Monday, November 9, 2009

India, US and the Afghanistan Quagmire

Here's an analysis on the Afghanistan issue and the options left with India, US and other major players. The analysis appeared first on the ORF website.

Former US President George Bush, while speaking recently at the Hindustan Times leadership summit, argued that India and the US should work together in Afghanistan both to build a democratic nation in Afghanistan as well as for the larger goal of peace and stability in the region. But this will work only if India and the US have shared objectives and a shared vision for the future of Afghanistan.

While the US has reiterated time and again that securing and stabilising Afghanistan remains a vital US national security interest, in reality it appears to have a much more limited objective – ensuring that the Taliban/ al Qaeda do not use the Pakistan-Afghan territory to carry out terrorism against the US.

While it is abundantly clear that it remains an important goal to ensure that the Taliban/ al Qaeda do not use the Pakistan-Afghan territory to carry out terrorism against the US, it can be achieved two ways. One, as several US officials point out, it can be achieved through reconstruction and development of the Afghan society; and second, by putting together some sort of a coalition of forces, including the so-called moderate Taliban, thereby making them responsible partners in the governance of Afghanistan. There are many who believe that the US is actually looking at a face-saving exit option at the earliest possible. Even as early as February this year, the Obama Administration was hinting at moving away from the objective of establishing a full-fledged democracy to simply stabilizing and ensuring that the country is not a haven for terrorists. The US will be willing to get out of Afghanistan the minute they are able to stitch together a coalition of parties, including the so-called moderate Taliban, who might give a guarantee of ‘no-attacks’ for a short span of time.

However, if the US were to leave Afghanistan after putting together some sort of a coalition, what are the consequences?

One possibility is that China might step into the breech. China has vital strategic interests – economic and energy interests – driving its Afghanistan policy. The role of Pakistan in achieving those interests is significant. Gwadar port is a case in point. Gwadar port offers China the ability to monitor the transport of its energy from the Persian Gulf, and in the eventuality of some disruption, it will offer a safer alternative route. Besides, Chinese interests in Afghanistan span from natural resources to its problems with Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province. In terms of natural resources, China already has its footprint there in Aynak copper mine site. In 2007, when President Karzai invited foreign investment in the natural resources sector, China Metallurgical Group won the rights to develop the copper mine site at $ 3.5 billion. Aynak copper mine site is one of the world’s largest undeveloped fields. Additionally, Chinese companies are looking at the prospect of developing untapped oil, gas and iron resources in Afghanistan. Chinese entry into Afghanistan will also be in the interests of Pakistan, as it will keep India at a distance (at least Pakistan hopes that way). Second, Chinese entry into Afghanistan with Pakistani acquiescence will ensure that they do not come under Taliban attack. Pakistan will ensure an understanding with the Taliban that China is not there for exploitation of the country, but will be beneficial for the country for its overall development. Under such a scenario, China will gain certain amount of accommodation with the Taliban, which might also be beneficial to China in dealing with its own problem in Xinjiang. The role of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in this issue cannot be minimised. A renewed relationship between China and Pakistan/Saudi Arabia may not be in the best interests of India. In fact, this could become the new bloc of non-democracies under the Chinese leadership against the democratic world of US, India and other countries such as Japan and Australia. The possibility of China exercising better influence in these medium-sized countries, thereby reducing US role and influence in the coming decades, cannot be ruled out. The changes in Singapore is one example. Singapore, which has been a US ally, is increasingly looking to China for answers. It is even considering a change of official language from English to Mandarin. Therefore, China will not let go of an opportunity to enter Afghanistan keeping in view several strategic interests thereby achievable.

If the US leaves Afghanistan, Pakistan could also step into its place. Islamabad will use the opportunity to solidify Taliban influence across the country, thereby serving its interests and limiting Indian influence. For Pakistan, Taliban offers the best bet for countering and curtailing India’s regional influence. However, there are some Pakistan watchers in India who believe that a Talibanised-Afghanistan may not be in the interests of Pakistan. It was Pakistan which created, nurtured and sustained Taliban all through the late 1990s and early 2000s. The difference today is that Taliban is not the same “pure” Taliban as in early 2000s, but has gotten enmeshed totally with Al Qaeda and it is very difficult to differentiate today between Afghan Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Pakistan is deeply worried about the Al Qaeda factor. However, the point is that if the US leaves Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda does not really have a purpose hanging on in Afghanistan unless they want a safe haven. It is quite possible that Al Qaeda will leave Afghanistan for Africa or elsewhere where the US interests are becoming deeper because of increasing Chinese penetration.

Will Russia comeback to Afghanistan? Russian interests are to see that Afghanistan does not fall completely into the hands of Taliban, which will drag the entire country into becoming a terrorist haven. Although Russia does not share a border with Afghanistan, many of the Central Asian states do, and there are ethnic and cultural linkages between the two sides and a Taliban takeover could have negative effects in Russia that is already battling terrorism. Besides, a Talibanised-Afghanistan could, in the long-term, build the prospects for a US return not only to Afghanistan but also to several countries in Central Asia, where it will be looking for bases. Therefore, Russian interests are to ensure that there is no Taliban takeover of Afghanistan besides development of Afghanistan as a peaceful and stable country in its neighbourhood. In the development arena, there are already several Russian companies (under the Russia-Afghanistan business council formed in 2007) supplying flour, timber, sunflower oil and other products. Additionally, they are looking at exporting building technology; they are in the process of commissioning a cement factory in Afghanistan and a hydropower station on the River Salang.

Finally, what are India’s options? In the backdrop of US departure from Kabul, there will be vacuum waiting to be filled by China and Pakistan. Indian interests go beyond natural resources to seeing a stable and democratic Afghanistan that will be congenial to Indian interests. In tactical terms, Indian interests might be ensuring safety of its 4,000-odd workers and security personnel who are engaged on a number of infrastructure and other reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan remains crucial to India in other ways. India has invested $ 1.2 billion in Afghanistan for the reconstruction of the country since the US war on terror began in 2001, making it the largest regional donor. However, Pakistan continues to view India’s growing influence in Afghanistan as a direct threat to its own interests. Indian influence in the country paled as the Pakistan-supported Taliban gained power in 1996. During the Taliban period, India extended its support to an anti-Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance, mainly consisting of Tajik and other non-Pushtoon groups. Can India revive such ties in the current setting? There are several analysts who suggest that India should lend support to the non-Pushtoon Northern part of Afghanistan against the Pushtoon-dominated Southern part of Afghanistan. Some analysts have gone to the extent of suggesting that the country should be split up on these lines. Some Russians too have argued on similar lines, although they recognize that this will not be a long-term solution to several problems emanating from southern Afghanistan. While splitting the country is not in the long-term interests of India, it could probably undertake measures to enhance development in northern Afghanistan, where by the way, influence of Pakistan is also minimal. India will have to step-up its developmental activities, including construction of schools, hospitals, which will gain India significant support among the local populace. In this regard, it might do well if India manages the support of other major regional players like Russia, Iran that might like to see a strengthened Northern Alliance. While India should strive to make Northern Alliance stronger, it also has to engage with the Pushtoons, at least to gain in tactical terms. India should also canvass with the US to bring together a larger coalition of nations including Russia, China, Iran and may be some of the Central Asian states in bringing about long-lasting peace in Afghanistan. What India does today in Afghanistan will have long-term impact not only for the entire region, but for its own role as a major Asian player.

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