The flurry of recent high level visits in the region and the impending US pullout no doubt has put Afghanistan on the front burner at least from a regional perspective. There is apprehension that India’s role in Afghanistan would diminish and India would be asked to ‘take a hike’ now that big boys are coming together to play a game that is in a different league.
Is India’s Afghan policy doomed?
Commentaries of this nature have appeared in local media. C. Raja Mohan writing for Indian Express doesn’t sound too optimistic. Of course, commentators like M K Bhadrakumar play up this doomsday scenario, primarily to scare Indian Government into ‘accommodating’ Pakistan’s demands. Bhadrakumar for one, has been prophesying about the grand and imminent victory for Pakistan’s Afghan strategy for a few years now. The victory has always been around the corner and is likely to remain so.
Much of the hand wringing and breast beating (we seem to be experts in this) over India’s ‘diminished role’ or even a strategic nightmare unfolding in the coming months may be unwarranted.
Afghan Pakistan mistrust is a result of years of Pakistani double dealing and it would be insulting Afghan intelligence to attribute it entirely to some deep Indian conspiracy. Even the Taliban fighters have been quoted bad mouthing Pakistan and its Army. Ahmed Rashid’s recent BBC article is but one example. They probably alternate between being used and using the ISI to further their own agenda. Their reluctance, even while in power, to accept the Durand line as the official Afghan Pakistan border has often been cited as an example of this mistrust and independent agenda. What is also surprising is the level of hostility towards Pakistan amongst ordinary Afghans be they villagers or educated elite. What this means is that even if Ashraf Ghani has entirely signed up for the Pakistani plan, given his own fractured verdict and shaky hold on power in a country full of ethnic and other fault lines, he is not going to wave a magic wand and transform Pakistan’s image problem in Afghanistan.
His rival Abdullah, who is “CEO” under the power sharing system worked out after last elections is much more friendlier towards India.
That brings us to the new President, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani obviously will have Afghan interests as his bottom line. He may be convinced, rightly or wrongly that being friendly to Pakistan will further that interest. He has certainly kept India at a safe distance, avoiding a visit. He even cancelled long pending arms request which India was reluctant to provide anyway. Sooner or later he may have to change tunes. This is because Pakistan will continue to play games and expect a one sided relationship where its own demands take precedence and offer nothing in return. Pakistan’s generals are in cocky mood, congratulating themselves for hoodwinking the Americans for decades. They were successful in bilking billions of dollars even as they actively sabotage American interests and lives in the region. It is likely they continue to believe this can be done for many more years profitably. If the mighty Americans can be fooled for so long, it would be even easier to do so with the Afghans who can’t even hit back.
However, not having any results to show after several months of bending over backwards to Pakistan’s demands would destroy whatever little credibility Ashraf Ghani enjoys now.
But if one were to assume that the Pakistani Army has turned a corner and is now a truly anti-jihad (which incidentally is their official motif) that makes things even more interesting and complicated. Ahmed Rashid, a well known Pakistani author and commentator is sceptical about Pakistan Army’s clout over the Taliban. They may have been stooges or useful idiots in the past, but have their own plans. They are not going to accompany Gen. Sharif to the slaughterhouse like a lamb. With support from sections of the radicalised Pakistani public, elements in the army itself and sectarian terror gangs like TTP and Al Qaeda/ISIL they may even become openly hostile to Pakistan. If anything, effort by Pakistan to bulldoze Taliban into some ‘settlement’ not entirely to their liking will only confirm Taliban’s suspicion. Getting the Taliban to agree to a compromise that also satisfies Tajik and other Afghan tribal interests would not be easy particularly for a bunch of generals trusted by no one.
Any strong arm tactic to please the Americans or soften up the Talibs for talks would probably end up making matters worse. Yet this may become the unintended collateral consequence of the airstrikes and bombings as well as hangings that have followed the Peshawar school massacre.
Although Obama administration has recently started calling the Taliban ‘armed insurgents’ and not terrorists, they are not another Indian or African National Congress simply fighting for their country’s independence. Their goals and agenda go much further. In fact pressure from even greener Islamist groups like IS would force them to adopt increasingly tough line, simply to keep their flock from defecting. Any defeat at the negotiating table, when they feel they have pretty much driven away the Americans and “won” in the battlefield, is not only unlikely but unrealistic to expect. On the contrary a victory for Taliban would not only be unacceptable to large sections of Afghan public including Pashtuns, it will have long term consequences for Pakistan’s own western provinces as well as its core interests. Islamist forces would see that as a template worthy of implementing in Pakistan itself.
America’s endless generosity?
America’s vital interests in the region have been overestimated. Unlike dictatorships like China, frequent regime changes in America makes it easy for any President to disown and walk away from the mess his predecessor has created and trumpet that as an achievement in of itself. That is exactly what Obama has been promising to voters and doing as well. Unlike George Bush, President Obama has very little ‘face’ to lose because it was simply not his war. A new President even if from the same Democratic party, assuming power after elections next year would be even more distant from the mess and would not want to invest a dollar more.
Frankly, America is least bothered as its oil dependence has dropped considerably. It’s reliance on Middle East oil is insignificant and declining by the year. It’s strategic priorities lie much further to the East and West. In other words, the Pakistani generals and their fan club members like Bhadrakumar that are expecting huge dowries and ransom in exchange for facilitating some sort of grand bargain, are simply day dreaming.
American eagerness to drop this can of worms on China’s lap is seen by some as a great victory for China and a ‘proof’ of its rise, but it is more like American companies getting rid of some dirty or dangerous assembly business to the Chinese because it makes sense.
The China hand
That brings us to China! It should be obvious that China lacks the money to spend the tens of billions of dollars Americans could spend in the Af-Pak theatre each year. It wants to make money, not throw it in a bottomless pit. It’s interests are entirely commercial and self centered. It has two main concerns – the Xinjiang issue and long term economic interests. China has never given big bucks even to its most trusted slave Pakistan, mostly confining itself to flowery words and empty promises. Commercial deals, if any, have been on terms massively in its favor.
China has been enjoying Pakistan’s ‘services’ pretty much free of charge with Uncle Sam footing the bill. It may not have any interest in funding the Afghan economy or much worse, its Army. The trillions of dollars of mineral wealth supposedly waiting to be tapped are worth a lot less for its economy given the price crash of most commodities and the global glut. It may announce a few grandiose projects, more flowery words and poetry and fund some of these projects to some extent and rapidly cut losses and get out if the going gets tough as it did in Africa. For example, its much hyped copper mining project in Aynak have not seen any investments and is simply announcement-ware.
All said, Pakistan army is nowhere close to getting what it wants and the only ‘victory’ it scores are in the political arena when it plays games with its own elected civilian leaders. In fact more than India, it is Pakistan that faces the risk of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’ scenario unfolding in Afghanistan.
As far as India is concerned, its legitimate interests merely lie in ensuring Afghanistan does not become a backyard for anti-Indian terrorists or a ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan. This is achievable in all but the most pessimistic of scenarios, even if Taliban were to share power.
In fact, it may make a lot of sense to just lie low, open a large bag of pop corns and watch the fun from a distance as Pakistan slowly finds its goose cooked to perfection in a mess of its own making.