Russia and NATO’s Afghan supply routes

Time for the West to mend fences with Iran’s neighbours

It’s unclear if US and NATO policy-makers are looking at maps of Afghanistan and its surroundings. How do they think they are going to supply their troops in landlocked Afghanistan? The supply lines through Pakistan are coming under increasing attack by Taliban militants. Bad relations with Iran mean that a route from the Persian Gulf transiting Iran is out of bounds. And now, an escalation in tensions with Russia could mean that yet another route is under threat.

It is unlikely that the US and NATO can afford to lose these supply routes, not least in the face of a resurgent Taliban.

Western strategists should pull out their maps. Even as they prevent relations with Russia from deteriorating any further, they would do well to begin engaging Iran. [See lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement]

Pragati Podcast – August 2008

Debating Afghanistan policy

Should India send troops to Afghanistan?. Listen to the debate in the August 2008 podcast edition of Pragati.

Listen Online (17:30 mins)
[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/pragati/Podcast_5_-_Issue_17_-_August_2008.mp3]

Download MP3 (8 MB)


My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power

Why India must strengthen its military presence in Afghanistan

In today’s op-ed in Mint Sushant and I call for India to increase its troop levels in Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of the following appeared in print.

Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint
Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint

Afghanistan exported US$1 billion worth of drugs last year. In contrast, its pomegranate exports amounted to only US$1 million. Poppies or pomegranates, the Afghan farmers who grow them earn around the same amount of money—around US$2000 per hectare every year. If somehow they could be made to grow a lot more pomegranates, and a lot less poppy, Afghanistan, India and the world would be a much better place indeed.

That’s because growing pomegranates and other legitimate cash crops requires water, electricity and most importantly access to foreign markets. Now, much of the international assistance flowing into Afghanistan aims to build and repair dams and connect villages to the electricity network. India, for instance, is financing irrigation projects in Northwest Afghanistan and power projects in Herat and Kabul.
But the one Indian project that could transform Afghanistan’s economic landscape is the just completed 218km road link connecting the town of Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj adjacent to the border with Iran. From there Iranian roads run to the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf. This will be Afghanistan’s fastest overland route to the sea. Last year, because they had to be air-flown, only 1000 of the 40,000 metric tonnes of Afghan pomegranates made it to markets in India, Dubai, Singapore and Pakistan. With the new road, Afghan farmers can export a larger fraction of their produce to the rapidly expanding Indian market. The competition from this route will compel Pakistan to review its policy of throttling the Afghan transit trade. In time, the Zaranj-Delaram road can be expanded into a trade and energy corridor that connects landlocked Central Asia to Indian and global markets.

This sounds wonderful, and it is. The problem, however, is that its success hinges on two key factors: on Afghanistan’s stability and on the nature of relations between India, Iran and the United States.
Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power”

Robert Kaplan misses the plot

Any outside power in Afghanistan will be at loggerheads with Pakistan

In this month’s issue of the Atlantic monthly (linkthanks Anuj Tiku) Robert Kaplan argues that unless the United States addresses “what’s angering the ISI, we won’t be able to stabilize Afghanistan or capture al-Qaeda leaders inside its borders.” And “given these realities, you would think that the Bush administration would be coaching the Karzai government not to antagonize Pakistan unnecessarily by cozying up to India. Whatever coaching did happen has failed. The Karzai government has openly and brazenly strengthened its ties with India…(and) driven the ISI wild with fear and anger.”

So instead of “simplistic” talk of “sending more American troops to Afghanistan”, Mr Kaplan recommends “vigorous shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi to address India’s and Pakistan’s fears about Afghanistan.” Mr Kaplan doesn’t say what the diplomacy will be shuttled around, but judging by his argument that the ISI must not be angered, it would perhaps entail the United States asking India to scale down its relationship with Afghanistan.

