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India-Afghan Strategic Pact: More Than a Flash in the Pan

There is a revival of the US initiative of a "New Silk Road" that is aimed at gaining direct access to the multi-trillion dollar mineral resources of Afghanistan and central Asia. This is one of various trends that are fast converging on the central Asian chessboard, and the Afghan endgame has given an impetus to the contending powers - regional as well as extra-regional - to take an early lead or to secure advantageous positions. The new India-Afghanistan strategic pact must be seen in this context and it is likely to be followed soon by another between the US and Afghanistan.

COMMENTARY

India-Afghan Strategic Pact: More Than a Flash in the Pan

M K Bhadrakumar

among the regional countries. The main thrust of the US-Afghan agreement is on giving legitimacy to a long-term military presence of the American troops in Afghanistan. Most major regional countries (except India) have taken a critical stance on the prospect of establishment of US

There is a revival of the US initiative of a “New Silk Road” that is aimed at gaining direct access to the multi-trillion dollar mineral resources of Afghanistan and central Asia. This is one of various trends that are fast converging on the central Asian chessboard, and the Afghan endgame has given an impetus to the contending powers – regional as well as extra-regional – to take an early lead or to secure advantageous positions. The new India-Afghanistan strategic pact must be seen in this context and it is likely to be followed soon by another between the US and Afghanistan.

M K Bhadrakumar (mkbhadrakumar.orf@ gmail.com) is a former diplomat.

A
s the old saying forewarns, while counting the trees, there is always the danger of missing the woods. With the completion of 10 years of the western military presence in Afghanistan and the agonising appraisals over what happened all this while, where it all went so horribly wrong and what lies in the womb of time, attention has naturally come to be on the state of the war and the prospects for its conclusion. Meanwhile, what has been lost sight of is that a highly competitive environment is appearing in the regional security scenario in central Asia and Afghanistan that goes far beyond the parameters or objectives of the “war on terror” in the Hindu Kush that the George W Bush administration launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist strikes on the United States.

Yet, this is not figuring in our discourses, as it should, while our pundits train their short-sighted vision on the war on terror and India’s role in it. The heart of the matter is that several apparently unrelated streams are converging in the geopolitics of the region and a great deal of sophistry surrounds them. To be sure, India will be called upon to make strategic choices vis-à-vis these developments that will have a profound impact on its foreign and security policies well into the 21st century. The strategic agreement between India and Afghanistan signed recently can be seen from such a broader perspective.

All indications are that the conclusion of yet another strategic agreement by Hamid Karzai’s government – with the US – is imminent and yet not much thought has been given in our discourse as to whether there is any co-relation between Afghanistan’s strategic pacts with India and the US in such quick succession. Indeed, India’s strategic pact sets a precedent for Afghanistan and even eases the way somewhat for the US’ pact, which has raised controversies

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military bases in Afghanistan. The Indian thinking seems to be ambivalent towards the US presence in the region, which it would interpret as directed against China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan – and not against India itself. The Indian statements regarding Afghanistan in the recent years have altogether ceased to mention the imperative of a “neutral” Afghanistan free of foreign occupation.

Tale of Two Pacts

The US and its allies are no more hiding their intent, which was a well-kept “hidden agenda” until quite recently, to retain a long-term, almost open-ended, military presence in Afghanistan. An illusion or a willing suspension of disbelief prevailed until very recently among the Indian pundits that the US and its allies were in a tearing hurry to vacate the occupation of Afghanistan, whereas this was never really the case. The US’ top general in Afghanistan, John Allen told CBS recently,

Well, the plan is to win. The plan is to be successful. And so, while some folks might hear that we’re departing in 2014 as a result of the Lisbon conference and the process of transition, we’re actually going to be here for a long time.

He said that the number of US troops remaining in Afghanistan has not yet been decided and will be done in consultation with the Kabul government headed by Hamid Karzai in terms of the strategic agreement.

