Rabbani’s assassination Strategic fallout
By Rajeev Sharma
When a Taliban suicide bomber blew up Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik leader of Afghanistan, on September 20 at his Kabul residence, the Taliban and its Pakistani mentors virtually blew up the peace process as well. This is the third major act of terrorism in Afghanistan this month – all carried out at the most secure places in the country. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has claimed responsibility for the Rabbani assassination, which he backtracked from, a day later. Whether the assassination was carried out by the Taliban or not, the perpetrators were just the hand that executed the act; the mind appears to be elsewhere, most likely in Pakistan. Rabbani was Afghanistan’s President in the 1990’s when the Taliban was fast becoming a major political and military force that eventually wrested power in 1996. Rabbani was Chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council, set up in October 2011. He was very close to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his loss would inevitably weaken Karzai considerably. It is difficult to believe that the Afghan peace process would now be business as usual after Rabbani’s loss.
Rabbani’s assassination will inevitably have massive strategic fallout for India. The weakening of Karzai, a staunch friend of India, that the assassination will inevitably cause, is not good news for New Delhi. Rabbani’s ascendance was a nightmarish scenario for the Pakistani military establishment as it was being seen as a baby step towards resurgence of Northern Alliance that had a fabled strategic alliance with India. This was clearly a big no-no for all powerful Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief Lt Gen Shuja Pasha. Rabbani was becoming a strategic threat for the Pakistani military establishment in its backyard and, therefore, this pre-emptive strike was the need of the hour for Rawalpindi. The Tajik factor is likely to come centre stage in Afghan politics now. India will have to play its cards in the Afghan conundrum very cautiously and carefully. New Delhi will have to intensify its behind-the-scenes moves in Afghanistan with a three-fold objective: (i) to remain relevant in the Afghanistan’s messy, and often dangerous, politics; (ii) to be one-up over Pakistan’s chess moves in this land-locked country and be pro-active in intelligence generation to foil ISI’s plans; and (iii) to safeguard its strategic and security interests in a country where strengthening of pro-Pakistan influence is directly proportional to terror activities in India.
The China threat
China poses the biggest challenge and threat to Indian policy makers and strategists today. The latest Chinese challenge manifested itself in the international waters of South China Sea in July 2011, reported earlier this month only, when Indian Navy ship INS Airavat, on an official port call to Vietnam in those waters, was warned by a voice caller that identified itself as the Chinese Navy. The caller asked the Indian naval ship to get off as it was China’s sovereign waters. India lodged a protest with Beijing on this. This appears to be a retaliatory move by China which is very apprehensive of rapidly increasing Indian strategic involvement with Vietnam. India has invested $ 250 million in Vietnam, a bulk of this by ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL), an overseas Indian oil exploration company.The INS Airavat episode was meant to shoo away the Indian companies and force Indian government to beat a retreat from its policy of making forays into the Chinese backyard. This has not happened and is unlikely to happen as India is prepared to dig in its heels in Vietnam and other countries in the region.
China reacted to the INS Airavat episode in two ways: the foreign ministry spoke on September 15 in a measured tone and The Global Times, mouthpiece of Chinese communist Party, went ballistic against India the next day. The Chinese foreign office said Beijing is opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction and asked foreign powers not to get involved in South China Sea dispute. The Global Times called on the Chinese government to use “every means possible” to stop the ONGC from going ahead with the exploration and warned India that any cooperation with Vietnam will amount to a serious political provocation that would push China “to the limit”. Vietnam, in many ways, is the soft underbelly of China and Beijing is over sensitive about any foreign power’s dalliance with Vietnam. The Indian case is no different. This will no doubt make Sino-Indian rivalries fiercer in the coming days. India won’t back away from intensifying its engagement with China’s neighbourhood simply because there is no way that India can prevent China’s encirclement of India. It is high time for powers like the US and Japan to revive the botched up quadrilateral initiative with India and Australia for ensuring containment of an increasingly assertive China.