The global strategic outlook is undergoing an upheaval and the center of gravity appears to be the Indian Subcontinent. While it is a subject which admittedly can hardly be covered in a limited number of words, one can nevertheless attempt to tickle the senses in order to set a thought in motion.
My attempt to do so would be covered under several heads; Afghanistan, the Land Borders of India, Internal Dimensions and the Indian Ocean in the midst of what is increasingly known to be the next cold war between the US and Russia with the ever belligerent China.
India finds itself in the eye of a storm both from the external as well as internal aspect of economy as well as security. However, challenging times bring with them opportunities too.
Treacherous Triangle: Afghanistan, India and Pakistan
“When Allah had made the rest of the world, he saw there was a lot of rubbish left over, bits and pieces and things that did not fit anywhere else. He collected them all together and threw them down on the earth. That was Afghanistan.” – An old Afghan saying.
The landlocked Islamic Republic of Afghanistan , in South-Central Asia, is variously described as being located within Central Asia, South Asia, or the Middle East. Bordered by Iran in the west, Pakistan in the south and east, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, and China in the far northeast. An area which has been the center of interest for England, Russia, USA, Pakistan, China , Iran and India and a conflict ridden land mass both due to international as well as tribal reasons.
The British, then USSR and USA/NATO amongst many have stepped into Afghanistan, supporting or opposing the Taliban in what one may call ‘The War on Terror’ or other justification.
Finally, U.S. troops in Afghanistan (as also all NATO forces) are expected to leave by September 2021 as announced by President Joe Biden, the financial burden is sufficient reason to pull out. By all accounts it would be seen as an America with egg on the face, an unreliable partner? Another Iraq or Vietnam, leaving the Afghan neighborhood worried over future stability of the region.
Pakistan’s Interests: A treacherous, 2,670-kilometer border with Afghanistan has been looked at as a safe haven for many militant groups including the Afghan Taliban who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and offered sanctuaries to al-Qaeda. One of the few countries that established diplomatic relations ,when the Taliban government came to power in Kabul.Pakistan supported the Taliban to push its regional security interests.
Supporting militant groups in Afghanistan rather than elected governments,created an image problem for Pakistan in Afghanistan and elsewhere, making Pakistan part of the problem rather than a solution. Withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan may be seen as victory for Taliban (who fought for the removal of foreign forces) but it could be taken as an opportunity for Pakistan to reorient its international image by playing a key role in encouraging regional cooperation to ensure stability in Afghanistan. However, that is unlikely because of its guttersnipe politics.
According to Hassan Abbas the author of “The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier, “Pakistan will have to build trust with all Afghan ethnicities and political forces, rather than just being seen as ‘Taliban supporters’ or by many Afghans as ‘Taliban sponsors’.”
A failure of the peace process, is likely to be a headache for Pakistan and may compel them to return to the decades-old policy of supporting the Taliban to keep India at bay with the help of militant groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network in addition to giving an upper hand to rival groups supported by the likes of India and Iran. One can expect that it will invariably be accompanied with potentially troubling security implications for Pakistan in particular and the region in general in the following manner:-
- Pakistan should expect an increase in refugee inflows.
- A more rampant drug trade and a heightened risk of cross-border terrorism.
- Economic challenges to an already impoverished country, putting the economic revival on a back burner.
- Prevent it from undertaking a much desired image makeover.
Indicators of what may happen in the immediate future are firstly the reported effort by Al Qaida and Taliban to focus on major cities, the second is the insecurity created amongst Allies, third is the aggressive posture adopted by the Taliban stalling infrastructural projects, closer home is the construction of a border fence by Pakistan along the Pak-Afghan (Durand Line) and Pak –Iran borders the implication of which are expected to unfold in the near future. Along with this are reports of USA creating bases on the Western side of the Durand Line as Pakistan refuses bases to America.
India’s Concerns: This scenario directly threatens India’s political, security, and economic interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It calls for a reorientation of policies in Afghanistan, particularly its relationship with the Taliban in the wake of withdrawal by the U.S. forces. From the 2001 Bonn conference, which paved the way for the formation of an interim government following the collapse of the Taliban regime up to the present day, India has continued a consistent policy of engaging with successive Afghan governments and opposing the Taliban. The U.S. withdrawal, however, is guaranteed to make the Taliban stronger – either by giving it the upper hand in negotiations with Kabul, by giving it a major battlefield advantage, or both.
The changing dynamics leave little choice for New Delhi, other than initiating talks with the Taliban as stressed by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar while addressing the intra-Afghan talks last year, in stating India’s support for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process. However he refrained from offering any view on the Taliban’s participation. Given that the group is poised to return to power in one form or another, and India’s engagement with the Taliban could ultimately serve to usher peace in the region and bridge the gap between the Afghan Government and Taliban? Or is it perhaps best for the Afghan people themselves to reconcile amongst themselves? Delhi’s engaging in direct talks with the Taliban will be strongly opposed politically, by think-tanks and media as it would give legitimacy to an organization which has all along carried a tag of Terrorists who have, targeted Indians in Afghanistan in cohort with the insidious ISI.
Last year, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, called on India to engage with the Afghan Taliban and “directly discuss its concerns related to terrorism,” adding that Washington wants New Delhi to “take on a more active role in the Afghan peace process.”
