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Not uneven, but at odds

Understanding the conflicting Pakistani and US interests in Afghanistan

In the final paper in  a comprehensive report titled Is a Regional Strategy viable in Afghanistan? released by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in May this year, Ashley Tellis presents his synthesis of the multiple interests of the regional states and their implications for US policy. Here is a long extract from his essay explaining how the discrepancies between American and Pakistani goals threatens any attempts to secure lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, the most critical U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan and one of Afghanistan’s most important direct neighbors, pursues far more divergent aims relative to Washington (and Kabul) than the high American dependence on Pakistan would lead one to assume. Although both Washington and Islamabad have gone to great lengths to publicly emphasize their shared goals in Afghanistan since 2001, a close analysis reveals deep and perhaps unbridgeable gulfs between the two countries, at least in the near term. These chasms are manifested most clearly on the core issues of high politics: defeating the Afghan Taliban and preventing its return to power in Kabul by force, and constructing a minimally effective central state in Afghanistan.

On both these counts, Pakistan’s interests differ from those of the United States. Where the first is concerned, Islamabad—or more precisely, the Pakistani military, which dominates national security decision making—views protecting the Afghan Taliban leadership and its core capabilities as essential to shielding Pakistan’s westward flanks against India. Although Pakistani policy makers certainly do not prefer to see the Taliban ensconced in Kabul, as they did before—in part because the events leading up to this outcome would be quite dangerous to their own country—they nonetheless seek a government in Afghanistan that has sufficient Taliban representation because of their conviction that such a regime alone would be capable of reversing India’s current influence and denying it any significant role in that country.

Islamabad also rejects the goal of building an effective central state in Afghanistan, because it fears that if such an entity comes to be dominated by secular Pashtuns, they would stymie Pakistan’s goal of preventing Afghan territorial claims on its Pashtun-dominated lands. Were a competent central authority in Afghanistan to be controlled by non-Pashtun ethnic groups, the disenfranchisement of Pakistan’s closest tribal allies in Afghanistan could, it is feared, leave Islamabad at a conclusive disadvantage vis-à-vis India. For these reasons, Pakistan’s commitment to supporting the U.S. objective of raising a minimally effective central state in Afghanistan is suspect. The erection of an effective central state in Afghanistan would also undermine Pakistan’s long-term goal of becoming the principal foreign adjudicator of Kabul’s strategic choices, which—whatever its justification—ends up placing Islamabad at odds not onlywith the United States, India, and Iran, but also with Afghanistan itself, when the interests of the Karzai regime, the northern regions, and the non-Taliban Pashtuns are taken into account.

The discrepancy between Pakistani and American goals in Afghanistan continues in the realm of economics as well: while Washington has a strong interest in ensuring the viability of the fledging Afghan state by restoring it to its historical position as a trade and transit corridor between Central and South Asia, Pakistan’s fear of becoming merely an appendage in the process, mainly supporting the growth of other major powers such as India, has led it to obstruct all worthwhile proposals relating to the expansion of economic intercourse across the greater South Asian region.

The foregoing summary does not by any means suggest that Pakistan and the United States are hopelessly divided on all issues: the partnership between the two countries has been particularly close on counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the indigenous rebellion mounted by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The United States also continues to rely heavily on Pakistan for the transport of dry cargo for coalition military operations in Afghanistan. But, on balance, the tension between U.S. and Pakistani goals is so acute on some critical issues that it could make the difference not only to the success of U.S. operations in Afghanistan but also to the viability of any regional approach intended to induce greater cooperation within the region.

But the money quote in the report comes from Frédéric Grare in his chapter about Pakistan:

Last but not least, Pakistan will be central in the agreement-making process vis-à-vis the present quagmire in Afghanistan. In a political environment where the political pressures to exit Afghanistan are on the rise, there is the temptation to view Pakistan as a destabilizing factor only as long as, and because, it feels threatened by its neighbors. The reality is different: Pakistan is a revisionist power and, in the eyes of India, an aggressor. It will therefore continue to feed its own paranoia. For this reason, concessions to a Pakistan that will not renounce terrorism as a means of pursuing its foreign policy objectives is likely to lead to a resurgence of the very organizations the coalition has been trying to eliminate for the past eight years. In a regional context where the political balance might have been altered in favor of Pakistan, such concessions would constitute regression and would make little sense from a security perspective.

