If the grand design of the Manmohan Singh government is to forge peace with Pakistan as a liberating step in our sub-continental rivalry, India should surely be more understanding of Pakistani sensitivities in Afghanistan and its larger paranoia. Can a nation which has been done in once in the past, of course largely by its own blunders but also with some strategic help from India (the creation of Bangladesh), afford on its Western borders a government which is seen to be kowtowing to India? Much of this haranguing about strategic depth is nothing but a desperate desire in Pakistan for a friendly dispensation on its West, so that it is free from the fear of being destabilized from the rear. India’s good friend Hamid Karzai himself has alluded to the reality of the triangular matrix by describing Afghanistan and Pakistan as “conjoint twins” with India being a mere “friend.” In the dance for influence and power, therefore, why not gracefully allow the “twin” a larger role? Unless of course there are overwhelming compulsions of national interest, in which case we must recognize the prevalent hardball, take necessary risks and act with far greater persuasion and resolve so as to apply soft and hard power in an appropriate mix to get a foothold in the emerging power dynamic. The problem with India’s posture is that we seem to be shying away from the existing realities and simply hoping that economic engagement alone will secure our interests. It takes some strategic innocence to aspire for influence in a country as dangerous, conspiratorial and bloody as Afghanistan, without being willing to muddy our boots. And it is plainly ridiculous to expect Mr. Jayant Prasad and a lone military attaché to match the power and guile of Jallaluddin Haqqani and Shuja Pasha. If we seek greater influence in Afghanistan, we need to recognize the salience of military drivers therein and leverage our capacities accordingly. And if we are unwilling or unable to do so, simply and gracefully stay out. The reason we seem to be falling in between two stools is because we seek influence while being unwilling to take attendant risks (reiterating our resolve to stay engaged times without number, without spelling out as to how precisely we shall secure our interests).
India’s engagement in Afghanistan has been based on a set of soft choices - economic, infrastructural, developmental and humanitarian assistance (an estimated 4000 Indians are involved in the reconstruction effort with an investment of 1.3 billion dollars) with security guarantees coming from the Karzai government and its infantile tools. We eschewed a more deterministic military role for ourselves, even though short of direct military committal we could have done much more to shape the security dynamic in Afghanistan. We could have opted for greater involvement - through some direct military diplomacy and a broad based training commitment for instance (a stake in the planned training of 300,000 ANA/ANP personnel by 2013 is of course a gargantuan challenge but also a huge opportunity), so that we had friends, linkages and far greater leverage in the emerging security framework, but we chose not to. There were many who had cautioned against the adoption of this effete strategic outlook, whereby, even as we kept on enlarging our civilian engagement we did not do enough to shore up attendant security concerns, but we hung on to our bravado. There were others who advocated keeping channels open with some elements in the Taliban leadership but their calls went unheeded, defying not only common sense but also mathematical logic. The Taliban, it bears reiteration, represents the Pashtuns - the single largest ethnic identity in Afghanistan numbering about 40 million - how can you simply refuse to do business with such a numerically significant entity? Today, many liberal Pashtuns complain that India did not back them strongly enough. Of course, the choices were never and are still not easy, with each of the major players being a bundle of contradictions - Karzai is reportedly doing a deal with Pakistan because he feels that India did not put its weight behind him with sufficient resolve, the Taliban is grateful that India did not intervene militarily but openly claims responsibility for the recent attack in Kabul alleging RAW presence, and our natural ally (the United States) does not want us in because of fear of inviting Pakistani wrath. But the Pakistanis and the Americans were faced with similarly difficult choices - yet they did assert themselves and muscled their way in. In contrast, India was simply not assertive enough, a perception now publicly reinforced by the likes of Moridian Dawood, Advisor to the Afghan Foreign Minister, who has said, “India seems apologetic about its presence. It’s a regional player and must behave like one, instead of insisting on a benign presence with a penchant for staying in the background.” By design, or more accurately by conscious drift, therefore, we conceded the strategic initiative to Pakistan. We took the burden of a good democracy to Afghanistan, but as is our wont forgot to under gird it with force (not merely its combat dimension, but its numerous softer nuances). Pakistan, on the other hand, chose to pay with blood and leveraged its role in targeting the Afghan Taliban in hideouts on its side of the border with skill. From accused (terror epicentre) it turned approver and is now using arrests of key Taliban leaders (Mullah Baradar) to further muscle its way into the emerging power structure in Afghanistan. It has also deftly nuanced its counter terror response - decisive contest with the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba) and selective engagement with the Afghan Taliban, while continuing to aid and abet the LeT and Jaish as foreign policy tools along its Eastern borders.
