Concerns being expressed in India over its imminent marginalisation in the future set-up in Afghanistan are understandable, but only in a static geo-strategic context with the pre 9/11 world as the point of reference. Before 9/11, Pakistan ruled the roost in Afghanistan through its Taliban proxies. Afghanistan was transformed into a hub of Islamist terror groups who received sanctuary, ideological indoctrination and motivation, and most of all, terrorist training in camps that were run as a joint venture between jihadists and ISI operatives. India, which faced the brunt of the export of Islamic terrorism by Pakistan, had gone blue in the face trying to draw the attention of the international community to the dangers that the radical Islamist terror groups posed to the civilized world. The Americans and all the other Western countries knew what was happening but chose to ignore the emergence of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as Terror Central simply because they were not being directly affected by the terrorism emanating from there. But then 9/11 happened, and everything changed.
A decade after that epochal event, the Taliban with a lot of help from Pakistan, are poised to make a comeback in Afghanistan. The Americans, staring defeat in the face, are all set to abandon Afghanistan to the depredations of the Taliban, albeit under the fig leaf of “reintegration and reconciliation” and the hope that the Taliban will live up to their promise of severing links with al Qaeda. The fear in India is that once the Americans quit Afghanistan, and outsource it to Pakistan, there will be a return to the bad old days when Afghanistan served as the base camp for terrorists from all over the world. The American exit will remove the purported reason of conflict between the Islamists and their patrons, the Pakistan Army. What is more, it will also ease the pressure (domestic or international) on the Pakistan Army to clean up the swamps of Islamist terror that exist in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army will be more than happy to make its peace with the Islamists and allow them to function with impunity, provided they do not peddle their terrorist wares inside Pakistan.
The way the Indians see it, the Pakistani establishment will be quite comfortable making deals with the Islamists and leaving them to their devices. So much so that it really has no problem with the emergence of tiny Islamic emirates in remote parts of the country. Such emirates will keep the potentates and warlords of these medieval enclaves satisfied with their fiefdoms and leave them with little reason to mess with the Pakistani state. Anyone who doubts this just needs to look at the attitude of the Pakistan Army towards the Taliban in Swat.
The fact is that the Pakistan Army did not appear to be very agitated over the Taliban takeover of Swat. It was not until alarm bells started ringing around the world after the Taliban entered Buner, that the Pakistan Army was forced to launch an operation against the new rulers of Swat. The military offensive in South Waziristan, Bajaur and other Tribal Agencies was partly forced upon the Pakistan Army by the Americans and partly motivated by the Pakistan Army’s need for reining in Jihadists who were targeting mainland Pakistan under the misguided notion that the Pakistan Army was actively and sincerely aiding the American war effort. With the Americans gone, the Pakistani Taliban will also become more amenable to peace deals with the Pakistan Army. If they continue to resist, the Pakistan Army will have them removed from the scene by not only mounting operations against them but also by exploiting cleavages within the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban and propping up a pliant warlord against a recalcitrant one.
The Indians fear that while all this is happening, the Americans and other Western countries will conveniently turn a blind eye to the activities of the Taliban and their Pakistani associates, who under Pakistani influence will have expelled the al Qaeda, or at least have kept them under a very tight leash. The Islamists’ urge for jihad will be used initially to purge Afghanistan of those who dissent against the Taliban version of Islam. After the general massacres in Afghanistan are over, and complete domination is established over that hapless country, the energies of the jihadists will be directed to Islamist causes in places like India, Russia, perhaps China, Shi’ite Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Indonesia and what have you.
It is precisely to prevent this scenario from unfolding that India invested so heavily in Afghanistan. The Indian interest in Afghanistan has always been that it should not fall prey or become a playground for Pakistan’s policy of using jihad as an instrument of state policy against India. Afghanistan also served as an important listening post for India which was able to keep a close watch over developments inside Pakistan. Since India does not share a land border with Afghanistan, it is close to impossible for India to get militarily involved in Afghanistan. Given this limitation, India used its soft power and its financial clout to support regimes in Afghanistan that resisted Pakistan's onslaught. India’s development activities in Afghanistan – roads, schools, hospitals, scholarships for higher education, technical training and capacity building of Afghan civil servants, communications and power projects etc. – have created a lot of goodwill among common Afghans. Unfortunately, the massive investment that India has made in improving the lives of Afghans is likely to run aground because the Americans have allowed Pakistan to get away with its double game on the issue of Taliban.
