By Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)
The Af-Pak region has come into focus with the US-Taliban Deal. It is the start to the impending reduction and eventual exit of US forces from the region. This deal has taken place in a kaleidoscope of the global effects of the Coronavirus and the oil price war initiated by Saudi Arabia. In the domestic front we are bedeviled by a slowing economy and social disharmony; both of which cannot turn around with a change in national outlook. We are at strategic crossroads with a seemingly resurgent Pakistan threatening to sideline India to irrelevance. However, the rest of the world is also at its respective crossroads since the global sands are shifting fast. In this reality how do we approach the Af-Pak region?
The Pakistani View of Af-Pak
As per one of Pakistan’s erstwhile foreign secretaries “US will not continue financial assistance to Afghanistan beyond a limited period — one conjecture is a year after the complete withdrawal. US allies will do likewise. Thereafter, the responsibility should, in US’ view, be that of Afghanistan’s neighbours including Russia, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian states, none of whom have the resources required. What should Pakistan do? Focus on completing the fencing of our border and, to the extent possible, insulate ourselves from the chaos that is bound to come. The Taliban, it is feared, will, as they consolidate their hold on southern and eastern Afghanistan, adopt an unwise victor’s attitude and thus perhaps drive ethnic minorities towards the resurrection of the Northern Alliance as one way to protect the fiefdoms their leaders have created in the last 20 years. Even if the Taliban act more wisely, economic privation is bound to come and create the unrest and the economic refugees that we must try to protect ourselves from”. That sums up the futuristic Af-Pak situation. However, a point to note is that mention of India is missing. So as much as we are missing the bus in the Deal, we are also absolved of the responsibility post US exit.
Indian Approach to Af Region
As against this view in which right thinking Pakistanis want to keep Afghanistan at bay, there are some gladiators in India who want to send troops there in response to the evolving Af-Pak situation. Shekar Gupta gave five reasons as to why we should not put boots on the ground in Afghanistan. However, I could not find even one reason to commit troops there. Afghanistan is clearly a place where fools have always rushed in when angels feared to tread. Today it is a place where idiots are rushing in when failed angels (US) are quitting. India should neither be an idiot nor a failed angel. India should not add its head stone in this proven graveyard of superpowers where Great Britain, USSR and now US have bitten the dust.
What would be the aim of sending troops to Afghanistan? To be a regional Power of consequence and assume international responsibility in bringing peace to Afghanistan or execute a grandiose idea of denial of strategic depth to Pakistan? My counter is that- is it necessary for India to send troops to Afghanistan to be recognised as a regional power? After all China is not sending troops there and yet it is a global power. US is exiting the area. It was, and will remain a Superpower irrespective. Secondly, the strategic depth theory of Pakistan is old hat. Look at it another way. An impoverished Pakistan is being sucked into a bottomless pit called Afghanistan. At some point in future everyone will abandon Pakistan including China without a rope to cling to. At that point Pakistan will be strategically vulnerable. Strictly speaking there are great virtues and opportunities in not sending troops there.
Why should we keep away from Af region? Firstly. We are not wanted there. The Taliban hates us. Secondly our entry will legitimise Pakistan’s role there. Thirdly we do not need an Indo Pak war in Afghanistan when we have long borders and a LOC to fight across. Fourthly, we will be embarking on a military adventure without a firm base since we have no direct land border with Afghanistan. Fifthly our expeditionary track record is poor. Remember IPKF and Sri Lanka? We went in to aid one side and discipline the other. We ended up doing exactly the opposite. Sixthly our politico-military-bureaucratic ensemble has proven fratricidal tendencies. Seventhly the state of our economy does not permit this expenditure. Next, we need to set right our home base which is in disarray. Lastly, we have no solution in hand for the Afghan problem.
Having said all this, the way forward in Afghanistan is to genuinely help people. We should stick to that. In my estimate, just doing that is enough in a country which is getting back to the tatters of the 90s. A benevolent nation building assistance role IF sought by the people once US abandons this region will just be great. That much for the Af Part.
Our Approach to Pak Region
In my previous article I had mentioned that Pakistan is back in the game once again as a front line state. At one level – yes. On another level it risks what little sanity is left in its own chaos. I had also mentioned that Pakistan is the more dangerous and unpredictable adversary under the circumstances. That is so because it has nothing left to lose. It will take the gamble of diverting some Taliban into Kashmir and stir the cauldron there. Too good an opportunity to pass.