Mr Kaplan is a self-described realist. But the problem is that his policy prescriptions are based on an incomplete analysis of the situation. For instance, he correctly points out that America’s “interests are now more or less aligned with those of the Soviets 20 years ago.” But he then abandons realism when he says, in the next sentence, “but rather than repeat their mistakes, we need to strive to prevent Pakistan from turning into the enemy of the American-backed government in Kabul”. Mr Kaplan fails to grasp the reality that any regime in Kabul—whether independent or backed by an outside power—will remain at loggerheads with Pakistan. It’s not only the Indian influence that the ISI is angry with. It is first the American influence. It is also the reason why Pakistan was a FATWAT and a backer of the Taliban at the same time for the last seven years.

So what does realism suggest for the United States? Well, as Mr Kaplan says, it should not repeat the mistakes made by the Soviets. One reason the Soviets lost that war was because they didn’t (and couldn’t) credibly threaten to attack Pakistan. The only way the United States can win the war is to create a balance of power in Afghanistan where the Pakistan—despite an angry ISI—cannot destabilise the Afghan government. And that is pretty much aligned to India’s interests too.

Related Posts: Nikolas Gvosdev and Joshua Foust get it.

Update: Pragmatic Euphony covers recent posts and articles on this theme.

Pragati August 2008: Should India send troops to Afghanistan?

Issue 17 - Aug 2008
Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

Making a leader
Excerpts from a lecture on leadership and discipline
Sam HFJ Manekshaw

Our voice in our history
Academic freedom, private funding and historical research
Jayakrishnan Nair

Letters
On whether or not India has a coherent foreign policy

FILTER
A survey of think-tanks
On China policy; Fixing the FATA; An Indo-Israeli alliance?
Vijay Vikram

IN DEPTH
Hold steady in Afghanistan
India is on the right track and it should stay that way
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza

A bigger military presence is essential
…if India is to shape Afghanistan’s future
Sushant K Singh

The myth of Taliban tribalism
The folly of trying to set tribes against each other
Joshua Foust

IN PARLIAMENT
Monsoon Session 2008—What’s in store
Legislative brief
Sarita Vanka

ROUNDUP
When it’s good to slow down
The why and what next about rising inflation
V Anantha Nageswaran

The historical roots of the services sector
…calls for a strategy that plays to India’s strengths
Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta

Profiting from education
Resistance against commercialisation is fruitless
Atanu Dey

BOOKS
Four books about Pakistan
On nuclear proliferation, military politics and society
Nitin Pai

The ISI in the dock

Two many Musharrafs…and too much noise

The gloves have come off. The US government has let it become known that not only was the ISI responsible for the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, but also cut the kerry that went by the name of “rogue elements” (who used to do things like passing information to the Taliban or fly C-130s to North Korea). This is a historic day in the history of US-Pakistan relations—and an unfortunate one in the career of Yusuf Raza Gilani. Not because the US government offered proof to the Pakistani government that the ISI has been up to some very naughty things. But rather, because the US government told the rest of the world about it, albeit through the New York Times.

So what happens next? Well, it’s hard to say. In the good old days, the army chief would issue orders to the commander of the X Corps in Rawalpindi, who would, in turn, task the commander of the 111 Brigade to hop over across the bridge and take control of the government. That is tough these days. Because taking control of the government is not a predicament that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani will wish onto himself. Forget those uppity lawyers and just-won’t-retire judges, who wants to go to the White House, and pleasantries and photographs done, to answer questions like “Who is in control of the ISI?”.

Asif Ali Zardari might well have found a whipping boy in Prime Minister Gilani, but these are ultimately his problems. To be sure, reforming the ISI is a solution—for the United States and for India, and most importantly, for Pakistan itself. But to execute it will be a political task of the toughest kind. It will require popular and elite support, it will require determination and will, and it will require great tact. Other than some popular support, Mr Zardari lacks the rest. If last weekend’s fiasco over the ISI is any indication, Mr Zardari looks like he is way out of his depth.