With regard to the broader situation, there are of course huge difficulties, but there is also the faint glimmer of hope. The United States has done a great deal and will continue to remain engaged over the next 12 to 18 months in seeking military ascendancy over the Taliban. The fear that America will cut costs and run does sound a little unreal - having invested so much in blood and treasure it will stay for a while, and an early exit will come about only if America begins to cede the military initiative. If it continues with its military ascendancy as seems to be the case now, Obama will be empowered to prolong the American stay (public support for the American involvement in Afghanistan is already growing). The exit time table is more in the nature of a warning to others to get their act together, since the Americans cannot be expected to stay forever. Efforts are on under the stewardship of Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons to lure away the second tier leadership of the Taliban and peel away the hard core fighters by offering them jobs and cash (250 dollars a month as against 300 dollars on offer by the Taliban). In a few years from now, Afghanistan could begin to resemble today’s Iraq - restive, violent, not greatly democratized but not entirely anarchic either. Operation Mushtarak aimed at capturing the drug stronghold - Marjah, and despite the recent Taliban fightback in Musa Qala this may turn out to be the Fallujah moment in Afghanistan (not as bloody but possibly as decisive). If the trend continues in Kandahar (Operation Omaid is due to begin in June) and then in Eastern Afghanistan where the all powerful Jalaluddin Haqqani is ensconced in the provinces of Khost, Pakyta, Pakhtiar and Gardez, the halo of invincibility shrouding the Taliban may begin to disappear.
We do seem to have got it wrong - staying engaged as reiterated by the National Security Adviser and even by the Prime Minister, is of course a symbol of our altruistic resolve, but whether it reflects strategic acuity or even level headed pragmatism is another matter. Afghanistan was a test case for our foreign policy resolve - an arena where while leveraging other tools of foreign policy, use of instruments of force and military diplomacy/intelligence should have been predominant. But that would have meant a paradigm shift in our foreign policy construct, leading to a greater role for the military. It was easier therefore to deflect by jumping to the usual conclusions about use of force not being an option - the various reasons being trotted out do seem to be frivolous. The end state in Afghanistan will soon reflect the pusillanimous reality, because in life as in diplomacy you reap as you sow. While we may continue to gain goodwill, we will soon be faced with the prospect of waning influence in the evolving power structure and little security for our civilian presence. Closer home, we may be faced with a qualitatively upgraded terror threat - the ISI/LeT could use surrendered Taliban cadres to bring the menace of deadly suicide bombers to our door step (revelations in the ongoing Headley saga which document his linkages with elements of the Al Qaeda in North Waziristan point to the rather ominous possibilities of collusion). Even at this late stage there is a need to seriously review our options. We lack the necessary military presence and leverage with the security establishment in Afghanistan to secure our interests. Hamid Karzai is simply not in a position to guarantee our security. It may be more prudent to roll back our civilian engagement, unless we wish to lose more civilian lives. Merely pumping in more and more CRPF personnel in defensive rings will be of little help in a country where we have no penetration in the central facets of the security dynamic and no worthwhile military presence, such defensive rings can be easily breached - especially by seasoned rogues from the ISI.
