March 23, 2009

India’s AfPak policy must not look at US for support

By Harsh V. Pant

Mar 23 : Stabilising Afghanistan has emerged as the topmost foreign policy priority of the Obama administration and in a few days a new policy towards the region, now dubbed "AfPak", is likely to be announced. Though the details remain unclear, two aspects of the new approach have already been highlighted by various members of the administration. One involves exploiting the fissures in the Taliban and negotiating with those elements who can be reconciled to the broader objective of supporting the Afghan government in some form. In an interview with the New York Times, US President Barack Obama said that such a reconciliation in Afghanistan "could be comparable" to the successful US effort to reconcile with Sunni militias in Iraq.

The second strand of the emerging strategy is a growing focus on Pakistan with an increasing realisation that the real source of problems in Afghanistan are the Afghan-Pakistan border areas where most of the Al Qaeda leadership has relocated after being shunted out of Afghanistan. Toward this end, greater financial and military aid will be provided to Pakistan to enable it to focus more on strengthening its counterinsurgency capabilities in order to fight more effectively with the extremists. The Biden-Lugar Bill, called the "Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Bill", will soon be reintroduced in the Senate as the Kerry-Lugar Bill leading to a quantum jump in aid to Pakistan, tripling the US non-military assistance to an annual $1.5 billion while continuing the military aid of the Bush administration.

For the US and the Nato, tired as they are of their Afghan venture, such an approach makes it possible to think of departing from the region over the next three to four years. However, the way the US has so far gone about delineating its strategy makes it highly unlikely that it will be a success. It’s more likely to provoke a much more fierce regional competition leading to greater regional instability.

First, the idea that the Taliban can be divided into good and bad categories might look appealing to outsiders desperate to make an exit but to regional powers such as India, Iran and Russia such an approach is anathema. Those elements of the Taliban who might be willing to strike a deal with the West just to see the Western forces leave the region will haunt the security of regional states like India and Iran long after the Western forces would have left, just as they had done in the past. The idea that the US could do business with the Taliban is not new. This was what led the Clinton administration to turn a blind eye to Taliban’s rise to power in Kabul and its medieval practices, all in the name of good old-fashioned realism. Though former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf committed Pakistan to support efforts to stabilise Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and agreed to strengthen the Karzai administration, doubts never ceased as to Islamabad’s capacity and commitment to crackdown on terrorists and militants. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has long supported the Taliban and has aided its resurgence. Kabul remains suspicious of Pakistan, on whom its security largely depends, and has sought to cultivate Tehran and New Delhi.

The rejuvenation of the Taliban bolsters Pakistan’s role as a frontline state in the war on terrorism, securing often lucrative assistance from the US. The ISI and Pakistani military elite also see Pakistan engaged in a proxy war for influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban may be a concern to both Kabul and Washington, but Islamabad is more willing to tolerate jihadist violence so long as it is focused on Afghanistan, Kashmir or other parts of India. While the US may have no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan, so long as the Afghan territory is not being used to launch attacks on US soil, other regional states do.

Pakistan itself has struck numerous such deals with so-called moderate Islamists in the last few years, the most recent being the deal in Swat Valley. Rather than weakening the Taliban, the once idyllic tourist area is now a haven for Islamist hardliners who are wreaking havoc with impunity. A perception has already gained ground in the region that the West is losing the war and such negotiations will only reinforce the notion of the West negotiating from a position of weakness.

There is no "moderate" Taliban in as much as there is no "radical" Taliban. The goal of various factions is the same even though their strategies might differ on the surface. It is chimerical to assume that the US can negotiate its way out of the present mess by luring the "moderate" Taliban.

The other strand of the new US strategy of re-orienting Pakistan’s foreign policy is being undermined by the Obama administration’s lack of awareness of regional balance of power sensitivities. The idea in the Western capitals that India can somehow be persuaded to negotiate with Pakistan on Kashmir, allowing the Pakistan’s government to concentrate less on its feud with India and more on its turbulent western frontier sounds good only paper. India and Pakistan were close to a deal on Kashmir in 2007 not because of any outside pressure but because India was confident of the support of the friendlier Bush administration. Today, Obama administration’s clumsy handling of India so far has put India once again on the defensive and a defensive India is never going to give the US what it wants most.

It is, indeed, remarkable how quickly goodwill towards the US has disappeared in New Delhi. Small signals emanating from Washington are having a much bigger impact in the corridors of power in India than perhaps intended. It is instructive that the only context in which Mr Obama has talked of India yet is the need to sort Kashmir out so as to find a way out for the West’s troubles in Afghanistan. The talk of a strategic partnership between the two democracies has all but disappeared.

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s omission of India as part of her first trip to Asia; her assertion that US-China bilateral relationship is the most important one in the world; appointment of Jeff Bader, a China expert, as the new Senior Director of East Asia who will be looking at India; the US reluctance to make India a part of its larger strategy towards the region despite sharing a common interest in tackling terrorism and extremism from the turbulent territory between the Indus and the Hindu Kush — all this points to a dramatic re-calibration in the US approach towards India. India will have to formulate its own strategy vis-à-vis its neighbourhood devoid of any unrealistic expectations from Washington.

Washington, meanwhile, needs to recognise that a serious re-think is required of its "AfPak" strategy if it is to have any chance of succeeding. In its present incarnation, the strategy seems dead on arrival.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London


samy said...

This is a wonderful analysis and reasserts the need for India to configure and calliberate its new regional policy without having to depend upon US UK or other countries.

Deep said...

Completely agree with your opinion. Pakistani politicians and intelligence agency who are used to live on foreign money, keep making fool of US politicians. As soon as new US administration formed, Pakistani government started distributing some 'unknown trophies' to US officers as a part of 'begging agenda'. This easy money is the cause of failure of Pakistan. Pakistanis have never got the self esteem of independent citizens.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pant - Very good article and I agree with your idea that India should pursue its own regional policy that is in its own interests. The obama administration may not be as friendly to India as the Bush administration was but I do not agree that they are unaware of the regional power balances. Obama still has Holbrooke who is a South Asia expert and Joe Biden who is knowledgeable on his own right. I am pretty sure they know what India's power and interests are in South Asia. But given the current economic crisis in US, they need China more than India to survive that crisis. I think thats the rationale for their focus on China at least for now.

I dont think NATO or US forces will leave Afganisthan. It is in such a strategic location with proximity to China, Iran, Russia and India they will always have base. Their strategy to negotiate with moderate Taliban is a good one. I am not saying moderate Taliban is good, but they have to start some where and seperating them will allow them to breaks Talibans back and they can deal with the moderate Taliban after that.

Lets assume they want to leave Afganistan. India's involvement training Afghan military and their infrastructure work there will give them a strong foothold to move in to the power vaccum as long as it can play its cards right.

The only way to solve Afpak is by closing down the militant madrasas that are churning out new fundamentalists every day through out Afpak area and by genuine socio-economic development. Even if no new fundamentalist graduated from these madrasas, the fundamentalism in the ones that already graduated and occupy the social and political infrastructure along with Military in this region needs to be flushed out. It will take time may be few years or a generation. When a young person has something else to do other than turning to terror for his livelyhood, terrorism will go down on its own. India need economic development in Kashmir and the anti terrorism wave should come from local people itself.