The time has come to carefully assess the U.S. motivations in widening the gyre of the Afghan war, which commenced seven years ago.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States armed forces, Admiral Mike Mullen, has lent his voice to the incipient idea of a “regional” approach to the Afghanistan problem. He said the over-arching strategy for success in Afghanistan must be regional in focus and include not just Afghanistan but also Pakistan and India. The three South Asian countries, he stressed, must figure a way to reduce tensions among them, which involves addressing 8220;long-standing problems that increase instability in the region.”
Adm. Mullen then referred to Kashmir as one such problem to underline that if India-Pakistan tensions decreased, it “allowed the Pakistani leadership to focus on the west [border with Afghanistan].” He regretted that the terror attack in Mumbai raised India-Pakistan tensions, and “in the near term, that might force the Pakistani leadership to lose interest in the west,” apart from the likelihood of a nuclear flashpoint. Interestingly, he gave credit to the Pakistani top brass for its recent cooperation in the tribal areas which, he said, has had a “positive impact” on the anti-Taliban operations.
The Pentagon’s number one soldier has legitimised an idea that was straining to be born — U.S. mediatory mission in South Asia. Adm. Mullen announced that the U.S. was doubling its force level in Afghanistan from the present strength of 32,000 troops. The Afghan war is about to intensify. All this comes in the wake of the recent hint by Senator John Kerry that the appointment of a U.S. special envoy for South Asia by the Obama administration is on the cards.
The time has indeed come to carefully assess the U.S. motivations in widening the gyre of the Afghan war, which commenced seven years ago as a vengeful hunt for Osama bin Laden and metamorphosed into a “war on terror.” What is in it for India? It is very obvious that the U.S. thought process on a “regional approach” to the Afghan problem and the appointment of a South Asia envoy go hand in hand. The U.S. design confronts India with a three-fold challenge: it insists that India is a protagonist in the U.S.-led war; India-Pakistan relationship is a crucial factor of regional security and stability which directly affects the U.S. interests and, therefore, necessitates an institutionalised American mediatory role; and, it asserts a U.S. obligation to be involved in “nation-building” in South Asia on a long-term footing.
Vulnerable to U.S. pressure
Islamabad will be chuckling with pleasure. The parameters of its foreign policy, which Indian diplomacy rubbished for decades, are finally gaining habitation and name. The heart of the matter is that India has made itself vulnerable to U.S. pressure. Of all Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries that are exposed to the danger of militancy, India is the only “non-combatant” threatened with a spill-over. The Central Asian countries bordering Amu Darya, though much weaker than India, have marvellously insulated themselves from the pernicious fallout from the Hindu Kush. So has China’s Xinjiang. So indeed has Iran despite robust efforts by the U.S.-British intelligence to inject the virus of terrorism into its eastern provinces. Certainly, Moscow managed to insulate Chechnya too.
Alas, India stands out as the solitary exception. If diplomacy is the first line of national defence, there have been shortfalls. The slide began, in retrospect, when the Indian foreign policy seriously erred in 2001 while assessing the implications of the U.S.’ march into Afghanistan. Except India, the regional powers that took part in the Bonn conference in December 2001 seem to have had a Plan B. Our diplomats blithely travelled in the U.S. bandwagon as one-dimensional men fixated over Pakistan, comfortable in their assumption that the underpinning of a strong “partnership” with the U.S. elevated India from the morass of its regional milieu, opening up in front of it a brave new world as the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean region. They remained sure that Pakistan would be a passing aberration in the U.S. regional policy, whereas India would be a life-long blissful partner. And all that was needed was for us to keep an obscure back channel to Pakistan from time to time.
The cold blast of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai scatters these facile assumptions. After all, the accumulated debris of India-Pakistan tensions did not go away and the past four years have been a chronicle of wasted time, as the relationship is in ground zero. The Mumbai attacks underscore that the Afghan war has crossed the Khyber and is stealthily reaching the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. Our opinion still underestimates the gravity of the unfolding crisis by visualising it as merely an India-Pakistan dogfight, which it certainly is but is far from everything. Adm. Mullen has done a signal service by starkly placing the crisis in its setting.
Fortunately, we stopped in the nick of time from plunging into the Afghan cauldron via a military intervention from which there would have been no turning back. This fortuitous happenstance leaves us some options to incrementally step back from becoming part of the lethal brew that the witches are concocting in the Hindu Kush.
What is to be done? First, we need to realise that the Afghan war is a classic Clausewitzean affair politics by other means. The U.S. has ensured a permanent presence in the strategic highlands of the Pamir mountains. Even the current highly simulated disruption of transit routes for NATO supplies via the Pakistani territory is providing a pretext for the establishment of fresh U.S. military presence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and in the Caucasus for the first time ever. While the U.S.’ close partnership with the Pakistani military continues intact, the search for new supply routes becomes the perfect backdrop for ruthlessly expanding American influence in the Russian and Chinese (and Iranian) backyards in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
This signifies a great leap forward for NATO, which is poised to wade ashore from the Black Sea into the Caucasus and Central Asia. Also, the U.S. is effectively undercutting the raison d’etre of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In short, the “war on terror” is providing a convenient rubric under which the U.S. is incrementally securing for itself a permanent abode in the highlands of the Pamirs, the Central Asian steppes and the Caucasus that form the strategic hub overlooking Russia, China, India and Iran.
We must, therefore, be vigilant about the veiled U.S. threat of reopening the “Kashmir file,” which Admiral Mullen held out. It aims at keeping India off balance. Plainly put, the U.S. faces a real geopolitical challenge in the region only in the eventuality of a coalition of like-minded regional powers like Russia, China, Iran and India taking shape and these powers seriously beginning to exchange notes on what the Afghan war has so far been about and where it is heading and what the U.S. strategy aims at. So far, the U.S. has succeeded in stalling such a process by “sorting out” these regional powers individually. Indeed, Washington has been a net beneficiary of the contradictions in the mutual relations between these regional powers.
If Barack Obama genuinely wants to end the bloodshed and the suffering in Afghanistan, tackle terrorism effectively and enduringly, as well as stabilise Afghanistan and secure South Asia as a stable region, all he needs to do is to turn away from the great game, and instead seek an inclusive inter-Afghan settlement facilitated by a genuine regional peace process. The existential choice is whether he will break with the past U.S. policies out of principle. Surely, as Adm. Mullen’s statements underscore, Mr. Obama will run into the vested interests of the U.S. security establishment, the military-industrial complex, Big Oil and the influential corpus of cold warriors who are bent on pressing ahead. India must, therefore, take note that the war in the Hindu Kush enters a decisive phase for the New American Century project.
The need arises for India to revive close consultations with Russia and Iran with which we have profound shared concerns over the Afghan problem and regional security. We must steer an independent policy towards Iran as a factor of regional stability. It is not in the interests of Russia, Iran and India to abandon Afghanistan to the U.S.-U.K.-Pakistan-Saudi condominium. They must use their influence on Afghan groups to chisel a regional peace initiative. In a helpful departure, China also took a differentiated approach to the recent U.N. Security Council move regarding Pakistani militant outfits, which we must take note of and build on. Finally, of course, while there is a time for everything, India must eventually resume the arduous search to make Pakistan a stakeholder in good neighbourly relations. The U.S. factor complicates this search, which is best undertaken bilaterally.
The wheel has come full circle. Those who sold us the dream of a U.S.-India strategic partnership are nowhere to be seen.
(The writer is a former ambassador and Indian Foreign Service officer.)