As for the Indians, their position is perhaps best summed up by this quote from the famous British cartoonist, Ashleigh Brilliant.

My biggest problem is what to do about all the things I can’t do anything about.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a comprehensive report titled Is a Regional Strategy viable in Afghanistan?

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Shake-it-up time

India may need to act unreasonably to contain the short-term fallouts of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue.

From The Cable:

Here is a readout that Sourabh Gupta, a senior researcher with Samuels International Associates (SIA), published in the Nelson Report, a daily Washington insider’s newsletter published by SIA’s Chris Nelson. Our sources say this readout is “almost exactly right.”

Key Pakistani political demands: Non-negotiable requirement for friendly successor regime in Kabul; significant downgrading of Indian presence and influence in Afghanistan, including New Delhi’s training of Afghan military; preference for extended-term American presence in Afghanistan/strategic neighborhood, notwithstanding drawdown of forces next year.

Secondary set of political-military demands: faster delivery of upgraded weapons package; expedited payment for outstanding dues related to AfPak support operations and assistance with civil infrastructure rebuilding in frontier territories; U.S. to lay-off from Islamabad’s nuclear program (given latter’s need to ramp-up fissile material production in absence of bestowal of India-equivalent civil nuclear deal); U.S. to intensify diplomatic effort to facilitate productive Islamabad-New Delhi dialogue on ‘core’ issues – Kashmir and water (upper riparian/lower riparian) issues.

Key U.S. demands:  Islamabad to re-direct primary counter-insurgency energies against key Islamist groups based/operating out of North Waziristan (Al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban Haqqani network, local talibanized tribal warlords); unfettered drone strikes in N. Waziristan/other tribal territories to continue; expanded CIA intel. operations/listening posts in Pakistani cities – Islamabad to subsequently allow access to Taliban leaders arrested by way of real-time communication intercepts;  Islamabad to rein-in larger infrastructure of jihad that it has casually tolerated, even supported.(Emphasis added) [The Cable]

A couple of quick observations here. One, all the Pakistani demands here barring two — the US presence and the reimbursements of funds — are India-centric (as emphasised in bold above). Other than the demands of resolution of ‘core’ issues and reducing Indian influence in Afghanistan which directly pertain to India, my fellow blogger Dhruva pointed out that the demand for  “a friendly successor regime in Kabul” actually translates into an Afghan regime hostile to India, the upgraded weapons package is meant to be used against India, and the nuclear demands also explicitly list India as a reason. In contrast to the Pakistani demands which are mostly strategic in nature, almost all the US demands are tactical demands of greater security cooperation — merely an expansion of what is already happening between the US and Pakistan in that country.

Two, there was earlier only one “core” issue from the Pakistani side between India and Pakistan; now there are two: Kashmir and water. Would it be unfair to surmise that the recent Indo-Pak talks where both the countries have agreed to discuss all issues are an outcome of this US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue?

Finally, if this report of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is indeed true, and Pakistan does indeed get all its demands – then this will also have long-term implications for India because it will lead to a more aggressive and demanding Pakistan. Pakistan, if it succeeds, will have done so through its bad behaviour whereas India has long seen good behaviour as the means to achieve greater reward (such as the Indo-US nuclear deal).

Thus time has perhaps come for India to consider acting badly and shake its strategic partnership with the US up a bit. While long-term US and Indian interests will continue to remain aligned,  the short-sightedness of the current US administration in pandering to these Pakistani demands is going to hurt India in the short- to mid-term. Although not acknowledged so publicly by Washington, Indian cooperation remains critical to the success of the US plans in the region. India now needs to issue a reminder, if not a mild warning, to Washington by initiating a few unreasonable actions that would threaten to upset the US applecart in the region. That may perhaps be the only way to secure Indian regional security objectives in the short- to mid-term (which are incidentally same as the US objectives in the region). Moreover, it would also prevent the US from taking some improvident decisions that could be catastrophic for the future of the region.

