As the Trump-Khan meet in the White House generated a heated debate in the international media, India appeared to be flustered by a perceived sidelining of her interests in the region. Two factors, Afghanistan and the K-Bomb (as described by the Indian press about the Kashmir issue), were widely discussed in the Indian media.
Indian investment in Afghanistan in the past decade includes billions of dollars in infrastructure, military, bureaucracy, culture and a tacit support to her proxies in the Afghan government, especially the NDS. India may not like her investment to go down the drain, and this was quite obvious from the statements emerging out of the South Block in New Delhi. Although Indian policymakers had foreseen that the peace process will pick up pace in the coming months, Trump’s decision to fast-track the process came as a shock.
Currently, the Indian stance on Afghanistan is a tangent to almost all major stakeholders in Afghanistan. The troika of America, Russia and China met in Beijing last month, and invited the pivot state of Pakistan to join the parlays, excluding India. Indian leadership, with a declared policy of isolating Pakistan in the region, has painstakingly worked for the past five years to make sure all kinds of pressures are brought onto Pakistan, and that it is coerced into following Indian dictates.
India has built an alliance with the Iranian and Afghan government to physically bypass the Af-Pak economic lifeline of Karachi-Kandahar and Karachi-Khyber-Kabul through the Chabahar-Milak-Zaranj-Dilaram-Kabul route, as well as an overhead air bridge between Delhi and Kabul, and was successful in denting Pak-Afghan trade by offering the alternative route.
Another factor that helped India to counterbalance Pakistan’s alleged support to freedom fighters in occupied Kashmir was through use of her proxies in Afghanistan, and keeping the Durand line on fire. The Indian military also ventured into the Pakistani airspace and targeted alleged terrorist camps in Balakot in February. The so-called surgical strike was thwarted by the Pakistani Air Force in a counter-strike which downed two Indian fighter jets in Kashmir. This skirmish, under the nuclear overhang, proved that Kashmir did remain a nuclear powder keg and that both sides had to gradually de-escalate to ease tensions and anxiety in South Asia.
Indian policy on Afghanistan is born out of an old but time-tested Chanakya strategy which calls for befriending the enemy’s neighbour and creating a two-front situation. India may not have fully appreciated that Trump’s 2020 campaign has a major denominator, and that’s Afghanistan. Trump cannot afford to start a presidential campaign without making major headway on Afghanistan. No wonder the Trump-Khan meet focused on finding ways and means for the Afghan peace process.
It is also important to note that a post-war sustainable Afghanistan is only possible with the US and her allies in the Gulf coming up with a mini Marshall Plan, while accruing assurances from the Taliban, to make sure that the Afghan soil is not used against American interests in the region. For this purpose, Pakistan has emerged as pivotal to the Afghan peace and it appears that all roads to Kabul will have to pass through Islamabad.
Another factor in the perceived endgame in Afghanistan is the interest of other regional players like China and Russia. China would like to have peace along the Durand Line so that her investment of $56 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remains safe, and the route passing west of the Indus River and Balochistan does not become a new battleground. For Russia, the spectre of the IS spreading its influence in her soft belly of Central Asia is perceived as an Achilles heel.
Pakistan has remained a frontline state in the War on Terror and has suffered tremendous losses in men and material. It would like to have a peaceful Afghanistan which ensures that it does not continue to become a base for proxy war against her.
Given this, why would India want a status quo and what could be her new strategy in Afghanistan?
India may want a delay in the peace process to make it costly for all stakeholders, especially Pakistan, and try to induce it into a reaction. She can also try to convince the Afghan elite and their surrogates that a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul will be a disaster for them, and build a perception of return of a Taliban era of the 90s. She may also want her proxies to target non-Pashtun communities like the Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks and create cleavages within the Afghan polity. The Indian lobby will attempt to convey that Pakistan was a slippery ally to the US head honchos on the Hill. Meanwhile, she could use her diaspora in the US for vote bank tactics and even threaten Trump on withdrawing from the Indo-Pacific alliance.
Although Afghanistan has no direct linkage with Kashmir, it is perceived that a second front along the Line of Control with Pakistan may open up, resulting in the increased violence in occupied Kashmir. Despite the oppression faced by the Kashmiris, the freedom movement will not be subsiding.
After the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, following PM Imran Khan’s visit to the White House and President Trump’s offer of mediation on the Kashmir issue, we are likely to witness further violence in two parts of Southern Central Asia — Kashmir and Afghanistan. Before taking the unconstitutional step over occupied Kashmir, India sent 25,000 additional troops to the disputed region, destabilising the whole of South Asia and trying to spoil efforts for peace in Afghanistan. T
he Trump administration has to remain vigilant about the Indian attempts to increase violence as it suits Indian interests in the coming days.
As it is, with the recent surge of violence in Afghanistan (especially the attack in Kabul which targeted ex-NDS chief Amrullah Saleh) and the attacks on Pakistani troops in areas adjoining Afghanistan, one will have to wait and see who amongst all the stakeholders will be interested in maintaining a status quo in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2019.