The Pakistanis know that they can only destroy Afghanistan, not develop it. Not surprisingly, Pakistan's Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani has made it clear that Pakistan has no problem if Indians continue their development activities in Afghanistan, but with the implicit caveat that such activities will have to be with the concurrence and under the supervision of the Pakistanis. Clearly, like in their own case, the Pakistan Army do not mind the moolah flowing in but cannot quite countenance the influence that comes with it, even less so if it involves India. Perhaps the Pakistan Army believes that it can dictate terms to the Indian government, just like it does within Pakistan where the civilian government is reduced to a glorified municipality.
Without delving too much into the delusions and illusions that the Pakistan Army suffers about India, the reality is that once the Americans throw in the towel, India will have to cut its losses and leave Afghanistan. Rather than spend good money after bad in Afghanistan, it probably makes more sense for India to use this money to start building up its defences against the export of terrorism from Pakistan that is bound to re-start in the coming months.
Of course, the scenario painted above is really the worst case scenario for India and is predicated on things returning to the pre-9/11 situation. India must therefore start to prepare for the worst case scenario. This involves not only putting in place a security architecture that can effectively combat terrorism flowing in from Pakistan but also bolstering the Indian military machine to acquire an overwhelming, overbearing and overpowering superiority over Pakistan. What is more, India should stop frittering its resources on what is for the foreseeable future a hopeless cause – Afghanistan.
But while doing all this, India must bear in mind that there are very good chances that instead of the worst case scenario unfolding exciting new strategic opportunities could open out by Pakistan’s greater involvement in Afghanistan. And the reason for that is simple: it is no longer the pre-9/11 world.
While the prospect that Taliban ascendancy will leave India with no feet to stand on in Afghanistan is being welcomed in Pakistan with unmistakable glee, both Pakistan’s triumphalism and India’s concerns are somewhat misplaced because there is a very good chance that, more by default than by design, the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan will cause far greater harm to Pakistan than any damage it will do to India. Rather than fret about American withdrawal from Afghanistan, India should actually welcome it because this will be the beginning of the end of the unnatural alliance in the War on Terror between the United States and Pakistan, an alliance that has propped up Pakistan for so long and rewarded it for recalcitrance and double-dealing.
Clearly, the international community’s approach to Afghanistan and, by extension Pakistan, in 2011 is likely to be very different from what it was on the eve of 9/11 in 2001. If Pakistan thinks that it can turn the clock back to the time when the West turned a blind eye to Pakistan's shenanigans in Afghanistan and allowed it a free run in using jihad as an instrument of state policy, it is mistaken. If anything, as and when the Americans pack up and abandon Afghanistan, Pakistan is going to come under even greater international pressure, and what is worse, it will have lost most, if not all, the leverages that it is currently exploiting to make the Americans follow its line on Afghanistan.
Apart from the rising economic costs of fighting the war, there are two big compulsions that will confront the United States as long as it remains in Afghanistan: one, body-bags of American troops engaged in anti-insurgency operations; two, supply lines that run through Pakistan. Once the United States leaves Afghanistan, it will no longer be hobbled by these debilitating compulsions that are probably preventing it from pushing the Pakistanis too hard. Quitting Afghanistan will, however, not mean quitting the region. In all likelihood, the United States will move out of Afghanistan into Pakistan. The kind of investment that the United States is making inside Pakistan suggests that the US intends to increase its presence in Pakistan manifold. Even though there will not be US troops present inside Pakistan, there will be a large number of diplomats and spooks who will be keeping a hawk-eye on developments in Pakistan.
If the Americans have not already understood, then perhaps they will understand soon that their real strategic challenge lies not so much in Afghanistan as in Pakistan. Much of the support, sanctuary, resources, recruits, training, and what have you, for the Islamists comes through Pakistan. If the West can control Pakistan, it will be able to get a hold of Afghanistan, even ignore it. Within Pakistan, the problem is really the Army. Civilian leaders are sensible enough to realise the destruction fostered on the country by the jihadist policies of the Pakistan Army. Left to themselves, the civilians would be more than amenable to move decisively to dismantle the jihadist infrastructure. The problem is that the Pakistan Army will not let the civilians decide the national security strategy. And given the structural weaknesses in Pakistan's polity, the civilians succumb easily to the line drawn for them by the military. Therefore, if the West really wants reform inside Pakistan it will have to empower the civilian leadership and make the military subservient and obedient to the civilian authority.
As long as the United States remains dependent on Pakistan for its operations in Afghanistan, it will be difficult for it to force compliance on the Pakistan Army. But once the United States is rid of its Afghan compulsions, the boot will be on the other foot. From that point on, the leverages will be in US hands and the compulsions will be all Pakistan’s. The single most important leverage that the United States holds is aid and trade. The United States is already giving nearly $5 billion per annum in direct assistance to Pakistan. Add to this the multilateral funding, the assistance that US allies give Pakistan, and the Friends of Democratic Pakistan programmes, and the figure reaches close to $10 billion per annum. This huge amount of money is just enough to keep Pakistan afloat.
