical reorientation of some of the fundamental premises and priorities of India’s foreign policy. Consider Afghanistan first.


A major shift is taking place in the balance of forces in Afghanistan. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces led by the United States and troops of the Afghan National Army have launched Operation Mushtarak (“together” in Dari), one of the biggest assaults by Western troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. The operation, with 15,000 troops, began with the storming of Marjah (population: 80,000) in the Southern Helmand province, a stronghold of the Taliban for many years.Unlike other military missions by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Operation Mushtarak is meant to create a new model that goes beyond the clearing of the Taliban. It aims to re-establish Afghan sovereignty by installing a civilian government, which provides public services and can win popular support and legitimacy. Over the past eight years, most cities and towns cleared of the Taliban–Al Qaeda by ISAF troops have seen the militants return and re-establish themselves. This time around, the troops will bring in an Afghan government including the police and stay on to support them. As General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander, put it: “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.”


The New York Times reported: “More than at any time since 2001, American and NATO soldiers will focus less on killing Taliban insurgents than on building Afghan citizens and building an Afghan state. ‘The population is not the enemy’, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan, told a group of troops this week. ‘The population is the prize – they are why we are going in.’ ”


This is the first time that the U.S. is paying attention to development and institutions of governance in Afghanistan – something it ought to have done immediately after the Taliban was dislodged from power in 2002. Whether this nation-building model will succeed or not is unclear. On test is the new counter-insurgency strategy proposed by Gen. McChrystal, which is the basis on which U.S. President Barack Obama recently decided to send 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan and draft another 10,000 from other NATO nations, raising the ISAF’s strength from 113,000 to more than 150,000 by August. The surge, it is calculated, would weaken the Taliban sufficiently for many of them to want to defect to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and enter the process of integration and reconciliation. The U.S. would start withdrawing troops in July next year.


Even if the strategy succeeds in the Helmand province, it is hard to see how it can be extended to the rest of Afghanistan without committing a much larger number of troops than 150,000. And public opinion in none of the 40-odd countries that have contributed troops to the ISAF – mostly in tiny numbers; for instance, one from Georgia, four from Austria, and seven each from Ireland and Jordan – favours sending more forces into a war that most people see as unwinnable. This is certainly true of the U.S., where 59 per cent of the population opposes sending more troops.


A critical issue is whether the U.S.-led forces can inflict adequate damage upon the Taliban and establish a semblance of civilian authority so that the process of integration discussed at the recent London conference on Afghanistan can become viable. The short answer is, this is unlikely given the ISAF’s record and the nature of the Afghan conflict. Thus far, the ISAF’s 113,000 troops, supported by 104,000 mercenaries, have not been able to apprehend, immobilise or kill the relatively small number of Al Qaeda men sheltering in the region – estimated at about 100 in Afghanistan and 300 in Pakistan.


Decisive numerical superiority, and supremacy in firepower – furnished by drones, laser-guided bombs, combat aircraft and all manner of other high-tech weapons – have not enabled the ISAF to prevail over the Taliban–Al Qaeda. Indeed, in parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban is advancing confidently. Most of its fighters are unlikely to join the ANA, with its low pay and morale, even if they are offered bribes, as the U.S. intends to do. Following a long-established practice, Afghan fighters are quite capable of keeping the bribe while sabotaging the ANA.


The truth is that the U.S. does not have a clear strategy to end the Afghanistan war – any more than it had when it started it. George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror was the knee-jerk response to the September 2001 attacks from an establishment with a strongly militaristic mindset, which instinctively ruled out options such as prosecuting Al Qaeda leaders in a legal forum such as the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal created under the United Nations auspices and building a new Afghanistan through democratic institutions and popular participation in a generously funded development programme – much like the Marshall Plan.


The U.S. basically wanted to punish Al Qaeda–Taliban for 9/11 and militarily neutralize them. Washington and its apologists concocted any number of rationalizations for intervening in Afghanistan, just as they did for Iraq and the former Yugoslavia – including fighting the global menace of terrorism, building democracy, modernizing a society still caught in a medieval time warp and promoting the humanitarian objective of liberating Afghan women. But as Obama put it in his December 1 speech announcing war escalation, the real objective was “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future”. This has less to do with the Afghan people than with America.


The conclusion is inescapable that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan in a horrible mess, with little assurance that the “Taliban’s momentum” can be reversed and its “ability to overthrow the government” crippled – the U.S.’ stated aims. As the Afghanistan situation evolves in its own erratic and unsteady ways, the U.S. will become more and more dependent on Pakistan, not just for logistical support but for political mediation. In fact, Gen. Pervez Ashafaq Kayani has offered to mediate by getting a major Taliban militia, controlled by the Haqqani brothers, on board the U.S. reconciliation plan.


Pakistan will seek to widen and deepen its influence in Afghanistan, including its military influence, not least because it is apprehensive of India’s activities there. It will also drive a hard bargain with the U.S. for any assistance it renders to NATO troops, including more military and economic aid. At maximum, it could ask for something akin to the nuclear deal between India and the U.S.