For the time being, as Bruce Riedel put it, every meal the US troops eat, and every bullet they shoot arrives in Afghanistan courtesy of the Pakistani military. The US government might authorise more missile hits from unmanned aerial vehicles, but this is limited by the counter-productive effects caused by the collateral damage. Unless the US is ready to explore alternative ways—a rapprochement with Iran comes to mind—this is about as much the US can do.

What does all this mean for India? Well, the good news is that the Pakistani government has almost no wiggle room left on ending its support for the Taliban enterprise. The bad news is that the Pakistani ‘government’ is nowhere near being in charge of the Taliban enterprise. Where once there were two players India had to engage—those who control its jihadis and those who control its nukes—it now has to engage them through those who make the speeches. C Raja Mohan argues that “India needs several simultaneous policies towards Pakistan”, ranging from shaping Pakistan’s internal politics, to direct talks between the two armies, to signaling that India is ready to impose a two-front war on Pakistan. The Pakistani army is unlikely to be warm up to the first two, but a two-front war? They’ll probably have to game that before making up their mind, not least because the US Congress is said to be linking aid to developmental goals.

Oh, the delicacy

Superman, Batman and rogue elements in Pakistan’s security apparatus

A senior CIA official, we are told, traveled to Pakistan this month “to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.”

The New York Times report deals a delicate blow to the visiting Pakistani prime minister. The blow is blunt enough to connect the Pakistani establishment to the Taliban and al Qaeda, but careful enough to provide “Pakistan’s most senior officials” with an exit—for “it is unclear whether the CIA officials have concluded that contacts between the ISI and militant groups are blessed at the highest levels of Pakistan’s spy service and military, or are carried out by rogue elements of Pakistan’s security apparatus.”

Another delicacy: it reports that the CIA presented evidence of the ISI-Taliban nexus responsible for the resurgence in Taliban violance “possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul”. But also that while “Afghanistan’s government has publicly accused the ISI of having a hand in the attack”, it is an “assertion American officials have not corroborated.”

So was this trigger for last weekend’s botched attempt by Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani to bring the ISI under ‘civilian control’? Possibly. In the event, the CIA official’s effort didn’t amount to much. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has demonstrated that it is he who is in charge of the ISI and would prefer to remain so. And that delicate thing about “rogue elements” is only a crutch for those who can’t stomach the reality.

Dropping more cash from helicopters

Change should not be another word for more of the same

Jim Hoagland’s piece on how the US should transform its Pakistan policy gets it exactly, precisely right.

And it is the case with the campaign promises of John McCain and Barack Obama to unleash ever-larger flows of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Pakistan as a way of bringing stability there and to win the global war on terrorism. They, too, would drop cash from helicopters to calm fears.

That same approach to Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf failed the Bush presidency, and it will fail new leaders in Washington and Islamabad as well. What is needed is a daring reformulation of U.S. policy toward South Asia.

Pakistan has created the world’s toughest foreign policy challenge. Its military and civilian governments have for decades profited from stirring tribal warfare in Afghanistan, then been too frightened of or complicit with their own fundamentalists to push for significant social change at home.

But Qureshi was persuasive when he outlined his determination to improve relations with India. His recent trips there convince him that the two nations must put aside hostility and help make each other rich: “We must capitalize on this opportunity.”

India’s growing economic power will leave its neighbor in the dust unless Pakistan becomes part of that prosperity. Pakistan’s future will be determined by its relations with India, not by increased U.S. aid or maintaining its support for tribal war in Afghanistan.

Recognizing and acting on that Indo-Pak reality — rather than perpetuating the illusion that the United States controls Pakistan’s fate — are the urgent tasks for new governments in Washington and Islamabad. [WP]

Clearly, the task is daunting because US policy must change Pakistani mindsets and attitudes. [See a review of Farzana Versey’s book at Pragmatic Euphony.] It certainly is a whole lot harder than dropping cash from helicopters. Moreover, as Joshua Foust writes, the dream of setting Pashtun tribes against each other is removed from reality, as it ignores the Islamist transformation of Pashtun society over the last three decades.

