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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The New Great Game in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan has been an unfortunate and poor country for quite sometime. It has consistently witnessed intervention of the foreign powers into its internal affairs. After the two superpowers fighting their turf battles in Afghanistan, it is now the turn of two regional powers India and Pakistan to do the same.

It must be understood that for Pakistan, Afghanistan holds the similar importance like Nepal does for us. We do not wish to control Nepal and would like a peaceful stable Nepal. At the sametime we are alarmed by growing Chinese presence in Nepal. Similarly, Pakistan is alarmed by growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. Thousands of Nepalese are allowed to live and work in India. Likewise, Pakistan hosts about 3 million Afghans.

However, the similarity ends there. Pakistan has used Afghans to promote cross border terrorism into India. Thousands of Afghans families have been settled in POK which is in direct violation of the UN resolutions. This is something that India has always respected. Article 370 of Indian Constitution does not permit outsiders to buy land in Kashmir. Kashmiri women who marry outsiders cease to have any property rights. Thus, the demographics of Indian Controlled Kashmir hasn't been altered at all in the last 60 years.

On the other hand, India has always assisted the Nepalese Govt in developing its economy. It helped its Army in its struggle against the Maoists. It has invested in various infrastructure projects in Nepal. But ofcourse, India has also tried to interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal, but that has been essentially to keep the country stable. Nepal hosts a large number of Tibetan migrants from China. India has never tried to use them to promote insurgency and terrorism into China or even give any such impression. This is precisely the difference between the approaches of the two countries.

Indian presence in Afghanistan
It is a well known fact that it was Pakistan's ISI along with the CIA that created the Taliban. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Americans pulled, but the Pakistanis continued to support them. After the Taliban captured power in 1996, it was the Indians who continued to support the Northern Alliance. They continued to pump in money through the Tajiks. Eversince the Taliban were overthrown, India has actively invested in Afghanistan but has restricted itself to development project only. Some of the major projects are given below: (Source)
  • Committed $1.3 billion on various projects.
  • Built the 218-km Zelarang-Delaram highway to enable south-western Afghanistan to access the Iranian port of Chabahar.
  • Constructed the 220KV DC transmission line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20KV sub-station at Chimtala.
  • Built the Salma Dam power project (42 MW) in Herat province (to finish by 2011).
  • Constructing the Afghan parliament building (to be completed by 2011).
  • Helped expand the Afghan national TV network, provided uplink and downlink facilities over all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
  • 84 small projects in areas of agriculture, rural development, education, health, vocational training and solar energy.
  • Gifted three Airbus aircraft along with essential spares to Ariana Afghan Airlines. Also, 400 buses, 200 mini-buses and 105 utility vehicles.
Impact of Indian presence
There is absolutely no doubt that Indian presence has made a significant impact as well as a significant dent in Pakistani influence in the country. For e.g., the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul is the only major Hospital in the country and has brought in tremendous Afghan goodwill. Other projects in the field of edcation, power and rural development have also made significant impact. However, nothing has made a bigger impact than the Indian made highways to Iran and Tajikistan.

 Thanks to an Indian-constructed bridge in 2007 linking Afghanistan and Tajikistan, trade through that route increased sevenfold within a year and Afghan land values along that route shot up dramatically. Not to be outdone, Russia too has offered to facilitate a rail transit corridor linking Europe to Afghanistan via Uzbekistan. Increasing Afghan involvement in Central Asia can spin off and spill over, positioning it to capitalise on its natural endowments and become the regional hub of water resources, energy distribution and hydroelectric power. Indian completion in 2008 of the 135-mile road from Nimroz province to Iran's Chahbahar port provides an efficient transport corridor for goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.
With the Khyber Pass under constant attack, this insurgent-free route could provide an alternative for supplying western troops with non-lethal goods and aid to the Afghan government. This would cost Pakistan economically as well as geopolitically since currently 75 per cent of non-lethal supplies are transported through the port of Karachi. If the US is able to reopen its base in Uzbekistan as planned, Pakistan's influence will erode even further. (Source)
Till date, Pakistan has refused to allow Indian Goods to reach Afghanistan through its territory. These are now being pushed through the Iranian ports. The biggest consequence for Pakistan is that these economic trends are creating conditions for a de facto partitioned Afghan state. The more stable north and west - with international linkages, economic growth and acceptance of the Afghan central government and western troop presence - can emerge self-sufficient and defensible while pockets of insurgency engulf the south and east.