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Stay the course in Afghanistan

India can not afford to run away from Afghanistan now.

If pursuit of national interest is a valid goal, then there can be no two ways about the validity of Indian stakes in a peaceful and moderate Afghanistan. Most commentators in India shirk from stating the need for India to be bold and upfront about being involved in Afghanistan, but some officials of the Karzai government have no such compunctions.

Says Moridian Dawood, advisor to the Afghan foreign minister, “India seems apologetic about its presence. It’s a regional player and must behave like one, instead of insisting on a benign presence with a penchant for staying in the background.”[Outlook]

This blogger is certain that Indian decision-makers do subscribe to the Outlook magazine. But just in case if they don’t, they must get hold of the latest issue lest they miss out on this timely advice from Moridian Dawood.

Says Dawood, “I don’t believe this is the end-game. But India, which enjoys so much popular support among Afghans, must have the stamina and patience to stay the course. It can’t afford to run away.”[Outlook]

And Dawood is perhaps right about his appreciation of the end-game in Afghanistan. Contrary to common belief in the region, if Robert Gates is to be trusted, July 2011 was  nothing more than signal from Obama to Karzai’s Afghan government to step-up.

President Barack Obama’s strategy calls for the coalition to begin turning over security responsibility to Afghan security forces in July 2011, depending on conditions on the ground.

“I think this is a several-year process,” Gates said. “The president wanted to send a clear signal … to the Afghans that they also need to step up into this fight.”[Defense.gov]

Oh, it is another matter that Karzai misread the “clear signal” from Obama and has instead started to step-down from the fight. He has since opened public negotiations with all shades of Afghan Taliban, tried to engage Pakistan and almost given up on the US. Similarly Pakistan, as Shekhar Gupta explains in the Indian Express, is behaving “as if Brand Pakistan or its strategic currency will go out of fashion the moment the military part of the Af-Pak project is over.”

As most of these stakeholders are playing a high-stakes, short-term game in Afghanistan, it is all the more reason for India to stay the course in Afghanistan. Staying on — against heavy odds, and despite significant material and physical costs — will pay India rich dividends in the future. In case of any doubt, New Delhi can do no worse than remember that old Persian saying: This too shall pass.

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Military trainers for Afghanistan

India is ideally suited to provide the military trainers that NATO needs in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan needs more military trainers — NATO has been able to provide only 541 out of 1278 trainers needed for the growing Afghan Army and Police forces — and they aren’t getting them from anywhere. Pakistan has been rather keen to provide the trainers, but NATO has been guarded in its reactions to the Pakistani proposal. And there are valid reasons for that reluctance.

The issue of regional sensitivities has been mentioned by the NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan upfront as the primary reason for their disinclination. In any case, Pakistan has favoured only one tribe, the Pashtuns, in Afghanistan and played them up against all the other tribes in that country. This, coupled with its continued support to the Afghan Taliban, has severely damaged Pakistan’s credibility among the Afghans. Moreover Pakistan army, despite all its claims to professionalism, has never been part of a real democracy and doesn’t understand the basic dynamics of a healthy civil-military relationship. A fledgling democracy like Afghanistan can ill-afford an example like Pakistan when it comes to the critical democratic principle of civilian control of the military. In addition, Afghanistan army and police forces have to be trained to fight  against Taliban, al Qaeda and other jehadis who are waging their war in the name of Islam against the Karzai government. Pakistan army, when asking its troops to fight the co-religionist jehadis on its own land, has often used the subterfuge of Pakistani Taliban being part of a Hindu-Zionist-Christian conspiracy hatched by RAW, Mossad and CIA who are hell-bent on destroying the Islamic republic of Pakistan. Can such an army ever be trusted to train the Afghan National Army?

