Last July, the US-led coalition forces launched Operation Khanjar with the two-fold objective of driving out the Taliban from their strongholds in southern Afghanistan and establishing the writ of the government over these lawless districts. The onslaught didn't exactly set the Helmand River on fire.
Last week, the Afghan National Army along with American and British forces launched Operation Moshtarak (means together or joint in vernacular) to dislodge entrenched insurgents from the Taliban citadel of Marjah in Helmand province, especially from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah and the poppy-growing tracts thereabouts. This is a foray right out of NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal's long-planned military offensive. The idea underpinning the military 'surge' is to establish control over large swathes of the south and east of Afghanistan, and then to transact with the Taliban from a position of strength to ultimately enable Uncle Sam to 'exit' the badlands with some dignity intact.
India has invested much in the reconstruction of strife-torn Afghanistan, and has been jostling for influence there. Rightfully, as Afghanistan is also our gateway to the hydrocarbon-rich Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
A notion has gained currency lately that Pakistan has artfully manouevred to upstage and marginalise India in the recently held Istanbul and London conferences organised to outline the endgame in Afghanistan. In fact, the Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was so chuffed and gung-ho that he shot his mouth off -- that his army was and is India-centric and therefore entitled to 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan.
Kayani obviously expects his army to reap the bumper benefits of bearing and rearing the Afghan Taliban, especially the Jalaluddin Haqqani band. Simply put, Gen Kayani has a two-pronged strategy up his sleeve: One, to bridle Indian influence in Afghanistan, and two, to conserve Pakistan's 'strategic assets' (the rabid jihadi elements inimical to India). This is no state secret but making it public so brazenly did raise a few eyebrows.
No doubt Pakistan has milked its geopolitical 'indispensability', and has now begun to take advantage of the West's war fatigue and lily-livered President Obama's Afghan strategy rather rapaciously. That the star of China -- Pakistan's godfather -- is on the rise has definitely emboldened Gen Kayani to inveigh against India on Kashmir and the Indus waters treaty.
Kayani's verbal and body language also bespoke of Pak army having outsmarted India. Really? Should New Delhi feel outmanipuated? Will India be reduced to a sulky bystander in this game? Will the Pak army erase Indian footprints in Afghanistan?
No. Although Pakistan has stolen a march over India through deft footwork, the situation in Afghanistan is actually very fluid and everything will depend on the course of the military surge, and therefore India needs to keep an ear to the ground and act adroitly as the events unfold.
The Pak army chief's unsubtle and arrogant triumphalism is apparently to betray him having secured vital concessions -- as payback for his country's 'selfless' contribution to counter-terrorism -- on Kashmir, suzerainty over Afghanistan and an imminent unchaining from the nuclear doghouse. Mind game, psywar, you see.
Consider this: Since the US forces cannot be seen to vacate Afghanistan with their tails tucked between their legs, they have to notch up few visible conquests to enable them to declare victory and vamoose. So the US has tagged the top jihadi groups to quell. It's no coincidence that all these groups are the proteges and brothers-in-arms of the Pak army. When the surge moves nearer to the Durand Line and beyond into Pakistan, the US will prod the Pak army to target these jihadis on the run.
If Gen Kayani doesn't comply, the US could intensify drone strikes inside Pak territory complemented by ground assault augmented by covert operations by Blackwater agents (Xe Services private military company), even withhold civil and military aid. If he does the US bidding grudgingly, the betrayed jihadi groups could retaliate by targeting his army and the Pak cities. Therefore, Gen Kayani could well find himself between a cannibal and an ogre! Yes, the Pak army could well stew in its own juice.
Once up the dung-filled creek, how can the general wade out of it? Provoke India with another major terrorist attack (or a series of strikes like the recent Pune German Bakery blast), compel India to threaten a military riposte, which can then be parroted as an excuse to remobilise his forces to the eastern border and thereafter duck taking on his jihadi proxies.
Just last month, the visitng US defence secretary Robert Gates had warned India of a major terrorist strike. Well, as we saw above, you don't have to be a clairvoyant or the defence secretary to forecast that.
The rise and rise of the Pakistani Taliban --- currently battling the Pak army -- who are umbilically coupled with their Afghan counterparts, should keep Gen Kayani looking over his shoulder every now and then.
Besides, the Pak army is its worst enemy, for it has unfailingly squandered all its tactical gains through strategic blunders, the prime example being its inability to consolidate its sway over Kabul despite the Taliban interregnum between 1988 and September 2001. Further, history is against it; the Pak army has never proved its capacity to win either war or peace.
Moreover, the bilateral equation with Kabul, the well-cultivated relationship with various ethnic denominations and some tribal chieftains, and the bounteous goodwill of Afghans should stand India in good stead.
However it isn't as rosy as it sounds; the Pak army is a wily, formidable foe, capable of wrong-footing New Delhi on the path ahead that is paved with thorns, grit and RDX. As foreign policy analyst Dr Raja Mohan advocated, New Delhi must hold its nerve and play a few mind games of its own. And spice it up with double bluff to keep the Pakistani generals eternally confounded.
Soon the Western powers will begin shopping for the 'good' Taliban. (If the world has to engage the Taliban, what is the point in collaborating with the fringe players? Shouldn't it be engaging the big daddies?) India ought to carefully assess the flux in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and refashion her Afghan policy accordingly. The first step was to infuse a new lease of diplomacy (foreign secretary-level talks slated for February 25) into the bilateral equation, which should avail India some elbowroom to deal with Pakistan after the next Pak army-instigated terrorist act.
The Great Game, which historians date back to 1838, is a coinage for the original contest between the British and Russian empires to assert control over Afghanistan and Central Asia. Nobody has ever won the Great Game. Given what is at stake now, it couldn't get more riveting.
Epilogue: A curse of the subcontinent has been the double-dealing of powers extrinsic to the region. When India is wounded by a terror attack, they arrive in droves, listen to our leaders whinge about the dastardly designs of the Pakistani army and its ISI, nod their heads, shed crocodile tears and vow to show up the perpetrators. Since they need the Pak army to grind their axes, these very powers overindulge and arm the Pak army to the teeth, telling Pakistan that it needs an all-powerful army to browbeat and inhibit India.
Given the current churning within Pakistan, one only hopes that the people of Pakistan will comprehend the folly of having its army chief as the self-appointed arbiter of their future.
M P Anil Kumar, a former fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force, is a frequent and distinguished contributor to these columns.