Can India match Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan?

Can India match Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan?

Irtiza Nasim Ali,
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It was in summer of 1987 that I first visited Afghan capital Kabul. Journalists from 26 countriesassembled in Moscow and then were flown to Kabul to attend a conference on a reconciliation program and see on ground its outreach. In the name of reconciliation the Soviets were doling out packages of ‘gifts’ to the tribal chiefs to allure them into supporting the Soviet-backed Najib government. The ‘gifts’ included anything from cash to camels. The war fatigue of the Soviet soldiers in Kabul was clearly visible. Those were the last days for the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-89 and with that the United States’ interest in Afghanistan also diminished.

It was by all means a war between the Soviets and the US fought on Afghan soil. The US was giving its enemy a hard-time with strong backing of its key ally, Pakistan. The Mujaheeds, armed by the US and trained by Pakistan, created havoc for the Soviets. Because of the war, there was great influx of refugees into neighbouring Pakistan. Peshawar was teeming with Afghan refugees helped and fed by the Pakistan authorities. The war ended with the Soviets withdrawing from the Afghan soil. The burden of war was heavy on Pakistan and the country carries the baggage down till today. The local terrorism that it is facing today is a fallout from those days. The US could not have defeated the Soviets without Pakistan’s help. Pakistan could not have done more.

The US invasion of Afghanistan, 2001

It was mid-October 2001 when I arrived in Peshawar. Winter was setting in and the evening breezes were chilly. Airport immigration was busy handling the influx of journalists and aid workers. The US had launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7 to dislodge the Taliban government as it refused to oust al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, the key suspect of 9/11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers.The city, being close to the border with Afghanistan,also shared a strong mental closeness with the ‘brothers’ across the border. In camps across the city, especially in market places like Qissa Khwani Bazaar and Clock Tower, people were invited over loud speakers to enrol for jihad against the ‘infidels’ (basically referring to the US forces) in Afghanistan. There were long queues of people eager to enlist themselves for jihad. Later I found these were more symbolic in nature. Not everyone who got enrolled would go and fight it out in Kabul. But this very well represented the sentiment. And Pakistan had to ‘manage’ this sentiment at home and give a ‘helping hand’ to the US to counter terrorism in Afghanistan. It was not done for money, but rather to bring about stability and to secure its backyard.

War psyche 

Visiting different Afghan refugee camps at various times mostly in Peshawar and FATA areas, the war psyche was tangible in every nook and cranny. Even children’s drawings reflected the war. They depicted the war with drawings of US fighters bombing Afghanistan, AK 47s and similar symbols of the conflict. Even the motifs on prayer mats had changed from the traditional minarets to tanks and machine guns. Long years of war honed children’s minds look upon the foreign forces as the ‘enemy’ and ‘infidels”.One has to understand that the present afghan population has 42% children who are growing up with this mindset.

Trump made his “pillion pick”

Trump has been smart enough to make Pakistan the scapegoat for all of America’s failures in Afghanistan. The initial media reaction as expected focused on Pakistan giving the US the opportunity to cover its ‘miscarriage’ in Afghanistan. If Pakistan has failed, so did the other players — NATO, India, the Afghan government, and all the more the US for being in the lead. And obviously America is not expecting to achieve any miracle by adding several thousand more boots on the Afghan soil. What 130,000 soldiers, 16 years and billions of dollars could not do, can’t be done by just upping the numbers.

Trump also made Modi his “pillion pick”. He had pointed to India as a partner for stabilizing Afghanistan. Modi might not for long enjoy the pillion ride with Trump – for one – he is not sure where Trump would be taking him. Many feel Trump himself is not sure of the destination.

And in the end, this might not prove to be a very happy ride for India. Trump has made it clear that its payback time for New Delhi and wants India to share its ‘profit’ and contribute to Afghan economy. He has clearly said this, saying that India “makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”Businessman Trump is suspicious of the ‘money’ India is making by exploiting USA. He wants India to ‘contribute’ in Afghanistan. Modi’sinitial love for US for ‘discrediting Pakistan’ might not last. Now the US pressure might shift on India “to do more” and might even be dragged into putting India’s boots on ground – which New Delhi is trying hard to avoid.

Trump made it clear that sorting out terrorists is his job, leaving the nation-building to India. India is already economically stressed out competing with its giant neighbour China to woo its smaller South Asia countries. New Delhi has already made commitments to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Moreover, India has its own domestic issues. The food and nutrition deficit has created a 20% death rate due to malnutrition. Clean drinking water is in short supply, and severe water shortages are common. Sanitation is a massive ongoing problem that the government has been unable to address. For example, 8% of India’s population has no access to toilets, and 75% of surface water is contaminated by human waste. Moreover, 60% of India’s GDP is lost to health-related costs. Building its own country is still an issue for India.

Pakistan’s advantage

Pakistan’s geographic location and historic links gives Islamabad an edge over others in dealing with Afghanistan. Trump’s assertion that Pakistan “should do more” recognises that capacity. The religious factor is yet another positive for Pakistan. The people of Afghanistan with 99 per cent Muslim population feel more comfortable in dealing with Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan has been ‘handling’ Afghanistan for long and understands its language better. Trump’s strategy of giving more space to India in Afghan matters is sure to backfire, if USA really wants peace in Kabul and the region.

Rather than a pro-Indian government in Kabul which the US has promoted so far, a Pakistan-friendly regime would have provided the US with a stronger grip in Afghanistan. India’s use of Afghan territory to instigate violence on the Pak border has added fuel to fire. For obvious reasons Pakistan won’t tolerate any incitements in its backyard. For its own security Pakistan will maintain ‘strategic-links’ with the Talibans. Pakistan’s tentacles are deep in Afghanistan and it has a strong support base within the Talibanswhose support is crucial for any negotiation. Moreover, Pakistan enjoys the confidence and support of China, Russia and Iran. China has a greater stake in Afghanistan for furthering its economic outreach and the Belt Road Initiative (BRI).

Any smugness or complacency that India may have had concerning Afghanistan and its hold on the country, is fast diminishing. Regional equations and shifting allegiances seem to have put Pakistan in the driving seat when it comes to strategic planning on the Afghan issue. India perhaps has had a wake-up call and realizes that it will be a difficult task to match Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan. The terrain is tough, literally and metaphorically, but it’s not alien to Pakistan. With Afghanistan and Pakistan being of the same ilk, India may feel left out in the cold.

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