In contrast, India suffers from none of these disadvantages. It has a professional armed force, which has been always subservient to the civilians, and which understands the constraints of operating in a vibrant democracy. Indian armed forces also possess the rich experience of conducting counter-insurgency campaigns in diverse social settings in various regions of the country, where successful security operations have often culminated in political negotiations for lasting peace. Moreover India, and Indians, have historically enjoyed a favourable reputation in Afghanistan, which has been further enhanced by India’s liberal economic and developmental assistance to the war-torn country since 2001.

But is the NATO asking India for its military trainers in Afghanistan? Going by the evidence so far, No. NATO’s anticipation of Pakistani objections to Indian involvement in military training in Afghanistan is perhaps holding it back.

Is Indian government offering its military trainers to NATO for Afghanistan? Nothing in the public domain suggests so. Perhaps, the belief that India can achieve its aims in Afghanistan by shovels alone is preventing the government from making that offer.

It is in the mutual interest of both the parties to overcome their doubts and start cooperating in Afghanistan. The earlier they do it, the better it is — for Afghanistan, for the region, and for exterminating the jehadi threat emanating from the region.

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Why is India interested in Afghanistan?

Only one reason — ensure the security and well-being of its citizens, thereby providing them with a better life.

Amidst all the hype over Indian involvement in Afghanistan and lamentations over declining India influence in that country, here is a quick check of the possible reasons that drive India’s continued interest in Afghanistan.

Let us start with the ridiculous one first. India is coveting Afghan natural resources to fuel its economic growth and thus it seeks a presence in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is not rich in minerals, oil or other natural resources. What the heck, even Bangladesh has more natural gas reserves than Afghanistan and it is far closer to India and far less turbulent than Afghanistan.

Next is the belief that altruistic motives such as India’s historical relations with Afghanistan, promotion of democracy in Afghanistan and well-being of Afghan nationals drive India’s engagement with Afghanistan. India has far deeper historical relations with Indonesia, Myanmar closer home can surely do with some democracy and there are enough Indians whose well-being should be a higher priority for the Indian government. Indian foreign policy has never, not even in Nehru’s time, been driven by idealism. And it is no different today.

Now the outrageous one: the enemy’s view, repeated ad nauseam in the Pakistani media. India wants to create its strategic outpost in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan and foment trouble inside Pakistan. But except for Rehman Malik’s bombastic pronouncements, not an iota of proof of an Indian hand has been presented so far by Pakistan. Moreover, India doesn’t need to go to Afghanistan — spend billions of dollars and lose Indian lives — to merely foment trouble inside Pakistan. It can very well do it from the Indian mainland with far lesser commitment of resources.

This argument, however, is bound to leave many people unconvinced and needs a little more deliberation. Many in India wish for a tit-for-tat policy of a Battle of thousand cuts against Pakistan now, reminiscing for the days when India retaliated to Pakistan’s fomentation of the Khalistan movement by paying Pakistan back in the same coin. But the situation in the 1980s was different: Pakistan wasn’t a nuclear power then, the jehadis were not threatening the existence of the Pakistani state, and India and Pakistan were poised geo-politically by the rivalries of the Cold War era. Today India cannot afford to trigger a condition that further destabilises Pakistan because a nuclear-armed, imploding Pakistan — teeming with jehadis and a radicalised army — is the last thing India would wish for on its western borders.

Finally, the idea that India is maintaining a presence in Afghanistan to deny strategic depth to Pakistan in case of a conventional war. Sounds good, especially when General Kayani spouts it so nonchalantly in front of the international media. But Pakistan is a declared nuclear power and the flexibility of its nuclear threshold provides Pakistan as much strategic depth as it desires, both in time and space. If there is no need for Pakistan to have that fig leaf of strategic depth in Afghanistan, then the question of India denying it the same in Afghanistan does not even arise.

Does that mean that India has no reason to stay engaged in Afghanistan and should completely pull out from there? No. On the contrary, there is a very valid reason for India to enhance its commitments in Afghanistan. India has to ensure the security and well-being of its citizens, thereby providing them with a better life. If India has to secure a better life for its population in the coming years, it urgently needs to log double digit growth rates consistently. A better security environment in the country, starting from and including the state of Jammu & Kashmir, is an essential precondition for achieving those growth rates.

