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Sunday, June 30, 2013

India's Turn In Afghan Chessboard

The pieces have been re-positioned on the Afghanistan chessboard, there are too many indications that a new round of game may have already started.  NATO handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces signaled the transition but Taliban setting up its “embassy/office” in Qatar and US attempt at having direct talks with Taliban representatives has left many state actors  apprehensive.  The US move does indicate the fact that the US and its Western allies are determined about quitting Afghanistan. It eerily reminds one of an identical situation in the region when Soviet forces withdrew and Afghanistan plunged into a bloody civil war. If US exit can be a cause of concern for India, it may also offer a window of opportunity to reshape its Afghanistan policy maturely.  This time it remains to be seen what approach Pakistan would take in the rapidly changing scenario. Most likely, Pakistan would like to maintain its military domination to consolidate its geostrategic depth, a core element of its defense policy. But this time, it wouldn't be as easy.


For starters, the Taliban is no longer the ally, numerous attacks by Pakistani Taliban has turned the public opinion vehemently against the militant organization. Given track records, elements with Pakistani Army and the ISI may continue assisting Taliban directly or through proxies like Haqqani Network but it would be suicidal for both Pakistani civilian government as well as its West-leaning armed forces to rearm the Taliban as before.  However, without Taliban and other Islamic radical groups, Pakistan cannot hope to regain the foothold it prior to 9/11. Despite sharing the same religious and cultural values as well as ethnic groups, Pakistan and Afghanistan are not exactly “brothers” as Hamid Karzai says at times. This very month, Afghan ambassador to the UN accused Pakistan of harboring terrorist camps on its soil, a charge India has been making since last three decades. This was neither the first nor an isolated incidence; Afghan government officials have been routinely making similar statements.

  And it is not about terrorists only, the Durand Line demarcating the two countries has been a contentious issue with skirmishes breaking out in some instances even in the midst of war against militants operating on either side of the line. However, there is no assurance that members of Afghan government wouldn't buckle to Pakistani pressure or get lured away. It is not uncommon in the Indian Subcontinent as well as Afghanistan. Another probability is Pakistan sponsoring another group or political party with no visible ties with Taliban or incumbent government.   The bottom line is- Pakistan attaches a great importance to its hegemony over area and is unlikely to cease attempting to achieve it. But politics in South Asia tends to be very unpredictable; depending upon ruling regimes is a risky affair, engaging the people is a much better alternative. For the Afghans it is not difficult to see that Pakistan’s policies are driven to ensure its military objective is safeguarded, it doesn't concern much with infrastructure development, education, healthcare and other areas that directly affect Afghan people.4

Rambo III :Stereotyping Afghans
  India's strategy during the civil war, backing ethnic minority militia perhaps based on assumption that majority Pashtuns would ally with Pakistan rather than India. Sure, they have a lot in common with Pakistanis, but they are a different nation and one in which Pakistan’s interest is served mostly during violent conflicts.  Stereotyping Pashtuns as fierce fighters, religious orthodox, chivalrous and for whom violence is a way of life may have helped the latter. In fact, it has been romanticized in several Hollywood and Bollywood movies,subtly reinforcing the belief. While this image is not completely wrong the implication that any understanding with them has to be in military terms (mostly Pakistani Army negotiates with them not civilian leadership) is certainly wrong.

Bacha Khan
 It is conveniently forgotten that one of the most popular Pashtun leader during the freedom struggle, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan is also referred to as Frontier Gandhi for his adherence to the doctrine of non-violence and close association with Mahatma Gandhi. Such was his popularity among Afghans that when he died in 1988, both communist army and mujahideen declared a ceasefire to allow his burial. Bacha Khan’s party Khudai Khidmatgar, which too was founded on the principle of non-violence ruled the then North West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) from 1920 to 1947. Khudai Khidmatgar was aligned with Congress rather than Muslim League and opposed the partition of India, after the Congress accepted it without consulting Khudai Khidmatars, a dejected Bacha Khan told the Congress
You have thrown us to the wolves1
Mahatma Gandhi and Frontier Gandhi
This statement was almost prophetic since the region now is in middle of an enormous strife and it is Pakistani leadership that is to be blamed for the state of affairs which used them as strategic asset during the height of Cold War.  As US-Pakistan Cold War strategy against Soviet Union, the radicalization and arming of Pashtuns during Zia-Ul-Haq’s regime paid off well but the region and its people were put on a regressive path. It is indeed ironic that in 2012 , fourteen year old student and education activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the same region in which Bacha Khan had been advocating empowerment of women through education, in 1910, little more than one hundred years earlier.  India may have no role to play in territories belonging to Pakistan (which Afghanistan claims as its own) but it is already present in Afghanistan and has earned enough good-will from the Afghan people. Should the region destabilize once again, India should attempt to keep relationship with the Afghan people alive, disregarding ethnic divides. 


 India’s advantage in such a situation is its soft power – financial assistance, helping set up democratic system  
and cultural exchange. It has already invested a lot of money and resources in infrastructure development in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, India is the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan and refuses to get embroiled in the endless cycle of violence, in the war-torn country3. If anything, India's contribution is more on the lines of healing, not scratching the wound. As per media reports, Indians have been able to win a lot of goodwill among the Afghan people. Further, Indian movies,music, soap operas being hugely popular in Afghanistan not only points the cultural similarities but also the fact that people to people contact can build bridges where regional politics imposes restrictions2. With Taliban gone, there is relatively lesser censorship, but nonetheless it  is still there. Karzai government should make effort to minimize it if it views India as a friendly nation. 
   
 Other stake-holders in the region, especially Pakistan and to some extent Iran and Russia seek military objectives leveraging hard power but if India’s soft power has worked well all these years, it should help even during armed conflict, backed by hard power of course.  Afghanistan really isn't a grand chessboard, it is a land with people trapped in the power game. It would be perhaps the first time that resurgent India could play a role befitting its aspirations of being a global power with a permanent seat in UNSC. A friendlier Afghanistan would also go a long way in helping India’s security concerns. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking looking at how India’s foreign policy has lately been but if the situation arises and India follows the trodden path, this would be the third time we would be throwing prospective allies to the wolves.      

More Info:

  1. Fakhr-e Afghan Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan,Frontier Gandhi)
  2. You can't escape violence or Bollywood in Afghanistan: Khalid Hosseini
  3. Afghanistan-India Relations
  4. Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations


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