How India might ‘lose’ Afghanistan

Would you co-operate with a mere regional power if you feel you have beaten two superpowers?

Kanti Bajpai is one of India’s best academic experts on international relations—and one who this blog holds in high regard. His op-ed in the Times of India today (linkthanks Raja Karthikeya Gundu), however, overlooks something big.

Arguing that India must stop relying on the United States to stabilise Afghanistan and “discipline Pakistan” he calls for “Indian policy on Afghanistan must move towards a regional understanding that includes in the first instance Pakistan and perhaps Iran.”

The fundamental compact between India and Pakistan must be of a simple, robust nature: that both countries have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. India has an interest in overall stability and the protection of northern, non-Pashtun Afghans as well as various other minorities including Sikhs and Hindus. Pakistan also has an interest in the country’s stability and in the Pashtuns finding their rightful place in any future government of Afghanistan. India and Pakistan could agree therefore that India will continue to provide developmental aid and that Pakistan will have influence on political developments, the goal of both countries being to help evolve a lasting, just and inclusive political system…In addition, India must resume talks with Pakistan. [TOI]

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that either the Pakistani military-jihadi establishment will either play along or that it will cease to exist. And that is a big assumption. Moreover, the assumption is all the more unlikely to hold specifically in the event Dr Bajpai’s prediction of a US pullout by 2012 comes about.

Why so? First, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will perceive a US withdrawal as its second victory over a superpower. This will strengthen its hand in Pakistan’s domestic politics and further encourage it to escalate the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir. Indeed, triumph in Afghanistan will make the military-jihadi complex less likely to engage in meaningful dialogue with India over bilateral issues.

Second, once Western troops leave, and a pro-Pakistan regime gains control, why would the Pakistani military establishment want to permit Indian developmental aid? Isn’t it far more likely that it will approach China and Saudi Arabia for financial assistance, which the latter would readily provide?

If the Indian government goes ahead with Dr Bajpai’s recommendations before dismantling the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, it is likely to ‘lose’ Afghanistan to Pakistan & China.

The idea of India attempting to reach a regional understanding with Pakistan and Iran is a good one. It is exactly what the Indian government ought to do—right after the military-jihadi complex has been destroyed.


Update: Dr Bajpai responds:

Thank you for your thoughts on my piece.

I think Churchill said that democracy was the worst system except for all the others. A regional compact on Afghanistan is the worst alternative except for all the others.

The Vietnamese beat two superpowers as well—the French and the US. But it has not exactly got them very far.

The real issue is: what is most likely to give us a shot at stability and a long-term solution? The US cannot be part of a long-term solution because it is not in the region.

The reason that Pakistan might come to terms with India on it is that New Delhi is not likely this time to just pull out of Afghanistan in terms of its diplomatic and developmental presence. Pakistan cannot therefore count on having its way in Afghanistan. Also, a new Afghanistan, at some point, even if it dominated by the Taliban, will be a problem for Islamabad—on territory, on Islam.

The Islamic-jehadi complex in Pakistan has to be wrestled to the ground by the Pakistanis. The US will not be able to degrade it. As long as the Americans are in Afghanistan, there is not much chance that more moderate Pakistanis–in the ISI, in the rest of the Army, in civil society, in the political parties–will be able to root out the jehadis.

The Chinese are going to muscle in on Afghanistan sooner or later anyway. They are already putting in money. The Chinese are the next superpower, and they certainly cannot be kept out of Afghanistan if they don’t want to stay out. This is something we in India will have to accept. The Chinese are going to be everywhere—from Bhutan and Nepal to Bangladesh and Burma, from the Maldives to Sri Lanka. Their power is going to outstrip ours by some degrees for the next 35 years. They will find Afghanistan a difficult place to operate but given their fears about Xinjiang they will keep their involvement fairly limited, hoping that Pakistan will do the job.

15 thoughts on “How India might ‘lose’ Afghanistan”

  1. “In addition, India must resume talks with Pakistan.”

    I haven’t read the article but if he is prompting the Indian mandarins to resume talks for the sake of stabilising Afghanistan because a stable Afghanistan would lead to a prevention of future ’26/11s’ then he couldn’t be more mistaken.

