What Karzai seeks from India

How India’s Afghanistan policy might shape up

Suryatapa Bhattarcharya sought my views on Hamid Karzai’s visit to India for his report that appears in today’s edition of The National.

Here is the full version of the Q&A.

What is it that Karzai is seeking from India when we talk about military aid?

What Karzai wants is for other powers to fill the power vacuum that will be created after US troops withdraw. Part of this will be filled by internal realignments—as anti-Taliban forces are likely to coalesce as they did in the 1990—and part of this will have to be filled by external powers.

Karzai’s trip to India is towards both these ends: to get India to use its political and diplomatic capital to shape a modern, liberal, democratic dispensation in Afghanistan; and possibly to employ military power as well.

(Related post: Let the Buzkashi begin—the implications of Obama’s policy shift on Afghanistan)

You have mentioned that it would be better to send Indian troops to Afghanistan (correct me if I wrong) but what sort of implications can that have?

The primary risk to India is a replay of the early 1990s, when militant alumni from the Afghan war were directed towards Jammu & Kashmir by the Pakistani military establishment. Today we still face that question: where do these fighters go? Tens of thousands of Taliban militants and hundreds of thousands of Pakistani militants pose a risk to their home countries as well as to the external world.

If there is a possibility of a 1990s-like situation recurring, India should not hesitate to deploy the necessary military assets to counter the threat. It also makes sense to use a judicious combination of intelligence and security operations to prevent such a threat from materialising.

Karzai is seeking military support as NATO troops pull out. Are they seeking more support for their military institutions in Afghanistan or looking for more support vis a vis the deal signed between India and Afghanistan in 2011?

The situation is still in a state of flux, regardless of what Karzai is asking for at this time. There is no doubt that Afghan army, intelligence and security forces need technical assistance and training. The entire Afghan state apparatus needs capacity-building.

We must see India’s role in Afghanistan as a comprehensive support for the Afghan state. This is consistent with India’s policy over the last decade — alone among international actors, India has chosen to work through the Afghan government.

The question is, of course, whether all this will survive without hard military support. Let’s not underestimate the Afghans—with a supportive external environment they can protect their country.

How does this affect India’s relationship with Pakistan, given the recent troubles Afghanistan has had with Pakistan over border issues?

It’s a balancing act. It’s one that New Delhi is capable of managing.

Karzai’s tightrope

Pakistan’s opposition to an autonomous Afghanistan is the problem

My op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia‘s symposium (Nov 15th, 2011):

As the Obama administration pushes for an earlier drawdown of U.S. troops, Kabul must quickly take responsibility for maintaining internal stability and charting an independent foreign policy. We asked four analysts—Michael O’Hanlon, Marin Strmecki, Amin Saikal and Nitin Pai—how Kabul should address the challenge.

The heart of Afghanistan’s problem is that its natural desire for autonomy provokes strong resistance from Pakistan. Islamabad perceives anything less than a satellite regime as inimical to its interests, in turn driving Kabul to seek autonomy by reaching out to India, Iran, Russia and China.

This vicious cycle of insecurity can be broken in two ways: reconfigure the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, or change geopolitical attitudes in Pakistan. The latter is decidedly more painless, but requires getting Pakistan’s generals to change their minds. It is not going to be easy.

Afghanistan then has to look for other solutions. To some extent, the Afghan state can look to New Delhi because India faces significant risks in the short term from a U.S. withdrawal.

Triumphant militants and their backers in the Pakistani military establishment, fresh from defeating a superpower, might decide to turn their attention to Kashmir. This is what happened in the early 1990s when Pakistani and other foreign veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan edged out local militants in the Kashmir valley and began one of the most violent phases of Pakistan’s proxy war.

Hence India doesn’t want a repeat of the 1990s. There is however a sense in New Delhi that 2011 is not 1991. Only the most credulous today accept Pakistani denials that it does not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The good news then is that international pressure on Pakistan is likely to persist even after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

Even so, New Delhi is hedging in four ways. First, as the recent agreements signed by President Karzai and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh show, India intends to further bolster the capacity of the Afghan state to provide for its own security. Training Afghan troops allows India the flexibility to raise or lower its security investments, depending on circumstances.