Of course, Karzai’s two pacts – with India and the US – bear an uncanny resemblance to each other insofar as the US-Afghan pact will also be notionally a broad-based cooperation framework on “capacity-building”, economic development, etc, with the security component forming its core. Gen Allen added,

We’re talking about forces that will provide an advisory capacity. And we may even have some form of counter-terrorist force here

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to continue the process of developing the Afghan’s counter-terrorism capabilities, but, if necessary, respond ourselves.

He echoed the Indian sentiment that ultimately the message of America’s strategic pact is simple: Afghanistan is not going to be “abandoned”.

Meanwhile, the Indian-Afghan pact has posed a “strategic dilemma” for the regional capitals, especially Moscow and Tehran, as is apparent from their deafening silence, although they are usually quick to react to major regional developments. There is presumably a degree of uneasiness that Karzai is concluding two back-to-back pacts – with India and the US – in rapid succession. Russia and Iran have been forthright in voicing their opposition to a longterm US military presence in Afghanistan. A fortnight ago, Russia’s envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Dmitry Rogozin said in Moscow that Washington is pursuing the same tactic in both Afghanistan and Iraq by offering training for armed forces of those countries.

Rogozin demanded, This is only a pretext for preserving their military presence in those countries. This is something we [Russia] have never agreed with. Afghanistan should be free from foreign interference in its internal affairs, and therefore the coalition forces should only

perform the duties mandated by the UN Security Council in 2001. On the same day, Russian Deputy Foreign

Minister Alexei Borodavkin also warned that Moscow would insist on a scaling down of the US military presence in central Asia. He told the Russian state Duma (lower house of parliament):

The point is that when the counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan is over, when American armed forces leave this country, and the need to send supplies to them becomes irrelevant, we will insist that the American military presence in Afghanistan and central Asia must be scaled down.

Interestingly, Washington has welcomed the security content of the Indian-Afghan pact although it has been restricted to a comment by the Pentagon spokesman and not the state department as is customary. The Pentagon spokesman defended Karzai’s sovereign prerogative to enter into a pact with Delhi and he hailed India’s “helpful” role in boosting security, while revealing for the first time that Indian

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military has had a “training presence” in Afghanistan already for “quite some time” and acknowledging that that it is “critical to the success of the [US] strategy” and further that India would operate in this sphere as the US’ “regional partner”.

Clearly, at this point, the woods are getting dark and deep. New Delhi has never ever admitted such an Indian military “training presence” in Afghanistan. A whole lot of happenings in the recent years now assume a new colouring – especially the two attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul, which appear to be “retaliatory” in character. One terrorist attack, it will be recalled, specifically targeted the Indian defence attaché, a brigadier-level officer who tragically lost his life in the attack. The point is, Afghan armed forces are dominated by the ethnic Tajiks and among them the officer corps are mostly drawn from the militia from the Panjshir Valley, which was led by late Ahmed Shah Massoud and formed the core of the erstwhile Northern Alliance that led the anti-Taliban resistance in the late 1990s, and which India used to support politically, militarily and materially. Needless to say, the current political reality is that although India is beefing up the “Afghan armed forces”, it is effectively helping the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups (which comprise the non-Pashtun groups) to boost their military capability in their internecine strife with the (Pashtun-dominated) Taliban supported by Pakistan. In short, India has tiptoed into Afghanistan’s ethnic strife, which is at the root of the present crisis in that country.

Missing Link

Meanwhile, the NATO is also gearing up for a mission similar to India’s in Afghanistan. Following the NATO defence ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 6 October, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said, “It is clear that no one is rushing to the exits. On the contrary, there was a real commitment by all… to a long-term enduring relationship with Afghanistan.” The alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stressed, “Make no mistake, transition is not departure, we will not take our leave when the Afghans take the lead”. He predicted that NATO would formalise a strategy of “long-term support” for Afghanistan at its summit meeting in

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Chicago in May. He then added, “That means training, that means education. It means making sure that the Afghan forces and authorities have the skills and support they need to keep their country secure.” That is to say, like India and the US, NATO also proposes to enter into a formal agreement – “declaration” – with Karzai’s government.