Pakistan's counter strategy
Pakistan has realised that it needs to counter the growing Indian influence in the region. Firstly, it began attacking Indian missions in Afghanistan. The result of this has been disastrous. For the moment, India has decided not start any new projects in the country and is content with completing the existing projects. Secondly, Pakistan has started accusing India of promoting insurgency in Balochistan. This is again a well thought out strategy. Afghanistan is under US command and it is impossible for India to do anything their knowledge. Moreover, Pakistan media barely talks about Baloch terrorists. They dont have capabilities to conduct Lahore type attacks. This is just a diversionary tactic by Pakistan and quite similar to accusing India of stealing Indus river water. (Refer my earlier article)

Thirdly, it seems to have convinced the US to have talks with moderate factions of the Taliban where it could play a major role as a facilitator. They have found an able ally in the form of the current Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai too supports talks with the Taliban. In the elections last year, the US supported his rival Abdullah Abdullah, which was seconded by India. Now, Karzai is hitting back and has made overtures to Pakistan. He called Pakistan and Afghanistan as conjoined twins - even though one is over 5000 years old while other is barely 63 years old and it is not certain whether it will remain forever.

Pakistan successfully kept India out of the London Conference on Afghanistan where it was essentially decided to open a dialogue with the Taliban. Several Taliban leaders were removed by US from its list of most wanted terrorists. Pakistan has increasing become more assertive with its demands. They presented a 56 page document containing their demands - something like the old trade unionists, in the hope that atleast some of them will be addressed. As of now, Pakistan will be given more F-16's and drone technology will also be transferred.

However, what the US fails to understand that despite all the money that it has pumped into Pakistan, the people of Pakistan remain deeply suspicious and anti-American. This is essentially because till date it has restricted itself to pumping money into millitary hardware, something that has not touched Pakistani lives. This is precisely what Kerry Lugar bill hoped to achieve. However, there was massive opposition particularly from the Army as there were provisions to monitor the usage of money every six months and the aid was conditional (only released if Pakistan remain under Civilian rule). This directly threatened the Army's hegemony. However, by directly dealing with the Army, the US has essentially weakened the Civilian Govt. instead of of strengthening it.

Possible Indian Strategy
India must realise that its laid back strategy and depending solely on US cannot work anymore. Under the 8 years of Republican rule of George Bush, India enjoyed a strong relations with the US. However, the Democrats do not seem to be bothered about Indian interests too much. India has to do everything to convince the Americans of reducing their reliance on Pakistan. One possible ally in this great game is Iran.

Iran, a neighbouring Islamic country, has tremendous stake in a stable Afghanistan. Afghanistan produces nearly 90% of the World's poppy, which is also a major source of revenue for the Taliban. Being a neighbour, the Iranians have a major drug menace in their country. They would also like the radical elements to be kept away from their territory.

Iran is among the more modern Islamic countries. It is a democractic country. Its HDI index was 0.782 which is extremely good. It has a literacy rate of 83% and women comprise of more than half of the students in universities, something unthinkable in the most of the Islamic world. Therefore, rather than the military ruled and radicalised Pakistan, it should be Iran with whom the US should be dealing with.

However, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Firstly, the US had overthrown an elected Iranian Govt. in 1953 and installed a pro-US regime. This was done primarily to keep US energy interests. However, the 1979 Iranian revolution overthrew the pro-US regime. Iran has remained under US sanctions since then. In last few years, Iran has increasing felt threatened by the US, particularly after the US invasion of Iraq, which also driven by Oil interests. Iran has therefore decided to take the North Korea's path and is developing Nuclear Weapons to deter the US from attacking. Secondly, Iran being an Islamic country is opposed to Israel's occupation of Gaza and other territories. Israel has historically enjoyed good relations with the US. With US openly criticizing any fresh Israeli settlements in Gaza, this could be the time to reach out to Iran.

Another possible ally is Russia. Russia again another neighbour that has stake in the stability of Afghanistan. Russia too has faced terrorism from Chechen rebels who have close links with the Al Quaeda operatives. The Russians who withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 are still believed have their intelligence presence in that country. But Russia again has been a long time US enemy strethching back to the Cold War era. However, recent agreements between Russia and US to reduced their nuclear warheads is a sign that the things are changing.

India which enjoys close relations with Russia and has had close relations with Iran in the past. If India could help strengthen the relations of the US with Russia and Iran, something similar to what the Pakistanis did to US-China relations, it could completely change the game in Afghanistan.

Final thoughts
As Pakistani Foreign Minister Mr Qureshi puts it, "Indian and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan cannot be the same". Ofcourse, one is development oriented while other is not.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and informative. I am going to look at our relationship with Iran with a lot more interest now.