India-Afghanistan : Monuments of Dynamic Friendship
India, being a responsible regional power, craftily played a soft power role in the war-torn Afghanistan to stabilise the country as an inclusive democracy
Afghans can hardly be blamed for Afghanistan’s failure to stabilise despite the billions of dollars poured into that country towards reconstruction and development, and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the US army and NATO. In fact, the country has seen unimaginable changes in school enrollment, coverage of heath facilities, infrastructure development and the mobile revolution, but these are being threatened by Islamic extremism whose forces have rapidly spread over different parts of the country. Should India worry? Or can it afford to sit back since events in Afghanistan get space only on page 14 of Indian newspapers and rarely on TV except if the Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits that country or any major terrorist attack is deemed newsworthy? Do India and Afghanistan face common threats? If vital Indian interests are affected, should India try and influence developments in Afghanistan?
The fact of the matter is that India can hardly afford to sit back and let the Afghans singly and bravely face well-armed terrorists, actually a front for the Pakistani army desperately seeking to prevent the Afghan State from stabilising as an inclusive democracy. Its bogey about Afghanistan providing Pakistan with strategic depth is exactly that—a bogey. It can be nobody’s case that in the event with Indian forces overwhelming the Pakistani army, the latter would withdraw with its strategic assets westwards into Afghan territory. Even assuming this were feasible, Afghanistan is not exactly an ‘empty’ country that could be forced to play host to the Pakistani army and its strategic (read nuclear) assets!
The other bogey which needs to be exposed, and which paradoxically suggests a way forward is the one about Pakistan being boxed in and threatened by India and Afghanistan acting in concert. Hence the false alarm about Indian consulates in Afghanistan and on Pakistan’s imperative to seek and install a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul. One, despite tensions with Pakistan that economically affected Afghanistan adversely, the latter did not support India during the 1965 war. Neither did Afghanistan support India during the East Bengal refugee crisis and subsequent war with Pakistan in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Two, Pakistan has consulates in the same Afghan cities as India and with little justification: the Indian missions issue far more visas, scholarship cases and development assistance than their Pakistani counterparts. Three, the Pakistani army wants continued instability in Afghanistan, and tensions with India, to justify its complete domination of the Pakistani polity, so all talks of ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul is actually to serve its domestic corporate interests.
It is this Pakistani army bogey of India-Afghanistan alliance that shows how critical both countries are in the former’s strategic calculus. And why should this common, self-identified opponent be confronted by both of them in concert, not as an act of war but as one of aggressive defence. In other words rather than being at the receiving end all the time, India and Afghanistan should become proactive in preventing such wanton aggression in which their citizens have suffered, and continue to suffer all the time, tremendous loss of lives.
Both the countries gave Pakistan tremendous leeway, forgave grave transgressions, extended hands of peace and all they got was renewed terrorist attacks. President Ghani, in particular, staked his entire presidency on the Pakistan army delivering peace, conceding all their demands and more. Security assistance from India was put on hold, Afghan military officers were sent to Pakistan for training, intelligence agencies of the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding, coordinated actions were carried out by army divisions across the Durand line and persons that Pakistan wanted were handed over. Most such actions were unparalleled in the history of Af-Pak bilateral relations and Ghani saw his credibility sink when the Taliban stepped up their campaign of bombings and killings of unarmed civilians, almost unravelling the government. Similarly, PM Modi flew down to Lahore, an action that was rewarded by the armed incursion and attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station. Rather than ratcheting up pressure, in an unprecedented move, the Government of India allowed a Pakistani investigation team to visit Pathankot Air Force Station and collect evidence. The response of the Pakistani army was increased infiltration into Kashmir and stepped up hostility in the Valley following the elimination of a ‘poster boy’ terrorist. Clearly, both the countries have to readjust their strategies against such relentless aggression.
PM Modi’s reference to the sufferings of the people of Baluchistan is very timely, and some would argue, long overdue. Jammu & Kashmir and Baluchistan are similar in a very significant way. But not in the way mainstream media has let us believe. Jinnah recognised sovereignty of both States, formally in the case of Baluchistan and implicitly in the case of J&K when Pakistan entered into ‘stand-still’ agreement with that State. A similar agreement was there with Baluchistan; significantly Jinnah the lawyer had negotiated Baluchistan’s sovereignty with the departing British as the legal representative of the Khan of Kalat; a position recognised by Pakistan when it came into existence. In both the cases, Jinnah sent in armed raiders, actually Pakistani army out of uniform, in complete violation of the standstill agreement in a bid to forcibly take over these States. The rest is history. Afghanistan has, within its means, afforded refuge to Baluchis exiles fleeing for their lives but there are limitations in what it can do. India and Afghanistan must combine forces to highlight these atrocities being inflicted on the Baluch nation, and India must extend all its moral, humanitarian and diplomatic support.
A Pakistani army on the defensive would seek to step up violence in Afghanistan and India. While the latter can handle such aggression, unpleasant as it is, Afghanistan is in a far weaker position than its aggressor. Indian security assistance to Afghanistan must be stepped up, beginning with the supply of the fourth helicopter promised. Afghanistan is having difficulties in buying Russian equipment including helicopters; India must help smoothen this process. Afghanistan also needs to build capacity in border management to control infiltration by Pakistan-based terrorists; Indian expertise could help build adequate systems.
India remains the most popular country in Afghanistan; Pakistan remains the most unpopular country. Clearly, the Afghan people have a better understanding of overlapping interests/conflicts than strategic thinkers do. The two countries must seize the momentum in the larger interests of reducing aggression and building peace in the region, which would benefit people across national boundaries.
(The writer is the Director, South Asian Institute for Strategic Affairs (SAISA), New Delhi)