On the other hand, its bankruptcy is public knowledge. Significantly, under the circumstances of the current global economic meltdown due to Coronavirus and the oil price war, its main credit lines will close shop. China, Gulf countries and US cannot and will not give a farthing to Pakistan till they recover. The Afghanistan-Taliban- Strategic Space frontline state expedition cum Kashmir meddling will be very costly for Pakistan once the euphoria subsides. Though most Pakistani thinkers opine that the Taliban and Afghanistan only spell trouble for the country, its foolhardy military will continue with their wargames in Afghanistan since they have the buffer of the Milbus and will soon get into the Narco Trade. Concentration on its Western Borders will be at the expense of its Eastern Borders. Attention to India also will leave the Third Front – China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) open. Within a year or so Pakistan Army will be overstretched to the hilt. This development will stir the cauldron of the Durand Line. The Baloch movement, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, TTP and the Afghan Taliban will be a heady and live cocktail shortly. Last but not the least the internal problems of Pakistan – social disorder, civil-military-judicial imbroglio, inflation, food shortages, water shortages, lack of growth are still there, alive and kicking. Pakistan is in a very vulnerable situation despite all collusivity with China. Our responses must be tailored accordingly.
Our Lines of Action in Af-Pak
POK and Kashmir. There is no doubt that our first and foremost priority should be to protect Kashmir and continue with the effort which commenced with Abrogation of Article 370. Instead of waiting for the summer to arrive and then fend off infiltration it is better to be proactive. It is high time to start the process of retaking PoK. What needs to be understood is that it is not a military mission. It is mission of statecraft. The steps to be taken have already been outlined in my earlier article – a Plan to Retake PoK.
Iran- Western Af. We need to speed up the operations in Chabahar port and beyond (https://prshankar.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-tale-of-two-corridors-beyond-gwadar.html). The rail -road communications beyond the port open a bevy of opportunities in Afghanistan where India has traditional allies and is a welcome entity. It also improves connectivity with Central Asian Republics. Keep the lifeline open. The Chaos called Afghanistan is just going to get messier. Heed the words of the Pakistanis themselves. India is not out of the game. It has just got deeper into it and the swim is far.
CPEC. Whichever way I look at it, the CPEC is Pakistan’s great vulnerability. The roads, power plants, transmission lines other infrastructure are open for all kind of actions. For all we know it might just disintegrate on its own. India needs to exploit this vulnerability to force a recoil on Pakistan. It will achieve at many goals simultaneously. A clear threat to CPEC will keep Pakistan at bay.
Indus Water Treaty. India needs to operationalise the Indus Water Treaty in a transparent and well publicised manner and fund projects accordingly. We just must take what is our share of water from the Indus Basin. The effect on Pakistan will be grave. It will give some solution to our own water situation. For this to happen, there must be greater center-state cooperation as also political consensus across the spectrum. We need internal statesmanship.
Durand Line Politics. The Durand Line is a festering scar of left-over colonial history which we have not really exploited. The Baloch movement, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, TTP, the Afghan Taliban and most importantly the Pashtuns and Baloch people are all actors across this unnatural line. A focused approach to this will reap dividends.
The Secure Home Base
Social Harmony. Any action to regain strategic relevance, put Pakistan in place and dent the Sino-Pak collusivity will come only if our home base is secure. So, the first step is to regain social harmony through statesmanship. If that does not come through; then forget it and wait for all kinds of external agencies and foreign hands to play merry hell with us. The “Foreign Hand” djinn – a familiar byline of the emergency days – is coming out of the bottle after a long time. Best to put it back into the bottle and face reality.
Coronavirus Effect. The Coronavirus has affected many people and many countries. However, as things are unfolding, India seems to have a grip on the epidemic and hopefully will not get adversely affected. We might end up getting ahead of the curve. In fact, it will give us an international fillip in many respects.
Oil Windfall. The second step is to grasp the economic opportunity. The oil price war is good news for India. It is a wind fall from heaven and will last at least for the balance of the year. We need to reframe our budgets and infuse confidence in our finance and business people. Start a virtuous cycle.
China Plus India. The world has started thinking of China plus One for its international manufacturing and sourcing base. It is a great opportunity for Make in India. In fact, the Government should be thinking of China plus India. If the right steps are taken – investment, manufacturing and international sourcing can take place from India. It will also lead to better ties with China if we play our cards right. There is a huge strategic opportunity here. Missing the bus will be very costly for India.
Military Modernisation. A secure home base is feasible only and only if our military is modernised and up to it. Institution of the CDS is a great reform. However, it is only the first step. Along with the CDS, the MoD also needs reform. The need to carry out effective modernisation under conditions of stringent economic conditions needs a mindset change. For some reason that is coming through in fits and starts with wrong notes and does not sound holistic.
There is no doubt that the Af-Pak region will now start grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons. We will be affected by it. However, our approach to the Af- Pak region and the turmoil therein if undertaken in a balanced and nuanced manner will pay us good dividends. The opportunity is there despite the headwinds. It is up to us to grab it.