Our experience of last two decades clearly shows that the trajectory of jehadi violence in India, and particularly in Jammu & Kashmir, is inextricably linked to the political and security situation in Afghanistan. The exit of the Soviets from Afghanistan coincided with the rise of militancy in J&K in 1989, and the sustained high level of violence by foreign terrorists in J&K — and terror strikes in other parts of the country — coincided with the Taliban’s reign in Kabul in the 1990s. The decline in violence and the return of normalcy to J&K occurred after 2001, when the US & NATO forces had displaced the Taliban regime in Kabul. With the perceptions of a US pull-out from Afghanistan gaining ground after President Obama’s announcement of a new AfPak policy, the recent attempts by Pakistan to send highly-trained terrorist teams and to fund organised stone-pelting in Kashmir valley reaffirms that connection between Afghanistan and J&K.

The increased threat of jehadi strikes has not been restricted only to Jammu & Kashmir but has impacted the whole country, as evident from the terror cloud hovering over various sporting events being organised in India. This kind of security situation, with adverse travel advisories issued by most western countries, dents India’s image as a rising economic power and makes it an unattractive business destination.

Thus India has no option but to do all it can to deny the Taliban and other jehadis a stable base in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, India cannot do that by shovels alone.

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Understanding the peace talks offer

Some gaps in the understanding are filled, but more questions emerge.

Too many trees have been felled and much ether used to debate the Indian offer to recommence peace talks with Pakistan. Most of the sensible debate — not the jingoistic bit of how we have been shamed by Pakistan cocking a snook at us — is predicated on the Obama plan of starting the withdrawal of US-NATO forces from Afghanistan by the middle of next year. Combine this with the proposals at the London conference of buying out the Taliban and detractors of the Indian offer for talks are convinced that India has already ended up on the losing side.

While all this seems overtly true, it just might not be the complete truth — and certainly not the final truth. It is here that this piece in Indian Express by K Subrahmanyam assists us by filling in some of the blanks. He flags two important issues. First is the course of action followed by the US forces between the completion of the surge and start of the drawdown operation.

That depends on the course of the campaign the US will launch on completing the surge operation. The purpose of buying up the pseudo-Taliban is to pacify the Afghan territory as the US forces will move closer to the Durand line and intensify their attacks on the jihadis on the Pakistani side with their drones.[Indian Express]

The Time magazine story on Operation Moshatrak to capture Marja in Afghanistan further strengthens Subrahmanyam’s thesis.

If he and his forces prevail, it will serve as the template for the far more challenging battle this summer for the Taliban capital of Kandahar, about 100 miles to the east. Success in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, would mean that McChrystal is on track to achieving Obama’s ultimate goal: to start sending U.S. troops back home in July 2011.[Time]

The second point that K Subrahmanyam notes was also pointed by this blogger earlier[here]. Let us hear it again in the words of K Subrahmanyam.

Faced with these alternatives, there is a distinct possibility of the Pakistani army getting yet another terrorist act perpetrated in India to provoke an Indian military response which can be used as an excuse to dodge responding to the US demand for action against the jihadis. …The most important issue for India today is not the purchasing campaign for the pseudo-Taliban, but how to deal with the likely Pakistani provocation to trigger an Indo-Pakistan war in order to dodge action against the jihadis.[Indian Express]

In no way can one argue that this makes an open-and-shut case for Indian offer of talks with Pakistan. This blogger is still not fully convinced of the case for talks but Mr Subrahmanyam’s piece does help us gain a better understanding of the reasons for this engagement. While concentrating on getting a better understanding of the situation is important, it is equally, if not more, important to explore and suggest ways in which India can make the best out of this engagement. That is the real challenge moving forward now.

While all this sounds fine and nice, it does leave us with a big question. Is it merely the US using India to further its goals in the region? Or is India also doing something to use the US to secure its own interests in the region? This is not a rhetorical question. Ponder.

