06 The Soldier: Col Kharbanda



Col. Kharbanda

65, Noida, Uttar Pradesh

Photo: Vijay Pandey

ON 4 JULY, 2008, a car laden with explosives rammed into the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing around 60 people. As the news spread, Col (retired) Ravindra N Kharbanda, who had just started work seven months ago at the new Afghanistan-India Vocational Training Centre, had one question on his mind — would he be able to implement India’s pet project in Kabul?

When Kharbanda, a 65-year-old retired Indian Army officer from the Corps of Engineers, was asked by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) to start a vocational training centre in the Afghan capital, he took it up without a second thought. “My country wanted to help the Afghans, who had suffered 20 years of turmoil. And I was ready to do my bit,” he recalls. He immediately flew down to Kabul in January 2008 and started work. In less than four months, he constructed a training facility that would teach masonry, carpentry, welding and plumbing skills to 1,000 unemployed Afghans every year. It also trained women in tailoring. “It was so popular that we used to get admission requests five to six times the intake,” he says.

However, everything changed after 11 February 2009. The Taliban launched a series of strikes around Kabul, and the government of India decided to close down the vocational training centre. Being an Indian had become too risky in Afghanistan. “It’s the duty of the Afghan government as we are there on their invitation,” he says, hoping that he might go back one day.

Kunal Majumder


Why does India still think that the US and Pakistan are only having a one-night stand?

America has too much to lose for it to really rein in Pakistan’s attitude to India

By  MK Bhadrakumar
Former Ambassador

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

THE UNITED States’ AfPak strategy has entered the tent of Indo-American partnership. Its presence upsets Indian pundits and adds to their frustration that Barack Obama isn’t living up to their expectations of pursuing a robust “containment” strategy toward China with India as “counterweight”. Much angst is visible in newspaper columns.

But then, India showed naivety in overlooking that the US had complex motives in the “war on terror”. The myopic view in 2001-2002 stemmed largely from a misplaced triumphalism that the Taliban and Pakistan were being thrashed by the US to the infinite advantage of India. The Pakistani military ably resurrected the Taliban by 2005 and began asserting its “legitimate” interests. And the US inexorably came knocking on the doors of the Pakistani generals in Rawalpindi.

The Obama administration is entitled to pursue American interests first and is in desperate need of cooperation from the Pakistani military to devise a decent “exit strategy” — although it is probably as much cognisant of the Pakistani doublespeak as we are. India could, and should have been a serious player had our diplomacy not allowed our understanding with Russia and Iran to wither away through the past nine-year period. Cut off from Afghanistan geographically, India’s capacity to influence the alignment of forces within the country is also limited.

What is the criticality of Pakistan’s role? The US would factor in the following:
• Geography dictates that Pakistan will always have a major role in ensuring the stability of Afghanistan.
• Afghanistan’s subsistence economy cannot do without trade and transit provided by Pakistan.
• Afghan political elites view Pakistan as their most important interlocutor.
• Afghan insurgency is Pashtun-driven and tribal kinships across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are historical.
• Four million Afghans live in Pakistan.
• Pakistan wields influence over a range of insurgent groups.
• The terrorist nexus includes Pakistani groups and the stabilisation of Afghanistan becomes incomplete in isolation.
• Terrorist groups that continue to threaten the security of the West, operate out of Pakistan.
• Pakistan happens to be the vital supply route for the US and other NATO forces in Afghanistan.
• Pakistan has heavily invested in men and material through the 30-year Afghan civil war and is every bit determined to influence any settlement.
• Pakistan is bent on gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and keeping Indian influence in strict check while at the same time promoting itself as the gateway for the US geo-strategy toward Central Asia.
• Pakistan has built up formats of cooperation with countries neighbouring Afghanistan or which influence the situation — Iran, Turkey, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, etc.
• With China, Pakistan enjoys “all-weather friendship”.

In short, Indian pundits are being naïve when they clamour the US should disengage from Pakistan and seek out its “natural ally” India. The David Headley saga is a stunning reminder that Washington maneuvers within a matrix where its interests overlap. Obama is determined to draw down the American “combat mission” with effect from July 2011 while putting the US and NATO’s commitment in Afghanistan on a long-term footing. Essentially, the US hopes to consolidate its military presence in the region, which is integral to its global strategies, but without the bloodshed that affects western public opinion.

