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Stability is key

India's options in Afghanistan

The manner in which the US managed to find and destroy Osama Bin Laden, the founder of the umbrella terrorist organization Al Qaeda, it has changed the rules of engagement which could well have a salubrious effect on India's role in Afghanistan.

A change in the rules of engagement would mean, first and foremost, that Pakistan must respect the sovereignty and integrity of Afghanistan and not treat it as its "sixth province".


"Sixth province" is advisedly within quotes because Pakistan's original federating units are Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber Paktunkhwa (former NWFP), Punjab and the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).


Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (alias "Azad Kashmir") and Afghanistan are adjuncts by invasion and geopolitical skullduggery and illegal occupation. "Strategic depth" is a concept that reeks of territorial aggrandizement by underhand means.


A change in the rules of engagement would mean that Pakistan cannot impose its "strategic depth" concept on Afghans and Afghanistan and that Washington will move away from its recent position of giving Islamabad primacy over Afghan affairs to the exclusion of all other neighbors because of its misfortune of being landlocked between Pakistan, Iran and the former Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union (now the Commonwealth of Independent States).


This Pakistan has sought to do by deception and the use of terror as a tool of State policy and Washington has finally come to realize what is happening and has sought to reverse it by launching its attack on Osama Bin Laden in his mansion in Abbottabad in the heart of one of the most important military cantonments in the country.


This was done whether Pakistan liked it or not and was condign treatment for a nation that has become a rogue by any yardstick.


Pakistan needs to be told in no uncertain terms that its cries of violation of its "sovereignty" have no weight in the face of the blatant manner it has quashed that of Afghanistan and even so-called "Azad Kashmir".


Afghans and Afghanistan have as much right as Pakistan to decide how they want to govern themselves.


Attempts to give Pakistan the controlling authority over the future of Afghanistan smacks of what was done at Yalta nearing the end of World War-II - drawing up spheres of influence in Europe which led to the Cold War; the other Yalta agenda was packing the proposed UN with five Permanent Members with veto rights which, ironically, has become a 21st century dilemma for Indian aspirations to become a member of this exclusive club.


Improving situation


If the current geopolitics is any indication then India's position will tend to improve if the US under Barack Obama is resolute about continuing drone attacks against terrorist targets inside Pakistan.


Frankly it has little choice given that the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence are demonstrably influenced by the jihadi ideology shared by Al Qaeda and the myriad of terrorist groupings under its umbrella.


Because of this linkage Pakistan will not abandon the path of jihad in the near future. And, as far as narrow American interests are concerned it must ensure that the Afghanistan-Pakistan salient does not re-emerge as the focal point for anti-US operations around the globe and, possibly, the homeland itself.


Whether it does it with boots on the ground as at present within the ambiance of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or wings in the air-the drone are options that can be used elastically by Barack Obama.


The latter has the advantage that with a minimum of human presence on the ground in the Af-Pak belt to gather human intelligence the drone can then deliver the coup de grace while operating from bases outside the region.


Such a situation would suit India admirably in that if the Taliban-Al Qaeda-Mujahideen do not come to terms with the government in Kabul they will leave themselves open to drone strikes be it inside Afghanistan or within Pakistan.


Politically, there is the possibility that whichever element of the Taliban eventually manages to come to terms with the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul the underlying ethos is very likely to be based on the fierce sense of independence and aversion to domination by foreigners.


At the height of the civil war while former President Najibullah was living in the UN compound the various factions of the Mujahideen battled among each other, India had backed the Northern Alliance led by charismatic Ahmed Shah Mehsud (the "Lion of Panjshir").


After the assassination of Ahmed Shah Mehsud India found itself at the receiving end of Taliban ire that reached a crescendo during the hijacking of IC-814 to Kandahar. Osama Bin Laden's death has created a new ambiance in the Af-Pak region.


For one the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence has emerged as an incompetent and untrustworthy ally among the terrorist groups that they have nurtured since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.


As a consequence the potential for Hamid Karzai to strike a deal with the several stakeholders in Afghanistan has improved with the demonstrated ability of the US to strike at the recalcitrant units within the Taliban-Al Qaeda conglomerate.


Hitherto Pakistan has refused to open its borders to Indian trade with Afghanistan and has tried to discredit India with allegations that its consulates in Afghanistan are involved in terrorism inside Pakistan.


Greater role for India


The US and the western allies position that was willing to give Pakistan exclusive sphere of influence in Afghanistan appears to have veered away somewhat. Both Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron appear to be amenable to a greater role for India in Afghanistan.


If the transition is to be smooth in Afghanistan post withdrawal of ISAF the Afghan security system must be in place and capable enough to handle what appears to be a resurgent Taliban given its several bold strikes at the Government targets and the massive jailbreak in Kandahar.


The jailbreak in which as many as 500 hardcore Afghan fighters including commanders managed to escape in a tunnel dug from half a kilometer away from the jail perimeter fence has tended to improve the Talibans fighting capabilities.


The ratio has changed dramatically in that the process of creating an Afghan Army and police setup will have to take into account these additional 500 fighters in the Taliban ranks.


Counter-insurgency calculations would mean that whatever had been planned earlier to handle the situation on the ground there will now be a requirement of at least 10,000 additional security forces and possibly as many as 25,000 more than the earlier projected requirement if the swift stabilization that is desired is to be achieved.


It is in this that India can play a major role in the raising of the strength of the Afghan security forces. India has had a long experience in counter-insurgency operations in all kinds of terrain and its training regimen is not as costly as is that of NATO.


Pakistan has been trying to undercut India's role in the training program as well as its ability to assist Afghanistan in its developmental projects but India has managed to break the stranglehold that Pakistan had on the landlocked Afghans by the creation of the road link between the Afghan town of Delaram and  Zeranj on the Afghan-Iranian border.


This link opens up the route to the Iranian port of Chahbahar not just to Afghanistan but the whole of the Central Asian Republics to the north. It is this factor too that has forced Pakistan to give Afghanistan trade and transit arrangements through Karachi even while denying India access to Afghanistan through the Wagah-Attari route.


The possibility of strikes like Operation Geronimo that got Osama Bin Laden and the continuation of the drone operations in spite of dire consequences promised by the Pakistan Parliament at the military's behest will enable President Obama to graduate the withdrawal of US troops beginning July.


The drawdown could begin on time to enable the Democrats to milk the Osama killing to full political advantage at home but it needs to be spaced out judiciously so that the Taliban resurgence is nipped in the bud.


An enhanced role for India in the development of infrastructure inside Afghanistan will also contribute to the promises made by Obama during his election campaign to pacify and neutralize the Afghan situation.