A low-key interaction

Afghan minister in Delhi

The scheduled visit by the Afghan defence minister Abdul Wardak to Delhi last week took place in a period of acute contradictions in the regional security scenario. One has to be incredibly audacious to build sinews of military content into India-Afghanistan relationship at the present juncture of extreme fluidity.

The war is poised to enter an uncertain phase as the date for the expected drawdown of the American troops in July draws closer and an incremental transfer of responsibility to the Afghans becomes necessary. The Russian estimate is that professionalism in the Afghan army ranks is abysmally low — around 20 per cent — despite 3-4 year long western attempts at ‘nation-building’.

The scale of US troop withdrawal remains unclear. The Congress is impatient about the heavy budgetary burden of the war — exceeding a billion dollars per day — and public opinion disfavours the war, while Pentagon warns against premature withdrawal.

Despite tall claims by the US military that the Taliban have been weakened, the signs are mixed. The insurgency has spread to western, northern and eastern regions and even in provinces where North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) claims to have established supremacy over Taliban, military gains aren’t sustainable. The security situation continues to deteriorate. A rushed American military pullout is not on the cards.

Everything, therefore, devolves upon the reconciliation of Taliban. The US admits that a political settlement becomes imperative and contacts have begun between Taliban and American diplomats. How soon these contacts would gain traction is the big question.

Much depends on cooperation from Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over Taliban. The latent frictions in the US-Pakistan relationship since the detention of a key American intelligence operative in March in Lahore have been greatly exacerbated by the Abbottabad operation to kill Osama bin Laden, which in turn, reinforces Pakistan’s determination to pursue an independent course on Afghanistan. How this calculus works will be critical for the peace process and the Americans seem unsure themselves.

On the positive side, however, rudiments of a regional consensus may be accruing and the possibility of a critical mass forming in a near future cannot be ruled out. Russia has entered into unprecedented levels of interaction with Pakistan over regional security issues.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit meeting on June 16 in Kazakhstan has listed Afghan problem as a top agenda item alongside the admission of India and Pakistan as new members of the grouping and of Afghanistan as ‘observer’. An active SCO role can lead to new opportunities to stabilise Afghanistan insofar as competing interests and search for influence among the regional powers may get somewhat reconciled in the process.

Strategic depth

Undoubtedly, a better climate in India-Pakistan relations can allay the mutual suspicions regarding each other’s intentions in Afghanistan — and vice versa. The regional efforts, especially by China and Russia, aim at encouraging Pakistan to make a paradigm shift in its policies that have been so far riveted around the concept of gaining ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan for which the insurgent groups had been nurtured as ‘strategic assets’.

These incipient efforts are in the overall interests of regional stability and India should welcome them. This is where India’s participation in the SCO processes assumes importance.

Meanwhile, the ‘hidden agenda’ of the war — US strategy to establish a long-term military presence in Afghanistan under the garb of continued fight against terrorism — complicates the scenario, as it creates misgivings among regional powers about American intentions. Paradoxically, an end to the Afghan war may well lead to more uncertainties in regional security, as the US ‘frees’ itself to tackle an ‘ascendant’ China, a ‘recalcitrant’ Russia and an ‘irreconcilable’ Iran.

In anticipation of the Afghan endgame, American strategies in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are getting revamped, the latest evidence being the US decision to deploy light combat ships in Singapore for effective control of Malacca Straits and the shipping lanes through which the bulk of China’s trade with Europe, West Asia and Africa is conducted. The US pressure on Sri Lanka, too, is palpably increasing.

Following the talks with Wardak, defence minister A K Antony implicitly acknowledged the matrix of regional security by saying India will continue to provide training facilities for the Afghan armed forces and would be guided by the wishes of the Kabul government with regard to any other forms of cooperation.

Unsurprisingly, Wardak was accorded high protocol, including a guard of honour, but Delhi was careful not to lend hype to the visit that might raise hackles in Islamabad (or Washington). This is judicious thinking since there are variables in the regional security scenario and a transitional period is just about to commence.

To be sure, India has high stakes in Afghanistan’s stability but a military deployment in that country is unthinkable. Equally, Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan cannot be overlooked; nor is it in India’s interest to identify with the big-power rivalries unfolding in the Central Asian and Indian Ocean regions.

The benchmark should be, as Antony implied, defence cooperation that is kept strictly on bilateral footing within flexible parameters entirely in accordance with Kabul’s comfort level. Kabul is no doubt keen to tap Delhi for building up the Afghan capacity to shoulder responsibilities of national security, but it also carefully factors in the criticality of Pakistan’s goodwill and whole-hearted cooperation for achieving enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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