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How not to exit Afghanistan

September 15, 2010 10:16 IST

At the recently concluded annual conference of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in Geneva (September 10-12, 2010), Henry Kissinger had a telling comment on the "exit strategy" being pursued by the US and its allies in Afghanistan. He said that the focus appeared to be more on exit and less on strategy. His strategy for a viable solution? A regional compact among key stakeholders that effectively sanitised Afghanistan from regional and great power competition. This would effectively give the country a neutral status, guaranteed by the international community and respected by the country's neighbours.

This sounds attractive but, in the present context, is not viable. It is important to recognise this because then for India the challenge will not be how to become part of some such exit strategy but rather how not to exit Afghanistan under different scenarios. Let us see why the Kissingerian strategy is unlikely to succeed.

One, the stakeholders in this proposed compact must, at the minimum, include Afghanistan's close neighbours such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India and, of course, the US as the dominant occupying power. Whoever takes the lead on this, the US will have to at least acquiesce in a major Iranian role, precisely at a time when it is leading an international sanctions regime against that country over its nuclear programme. I consider this unlikely.

Two, the Chinese position is problematical. There is a belief in some quarters that China may be positively inclined towards this proposal because of its fear over a spillover of Islamic irredentism into the adjoining Chinese province of Xinjiang. Chinese concerns are being exaggerated. China had no reservations in dealing with the previous Taliban regime in Kabul. It may also consider a Pakistani-dominated Taliban regime a better insurance for the pursuit of its interests in the country than a neutral dispensation. After all, Pakistan has always been extraordinarily sensitive to Chinese interests.

Three, US calculations are not entirely clear. The recent western projection of the Afghan Taliban, or elements of it, as possibly obscurantist but nevertheless nationalistic and hence acceptable as part of governance structures in Kabul, is one strand in American thinking. Another is the possibility of conceding de facto control of southern Afghanistan to the Taliban, while retaining a strong, deterrent presence in the rest of the country. This would suggest a somewhat more circumscribed "exit strategy" than is often assumed. The US may have objectives that go beyond the defeat of Al Qaeda. It may wish to retain a strong and enduring presence in non-Pushtun areas which enable it to counter Iran, Russia as well as China in Central Asia. Neutrality or even non-alignment for Afghanistan would go against such calculations.

Finally, it is doubtful that Pakistan would play ball. The enduring fear in Pakistan has been the possible erasure of the Durand Line as the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan with the resurgence of a cross-border Pakhtoon movement, encompassing southern Afghanistan, the erstwhile North West Frontier Province (now renamed Khyber-Pakhtoonkwa) as well as Pathan-dominated areas of Balochistan. Despite its reliance on Pakistani goodwill and support, the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar did not accept the Durand Line. The nervous reaction in Pakistan to Ambassador Blackwill's advocacy of a de-facto partition of Afghanistan between a southern Pushtun and possibly Taliban-ruled entity and a non-Pushtun remainder, derives from this anxiety about an irresistible tide of Pakhtoon nationalism, especially at a time when central control over an ethnically diverse and now economically ravaged country is becoming increasingly tenuous. Pakistan may well demand, as its price, an Afghan and international recognition and guarantee of the Durand Line. No Afghan government is likely to concede that.

India, therefore, should really be crafting a strategy to retain a strong presence in Afghanistan and even augment it, irrespective of what other actors decide to do. This is dictated by the need to prevent the country from once again degenerating into a base for jihadi terrorism against India. It is also an useful platform for India's engagement with Central Asia. India does have convergent interests with some of the stakeholders, both within Afghanistan and including some of its neighbours like Iran and Russia. At the very least, there are those who, like India, cannot accept a fundamentalist Sunni-dominated regime in Kabul. We need to help coalesce them together in the pursuit of our shared interests.

We must be mindful of the tendency among some of our western friends to offer concessions at the expense of India in a dubious attempt to buy Pakistan's support of their "exit strategy", however this may be defined. A British participant at the conference wondered whether it would not be wise for India to close its consulates in Afghanistan and retain only its embassy in Kabul, in order to "get Pakistan off your (India's) back". This is more like getting India off Pakistan's back! We should dispel the notion, widely held among the western strategic community, that India's presence and involvement in Afghanistan has been made possible thanks to the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF's) security cover and, therefore, it should not be allowed a "free ride" at the expense of western interests. These includes assuaging Pakistani security concerns vis-a-vis India, however paranoid they may be. The reality is that we have been able to sustain a significant presence in Afghanistan and earn considerable goodwill, including in Pushtun areas, precisely because we have been careful not to be associated with ISAF activities, but operate strictly on a bilateral basis with the Afghan government.

India should also revisit its position on the Durand Line. It may be worthwhile for us to signal that we do not necessarily recognise the Durand Line as a legitimate frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Aligning India with long-standing Pakhtoon aspirations may be a potentially potent lever to use as the new version of the Great Game unfolds in our neighbourhood.

Shyam Saran
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