P.S. — A couple of other related issues that must be highlighted here. They have been flagged courtesy a very vigorous email discussion with my fellow INI blogger Ananth.

One, it is now clear that the sudden surge in opinion pieces in the Indian mainstream media — albeit poorly-argued and hastily put together — asking for Indo-Pak talks was rather well-synchronised with the telephonic call made by the Indian foreign secretary to her Pakistani counterpart. It would be hard to digest that this was purely coincidental.

Two, Indian government has to handle its public diplomacy and strategic communication in a more professional manner. Although everything dealing with the nation’s diplomacy and national security can not be in the public domain — RTI or no RTI — the government owes the nation an explanation as to what prompted it to commence the talks now. A stony silence from the state is not an option in today’s time and age.

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Kipling and the London conference

British have made the mistake of paying the enemy earlier and still not learned their lessons.

From the At War blog of the New York Times:

There is talk of paying Afghan tribes to give up violence and stop fighting the American-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.

This brings to mind a poem by Rudyard Kipling about the Danegeld, a levy paid in Anglo-Saxon England in an attempt to buy off Danish invaders who were prone to raiding the coasts.

The verses were written a century ago, about a protection racket that was being run a millennium ago. Although – some progress in 1,000 years – the Danes and British are actually on the same side this time, in Afghanistan.

“It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation
To puff and look important and to say: -
‘Though we know we should defeat you
We have not the time to meet you
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.’

“And that is called paying the Dane-geld
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.”

–School History, Dane-Geld (A.D. 980-1016), 1911, Rudyard Kipling, coauthored with C. R. L. Fletcher.

What was it about those forgetting history being condemned to repeat it.

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A fantastic fantasy

Pratap Bhanu Mehta makes a valid case for engaging Pakistan, but there have to be other prongs in the strategy.

In today’s Indian Express, India’s foremost columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta makes a case against Indian military involvement in Afghanistan. He instead asks India to make bold attempts to engage larger Pakistani public opinion to meet Indian strategic goals in the region.

With Pakistan we have no option but to keep trying. Our major security concerns are linked to it. Admittedly given the stakes that parts of the Pakistani establishment have in keeping the conflict going this may not be easy. But we have also been blindsided by the allure of a strategic partnership with the United States, risking more political and military entanglement than is wise. Instead of risking so much on an uncertain American venture in Afghanistan, we would be better risking more on Pakistan, if we knew how to engage with its public opinion without sounding patronising. It is a fantasy, but not one entirely out of bounds. What would be the effect on Pakistan public opinion, if instead of being forced to accept a billion and a half of development assistance with humiliating conditions from the United States, they had recourse to five billion or so of India’s forex reserves, with only one string attached?[Indian Express]

The argument by itself is fine for Mr. Mehta himself acknowledges that the idea isn’t rooted in reality. Columnists like Nadeem Paracha and Ardeshir Cowasjee among others, have explained that the Pakistani society is deeply flawed in its structure and beliefs. The damage done to the education system during the Zia years has only exacerbated the problems in Pakistani society. To expect India to be able to engage such a society in its favour is indeed a fantasy as Mr. Mehta rightly acknowledges. But there is another non-military engagement with Pakistan that India can still seek to meet its goals.

In a feudal society like Pakistan, which has been further ravaged by Islamic radicalism, the levers of power are controlled solely by the elite in that country and not by any larger public opinion. These elites exist in various forms inside Pakistan — big landlords, businessmen, military officers, bureaucrats, media barons, judges (and lawyers) and finally, politicians. All of them have huge commercial and business interests that they hope to further by their status in the Pakistani society and government. If India indeed seeks a favourable association with Pakistan, it has to engage these elites and tie their pecuniary interests to a stable relationship with India. It is a huge challenge that can only be overcome by forging strong economic ties with Pakistan to underpin its elites’ dependency on India. Such ties shall not emanate from negotiating the long-standing proposal of a South Asia Free Trade Agreement but only from a unilateral declaration by New Delhi to provide favourable business conditions for Pakistani goods and services to compete in Indian markets without seeking a similar reciprocal arrangement for Indian goods and services in Pakistan.