Second, India is strengthening its relationships with Afghan political formations opposed to the Taliban. Third, it is attempting to improve bilateral relations with Pakistan, to the extent possible. Fourth, New Delhi is cooperating with other nations to keep the conflict contained within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Kabul has its own internal problems that bedevil its foreign policy. The strategic logic in Mr. Karzai’s attempts at striking a balance in Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors has been often overshadowed by the perception that his actions are mercurial and clumsy. That means his new friends in New Delhi, Beijing or in Moscow—with whom he is trying to get closer—may look at him with some wariness.

What’s more, Mr. Karzai is keeping the Pakistani channel open at the same time. In this he faces determined domestic opposition from quarters that disapprove of his dalliances with Pakistan and its proxies. All of this makes for a heart-stopping tightrope act.

Mr. Pai is founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank.

Copyright © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Weekday Squib: Jimmy Jimmy in Tajikistan

What would India’s soft power be without Bappi?

In its June 2009 edition, the Proceedings of the Centre for Soft Power Studies reported how Jimmy Zingchak holds sway over the people of Kazakhstan. Today it brings to your attention the wonderful Tajik Jimmy—whose career mirrors that of the Jimmy incarnation. Baimurat Allaberiyev, who herded sheep for a salary of one lamb per month is now rocking Russia.

Rejecting Rebiya Kadeer’s visa application

…was a prudent and astute move by New Delhi

Rebiya Kadeer is indeed a remarkable woman. In recent weeks—not least due to China’s propaganda campaign to demonise her—she has emerged internationally as the best known symbol of Uighur separatism in China’s Xinjiang province. She has unequivocally advocated a non-violent political struggle, claimed that she is inspired by the Dalai Lama’s principles and is almost surely sustained by US government funding.

The Calcutta Telegraph reports that India has denied her a visa (linkthanks Pragmatic Euphony via twitter). That is both prudent and astute. Whatever the merits of the Uighur cause, it is not in India’s interests to further escalate the level of direct antagonism with Beijing. Doing so would almost certainly draw attention away from the real faultline: between China and Turkic-Islamic world.

The ethnic riots in Xinjiang have caused a major rift in China’s relations with Turkey, after Receb Tayyib Erdogan, the popular Turkish prime minister, accused Beijing of conducting genocide and suggesting that it be taken up at the UN Security Council. China-Turkey bilateral relations are at a low. The Central Asian republics are also likely to be re-examining their own positions with respect to relations with China.

In contrast, the ‘Muslim world’ of popular imagination—the one that President Barack Obama spoke to in Cairo—has been conspicuously silent. Apart from a threat by a North African ‘affiliate’ of al-Qaeda, even the tapeworm and his traveling videographic studio has been silent about Chinese atrocities on Xinjiang’s Muslims. It is understandable that the regimes of such representatives of the ‘Muslim world’ as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are beholden to Beijing but even the civil society in these countries has given China the pass. But if the Uighur unrest continues, it is likely that Islamabad, Riyadh and Tehran will be put in an uncomfortable but well-deserved position. [Update: Rohit Pradhan notes that “Death to China” chants were heard at Rafsanjani’s rally in Tehran]

India should let the issue play out among the direct and self-appointed stakeholders. Intervening in a way that China sees as unfriendly will only draw the heat away and give the megaphone-wielding, concern-expressing capitals of the ‘Muslim world’ an undeserved reprieve.

The issue of an Indian visa for Ms Kadeer is only of symbolic importance. If she wants to meet the Dalai Lama, she could catch up with him on his travels abroad.

Will SCO hold?

Jolt if not toast

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) was born out of China’s desire to engage the Muslim Central Asian states in a co-operative framework to keep a lid on separatism in Xinjiang. Along with Russia, these states came together to address the threats from “terrorism, separatism and extremism”, the “three forces”, for short.

Now, the Chinese authorities have blamed the ongoing riots in Xinjiang on the same “three forces.” But it is quite likely that the largely Muslim population of Central Asiawill see the situation for what it is—repression of the Uighur population—and sympathise with their religious and ethnic counterparts. [Beyond Central Asia, the Gulf countries have already expressed concern and and a Turkish minister has called for a boycott of Chinese goods. Turkey might also raise the issue at the UN Security Council.]

