What would be the situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of a US withdrawal – quite certain following President Trump’s announcement after a 17 year campaign in yet another un-won war in a land known as the graveyard of empires? The Taliban, which is now being engaged by the US indirectly, had known all along that eventually the US would withdraw, and so did their minders in Pakistan. The question for us in India is: “how can India skilfully navigate through the mess in this war torn land?” The first logical step would be to at least determine where India’s interest must lie, and how could it achieve the same?
Ideally, the Afghans need to be left on their own, with a peace situation in settlement that is ‘Afghan led and Afghan owned’. But this is best left to the seminar circuit and to romantics who believe that everyone, specially the Pakistanis, will play by the rules. But Pakistan’s obsession to control most if not all of Afghanistan comes from its long stated desire to make Afghanistan its strategic backyard as a fall-back position in the event of an Indian aggression. This comes from its thinking of the 1980’s, and though much has changed in military doctrines since then, Pakistan has refused to let go of this line of thought. And India’s planners are obsessed with an altruistic view, to continue to do selfless good for the people of Afghanistan, who no doubt hold India in high regard. To that effect, India has made over USD 2 billion of investment in Afghanistan in the form of their Parliament building, hospitals, schools, roads, dams and much more. But what was and is our strategic purpose? Was it just to unsettle Pakistan?
It is said that Afghanistan is endowed with trillions of dollars worth of natural and mineral wealth. But it is unlikely that India would get its hands on anything substantial from that lot, since the US, China and now even Russia have their eyes on it. And if the intention was to use the western parts of Afghanistan to push ahead the north-south rail corridor, from the Chabahar port in Iran – that India will now manage – via Afghanistan into Central Asia, which will also benefit the Afghans, then New Delhi must let it be known, that its intentions are just that. The impression that India’s actions have given are that New Delhi wishes to box Pakistan in from two fronts, to dilute the efficacy of Pakistani forces. And hence the Pakistani reluctance to allow India even the high table rights on any discussion on the future of Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have managed to get their way with the US and other western powers, because they still control the major land routes into Afghanistan.
There are those in India that argue why should we now abandon Afghanistan, since India has made so much investment there in terms of money, time and effort. But the wise strategic approach would be to remain engaged with the Afghans – minus the Taliban, whom India clearly abhors – without putting Indian military boots on the ground to replace the outgoing Americans, even though the US would like that. An oft repeated dictum in all military institutions is, never reinforce a failure; and India shouldn’t be suckered into reinforcing the failures of the US and its NATO allies. The US went into Afghanistan as a knee-jerk reaction after the 9/11 attacks, to get even with the al-Qaeda that they had strengthened along with the Taliban to push the Russians out of that country. India’s reasons for being there then and now are based on its long standing ties with the Afghans. And if we still have another $2 billion or more dollars to spare, then New Delhi would be wiser to put this money into Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, to counter hard-nosed Chinese investments and build on loyalties in its neighbourhood.
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