    Any resumption of dialogue must take place with the safety of Indian citizens being held up as the paramount concern. Pakistan has eluded any pressure to act upon any evidence dispplaying its complicity in 26/11 due to the Af-Pak situation it has created up north. Any stabilisation of Afghanistan does not necessarily mean they will run out of excuses. They have to annihilate the MJC if they want to peace a chance.

  2. Mr. Bajpai writes:
    “The reason that Pakistan might come to terms with India on it is that New Delhi is not likely this time to just pull out of Afghanistan in terms of its diplomatic and developmental presence. Pakistan cannot therefore count on having its way in Afghanistan. ”

    I see, so when the US pulls out and the Indian diplomatic enclaves are left to fend for themselves, “New Delhi” will ward off hordes of terrorists with diplomatic skills, is it? Just asserting “Pakistan cannot therefore continue on having its way in Afghanisthan” is no argument, regardless of what “inside info” one claims to possess. Pakistan has more capabilities to retain control of Afghanisthan than India does, and no amount intellectualizing Afghanisthan in New Delhi will change this.

    “The Islamic-jehadi complex in Pakistan has to be wrestled to the ground by the Pakistanis. The US will not be able to degrade it. As long as the Americans are in Afghanistan, there is not much chance that more moderate Pakistanis–in the ISI, in the rest of the Army, in civil society, in the political parties–will be able to root out the jehadis.”

    So let us get this straight:

    1) The USA will leave the Pakistani jihadi complex untouched in Afghanisthan
    2) The Pakistanis who refuse to clean up the jehadis today will suddenly grow a conscience and start to clean them up after america leaves

    If such “logic” is permitted:

    3) After Pakistan has cleared its jehadi problem it will join a beneficial relationship with India
    4) Many young Indians will choose to have babies with young Pakistan for a more loving and peaceful subcontinent.

    I fail to see why people like Mr. Bajpai are taken seriously by Indians.

  3. “Pakistan has more capabilities to retain control of Afghanisthan than India does, and no amount intellectualizing Afghanisthan in New Delhi will change this.”

    To expand on this — Pakistan can easily create mayhem in Afghanisthan as the recent Khost bombing shows, where took on the CIA and the mighty USA. If Mr. Bajpai wants to make arbitrary assertions like “India must talk to Pakistan”, he needs to provide a list of Indian capabilities to counter Pakistan Military-jihad machine and its capabilities to create controlled mayhem in Afghanisthan.

    In the absence of such a list, one can only presume that Mr. Bajpai is talking through his hat when he demands that India resume talks with Pakistan.

  4. I enjoyed the comments of Murthy and Pankaj. I won’t respond to the name calling! But let me essay some further thoughts.

    My fundamental premise is that the US will not be able to bring stability or democracy to Afghanistan–for military reasons and for political reasons (it is simply not liked by Pashtuns and particularly by the Taliban who are prepared to fight to the last American). Second, the US’s operations are radicalizing Pakistan even more. In this situation, and with the US likely to pull out in 3-4 years, it is a good idea to explore the possibility of a regional approach.

    With the US gone, Taliban unity and Pashtun radicalization could ease. Pakistani extremists would also not find it that easy to get support from those Pakistanis who don’t like the US (most Pakistanis apparently). The Taliban in Afghanistan and the extremists in Pakistan don’t have to develop a love for India at that point, but they will likely have to recognize that India, unlike the US, cannot quit the region and will therefore continue to support a moderate Karzai or Karzai like government with the help of former Northern forces groups. And Indian development activity will bolster a non-Taliban government. I am assuming that with the US gone, the Karzai or successor government does not collapse. If it does, Indian help to rebel forces in the north can be funneled through Iran and Central Asia. So there are some incentives for the Taliban to come to term with India as well. On the Pakistani side, with the US gone, there may be triumphalism amongst their sympathizers and handlers, but there will also be many who will be worried by extremism. They can now oppose the extremists without sounding like American stooges. Also, contradictions between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban may emerge with the Americans having pulled out. India may find it has cards to play in such a situation. At the same time, reducing extremism in Pakistan can be helped by negotiations with Pakistan. In 1993, we nearly had agreements on Siachen, Wullar, and Sir Creek. Agreements on these are possible even now and might help the more moderate elements in Pakistan to show that they have had some “successes” with India. These agreements should of course protect Indian interests.

