The Afghan Spectre
There are complex and ticklish developments that concern India’s Afghanistan policy. There are reports, although still unconfirmed, that Pakistan may have released some hardcore top-level Taliban leaders including Mullah Nooruddin Turabi to appease the Afghan President Hamid Karzai who maintains good equations with them so that his government can settle down by dint of an understanding with the Taliban after the withdrawal of the United States-led NATO forces from Afghan soil in 2014. The development is worrisome for India as it clearly indicates that Pakistan has now decided to make another complex move to secure a strategic depth in Afghan affairs by trying to come close to Hamid Karzai. There are indications that Abdul Ghani Baradar, the right hand man of Mullah Omar, the head of the Afghan Taliban, might also be released soon. It is to be noted that Pakistan had imprisoned Baradar only to spike a settlementat that the latter had been trying to strike on behalf of the Afghan Taliban with the Hamid Karzai-led government bypassing Pakistan.
In the Afghan jigsaw puzzle it is now extremely difficult to figure out who stands where and it may result in a quagmire when the NATO forces would pull out in 2014. The US does not want to lose Pakistan which, it considers arguably, to be a frontline ally in its war against Islamic terrorism. This became amply clear when General McChrystal, the now deposed US army general, expressed concerns about growing Indian political and economic influence in Afghanistan and opined that this would only increase regional tensions and is likely to result in Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India. Neither the US nor Pakistan can do without each other and this is the reason why Washington has recently sanctioned a hefty financial grant to Islamabad in spite of the latter’s neck deep connection with the Al Qaeda and Taliban. On the other hand Pakistan has also been extending cooperation to the US, including the right to the CIA to use an airbase, for carrying out drone attacks while outwardly maintaining sham opposition to it.
It is now a million dollar question whether India can safeguard her interests in Afghanistan. Russia is wary of any influence of Pakistan and Islamic fundamentalist outfits in the Central Asian states which are legitimately considered by Moscow to be its backyard. Russia favours a regional initiative which would involve, besides itself, Iran, China and India, for solving the Afghan problem. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, realises that he cannot do without the Taliban and Pakistan after 2014. That is why he had expressed earlier that while Pakistan is a conjoined twin of Afghanistan, India is just a friend. China has already dug up its heels deep inside the Afghan situation. For quite sometime it has been enjoying good relations with the Taliban as well as the Hamid Karzai led coalition. While it had struck infrastructure agreements with the Taliban when the fundamentalist outfit was in power, it has expanded cooperation deals with the Karzai government as well.
For India a critical moment has arrived. So far New Delhi had restricted itself to extending infrastructural help to the Afghan government mostly in the field of road networks, information technology and health care systems and it has already invested more than $ 2 billion towards this purpose. But very recently the Karzai administration has sought military help from India in the wake of continuous border wars between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Pakistani army from July to September, 2012. The Afghan government has requested for medium trucks capable to transport 2.5-7 tonne cargos, bridge laying equipments, light mountain artilleries and air support capabilities for the Afghan army.
Whether New Delhi will utilise this opportunity is open to question as till now there is not much indication that the Afghan request will be fully honoured. But this risk is worth taking as it would not only give India a firm footing in post 2014 Afghan affairs but would go a long way towards checkmating China which has been spreading its tentacles very fast in Afghanistan. Obviously Hamid Karzai is a harried person now. He cannot trust Pakistan which is the principal prop of the Taliban. His relation with the US is sour to say the least because the Afghan President always recognises the importance of Iran in finding any satisfactory solution to the Afghan problem. The US and the NATO have agreed to foot the bill of the 3,52,000 strong ANSF till only 2017 but have already asked the Afghan government to downsize the ANSF to 2,28,500. Karzai cannot be oblivious to the security risk and the social tension that such huge retrenchments are likely to generate.
True, there can be no real solution to the Afghan problem without involving the Taliban in the negotiation process and a lot will depend whether Karzai can segregate the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan from the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. Whatever misconceptions about or charges of corruption against the Hamid Karzai-led dispensation may have been there, the fact remains that the key to a satisfactory solution to the imbroglio remains in the hands of the Afghan President and therefore his signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with India in October, 2011 is a great leverage in the hands of the Government of India. It entails Indian training for Afghan security forces and Indian cooperation in boosting the Afghan agriculture, rural development, mining, industry, energy, information technology, communication and transport. Karzai himself hails from the Pashtun tribe, the most dominant one in Afghanistan, and has a solid base among the Kandahari Pashtuns. That the West could not topple him in the last presidential election was due to his close alliance with the Ghilzais, a very powerful Pashtun sub-group in south-west Afghanistan. Therefore even if the Taliban appears in the negotiating table there is a possibility that India will stay the course with help from the Afghan President.
