Unpredictable future: Afghanistan quagmire and India's options

How will India protect its national interests in Afghanistan in the midst of an increasingly murky Russia-China-Pakistan nexus that appears to be emerging in preparation for the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of NATO troops?

The nexus is murky in that the Russians appeared to snub India by postponing a joint conference scheduled for early October and instead attended to Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani’s visit to Moscow where defence cooperation was discussed.

This was a dramatic turnaround from the normally frosty relations with Islamabad vis-à-vis a particularly warm embrace of India that has characterized relations between Moscow and New Delhi since the 60s. It could turn out to be a game-changer for India.  
Under the circumstances, the posting of Indian troops in Afghanistan to protect Indian investments could prove to be counter-productive in that they could become the new cynosure of attention of the combined Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence and the Al Qaeda/Taliban phalanx.

India will have to find diplomatic ways and means of fighting the idea of an Emirate in Afghanistan that is fundamentalist in orientation. The aim should be restoration of the Afghan ethic of eclecticism instead of the kind of fundamentalism infused in the madrassas of Pakistan with Saudi Arabian assistance.     

Triangular nexus

The Russia-China-Pakistan entente cordial has several wheels-within-wheels. Russia apparently feels that it is losing the huge Indian arms market to America and the Europeans and wants to balance its order books with sales to Pakistan.

China has begun to feel the drag of keeping a nearly failed state afloat as a proxy. Worse, as the fountainhead of global Islamic jihadi fundamentalism it sees Pakistan as a source of inspiration for the Uighur Muslim extremists operating in its south-eastern Xianjiang.

By engaging Pakistan both Moscow and Beijing hope that it will moderate and control the Al Qaeda/Taliban combine and confine their activities to Afghanistan.

In return both of them will underwrite Pakistan’s claims to hegemony in Afghanistan and allow it to develop its much-desired “strategic depth” against India. In this triangular arrangement, India appears to be a misfit.

India’s best bet so far has been President Hamid Karzai who sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan a beneficial factor with the potential of helping to develop the war-torn nation within eclectic and benign parameters.

So far, the dialogue with the so-called “good Taliban” has produced no tangible results and it appears that it would prefer to wait out the remaining interregnum and watch the US thin down its troops and eventually depart, leaving, some suspect, a small group intended to prevent Hamid Karzai from being swept away by a high tide of Taliban operating out of Pakistan.

The Haqqani group in North Waziristan and Mullah Omar’s Afghan Shura in Balochistan are waiting for an opportunity to rush into Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Pakistan is doing its best to bring pressure to bear on the US to cease and desist from using drones to kill off prominent commanders of the Taliban operating out of North Waziristan.

President Asaf Ali Zardari has already told the world that, given the proliferation of madrassas in Pakistan, the Islamist fundamentalists pose a grave threat to the people of Pakistan if it is decided to launch army operations against the Taliban including the Haqqani group.

Nobody has pointed it out to the sanguine Zardari that he could start by shutting down the madrassas but he prefers to be petrified rather than exert himself against the fundamentalists.

He let the momentum of the groundswell against the Malala Yousafzai shooting slip by and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not just the Taliban that is eagerly waiting for the withdrawal of NATO troops but also the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government that wants to re-exert Pakistani hegemony over Afghanistan.

Before the Al Qaeda attack on the US on 9/11, India had managed to play a major role in propping up the Northern Alliance in its campaign against the Pakistan Army-led Taliban.

It was not without significance that the Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Mehsud was able to hold off the combined offensive and prevent the valley falling into the hands of the Taliban.

It was a tragic loss for both Afghanistan and India that he was assassinated by a hit-squad posing as television interviewers with explosives packed inside the cameras.

The Northern Alliance exists in somewhat ragtag fashion and most of the key players like General Rashid Dostum, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq and Ahmed Shah’s brother Ahmned Zia Mehsud are still waging a political battle to retain control of their respective areas of operation.

Lack of access

These will be assets worth exploring given that India is practically locked out by the absence of direct access to Afghanistan. That is why alone it cannot afford to post troops in the defence of its interests/investments in Afghanistan. It would be a bridge too far.

The traditional route for India to reach Afghanistan was through the Attari-Wagah checkpost on the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. India has built the Delaram-Chah Bahar road to connect Afghanistan to the Iranian port city thereby affording its access from a different route.

While the Northern Alliance was active against the Taliban both India and Iran had a common interest in helping it out and India used the Iranian route to deliver non-lethal supplies to the Northern Alliance which had its stronghold mainly in northern Afghanistan in the Panjshir Valley under the control of Ahmed Shah Mehsud and Mazar-e-Sharif under the control of General Rashid Dostam.

While these two stalwarts represented the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic strains within Afghan society there were others within the Northern Alliance that represented the cross-border ethnicity that prevailed along the borders with the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union.

These have since regrouped under the Commonwealth of Independent States when the Soviet Union collapsed. Iranians, who share a long border with Afghanistan have affinity with the Hazaras. It was this mélange that made it possible for the cooperation between Iran and India in Afghanistan.

In early 2000 India secured contracts to refurbish and modernize the Farkhor and Ayni aerodromes in Tajikstan. The former is located close to the Afghan border while the latter is close to the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

Both have been made capable to be used by fighter aircraft giving the Indian Air Force the capability to launch attacks on Pakistan from a direction different from the Indo-Pak border thereby dividing the Pakistani assets into two.

The acquisition of the Farkhor and the Ayni facilities was made possible by the Russian acceptance of India’s role in Afghanistan.

Farkhor can take a squadron of MiG-29s and Ayni which is deeper inland has had its runwaya extended to 3200 meters to allow all types of aircraft to use it. India spent about 70 million dollars on its renovation over an 8-year period ending 2010.

For all intents and purposes both these airstrips are intended for both civil and military use. Its use by the Indian Air Force will, given the new cordiale entente between Russia, China and Pakistan, be severely curtailed.

Nonetheless, Russia which snubbed India will have to assess whether a Pakistan that can sell its staunched ally, the US, down the river over the Al Qaeda/Taliban connection and the strategic depth they could provide Pakistan in Afghanistan will toe the Russian line.

However, if the Russians think that they will be able to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism from inundating vast stretches of the Russian Federation may have to think again.

Trying to draw Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation created ostensibly to contain terrorism could turn out to be a nightmare for both China and the Russian Federation if Pakistan decides to continue down the road to a Caliphate in Afghanistan.