“Given Pakistan’s close relationship with the Afghan Taliban, the Indian government is likely to be concerned about what the withdrawal of American troops means for the political future of Afghanistan. A takeover by the Afghan Taliban, and Afghanistan hosting terrorist groups on its soil – especially India-focused jihadists – are India’s top concerns,” said Amira Jadoon, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She continued to suggest, however, that there was an opportunity for India here as well, with evidence that Pakistani influence on the Afghan Taliban has waned over the years and the Afghan Taliban have sought new patrons, diversified their sources of support, and gained territorial control. Given the foggy environment, India has yet to make a firm announcement on which route they will follow. Rather than seek out the Taliban leadership India should wait for Taliban taking the initiative of seeking India’s assistance in the development process which it had so assiduously carried out over the last two decades. Pakistan does not have the economic capacity to undertake any such measures. It will remain the mischief maker in the region.
For the Afghan Taliban a rapprochement with India should be sought for reasons given below :-
- First, India’s engagement with the Taliban offers the group greater political and diplomatic legitimacy.
- Second, it further diversifies its international linkages.
- Third, it fosters the organization’s independence and makes it less reliant on Pakistan’s support or demands.
- Fourthly India stands for development in Afghanistan, something that Pakistan with a shattered economy cannot do, thus it should be clear to both the Afghan Government as well as Taliban that their interests lie with India.
- India may get to use this to reduce the acts of terror against her amongst other gains which could put New Delhi in a better position to convey and negotiate its goals and interests in Afghanistan. An option likely to be opposed by Pakistan?
How will India retain her stake in Afghanistan and the region however, remains a big question?
- Will it be only through developmental projects and training the Afghan Army? How far would this succeed in the turbulent environment under Taliban without their support? Peace is therefore paramount.
- Will we go the extra mile and deploy forces to fill the void created by the US withdrawal? That would amount to a confrontation with Taliban and/Pakistan. We have yet to put Sri lanka behind us.
- Would US add value to India’s security forces by providing equipment and fast forward desired technology transfer to tackle terrorist groups from home based locations ?
- How is India likely to strike a balance between the US, Russian, Pakistani and Chinese interests?
- Does India see its interest furthered in aligning with Russia, exploit the Russia-Iran-China and Pakistan angle at the cost of alienating USA or vice versa?
- Does it throw open an opportunity for closer cooperation with Pakistan to ensure peace (if peace is also in Pakistan’s interest) and stability in Afghanistan and yet oppose the Chinese in their quest for BRI etc?
- How would China view this including the alignment with the US? Would the border tensions escalate?
- What does the meeting between Putin and Biden hold for China and Afghanistan? Do we expect a thaw in the ’Cold War’? Will it result in a softer approach towards China?
In the vacuum created by the US withdrawal, the low pressure will create a storm sucking in forces from other stake holders. In the highly volatile and uncertain situation the Taliban will assert themselves, a failure of the peace process may find India falling back to supporting anti Taliban forces once again, thus raising the possibility of a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. In all likelihood, the Taliban will assert their supremacy by undertaking a “cleansing exercise” by eliminating supporters of the western forces, women and media.
In the eye of a Storm
With tension in the borders, turbulence in Afghanistan, drama in the South China Sea (Indo-Pacific), and the String of Pearls around us, indicative of the challenges in the immediate and foreseeable future. The economic war being fought by the USA and Europe against China puts India squarely in the front line as a partner and promoter of QUAD and observer on the G7 platform; warnings by China to various countries like Bangladesh and ASEAN notwithstanding.The Indo-Pacific region is likely to see heightened ‘jockeying ‘ and militarization.
Internal Dimensions: what lies in store for India? On the land borders, we are surrounded by a ring of fire, Pakistan to the west, China to the west and north,northeast, a smoldering Nepal, a subdued Bhutan, a rising economy in Bangladesh with ties with China and a Military junta in Myanmar. Further within India, insecurity in Manipur, Assam, Nagaland in the east, the Naxal domination along the Red Corridor, the uncertain environment in J&K and POK, Baltistan and Gilgit. Each of these are likely to tell on the international relations with our neighbors, the internal stability and the budgetary allocation of the armed forces.Increased Chinese foot prints in the Indian Ocean including the Colombo Port amongst other initiatives complete the ring of fire encircling India leaves little choice to India apart from spending on strengthening her Navy .
Domestic Politics: Can we expect a change in the approach, internal dynamics of politics and a rise amongst political parties to move away from encouraging religious and other divides to finally focus on securing and promoting National Interests? Can we expect the concerned States to play a more responsible role?
What strategy and method can one expect in the near future to tackle these and usher in a secure and peaceful internal environment? Will a peaceful and secure environment lead to reduced budget allocations for the CAPF and a consequential rise in the defense budget to strengthen our defense forces? Will the private sector capitalize on the Make In India theme to provide adequate equipment to the forces in a time bound manner?
The fluid situation accompanied by constant jockeying for power around South Asia with its epicenter in India, brings to the subcontinent a heightened tension, deployment of forces and economic alignments not excluding sanctions to discipline errant states.
The stakeholders being US, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In any such situation, National Interest is the key factor governing strategy and alliances. In the present situation, prudence would suggest that India and Pakistan bridge the gap to work together for the stability of the region and avoiding conflict as well as an arms race.
It appears that no matter what option India adopts , it cannot shy away from the fact that the need for a strong military force is inescapable, an approach based on detailed evaluation and war gaming is called for between the Defense Forces, MEA and our Economic forum. The need for strengthening our Air force, Navy and Army is unavoidable if we have to prepare for Out of Area Operational reach while also stand firm along our borders including the oceanic borders with China and Pakistan. A balance between technology , deterrent ground holding force and the ability to strike hard creating irreparable damage is a must. Self reliance is desirable in the shortest possible time, something that ought to galvanize the Industry for economic recovery and contribute towards strengthening the Military to secure our interests; economic, political and territorial.