Threat to regional security


None of this, including a turbulent Afghanistan partly under Taliban control, bodes well for regional security. It was bad enough that the U.S. signed the nuclear deal with India, which not only legitimizes India’s nuclear weapons but allows India to expand its nuclear arsenal. By keeping as many as eight of its power reactors out of the regime of international inspections, India can annually produce an estimated 200 kg of weapons-grade plutonium from their spent fuel with indigenous uranium alone – enough for 40 to 80 Nagasaki bombs a year – besides considerably expanding its nuclear-military facilities. It would be even worse if Pakistan were to get a halfway similar license. This would spell an accelerated nuclear arms race in South Asia.


Even worse will be the consequences of heightened India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan, which is certain to keep that desperately poor, divided and war-torn country on the boil for a long, long time. That would create room for the Taliban and other extremist forces to expand, thus further destabilising Pakistan and increasing the terrorist threat to India from jehadi groups.


Pakistan is apprehensive of India’s role in Afghanistan both for bad and good reasons. The former has to do with the fact that India enjoys tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan because of its $1.7-billion civilian aid programme, universally rated as the best among all states. Unlike Western assistance, routed through layers of intermediaries, Indian aid is largely delivered without middlemen and subcontractors. It is also far more appropriate to Afghanistan’s needs and its primitive infrastructure, including bad roads, dearth of medical facilities, schools and trained professionals. By all accounts, India’s programme to train Afghan civil servants, diplomats, legislators, judges and policemen is immensely popular.


Pakistan’s good reasons for fearing India have to do with the opening of numerous consulates by India in cities where they do not have much legitimate business and the worry that these may be used to sponsor covert action and create trouble in Balochistan, for which there appears to be some evidence. It is imperative that India allay Pakistani fears and engage Islamabad in a cooperative relationship in Afghanistan. The best way to do so is to recognise that both India and Pakistan have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. India has centuries-old ties with Afghanistan based on culture, trade, music, language and food – Afghanistan is the prime source of dry fruits and heeng (asafoetida) imported by India. India also has a security stake in containing Taliban-style extremism with its domestic repercussions.


Pakistan is not only Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, with two volatile provinces at the border whose stability is vital to Pakistan’s survival. Pakistan has more Pashtuns within its borders than live in Afghanistan and has a legitimate interest in their welfare and political representation.


The recognition of mutual interests should lead to some joint participation in development programmes and containment of extremist elements. This will not be easy to achieve so long as the military remains powerful in Afghanistan and regards Afghanistan as pivotal to obtaining “strategic depth”. But India must try its utmost to put cooperation on the agenda – if necessary, by extending the scope of the “composite dialogue” and by proposing a regional summit involving all the relevant players, including Iran and China.


This means revamping India’s policy approach to Pakistan. India needs peace and reconciliation with Pakistan not merely for instrumental reasons such as freeing itself of the burden of regional rivalry, which ties India down and prevents it from making it to the Big League of nations. Reconciliation is vital for peace, security and prosperity in the region. India cannot be secure unless it is at peace, above all, with its neighbours, who must in turn be on the path of strengthening civilian democracy and inclusive growth.


India must develop a strategy of drawing Pakistan into a relationship that international relations theory terms “co-bonding”– a state of active engagement between former rivals where they tie one another down to conflict avoidance and cooperation through a number of institutional arrangements, similar to Franco-German cooperation in the 1950s and 1960s, which laid the foundations for the European Economic Community and eventually the European Union.


This sets the larger context for the resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took a welcome step towards restarting the dialogue at Sharm El Sheik last July. The initiative soon faltered. There must be no retreat now. This can only happen if India adopts an expansive approach and does not keep the emphasis in bilateral exchanges confined to terrorism and a few other issues such as sharing of river waters. The “composite dialogue”, with its established format of two plus six issues pursued since 1997, has enabled, despite interruptions, the creation of multiple forms of interaction, including enhanced exchanges between the two peoples and a better understanding of where convergence can be achieved.


This is a litmus test for India’s foreign policy. If India approaches the dialogue hesitantly, with reluctance, and for limited gains, it risks building too little confidence in Islamabad for fruitful exchanges to be possible. If it recognizes that Pakistan has been at war with itself, that jehadi groups have as much influence over Pakistan’s society as the military, that its civilian leadership is weak and constrained by both the jehadis and the military, and that strengthening the leadership demands a strategic alliance with the forces of moderation and democratization in Pakistan, then India can achieve a great deal.


It is unrealistic to expect a quick breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations. But gradual progress, better mutual understanding and cooperation – including a unilateral offer to open up the Indian market to a range of goods from Pakistan – can be achieved. Similarly, defusing military competition and nuclear rivalry is an urgent priority.


(Frontline, Volume 27, February 27 – March 12, 2010)

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