    In essence, I am saying that the more the US stays, the more likely the jehadis will become entrenched and difficult to root out. Everything is uncertain and has its risks, but a regional strategy may be worth trying. US efforts to degrade jehadi capabilities in the meantime are not useless obviously–they may help set the stage for a regional solution later on.

    The US surge could have succeeded if it had been bigger, much bigger, perhaps another 100,000 troops. But surely that will never be on the cards. If not, then something like a regional solution is not such a lalala idea!

  5. Dr Bajpai,

    Good to see you in this neck of the woods.

    One of the things that has struck me is that there is a general presumption that (a) the ‘surge’ will fail and (b) notwithstanding this, the United States will pull out by 2012.

    So most of the analysis that we see in the media proceeds on the basis of what India needs to do in this scenario.

    However, there is a chance that the ‘surge’ will succeed, as it did in Iraq (albeit for different reasons) and, notwithstanding this, the United States might stay beyond 2012 if the tide turns in its favour. What should India do then? [Will Barack Obama risk the label of the president who lost Afghanistan, and the parallels with Jimmy Carter?]

    My fear is that a triumphant US will decide to shape the post-conflict situation without regard to Indian interests, because India desisted from investing in the project earlier on.

    Would be keen to hear your views on this.

  6. Sorry if I offended you, Mr. Bajpai. Not my intention at all. I would edit my posts if I could.

  7. The war is already lost in Afghanistan, and the attempts to destabalize Pakistan from Afghanistan have been effective in damaging Pakistan but in no way was enough to get the Pakistani army to take on the Afghan Taliban or break Pakistan. In other words the U.S mission in Afghanistan has been a total absolute disaster, which the U,S Military is trying to hide. The surge worked in Iraq, because the U.S struck a deal with Iran, even the leader of Iraq is now practically an Iranian proxy, USA had no choice but to do this, and then declare victory.

    With Pakistan however it seems Pakistan wants total victory in Afghanistan even if it means loosing lives inside Pakistan. The idea of Containing Pakistan and the Chinese superpower now for India seems next to impossible, Uncle Sam simply cannot have a big enough prescence. India”s best bet is to give Kashmir Back to Pakistan, and lets be real Most Kashmiri’s side with Pakistan, and then declare eternal peace. The truth is outside of the land conflict with India over Kashmir Pakistanis do love Indians, wouldnt mind buying a Tata Nano and listening to their favourite Bollywood tunes. Its just Kashmir that wreaks everything between the 2. Thus this is the solution to offer India.

  8. Dear Mr. Bajpai,

    Why do you assume that after a US departure, the Pakistanis will “wrestle the Jihadi-military” complex to the ground, and not simply extend the holy war on to Kashmir, or other parts of India? This is exactly what happened in 1989, after the Soviets left Afghanistan with Najibullah.

    If the Americans do leave by 2012 then does not leave less political space for Pakistani civilian politicians relative to their militant/radical counterparts in the army or other para military outfits?

    Th question then is what is it about elements in the Pakistani armed forces that will transform them into wanting to pin down the forces of extremism? Or do you see some elements of “re-generation” in Pakistani politics that can overcome extremism broadly in favor of the rule of law, impart better governance, and stabilize domestic politics?

    I sympathize with Nitin’s idea that the military-jihadi complex will have to be significantly degraded by unrelenting (and fungible, if needed) force from US and India. Ultimately, the Pakistanis must have a choice of either having a reasonable modicum of influence in Afghanistan or losing their nuclear weapons. They cannot/should not have both. That should be the objective between now and 2012. In view of this, I expect a significant pick up in the amount of pressure on Pakistan in coming days/months.

    Regards,

    Andy.

  9. Adnan wrote:
    “India”s best bet is to give Kashmir Back to Pakistan, and lets be real Most Kashmiri’s side with Pakistan, and then declare eternal peace. The truth is outside of the land conflict with India over Kashmir Pakistanis do love Indians,”

    Really now? Perhaps you could explain Pakistani terrorist attacks at 100s of locations outside of the Indian state of J&K, if the Pakistanis are “only interested in resolving the land conflict”. If you need your memory refreshed, please let me know, and I can provide a time-ordered list of such attacks outside J&K and the 1000s of Indian victims to Pakistani terror in those attaqcks.

