The Great Indian Hindu Kush Challenge

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Two to tango? India has tried to cultivate anti-Pakistan groups in Afghanistan. Photo: PIB
Two to tango? India has tried to cultivate anti-Pakistan groups in Afghanistan. Photo: PIB

In more ways than one, the Pathankot debacle showed the inability of the Indian government to understand the dynamics of relations within South Asia, especially on its western front. In fact, Pakistani daily Dawn even released a list of responses by politicians and media houses in India, indicating the myopic vision of policymakers.

If we look at the developments in just the past one-and-a-half years since Narendra Modi became PM, the government comes across as unable to think out-of-the-box regarding the Afghanistan- Pakistan challenge. Trying to assert its ideological strength, the BJP began by stalling all dialogue and negotiations that had made some progress under the previous government.

Make no mistake, for the BJP, ideology is the biggest variable in determining foreign policy, and since the sabre rattling with Pakistan is intrinsic to it, breakdown of communications was inevitable. The breakdown was followed by talks with Pakistani diplomats in other parts of the world, with the stopover by the PM being touted as the beginning of a new era in India’s Af-Pak policy.

However, it is not just the policy of the current government that needs scrutiny, but the fact that government after government have failed to grasp the dynamics of developments in Afghanistan and, by extension, West Asia. The strategic importance of Afghanistan can never be understated. It’s a landlocked country in the intersection of South Asia, Central Asia and parts of West Asia. Pakistan is to the south and the east; Iran towards the west; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north; and China in the far northeast.

What gives Afghanistan strategic leverage is its ability to be the glue that holds West Asia, Europe, China and South Asia together. It is this strategic leverage that has made it the field for the ‘Great Games’ by superpowers and regional alliances. The British, the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Saudis and the Americans, all have staked their claims to the history of the country.

This strategic advantage, though, is a double- edged sword. If it can bind together the economic, military and political interests of the world, it can also yield the most fissionable socio-political dynamics at a global level. Non-State actors created and dispersed from Afghanistan could destabilise nearly all of Asia and much of Europe.

Ironically, India stands alone as the country that made no effort to understand the volatile dynamics of Afghanistan; so it missed the bus while the rest of the world designed their foreign policies around it. Even if we do not take the historic role of the British in attempting to re-structure the economy and polity of the country and begin our understanding from the Soviet occupation, the ability of the major players to re-design their policies towards Afghanistan is marked. The US-Saudi-Pakistani-European alliance created their policy of arming and strengthening non-State actors as long as they were necessary to drive back the Soviets.

Pakistan became the ground from where not just Pakistanis but also Americans strategically operated, even though they supported different groups in Afghanistan. The rest of the strategy, common to Pakistan and the US, involved using “Gulf money”, indoctrinating militias and preparing alternative governments.

The credit for the concept of ‘strategic depth’ cannot be taken solely by Pakistan. It had precedents and help. And, though the Iranians were still recovering from a revolution and a war, they did not distance themselves from the developments. Though not proactive, they ensured that their stakes were safeguarded.

China and Europe, on the other hand, adopted a more passive approach. Their presence was marked through small arms supplies and UN interventions. They were not covert or aggressive, but their presence was not missed either. India, on the other hand, took a moral stand by being a sideline observer. It chose a limited presence through the UN.

It is not just the developments of the Cold War that are important. It lay the foundation for the post-Cold War era dynamism of the players in Afghanistan. The number of players increased with the independence of Central Asia and Europe. Each country designed its own active foreign policy with Afghanistan, be it in the form of cultivation of the government or the socio-political groups. It was during this period that Pakistan used its policy of strategic depth on an experimental basis on India. The period also brought to open the prisms through which each country understood its foreign policy. While most countries looked at their economic and strategic interests, India added the components of “enemies’ enemy is a friend” and “a friends’ friend is a friend” equation to its dealings. Under the cover of a “neutral” stand, India sought to cultivate groups that were anti-Pakistan.