The Silk Road is the key to getting Afghanistan’s trillion-dollar mineral wealth to the world market. Pakistan is crucial for this

Therefore, Pakistan will remain a pivotal relationship for the US. It is a fallacy to think the calculus in which the US-Pakistan alliance moves is merely “Haqqani-centric”. It has several intriguing, interlocking templates: China’s rise, Russia and Iran’s surge, America’s determination to dominate Asia, NATO’s future as a global security organisation, energy security, nuclear proliferation, control of mineral resources, etc.

Pakistani diplomacy is astutely tapping into the geopolitics. For Pakistan, which is a nuclear power, the core issue is India’s trajectory as emerging power. Pakistan expects the US to correct its “tilt” toward India, conclude a nuclear deal also with Pakistan and help the Pakistani military maintain “strategic balance” vis-à-vis India. Pakistan doesn’t accept India’s primacy in securing the “global commons” between Aden and Singapore.

The US has begun discussions with Pakistan on a nuclear deal, committed itself to supporting Pakistan’s “defence needs” and is supplying weapon systems to Pakistan that have nothing to do with hunting down al-Qaeda, and Pakistan figures as a top recipient of American aid — all these testify to the US sensitivity to Pakistani concerns. In the near-term, US dependence on Pakistan can only increase if Afghan peace talks are to gain traction. Looking ahead, Pakistan’s role in the post-settlement phase becomes even more critical to an orderly termination of the US’ combat mission. Once NATO forces leave the battlefield, the US expects the Pakistani military to exercise restraining influence on the Taliban so that the latter do not torpedo the settlement or usurp power and create an ugly crisis.

In the medium term, US is quietly, persistently working on energy projects to tap the Caspian and Central Asian reserves. The revival of the Silk Road leading from Herat to Kandahar and Quetta and further on to Gwadar holds the key to transporting Afghanistan’s multi-trillion dollar mineral wealth to the world market. Gwadar’s role as the gateway to Central Asia makes the US a stakeholder in Pakistan’s long-term stability and welfare. The necessary underpinnings are being crafted — Afghan-Pakistan Trade & Transit Agreement, NATO-Afghan strategic cooperation agreement, US-Afghan “vision statement” and US-Afghan strategic partnership agreement.

AT THE NATO summit in Lisbon on 19-20 November, the AfPak strategy will morph into a transitional phase (2011- 2014) leading to the alliance’s long-term habitation in the region. The NATO’s role as the “protector” of the Silk Road will be of profound significance to regional security. The Pakistani military being the principal interlocutor for the US and NATO, the control of the generals in Rawalpindi over foreign and security policies can only increase.

Indeed, the US has to “earn” Pakistani goodwill. China eyes Gwadar as its entrepot to the world market bypassing the Malacca Straits and the choices that Pakistan makes will have great bearing on the US regional strategies — in particular, NATO’s role in the region and the plans to evacuate the multi-trillion dollar mineral wealth, which China, too, is gearing up to exploit.

In sum, the US’ capacity to influence the Pakistani military leadership’s “India-centric” mindset remains limited by realpolitik, while India continues to face grave terrorist threat. This contradiction cannot be resolved without the settlement of India-Pakistan differences over Kashmir, for which a US push is probable in a near future. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ability to balance its relationship with the US and China in the “new great game” gives it leverage. India needs to work hard on the Sino- Indian normalisation for our regional policies to be optimal.

What lies ahead? By a bizarre stroke of irony, the threat to the West’s “homeland security” has lately increased and the reports say the dreaded former al Qaeda military chief Saif al-Adel (“sword of justice”) has sneaked back into Waziristan and got back his old job, and that Ilyas Kashmiri, who used to work for the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), is now a rising star within al-Qaeda. The enormity of the Indian concerns, being ISI’s next-door neighbour, is not in doubt.

But then, Pakistani military’s ingenuity, too, is legion to leverage precisely such misty phenomena as an al Qaeda “revivalism” to extract more concessions from Washington. On balance, the AfPak differences and the sense of bitterness within the Indian establishment over the Headley saga certainly cast a shadow on the climate of India-US ties. It just can’t be otherwise. On the other hand, Obama is a gifted politician and a brilliant intellectual. Trust him to comprehend the meaning of India’s rise. The AfPak shadow can’t dent this political reality while India’s growth potential remains what it is today. Besides, Indian diplomacy is not lacking in resilience.

We may expect some major Indian initiatives to restore ties with Iran. Four meetings between Indian and Chinese leaderships have been scheduled in almost-successive weeks flanking Obama’s visit. Doesn’t that signify something special? The keynote address by the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon at the 75th jubilee celebrations of the National Defence College did underscore new thinking.


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