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Marginalised India's Afghan options

By Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).
April 12, 2010 15:43 IST
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To get back into reckoning and ensure India's interests are given their due in Afghanistan, we need to evaluate a new mix of soft and hard options, writes Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

The Americans have arrived at a timetable for withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. The troops of International Security Assistance Force are to start rolling back homewards as early as July 2011, and complete it by 2015. It has also been decided to pursue the reintegration philosophy in Afghanistan; essentially a power sharing arrangement in Kabul between the current dispensation and the Taliban.

Two major conferences preceded the decision, the Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan, and the high voltage London Conference in January where the reintegration process was formally declared. India was not invited to the former and remained a bit player in the latter.

It's obvious that General Ashraf Kayani, the Pakistan Army chief, has been able to convince the US that Pakistan can organise an honourable exit for them. Pakistan's influence on Afghan Taliban being the best in the business is not debated by anybody, however, it will not be an easy task getting together the barbaric warlords and brutal clan chiefs who make the Taliban commune's loose leadership. Their cash flow through the opium trade and ability to enforce the Sharia on detractors, can barely be compensated. Notwithstanding such impediments, Americans hope to take the roads leading back home with Kayani and Shuja Pasha, the Inter Services Intelligence chief escorting them on either flank.

Of all the nations operating in that fragile country, India enjoys the greatest bonding with the Afghan populace and has a huge investment in its nation building process. A predominant influence in its political circles too, India now finds the same old Indian University post graduate, President Hamid Karzai, who had explicitly pointed a finger at Pakistan after the India embassy attack in 2008, muted and ambivalent after the gruesome February bombings of the guesthouses in Kabul. To get back into reckoning and ensure our interests are given their dues, we need to evaluate a new mix of soft and hard options.

Let's assess the limitations that we have to operate within. First and foremost is the fact that Afghanistan lies beyond an inimical country. There are no shared land borders that could have simplified logistics had Indian troops been deployed in strength in Afghanistan. Further, Afghanistan's neighbour, Iran, surely will not be allowed to provide us a staging area, though it is an important stakeholder, especially with a sizeable Afghan population being Shia. The Russians can make a difference, but may not want to reopen old wounds. The Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan cannot provide such anchorage, either.

The only base that we have in the region is the barely used asset at Farkhor in Tajikistan. It is also a tall order to contemplate maintaining a sizeable force by establishing a logistics aerobridge from Indian territory. As such, deployment of major forces is all but ruled out. However, the options do not end there.

Reviving our relationships with the erstwhile Northern Alliance or whatever is still left of it needs to be pursued simultaneous with the building of a strong ties with Central Asian nations, Iran and an impetus to our equation with Russians. The major players of the Northern Alliance have already merged with the regime at Kabul. Even if the reintegration process bears fruit, Karzai and Taliban's supreme commander Mullah Omar may not be comfortable sharing space in Kabul.

Mullah Omar, during his last stint as Afghanistan's ruler, ruled from Kandahar. If the reintegration process includes him, and it's difficult to visualise a Taliban without Omar, the lack of trust would lead to parallel centres of government -- Kabul and Kandahar. Gradually, a divisive current triggering another round of confrontation is possible. A strong Indian influence in the Afghan army, Karzai's trust in India, combined with Northern Alliance's appeal to the north, could be a strong counterweight to Taliban-Pakistan axis trying to marginalise the rest of Afghan power centres, someday.

The Afghan army is an institution we must focus on. It has a fair enough representation of various ethnic and religious sub-sects. It will also be the pillar on which will rest the stability of Afghan governance. It's time we involved ourselves far more into the training of Afghan army and especially its officers' cadre. It would be fruitful to also train the Afghan police. The Russians, it would be relevant to recall, had invested heavily in the training and equipping of the Afghan armed forces, long before they moved their forces into Afghanistan in 1979. The Chinese use military diplomacy abundantly, today.

With Pakistan supporting the terrorist outfits brazenly, there is a requirement for us to pursue hard options. The US is targeting the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership in North West Frontier Provinces very openly. Our Research and Analysis Wing also needs to justify its budget. Selective targeting of the jihadi leadership in Pakistan can be the first signals displaying the Indian resolve. And if we up the ante another level by undertaking cross-border raids to destroy terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Pakistanis will no longer be able to provide undivided attention to fighting its own terror battle and defining Karzai's ultimate surrogate status. In fact, their deployment in NWFP and Baluchistan, could well witness a dilution.

It is also a challenge for our diplomacy to convince the US that the Af-Pak problem's geographical frontiers to the east are not limited to NWFP. Since Al Qaeda is their prime target, only the Af-Pak region denuded of Al Qaeda does not eliminate the threat from the group. Al Qaeda will surely transfer its bases to PoK with the pressures building up on it in the Af-Pak region.

In fact, ISI could assist the shifting of its strategic partner's assets. Since, Al Qaeda is really far more Christians, Jews, Americans, Europeans centric, than India, the Americans need to focus on its destruction rather than relocation in Pakistan. To achieve such an objective, it is imperative that Pakistan simultaneously dismantles the terror establishments in PoK. Only then will the world be a shade safer while Indian concerns would have been addressed.

The one option that remains relevant irrespective of the route we chart in Afghanistan is to strengthen our defences. With the military emerging as the greater power block once again in Pakistan, the proximity of Pakistan army and the jihadi establishment, and a possibility of additional build up of terror groups in PoK, our military capabilities have to match the threats. And when we talk about our capability enhancement, it is not just the military, but also our para-military forces and an outmoded police establishment.

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Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).