So far the missing link is the co-relation between NATO and India on any formal plane. India has a traditional aversion to becoming part of any military alliance. But taking cognisance of the “new thinking” in Delhi with regard to military alliances, NATO estimates that the time is opportune for a formal relationship with India. Official and Track II dialogues between India and NATO have been going on in recent years. There has been at least one scheduled meeting between India’s external affairs minister and the NATO’s secretary general. And all this while our mandarins have been parroting ad nauseam that India disfavours any dealings with military blocs. At any rate, NATO took a leap forward in this direction when it presented to India in early September a proposal regarding cooperation in the sharing of technology in the field of antiballistic missile (ABM) defence and a strategic dialogue process on the pattern of what Delhi has with the US. It stands to reason that given its vast experience in international diplomacy, NATO would not have made such a move without discreet probings in Delhi with the Indian establishment as to the likely Indian reaction. Moreover, all such major decisions by the NATO are taken invariably with the US’ overall strategies. In the case of the ABM, this is more so since NATO is itself going to be a part of the US’ missile defence programme.

A top NATO official said in Brussels,

You [India] have a missile threat that con

fronts you. We have a missile threat that

confronts us. It’s a different one, but our

ability to defend against it could be the

same… We need to work together and

resolve. We need to cooperate, because

individually we cannot deal with such threats.

It is better to deal with such issues commonly

than deal with them individually.

An unnamed US official attached to NATO promptly chipped in that the ABM is also of interest to the US-India partnership and “could be a more US-Indian relationship, than a NATO-Indian. But we

COMMENTARY

are getting into ballistic missile defence systems in a big way… we have knowledge you can share and we can train together.”

Indeed, the Barack Obama administration is pressing ahead with the deployment of the ABM components in Europe – Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Spain – and is prospecting for new locations in the Asian theatre. Afghanistan (which borders the “rogue state” of Iran) will most certainly be one (on the specious plea that the alliance’s troops are vulnerable to attacks), while India could be another, alongside Singapore, South Korea and Japan. The US and the NATO are unabashedly tapping into Sino-Indian tensions while offering India ABM cooperation. The NATO’s ABM offer is under our government’s consideration. Indeed, Russia assesses that the real US strategy is to encircle it, neutralise its missile capabilities and to establish strategic superiority. (Russia still retains the Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile – ICBM – capabilities.) Russia’s ability to stop India from linking up with the US and NATO’s ABM is limited but Delhi’s final decision with regard to the NATO offer will not only have an impact on the US-sponsored security architecture in the region but will cast its shadows on India’s relations with Russia (and China, Iran and Pakistan). Against the backdrop of the recent shifting of gears in India’s “Look East” policy in the direction of the US’ containment strategy towards China, the odds are even that Delhi would accept the NATO’s ABM offer. The US has ABM cooperation with Israel and India and Israel are already cooperating in this sphere.

New Silk Road

Why such a security architecture? Suffice to say it is linked to: (a) US’ strategy to dominate Asia, which is the fastest growing region on the planet; (b) China’s rise;

(c) Russia’s surge; and (d) Iran’s emergence as a regional power. However, the geostrategic canvas is much bigger, as is clear from the US’ parallel initiative to revive the George W Bush-era strategy of a “Greater Central Asia” under the rubric of the “New Silk Road”, aimed at gaining direct access to the fabulous multi-trillion dollar mineral resources of Afghanistan and central Asia. The New Silk Road project is expected to be presented as a regional project at the forthcoming Istanbul conference on Afghanistan on 2 November. The US has linked the project with Afghanistan’s stability and is propositioning to India to play a role in it. In reality, though, the US envisages that India could be brought in as a counterweight to Russia and China in central Asia. India has sharply stepped up its presence in Kyrgyzstan in the recent past, a country that is visibly gravitating towards the western camp, under the pro-US leadership of President Roza Otunbayeva.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, hosted a New Silk Road ministerial meeting in New York on 22 September, which was attended by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, who expressed enthusiasm for the project. Conceivably, Krishna knew that on a parallel track, the security doctrine is also maturing in Brussels for a new role for NATO for safeguarding the transportation routes for oil and gas for the western market. Needless to say, NATO will provide the security underpinning for the New Silk Road leading from central Asia – and establishing long-term control over Afghanistan is an integral part of it. The stance taken by Pakistan is of utmost importance to the project since the most logical “exit” point for the New Silk Road to the world market will be Pakistani seaports.