    “Hand Kashmir to Pakistan and you will get land for peace” is a load of dangerous tripe that will do NOTHING to resolve India’s Pakistani terrorism problem. Of course, such gifting of Indian land may make Pakistani more amenable to US’s demands on Pakistan in fighting the US’s enemies on Pakistani soil, but that does nothing for India or its interests.

  10. Prof. Bajpai makes perfect sense as far as regional reconciliation between Pakistan and India is concerned. But his prognoses about a post-2012 situation in the region ignores the current dynamic that exists within the Pakistani establishment. Pakistan continues to see India as a greater threat than the Taliban and it shields its Punjab based terror groups with a strategic purpose to utilize them against India. What huge incentive can India provide to Pakistan for changing this public and state perception? The article doesn’t clarify WHY Pakistan would be tempted for regional cooperation in Afghanistan.
    Besides, Prof. Bajpai presumes that Kashmir will not be a huge bone of contention when India makes the regional cooperation proposal to Pakistan.I am also not convinced that there “is broad convergence on a Kashmir deal.” What exactly is the Kashmir deal at the first place?
    I think for now India’s position in Afghanistan is strong and it would weaken only if the US abandons the region completely. I am not sure if the US is going to take that risk any time soon.

  11. Where I must disagree with Mr Bajpai is in his hope that finally “The Islamic-jehadi complex in Pakistan has to be wrestled to the ground by the Pakistanis.”

    This seems unreasonable, because it is this very nexus that permits the Pak Army to remain predominant in Pakistan. Were it not for the nexus between the clergy and the army, democracy would have been flourishing there long ago. Both would lose hevily in a democratic Pakistan. It is in the interest of each group to perpetuate a Military – Jehadi complex and this is what they have been doing very successfully so far. There is no reason they will want to change now. If there were, they would have dismantled this nexus earlier, what stopped them?

    As to the Indian role in Afghanistan, it is perhaps naive to presume Pakistan would ever accept a situation where ” India will continue to provide developmental aid and that Pakistan will have influence on political developments,..” . If that could happen why isn’t it happening now? Right now, India is doing just that and it is this that makes Pakistan see red

    I think it is futile to consider Indo Afghan relations through the prism of Pakistani concerns. As far as I know, the Afghans are more than satisfied with the positive role India is playing there even now. That should remain the yardstick – Indo Afghan relations cannot be held hostage to Pakistani concerns. They should be based on the mutual interests of India and Afghanistan alone. Both, in turn, could attempt to convince Pakistan that they are not out to jeopardise Pak Afghan relations. Whether Pakistan will ever be convinced of that is the million dollar question.

  12. Position as on date
    1) Pakistan view: wait and watch and hope for the best
    2) India view: wait and watch and hope for the best
    3) Taliban / alqaida / TTP etc. view: wait and watch and hope for the best
    4) Iran view: wait and watch and hope for the best
    5) NATO / CHINA / OIC view: wait and watch and hope for the best.
    6) US view: home land security to be ensured by fight to destroy the alqaida / talian / TTP etc. + prevent the fall of pakistan / do not give overt advantage to any country (india, iran, pak, china etc)

    BUT YOU NEED TWO ACTIVE MEMBERS TO WIN A WAR

    now two hypothetical situations

    1) If US packs and leaves:
    taiban will not be able to run over afghanistan unlike earlier because other neighbours too have learnt their lesson. The inactive members will become active. war will involve the neighbouring countries. Durand line will cease to exist. Iran and India might change their borders.
    Pakistan will be in trouble. Afghanistan borders might change.

    2) If US stays to fight

    a) status quo unless war is taken into pakistan – eventual US leaves staus 1)
    b) war goes into pakistan – pakistan in trouble. repeat of scenario 1) with some modifications.

    Final analysis

    – pakistan in trouble any way
    – region in for a long haul
    – US will quit
    – JOKER IN THE PACK IS CHINA – the end might be see the rise of CHINA as a superpower

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