We also need to ponder over our broader approach - instead of going down the familiar road of preachiness/talking down to Pakistan (repeatedly describing it as a state whose creation was fundamentally flawed, a failed/failing state, etc.) and indulging in endless diplomatic gobbledygook without accompanying resolve, we need to change tone and tenor and become less patronising while quietly undergirding our own response with far greater acuity and resolve. It may also be useful if we were to revisit the utility and wisdom of some of our own polemical rhetoric. We need to acknowledge that Pakistan may be a troubled state in many ways but it is neither failed, nor failing. Given its peculiar dynamic it is indeed a smart survivor with an uncanny knack of leveraging its benefactors (the Americans and the Chinese) with particular finesse. We must also avoid the easy temptation of churlishly finding fault for many of our own failings in the persona of the Pakistan Army - the number of people in Delhi’s seminar circuit who needlessly spit venom on the Pakistan military as the mother of all evils is indeed incredible. “Kashmir is merely an obsession with the Pakistan Army, the ordinary Pakistani does not care,” is the frequent assertion. Really? Last week, prominent Pakistani media personality Hamid Mir (who is no friend of the Pakistan military establishment), when asked by CNN-IBN as to what was the central obstacle in India-Pakistan relations, simply stated “Kashmir.” We need to acknowledge this reality. Sample some of the responses to the recently concluded Strategic Dialogue in Washington. As soon as news came that Kayani and Shuja Pasha would attend, we saw a spate of Pakistan military bashing once again. Strategic Dialogues are a great deal about matters military - so if Generals Kayani and Shuja Pasha represented the Pakistani delegation, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman JCS, represented the Americans. That is the global practice. If our own horribly antiquated practices don’t reflect the same, we need to make amends and not curse the Pakistan military. Anyway, while there is little we can do about the US-Pakistan or Sino-Pakistan engagements, there is a great deal we can do ourselves - strengthening our counter terror response domestically, making sure we have viable military response options in the event of another Mumbai (well thought through, swift and decisive), restoring our greatly eroded conventional military edge, enhancing the credibility of our nuclear deterrent, initiating long pending organizational and structural defence reforms in the absence of which we shall continue to field an impaired military capability. This will be far more useful than the endless parroting of strategic nonsense like “force is no option”. Strategic Restraint lies in holding back despite the capacities and not in indulging in a lengthy exchange of dossiers since you neither have the capacities nor the resolve. While the former will inspire respect and may even deter, the latter is more likely to provoke fresh bouts of adventurism (especially when your thresholds are being monitored by smart cookies like Kayani and Shuja Pasha who sense weakness in our predilection to hum and haw).
Unfortunately, while this country has an extremely astute and sagacious political leadership, our National Security Management Structures (those that proffer options and advice) are held hostage to the Indian Foreign Service which may be extremely adept at leveraging diplomacy but has little understanding of instruments of force and their nuanced utilities. So when the odd opportunity does arise to graft the two in the interest of Indian statecraft they choke. Afghanistan is an instructive case in point. The absence of cross cultural inputs and a viable military dynamic in our foreign policy construct is the most serious handicap in our statecraft. A good way to begin might lie in designating somebody with a sound strategic mind and an understanding of the military dynamic as the Special Envoy to Afghanistan - it could be a Lt. General from the Army or somebody like C. Raja Mohan. Such an arrangement will be a welcome departure from the present practice of an extended swaddle (the Ambassador, Special Envoy and key appointments in the National Security Council are exclusively IFS) presenting the political leadership with the usual rigmarole - the same suspects producing the same stereotyped views. But will our combative turf warriors ever be able to place national interest before their own? Or, will our political class summon the nerve to abandon outdated tenets of civilian control and seek direct, unfettered, professional military advice on matters of foreign policy while simultaneously infusing our National Security Structures with cross cultural talent? Desultory consultation (often only when the crisis erupts) must make way for intimate, prior, continuous and informed dialogue with the military and the strategic community. The resultant feed will help to develop and nurture capacities, that allow us, when confronted with challenges like Afghanistan, to apply comprehensive national power to more purposeful effect.