India’s Modi faces tough Afghan choices

Two powerful arguments, diametrically opposed to each other, have appeared in the recent days regarding the stance India should adopt vis-à-vis the leadership crisis within the Taliban following the death of Mullah Omar and its downstream reverberations, including the heightened tensions in Afghan-Pakistan relations.

Writing in the New York Times, the noted South Asia hand and author Anatol Lieven and in the Indian newspaper Business Standard, former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran have ably argued two contrarian opinions.

Afghanistan's Ghani and India's Modi at meeting

Afghanistan’s Ghani and India’s Modi at meeting

Succinctly put, Lieven argues, here, that given the looming terrorist threat to regional security, including India’s, posed by the increased risk of metastasis taking place within the Taliban and radical elements linking up with the Islamic State, New Delhi (and other major capitals such as Washington, Beijing, Moscow, etc.) is well advised to come together with Pakistan in its self-interests and the larger interests of regional security and stability.

Saran subscribes to a contrary view, here, that the breakdown in Afghan-Pakistan relations is inevitable since Islamabad never really was sincere about the peace talks and has consistently followed a diabolical policy of doublespeak. The developing scenario, therefore, presents India with a great opportunity to play itself back into the Afghan chessboard. To kickstart the new great game, Saran advises Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make “a quick visit to Kabul to register Indian solidarity”.

Without doubt, Saran may have presented a fairly accurate picture of the prevailing mood within the Indian foreign and security policy establishment, while Lieven has given drawn on his vast experience of the Af-Pak to present a realistic picture of the regional security scenario and thumb sketch India’s potential role in it as a ‘stakeholder’.

The main flaw in Saran’s critique is that he seems unaware that the Afghan cauldron is actually very muddied and the political situation surrounding President Ashraf Ghani has become very sensitive lately and could even assume an existential overtone in the period ahead.

On the other hand, Lieven’s weak point is that he completely overlooks the state of play in India-Pakistan relations. The militant ideology of Hindu nationalism that provides the bedrock of the present Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi generates a profound distrust in Pakistan regarding India’s intentions and the gung-ho statements of top Indian officials are not helping matters, ruling out all an India-Pakistan reconciliation – even tactical cooperation in the fight against terrorism – in a foreseeable future.

Actually, Lieven might not have written his Op-Ed if he had the occasion to read Saran’s piece (which appeared a week later). Nor is it likely that Saran read and reflected over Lieven’s thoughtful piece.

Would Modi take Saran’s advice and make a quick dash to Kabul to throw in his hat in the AfPak ring and offer to take Ghani’s fight right into the Pakistani camp? I hope not.

The point is, there is a dangerous fluidity in the political alignments in Kabul. To be sure, Ghani was taken by surprise when sections within the Afghan establishment broke the news of the Mullah Omar myth on the eve of the second round of the peace talks in Pakistan.

What it points at is that there are serious limits to Ghani’s writ in Kabul. Ghani is saddled with a security establishment from the previous presidency of Hamid Karzai – in fact, the spy chief of the Karzai era still keeps his job – which never really accepted his policy of rapprochement with Pakistan or his efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks.

Just when it seemed that an understanding on a ceasefire might be within sight via the peace talks, the hardliners in the Kabul set-up struck. It was a masterly stroke as it threw the Taliban into great disarray, scuttled the peace talks, humiliated the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (which retaliated with the devastating bomb attacks in Kabul) and eventually forced Ghani to ride the wave of Afghan nationalism.

In the perception of the hardliners in Kabul, the politico-military situation is ideal today to push for a military solution now that the Taliban is a weakened entity and its narrative has floundered.

Typical is the remark by the old Tajik war horse Atta Mohammed Nur who thinks that “defeating the Taliban is a very real possibility now.” Another warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum has alleged that Pakistan’s ISI is solely responsible for the ongoing violence in his country.

Interestingly, both Atta and Dostum hold official positions – the former is the governor of Balkh province and the latter is the first vice-president of the country. And they also happen to be the most powerful warlords in Afghanistan.

In essence, they have publicly endorsed the thinking of the hardliners in the Afghan Intelligence National Directorate of Security headed by Rahmatullah Nabil (who is known to have resisted Ghani’s move to forge a security pact between his agency and the ISI.)

Suffice it to say, it pays to look ahead and visualize what all could happen if the war lobby in Kabul prevails.

Obviously, there is no military solution to the Afghan problem. But a prolonged brutal war is possible. Who stands to gain?

Ghani has no military record. He commands no militia, either. Besides, he also lacks a political constituency of his own, having been catapulted to power by the Americans on the back of an amorphous coalition of Pashtuns and Uzbek tribes and with the help of Pakistan.

In a protracted war, Ghani will be aspiring to command tough wily war horses like Atta and Dostum, who are not known to be amenable to discipline and invariably would have their own private agenda.

It is not hard to see that at some point Ghani will become expendable. In sum, Afghanistan’s political system is in serious jeopardy of being destroyed if the war continues.

Therefore, Ghani’s interests are best served by resuming the peace talks. Fortunately, his political interests also coincide with his country’s. There is no real alternative to reconciliation with the Taliban. Lieven is spot on when he writes,

“U.S. leadership is essential. President Obama has laid out the basis for an accord by developing a working relationship with all the countries of the region.

“Bolstered by the fact that Russia helped the United States reach a nuclear accord with Iran, the collective interest in fighting ISIS offers another opportunity for international cooperation. Nations like the United States, Russia, India and Pakistan may have differing interests, but the Islamic State represents a threat to modern civilization itself — and to the goals and aspirations that these states, each in their own way, share”.

Most certainly, what Afghanistan doesn’t need is more of the ‘great game’. India should not try to fish in the troubled waters. As a responsible regional power, its role should be to heal the Afghan wounds, not to feast on the blood that oozes out of them.

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Categories: Asia Times News & Features, M.K. Bhadrakumar, South Asia

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