However Mr. Mehta does a huge disservice to Indian strategic interests by asking New Delhi to shun all other options solely in favour of an engagement with Pakistani society. While some may consider a proposal to send Indian troops to Afghanistan to be far-fetched, there is merit in seeking a multi-vectored strategy in the region. India has always militarily supported the anti-Taliban alliance in Afghanistan, the erstwhile Northern Alliance, and India has to ensure that support even now. While such military support should be ideally independent of US presence in Afghanistan, any deployment inside Afghanistan will have to perforce take the situation on ground into consideration. Short of a military deployment, training the indigenous Afghan security forces is an option that India can certainly explore in the short-term. The third vector of any Indian strategy has to seek a larger regional cooperation with Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia to ensure that India is not isolated in its efforts to influence the events in that country.

It needs a bold columnist to suggest that India needs to engage with Pakistan when its supposedly India-friendly President is making strident anti-India noises in his ghost-written op-ed in the New York Times.

The recent upset in Pakistan over the Kerry-Lugar legislation, which President Obama signed into law and which requires the secretary of state to report to Congress on military and civil progress in Pakistan, shows how sensitive many here are to what they see as unfair treatment by the United States. It would be helpful if the United States, at some point, would scrutinize India in a similar fashion and acknowledge that it has from time to time played a destabilizing role in the region.[NYT]

United States is an elephant in the room that simply can’t be wished away as Mr. Mehta seeks India to do. India has to find ways to work alongside the US military presence in the region while continuing to secure its own strategic interests in AfPak. Shunning all other options while engaging Pakistan is as faulty a premise as becoming a subservient ally of the US to the exclusion of all other options in the region. A multi-vectored approach, that responds to the changing geo-political landscape while aligning itself to existing ground situation is thus the only way ahead for India.

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India-Russia contrast

Differing outcomes to similar importance of Russia and India to US interests in Afghanistan.

Well, Holbrooke might not have been welcome in India for some months now but he and his team have been in Beijing and Moscow in buildup to the Obama announcement. Russia’s importance to the US efforts in Afghanistan is not limited to Russia’s pre-eminent role as a regional power or its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia is critical to US for providing logistics supply lines to meet the recently announced military surge in Afghanistan.

While the issue of enhanced logistical supply lines for Afghanistan might not have received adequate public attention in wake of the Obama announcement, it would certainly have been debated vigorously in the White House and the Pentagon. Although Pakistan has been hosting the majority of the supply lines for US-NATO forces inside Afghanistan since 2001, the US would be wary of expanding these supply lines there to increase its dependency on Pakistan any further. Even though Pakistani sensitivities (and its reluctance to support the US troops in Afghanistan) may be furnished publicly by the Obama administration as guiding its decisions on supply lines, the reasons are far more practical. In last few years, the US has been armtwisted many times by the Pakistani military-intelligence-jehadi setup by disrupting the supply lines every time the US has ratcheted up the pressure on Pakistani military to do more against the jehadis. Moreover, it is equally pertinent to note that the Pakistani jehadis earn a big share of their funds as protection money for guaranteeing safe, secure and reliable supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan. It is for both tactical and financial reasons that the US administration would want that the incremental supply lines are not posed on the Pakistani territory.

Russia, with its willingness to help the US meet its aim in Afghanistan, can thus claim to be a real stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan. India, in contrast, is limited to grandstanding and pumping in developmental aid in the war-torn land while eschewing any physical military support in Afghanistan that the US so desperately needs from India.

What we are left with then are banal statements from Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh such as this one at the Joint Press Interaction with President Medvedev in Moscow

We also discussed regional issues, including the situation in Afghanistan. Both India and Russia have an interest in a stable, prosperous and moderate Afghanistan, and we have agreed to regularly consult each other on this important issue.