How the US succeeds in bringing Pakistan on board will be the key issue here. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has its own “wish-list”, fully cognisant that it has a major role to play if the US’ regional strategy is to be viable. It is insisting on a decisive say in any Afghan settlement (which affects its vital interests and core concerns such as the Durand Line and the “Pashunistan” problem), and it is also determined to limit the Indian influence in Kabul (which it fears to be threatening its national security interests). Furthermore, Pakistan would also expect that the US regional policies do not upset its “strategic balance” vis-à-vis India – in sum, it has reservations about the implications of the US-India strategic partnership. The contradictions are obviously very acute and extremely difficult to reconcile. Although they are often camouflaged as emanating out of the divergent approaches of the US and Pakistan towards

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the Afghan insurgent group of the Haqqanis, at their very core lies the US dilemma that it cannot do without either India or Pakistan as strategic partners if its overall Asian strategy of containment of China and Russia (or of Iran’s rise as a regional power) is to be effective. Thus, on the one hand, the US is probing the extent to which Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan can be accommodated in any settlement with the Taliban, while on the other hand it is also encouraging India-Pakistan normalisation. Of course, ultimately, it will have to be Pax Americana.

Russian Response

Unsurprisingly, Russia, China and Iran are increasingly wise to the need to help Pakistan retain its strategic autonomy and help it withstand the US’ pressure tactics. Russia has taken initiatives to improve its relations with Pakistan and it is entirely conceivable that Moscow will begin to attach greater importance to its dialogue with Islamabad on issues of regional security in the coming period. It must be noted here that the first major foreign-policy pronouncement made by Vladimir Putin after the announcement of his candidacy in the forthcoming presidential election in Russia in March has been with regard to the creation of a Eurasian Union (which virtually challenges the New Silk Road project initiative by the US) and his first visit abroad has been to China to develop what Beijing calls a “comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two countries. Putin has never hidden the high priority he attaches to central Asia as a region that is within Russia’s sphere of influence. Moscow is watching with unease the stepping up of the efforts to expand NATO’s influence in central Asia.

Equally, what needs to be factored in is that the US-Russia “reset” initiated by Barack Obama two years ago has more or less dissipated. Frictions are arising across the board in US-Russia ties. The Obama administration has resiled from the promise to reach an understanding on its ABM programme and is instead pressing ahead with deployments. A full-fledged missile defence system is now expected to become operational by 2018. Washington is once again showing signs of raking up controversies over the human rights situation in

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Russia as a means to rally western opinion. Obama did not keep his promise to facilitate Russia’s membership of the World Trade Organisation within this year, either. The future of Ukraine’s strategic orientation is also becoming a major bone of contention. So indeed the growing US military presence in the Black Sea region, which has been historically a Russian preserve. The joint Russia-China decision to veto the US-sponsored resolution on Syria is a clear signal that Moscow has grave apprehensions about the US intentions with regard to the Arab Spring.

Suffice to say, under a Putin presidency, Russia can be expected to pay far greater attention to central Asia and will go the extra league to strengthen its influence in the region. As and when the trillion-dollar gas deal is successfully concluded between Russia and China (which, according to Putin, is in its final stages of negotiations), Sino-Russian cooperation and coordination in central Asia will assume a qualitatively new level.

These various trends are fast converging on the central Asian chessboard, which is one of the world’s richest regions

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in mineral wealth and some of the fastest growing markets, and the Afghan endgame gives impetus to the contending powers – regional as well as extra-regional

– to take an early lead or to secure advantageous positions.

Quite obviously, there is much political symbolism that alongside the strategic agreement that Delhi signed with Kabul during Karzai’s recent visit, two other memoranda of understanding were also reached relating to cooperation in extracting minerals and with regard to exploration of oil and gas reserves in Afghanistan.

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