Popular anti-China sentiment might not immediately translate into political action given that Central Asia is ruled by authoritarian regimes. Even so, these governments cannot afford to be seen as too close to the oppressors of the Uighur people. If the unrest continues, the Central Asian republics will be forced to review their current—“but it’s China’s internal affair”—position.

Even otherwise, it will be harder now for the presidents of the Central Asian republics to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the president of China against the “three forces.” So it might well be that this year’s summit in Moscow was SCO’s high water mark. It is too early to predict the end of the SCO but the Uighur revolt will give it a jolt.

Routes and regimes

…and the Indian wisdom concerning mangoes and trees

It is impossible to eschew sarcasm when you read that the alternative supply route through the Central Asian states “could leave the United States more reliant on cooperation from authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have poor records when it comes to democracy and human rights.”

One would think that their current supply route runs through Canada.

Another Cold War?

The West risks causing one

In a recent exchange on on this article, Zorawar Daulet Singh (who had covered this theme in the November 2007 issue of Pragati) had this to say:

It was and is not in Russian interest to start a Cold War. But the facts are pretty clear, the conflict in Caucasus was precipitated by the US who egged on the Georgians. The US completely miscalculated the Russian response, assuming it would bark but not bite (perhaps not an unreasonable assumption given the last 15 years, where Russia was too weak to respond with a credible use of force). But its been increasingly clear over the last two years or so, that the Kremlin has the economic/political/military coherence to respond with multiple instruments on its near abroad. Clearly, the US didnt take any of this seriously, and kept pushing eastwards.

Russia has now demonstrated that US/NATO post-1991 gains in Eastern Europe have reached their territorial limits in terms of new states that can now enter the western alliance, which is why they demonstrated their resolve using Georgia as an example for Russia’s red lines. (For instance, Ukraine could very well be the next battleground.)

But note what Russian President Dimitri Medvedev is saying—Russia does not wish a cold war, but is ready for it if the US wishes to raise the ante. At the same time, Old Europe will need to determine whether rising instability/conflict on their frontiers is more importan than Russian gas.

Bottom line: the Russians didnt start this Cold War, but will respond in kind if US doesn’t back down. Tangentially, US actions might be motivated in part by atleast the ongoing presidential campaign and the prevailing security establishment’s objectives to buttress the probability of a victory for Republican candidate John McCain. (The assumption is a reheating of the Cold War would diminish Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s chances in November).

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]

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

Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (2)

The geopolitical implications of the new route to Central Asia

Commenting on India-US relations after the UPA government won the vote of confidence last week, Nikolas Gvosdev contends that Iran will remain as the key stumbling block for improved bilateral relations. Well, it doesn’t have to be.

A realist re-appraisal of the geopolitics of Central Asia will indicate that the United States and India are among those who lack good access to the region. China and Russia have an upper hand as they not only have borders with Central Asian states, but have extended their influence over gateways to the region. Once the Iran-Afghanistan corridor becomes operational, India will have an opportunity to improve its access to Central Asia. As Dr Gvosdev points out, the United States could benefit too:

There are even some positives for the US—a new trade route that provides an alternative to Central Asia’s continuing dependence on Russian export routes; a new alternative to China; another “brick” in the stabilization of Afghanistan by opening up trade and providing fees. [The Washington Realist]

Now, access to Central Asia is only one element of in US calculations: but if American policymakers understand that thirty years is long enough a time to be miffed, they will find that better relations with Iran not only solves many of their problems, but also that this has become necessary. The Bush administration’s recent decision to send a diplomat to join the Europe-Iran talks in Geneva and Barack Obama’s willingness to break the ice with Iran are therefore steps in the right direction.

At the very least, to the extent Iran is a ‘stumbling block’, a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests (see previous post). This will require proactive diplomacy on India’s part. But it won’t be difficult to generate domestic support for such a project. And why, it’ll take wind out of the sails of those who are against better relations with the United States.