The US President has spelt out the much-anticipated US Policy for Afghanistan and South Asia. Expectedly, there are enough divergent views expressed within the US and elsewhere. What does it hold for India?
To recall, the substantive issues are: The policies are to best serve US strategic interests; the US commitment is “condition-based” and not time-bound; nation-building is not an agenda; and finally, there will be greater operational freedom to the US military.
At its core, the policy is the same as enunciated since 2009. Then, as now, it emanates from a fundamentally flawed acceptance of where the root of the problem lies and where the terrorism network is. It is a US dilemma, which it either is unprepared to address or feels inadequate to control the consequences.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the strategic community and the world in general referred to this geo-location as the Af-Pak region — the Al-Qaida had its roots there and the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan from 1996, with both organisations straddling the Durand Line. During 2001-03, when Al-Qaida was smoked out of Afghan caves and the Taliban defeated, the core of their leadership and the centre of terrorist activities shifted to bases in Pakistan.
The genie took roots with state patronage, as the world now knows, emboldened by Pakistan’s recognition of US compulsions in Iraq and their mutual bonhomie in playing dirty tricks in the years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. As a result, the war in Afghanistan was not pursued to its logical military end.
Since then, the bigger cause of the region’s unrest and export of terrorism is Pak-Af geo-politically and geo-strategically. Unless the US deals with Pakistan, it cannot win in Afghanistan. If the policy is not directed at where the problem is, the US can spend another 16 years and a trillion dollars more, but will only be “Bush pruning” and “Trump cutting”, while the fundamentals of the problem continue to feed and take deeper roots in Pakistan.
The US reluctance to even refer to the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai carnage and yet expect India to be a substantial partner must be deeply analysed. The obvious question is: What are the US’ long-term strategic interests in the region that it seems to draw its own “Lakshman Rekha” in its dealings with Pakistan, and how far do they converge with ours? Also distinct is a lack of reference to any regional involvement and cooperative mechanism to reach the envisioned end.
India continued its people-centric economic activities in Afghanistan, even when the US and other regional stakeholders kept New Delhi out of the deliberations till a few years ago. For a security-socio-economic situation as in Afghanistan, keeping activities of nation-building exclusive of military operations is fraught with danger. This is especially when the US, wielding the military power, expects others to do the “winning of hearts and minds”.
This takes more credence given that the US commanders on the ground now have greater flexibility in the use of kinetics and the reported increase in troops. And if the US is there only to kill terrorists, the type of troops surge may indicate the way: Is it anywhere on the broader Pak-Af region or selective, as Pakistan is? The Durand Line is not accepted by Afghanistan, not even when the Taliban was in power, and the terror that straddles that region must be dealt with as such.
While we may appreciate the US identifying Pakistan as a part of the problem, its reluctance to deal with it undermines its own policy; logistics dependence, while true, is not certainly the insurmountable reason. There must be a substantive long-lasting cooperative mechanism prior to our deep alliance with an only US initiated policy. With a purely operational outlook, where is the strategy for peace?
However, these are opportune times, and to be counted, we must step up and play our role consistent with our aspirations. We must also learn to play the big game and operate in conditions of ambiguity, in pursuit of our national interests. In Afghanistan, one such abiding strength of ours is the Afghan people; the role we choose to play must nurture and not undermine that strength. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).