Editorial: Indian red rag in Afghanistan
The top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in his latest situation report to President Barack Obama, has suggested the scaling back of India’s “influence” in Afghanistan. In his opinion this Indian factor is “jeopardising US efforts to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists”.
In the chapter about “external influences”, he also talks about Pakistan and Iran, the former providing safe havens to Al Qaeda while its ISI “is aiding the Taliban”; the latter is blamed for using its Al Quds force to “train and arm elements of the Taliban”. The report also reveals that “the US has been asking India to scale back its operations in Afghanistan, urging it to shut down some of its ‘consulates’ located in the areas where India has no major economic interests”.
General McChrystal thinks that the growing Indian political and economic influence in Afghanistan “is likely to exacerbate regional tensions”. This is clearly a reference to Pakistan whose Afghan policy is greatly influenced by the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. The burden of his message to President Obama, in addition to the increase in troops he has demanded, is that India must downsize if Pakistan’s cooperation is to continue in Afghanistan.
One must be clear in one’s mind that in many ways the mess in Afghanistan is actually a spillover of the Indo-Pak conflict in the region of South Asia. Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth”, which climaxed with the hijack of an Indian airliner to Kandahar in 1999, was in reaction to the unresolved dispute over Kashmir which created the “threat of India” that Pakistan felt “from the east”. Even today, as Pakistan struggles against the Taliban, 80 percent of its army is stationed on the Indian border.
Afghanistan has traditionally used India as “a potential counterweight in its relationship with Pakistan”. After Pakistan backed the Pashtun Taliban in the mid-1990s, New Delhi provided assistance to the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Masoud comprising Tajik and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The current Karzai government is soft on the assistance it is getting from India while using the Indian presence in Afghanistan as a countervailing factor against Pakistan.
Since 2001, India has committed $1.2 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, becoming the largest regional donor to the country. It is helped in this penetration by its good relations with the states of Central Asia; and Iran with whom it collaborates on projects inside Afghanistan considered hostile to its interests by Pakistan. Consequently an isolated Pakistan thinks that India’s establishment of an air base in Farkhor, Tajikistan, is part of an Indian strategy of encirclement.
Since Tajikistan is run by an Uzbek elite, the growing Indian presence in the regional neighbourhood is also seen as being backed by Russia. Farkhor is the first Indian military airbase overseas, and “is convenient for transportation of men and material to and from Afghanistan”. Pakistan can hardly respond adequately to this challenge except that it can resume the cross-border proxy war it had given up and make India pay a price for its checkmating move in Afghanistan.
Therefore, it looks that instead of normalising their relations, India and Pakistan may escalate their conflict. The Afghanistan imbroglio will not be sorted out if this conflict heats up. Islamabad knows that despite its support to the non-Pashtuns of Afghanistan, India can hardly fight a war and win where the US and NATO think they are losing. Perversely, some in Pakistan might strategise their next moves based on the thinking that India will get its comeuppance in Afghanistan once the US and NATO leave Afghanistan.
For Pakistan, India is a red rag in Afghanistan. But the solution of this complication lies not in starting up another proxy war but to move quickly to defuse the tension and normalise relations. Being close together, India and Pakistan can harm each other easily, but it would be wiser to recognise the vulnerabilities shared by both and come together synergetically to benefit from each other’s strength.
The Indo-Pak normalisation of relations is also important because getting India to “rationalise” its presence in Afghanistan is going to be difficult for President Obama. As long as there are tensions between the two countries, the problem in Afghanistan is going to become more compounded. Pakistan can live with Uzbekistan and Iran wielding more clout in Kabul, but not with India staring down the Durand Line which is not even properly demarcated.
The ball is in India’s court. It must stop putting pre-conditions on the resumption of a dialogue with Pakistan. Also, the dialogue should come to grips with conflict resolution not just on the Eastern border but also on the Western border of Pakistan. The proxy wars must end. *
Second Editorial: Al Qaeda’s many wars
Al Qaeda’s de facto leader and Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, has, in his latest video message, predicted the fall of the US at the hands of “Islamic fighters”. The 106-minute cassette berates America and the Muslim rulers who take orders from Washington. It boasts that Muslims in large numbers are flocking to join the jihad against the superpower that supports Israel.
The message says: “Mr Obama, America has waged many wars in the past and has known defeat in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs (in Cuba) and others but this time is not like the previous ones because you are involved with the Muslim nation that has woken up”. The battle in Afghanistan is not going well; therefore the message has an edge to it. Before this, the war in Iraq too had not gone well.
Because of the inability of the big powers to move effectively on the issues of injustice and oppression and occupation relied upon by Al Qaeda to attract recruits, it is often forgotten what Al Qaeda has done to the Muslim world. Iraq and Afghanistan are surely an internecine wasteland created by Al Qaeda and its madcap revolutionary terrorism.
Al Qaeda had earlier chosen Sudan and Somalia; both today are basket cases, with Somalia suffering from foreign intervention and the terror of an Al Qaeda-inspired organisation called Shabab. In Yemen, where Al Qaeda’s message has resonated more than in any other Muslim state, a civil war-like situation is fast developing. In Pakistan, where many Al Qaeda terrorists were caught, the national economy is on its knees as a result of the law and order situation created by the Taliban.
Fortunately, the Pakistani nation has turned around and rejected Al Qaeda and its followers. The biggest flaw in Al Qaeda’s activity is that it kills innocent Muslims to impress its enemy, the US. And most of its minions in the tribal areas are common criminals and outlaws. *