If the United States pulls the plug on Pakistan, it can ravage the Pakistani economy. And one is not even talking about the market access that the United States and its allies give Pakistan or the defence equipment that Pakistan gets from the West. The bottom line is that the Pakistanis need the Americans more than the other way round and this factor will come into play once the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan. The compact between the United States and Pakistan will start to loosen up because the Americans will lean more heavily on Pakistan and insist that it delivers on its side of the bargain – keeping a tight leash on the Islamist mafias and militias. This will be a catch-22 situation for the Pakistanis: if they try to deliver on American demands, it will pit the Pakistanis against the Islamists, even those Islamists who for tactical reasons continue to act on the behest of Pakistani intelligence agencies and often assist and protect Pakistani interests by attacking Indians in Afghanistan; on the other hand, if the Pakistanis continue with their double-game, it will pit them against the United States and its allies.
The Pakistanis are, of course, convinced that they will be able to deliver in large measure to the American demands. As they see it, with the Americans out of Afghanistan the issue at the heart of the conflict will be removed and things will settle down in the AfPak region. What is more, the Pakistanis believe that with Afghanistan being outsourced to them by the Americans, not only will Pakistan gain its much desired ‘strategic depth’, it will at the same time earn top dollar from the West for its services. The problem is that while all this sounds good in theory, its practise will be an altogether different thing.
The main reason for Pakistan’s confidence is the influence it has on the Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar, who all the Islamists acknowledge as the Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful). The Pakistanis think that they can get Mullah Omar to break the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance and have the international jihadists and Islamists expelled from Afghanistan. This, the Pakistanis feel, will be enough for the Americans. Mullah Omar who is probably in the safe custody of the Pakistanis has always dissuaded his followers from targeting Pakistan. But while Mullah Omar has stayed loyal to his Pakistani benefactors, and might continue to follow Pakistani diktats after regaining power in Afghanistan, the big question is whether his followers will follow this line? Even now, there is a large section among the Islamists who pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar but do not listen to him when it comes to attacking the Pakistan Army.
Unlike Mullah Omar, who, having enjoyed Pakistani hospitality, might be amenable to break links with al Qaeda, his followers, who have been fighting on the ground and who have been radicalised over the last nine years, are not likely to follow Omar’s edicts either in letter or spirit. Field commanders like the Haqqani’s will want to keep their links with their fellow combatants in al Qaeda alive. They are also likely to espouse Islamist causes all over the world because after having defeated the sole superpower they will be inclined to spread their virulence in lands near and far. At the very minimum, both Islam as well as tradition will be used to provide sanctuary to all sorts of terrorists, fugitives, desperadoes from around the world, making the AfPak region Terror Central all over again. If Mullah Omar opposes the Islamists, he could be repudiated, accused of selling out and even removed from the scene. After all, history is full of instances of self-proclaimed Amir-ul-Momineens being assassinated by their followers.
Notwithstanding the self-serving gloss being put by the Pakistanis on the motives of the Taliban – that they are fighting a war of national liberation, that they do not subscribe to Jihad International, that many of the combatants are seeking revenge for the deaths of their loved ones, that Pashtun xenophobia is driving the resistance, etc. – the incontrovertible fact is that the primary motivation of the Islamists is an extremely barbaric and intolerant interpretation of Islam that is incapable of living in peace with any other peoples who do not subscribe to their world view. Therefore, if Mullah Omar treads the moderate path on Pakistani instructions, he will be going against his own followers. And if he sticks to the radical path then he will be going against his benefactors in Pakistan. In either case, American prodding will get Pakistan sucked into the Afghan quagmire, which in turn will increase its dependence on American monetary and military assistance.
Pakistan can, of course, choose to defy the rest of the world and cast its lot with the jihadists. But unlike the jihadists the Pakistanis have a lot to lose and cannot really afford to face the wrath of the world. The Pakistanis also know that once the international community walks out of Afghanistan, the entire burden of an economically unviable Afghanistan will fall on Pakistan's head, a burden that Pakistan cannot bear without international assistance, which will not be forthcoming unless Pakistan delivers on the concerns of the international community.
The reason why India does not need to lose too much sleep over being forced out of Afghanistan is that the dialectics of the situation will ultimately benefit India. If Pakistan succumbs to American pressure, it will continue to be engaged in a long war of attrition on its western borders, something that suits India. If Pakistan resists American pressure, it will be isolated in the world and the international community will have to fall back upon India to put a firewall around the AfPak region. All India needs to do now is to hold its nerve and position itself to exploit the situation as it evolves in its favour.