Change must come from within Pakistan. It is in the United States’ interests to make it happen. For India’s part, instead of focusing on peripheral, irrelevant projects like military lines on glaciers or bus services in Kashmir, a real peace process would strategically engage the sources of economic power across the border.

More on India’s military presence in Afghanistan

Over at Broadsword (linkthanks Pragmatic, Rohit), Ajai Shukla makes a curious case against India strengthening its military presence in Afghanistan.

To now throw troops into what will inevitably become a bloody struggle for power risks smudging India’s benevolent image.

Instead, Indian planners should be considering that, perhaps three years along, US and NATO forces may pull out of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai would be history, and Afghanistan itself divided into different zones of control. In that Afghanistan, India’s physical presence may well be reduced to zero. The ITBP would have pulled out; development projects would have shut down; elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country; the embassy and India’s consulates may well have closed shop. This is what happened in 1996; today, only American and European support—fickle, and already wavering—prevents a return to that time.

But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that, but remains unwilling to….The army brass in Pakistan—which will eventually have the final word on this—has not yet come round to accepting that the military has little choice but to transform the NWFP from a sanctuary to a battlefield.

Without that realisation in Rawalpindi, a couple of years more of rising casualties in Afghanistan could well trigger a US and NATO pullout.[Broadsword]

Now, one part of Mr Shukla’s argument is reasonable: that it is crucial for India to consider the effect its level of military presence has on the local population. It is difficult to fathom the logic of the rest of his arguments.

Mr Shukla underestimates the US commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. Far from even talking about cutting and running, both presidential candidates have committed to reinforce American military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is upping the ante in the Afghan theatre. If the situation can be cast as a battle of resolves, then a “realisation in Rawalpindi” is more likely than a pullout by the United States.

In this situation, the prospect of India deploying more troops to Afghanistan can change the strategic calculations of the Pakistani brass. As Lieutenant-General (retired) Talat Masood writes, the Pakistani army continues to think that the Taliban can be used as frontline options against US troops along the Durand Line (just as it uses jihadis against the Indian army). But the prospect of Indian troops joining the fray, albeit in Afghan territory, would discourage the Pakistani army from pursuing this course. And even if it doesn’t, it still makes sense for India to prevent Pakistan from repeating its 1996 performance in Afghanistan, one that had severe consequences for India’s national security.

Believing and acting on a pessimistic prognosis might well bring it about. Far from discarding the military option out of pessimism or concern for the erosion of ‘soft power’, it is important to keep it on the table.

The road that India built

…in Afghanistan

Zaranj-Delaram Map

The 218-km road connecting Delaram (on the Kandahar-Herat highway) to Zaranj, on the border with Iran has been completed (via Swami Iyer). The strategic importance of this road—as news reports never fail to mention—is to provide landlocked Afghanistan an alternative access to the sea, allowing it to break free from Pakistan’s traditional stranglehold.

Since this route passes through several hundred kilometres of Iranian territory before connecting to Chabahar on the Persian Gulf, it remains to be seen if Iran will prove to be a better neighbour than Pakistan. From a purely economic standpoint though, Afghanistan should benefit from the competition between the two routes.

There is a lot of hope pinned on this alternative route. For Afghanistan, this is an opportunity to regain better access to the Indian market that it lost in 1947. For India, it is an opportunity to regain better access to Central Asia that it too lost in 1947. To the extent that Pakistan remains wedded to its traditional strategic rent-seeking behaviour it is likely to attempt to foil these plans. And as the attack on the Indian embassy has shown, it remains wedded to old tactics as much as it is to old strategies.

This being so, it is strange that the India should be considering withdrawing four companies (around 400 personnel) of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police currently deployed in Afghanistan. There is a case for a robust Indian military presence in Afghanistan; with force levels carefully calibrated, on the one hand to secure Indian interests, and on the other, to avoid being seen by the local population as an ‘occupying’ force. Reducing India’s military presence at a critical phase in Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency war is uncalled for at this stage.