We have also agreed to enhance our cooperation to meet the grave challenges of terrorism and religious extremism that emanate from our region and threaten both our societies.[PIB]

While such statements make for a great soundbyte, they means little unless backed by concrete action on ground. Unless one sees some movement to forge a worthwhile regional initiative involving India, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, or an unilateral initiative by India to share the US military burden in Afghanistan, such talk will have to be dismissed merely as hot air.

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Guest Post: Flavours of the season

[Guest blogger, BeeCee weighs in with his observations on the Indian options in Afghanistan.]

Till Obama’s Nobel Prize, Af-Pak strategy of US was definitely the flavour of the season. The theatrics over the Kerry-Lugar bill is merely part strategy and part consequence of the strategy. The trouble with strategic analysis and analysts is that it is more often a case of situating the appreciation rather than the other way around. There has been no dearth of opinions on how to tackle the diminishing US reach in Afghanistan. But what has caught one completely by surprise is the reported support from India for dialogue with the ‘moderate’ Taliban.

I shall not go into an analysis of why the MEA suddenly thinks that US –Pak interests are more important than Indian interests. That is for those who support the move, but I will just try to recapture some of what happened in the past that could be a guide to the future.

  1. Afghanistan now as Vietnam then or Soviet occupied Afghanistan – In Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, North Vietnam and Taliban were backed materially and financially by outside powers. Comparing the present situation with those days and an even stronger US/ NATO with an isolated Taliban (even with support from some elements in Pakistan) is merely looking for an excuse to vacate the scene of action.
  2. American difficulties on ground – Nothing new about this. Public memory may be short, but weren’t they in a worse situation when ‘Enduring Freedom’ commenced and it was the Northern Alliance that came to the rescue and overran Afghanistan for them. There was also a lot of pressure from this side of the Durand Line to prevent the NA from taking Kabul and marching on to what they regarded as the ‘real’ Afghan – Pakistan border. If they were not prevented then, we probably wouldn’t be stuck with the present situation. Anybody remembers the panic to evacuate Pakistani military personnel from the cities when the NA marched south?
  3. Co-opting Moderate Taliban – Admittedly, Taliban may be a misnomer for some of the groups who have their own local identity and may have joined up to fight ‘outsiders’. But to call them good or moderate is stretching it a bit too far. Shouldn’t the obvious candidates for co-option be elements in the NA who may be holding back? I may be wrong, but co-opting is done by the stronger of two parties and US/ NATO could have done it when the Taliban was in disarray. Now that the Taliban are on the ascendant, if the two work together, who’s co-opting whom? Most importantly, moderate to US-Pak need not necessarily mean moderate in India’s lexicon.
  4. Indian boots on the ground – In addition to the difficulties in logistics pointed out by comments in PE, proponents may do well to remember Gen. Mathew Ridgeway’s advice to President Eisenhower, “It’s easy getting in, the problem will be getting out”. And would this be a military operation or a MEA and MOD side-show? The Yanks and almost everyone else look at expeditionary operations in a different manner. Even the Japanese changed their defence set up in the recent past to enable overseas operations.
  5. India Training Afghan Army – Aren’t they in greater need of armed local police than an army? An Uzbek in Pashtun territory may be of limited utilty in an insurgency.
  6. Afghan Election Fraud – While not contesting the fraud, isn’t Peter Galbraith getting a little shrill. I admire his father’s (JK Galbraith) writings on economics and other subjects, but didn’t someone in India point out years ago that his close connections to the Bhutto family precluded his being a dispassionate observer in South Asia. While not holding any brief for Karzai, is this part of the build up to co-opt ‘moderate’ Taliban. For India, it may be far better to persuade Karzai and Abdullah to work together than get the Taliban in.

The bottom line is that the US and Pakistan are looking out for their own interests. Who is looking out for India’s interests? The PM seems to have come around to the view that professionals are needed in economic matters because that is a field he understands. Maybe it is time a similar yardstick is applied for matters of national security.

Afterthought – Was it the Nobel Committee’s way of getting back at Obama for refusing to see the Dalai Lama… the only recipient to have added prestige to the prize, rather than the other way around?

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