Indian policy-makers are now sharply divided over whether India should stick its neck out in the Afghan troubled waters and invite Pakistan’s ire. But Indian engagement, although a low key one so far, is nothing new and Pakistan has always viewed it with great suspicion. In June, 2012 New Delhi had hosted an Afghan investment summit to open up the possibility of economic development of that country. In September 2012 there occurred a trilateral agreement between India, the US and Afghanistan on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly meeting. So the diplomatic initiative is there but the point of interest now is whether India is prepared to expand its scope that may sometimes assume military proportions.
Even if India shuns the option of military help and instead focuses on its continued policy of economic and infrastructural cooperation, then even a clash with China might be on the anvil. Chinese political leadership is much more mature than that of the US. While the US is getting into one after another quagmire, Iraq and Afghanistan being two apt examples, China lands into a target country’s polity through economic penetration. This has been true with Afghanistan also and China is present there realising Kabul’s strategic location, huge mineral resources and the security vacuum.
That Afghanistan would also try to enlist China’s help for stabilizing the situation after 2014 became clear when Mohammed Karim, the Afghan Vice President, visited China recently and expressed the hope that friendship and cooperation between the two countries would continue under the new Chinese leadership. His visit was reciprocated by Zhou Yongkang, the former Chinese internal security chief, the first visit by any high-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966, who signed a number of agreements with the Afghan authorities, the most important of them being a Chinese commitment to fund, train and equip the Afghan police.
A clash of interest between India and China is therefore on the cards. Due to its massive urbanisation and industrialisation China is now in need of strategic materials like copper, iron, coal, oil and water too. In order to quench its thirst Beijing has now cast its eyes on the Himalayas and the Hindukush. It has chalked a grandiose plan to siphon off huge amounts of water from Tibetan transnational rivers including the Brahmaputra. In the same vein it secured from the Afghan government in 2007 a 30 year lease for exploiting the huge copper reserves at MesAnyak in the Logar province. The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (CMGC), in charge of executing the project, is expected to lift around $100 billion worth of copper from this site. The CMGC has already invested $3.5 billion dollar for the project and the Afghan government would reap a benefit of $300 million from it annually.
China is likely to steal a march over India in the Afghan theatre as it has a substantial reserve of hard currency which is likely to swell further due to the lucrative oil contracts that the Chinese firms are getting from the Middle East particularly Iraq. In Afghanistan too the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has bagged a contract for commercial oil production in Northern Afghanistan which would produce 1.5 million barrels of crude oil annually from next year. Moreover China is also constructing an oil refinery in Afghanistan on a 25-year contract.
There is nothing new in the latest Obama-Karzai decision to hold talks with the Taliban for finding a solution. Right from the beginning the US has been following an erroneous policy of regarding the Pashtun dominated Taliban as the sole arbiter on behalf of the Afghan people. Nothing can be further away from the truth. Afghanistan has a plural society where the Uzbeks and the Hazara Shiites comprise more than one fourth of the country’s population. There is another factor that is certain to help India in any future set up. The Mujahideen warlords of the Northern Alliance, formed during the war against the Soviet occupation army, had enjoyed open logistical support from India during the time of former Afghan President Najibullah. India’s motive was clear and quite statesmanlike—to carve out a niche for itself in future Afghan set up as there can be no solution to the problem without cooperation from these warlords. Among them Ismail Khan, Mohammed Fahim, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Karim Khalili and Rashid Dostam are extremely important as some of them are coalition partners in the Hamid Karzai-led government and enjoy Iranian support. While the Pashtun led Taliban enjoys control over the southern and eastern Afghanistan; the Uzbeks, the Shiites and the Tajiks dominate the northern and western parts of the country. It is to be noted that in the last election Hamid Karzai had got an invincible lead from the all important Amu Dariya region in the west due to his alliance with these warlords.
Therefore it may be impossible for Pakistan to elbow out India from the Afghan scene even if it can enlist China’s support. The Mujahideen warlords of the Northern Alliance are too powerful to be ignored. Even the US had taken their support to evict the Taliban from the strategically important Kunduz province in 2001. Although decks now appear to be clear after the latest round of talks between Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai for negotiations with the Taliban, Islamabad will always try to gain a strategic depth by pushing in hardliners among the Taliban as the Afghan frying pan always bears a dangerous portent for Pakistan. It would be a gross mistake to identify the Pashtuns with Afghanistan alone as a huge number of them spill over into the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan separated only by the Durand line from their Afghan brethren. But the Durand Line agreement signed between the imperial British India and Amir Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan has expired and technically speaking the Pashtun inhabited areas of Pakistan should now merge with Afghanistan, signaling a dismemberment of the former.
In order to nip in the bud any such demand both the US and Pakistan might pander to Taliban’s hawkish and dangerous demands. But what the other regional big players namely Russia, China and Iran will do? There is still no answer. But one thing is certain. The end game might be chaotic.
By Amitava Mukherjee