With President Trump’s first public articulation of his policy thrust for Afghanistan, which has demanded more from Pakistan than either Mr Bush or Obama did, in battling terror groups, that are essentially Pakistan’s long cherished proxies — the key issue for us in India is, what’s in it for us? In his typically transactional manner, Mr Trump has in the same speech also asked India to plough back some of its trade profits with the US, into Afghanistan. Interestingly though, India is perhaps the only country that has sincerely made tangible commitments to the re-building of war torn Afghanistan, from its Parliament building, to schools, hospitals, roads and dams. But that hasn’t got us anywhere in playing a role of consequence in the future settlement of Afghanistan. Sadly, many policy makers in Washington (and even Delhi) still feel that Pakistan’s interests must be accommodated in that war torn land.
Bereft of financial resources to match India’s investments and goodwill, Pakistan’s military hawks have cultivated an abundance of proxy armies, specially the Taliban, that now controls over 50 percent of Afghanistan! Pakistan is wedded to the idea that Afghanistan will provide it strategic depth against an Indian invasion, and this is now an article of faith for Pakistan’s army, even though many Pakistani scholars dismiss it as sheer paranoia. Thus, any Indian effort to provide the Afghans military equipment and training of its forces will be resisted and will only add to Pakistan’s anti-India hysteria of a two-front threat. In fact, for years now, Pakistanis have complained that India has supported their Baloch rebels — with virtually no evidence — and some even absurdly alleged that India was behind the December 16, 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar. And to add to everyone’s dilemma, the Afghan government(s) can’t seem to get their act together: they have no financial system of any consequence and little governance. Here, India can certainly help Kabul to put systems in place.
Development aid apart, for India to remain in reckoning, India’s leadership needs to debate if it wishes to deploy troops in Afghanistan. If so, it must answer three questions that were apparently asked by the Army brass when Mr Vajpayee was PM. First, under whose command will our troops serve there? A UN force is fine, but certainly not under a US commander. Second, who would pay for our expenses? And finally, is there an exit timeline? Clearly, we cannot commit our troops forever as our Army is overstretched at home and our policemen are inadequately trained and equipped to battle terror or the naxal menace. No answers were provided then and perhaps none are available even now. But the flip side is that all the earlier development efforts by India — while the US was essentially blowing apart an already shattered land — didn’t get us a seat in the high table of powers deciding on Afghanistan’s future, in Chicago or in London. So should we again kow-tow to the US demands to keep doing more, and sit on the sidelines?Or can India extract more for its efforts this time?
America’s patience with Pakistan may have run out, but as China is keen on a bigger role in Afghanistan — by extending the CPEC — Pakistan is only determined to expand its footprint in Afghanistan. It certainly doesn’t want India there. Also, Russia and Iran are keen to enter Afghanistan to stake a claim to its apparent mineral wealth. Could New Delhi therefore adopt a transactional strategy with the US and Pakistan, by avoiding troop deployments and getting cooperation from Pakistan, in return, with tangible concessions on the Indo-Pak front. This must include pro-active, verifiable measures by Pakistan to abandon the use of terrorism as a tool against India. The US, will continue to need the logistics corridors via Pakistan to Afghanistan, and the many Paki friends still active in Washington, would be glad if India keeps out. So a better bet instead for India will be to use Mr Trump’s continuing interest in India, but re-crafting an Indo-US partnership that addresses India’s core concerns and possibly of Pakistan. India could militarily stay out of Afghanistan, but only if Pakistan formally commits to abandon state support to the terror groups within Pakistan.
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