US sees a critical role for India in Afghanistan?

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l20171025115735When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in South Asia a few days back he made it clear that the Donald Trump administration believed India had a major role to play in Afghanistan. He underlined the significance of New Delhi’s assistance to Kabul in different fields in the process of rebuilding the war-ravaged country. In his own words, “We believe India has a very important positive role they can play in the process to achieve peaceful, stable Afghanistan.”

According to the new US policy statement, “India, the world’s largest democracy, is a key security and economic partner of the US and it appreciates India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan and wants India to help the US more with regard to Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”

Earlier, addressing the nation on the administration’s latest policy on Afghanistan, when Mr Trump openly talked of increasing the strength of US troops in that country, he expressed the view that a strategic partnership with India was too valuable to be ignored for stability in South Asia. This is being seen as an extension of a recent report prepared by the US Senate Armed Services Committee, advocating a trilateral arrangement involving India, Afghanistan and the US for establishing peace in Afghanistan.

Though this is very disquieting for Pakistan as well as its “all-weather friend” China, the US appears determined to act in the AfPak region in accordance with its new scheme of things. The refurbished US strategy for the region includes putting maximum pressure on Pakistan to immobilise the extremist forces active there, including the Taliban, so that it cannot use pro-Islamabad Taliban factions for its unending search for strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Pointing out that it would no longer be business as usual so far as US-Pakistan relations were concerned, Tillerson said, “Our relations with Pakistan will also be conditions-based; it will be based upon whether they take action that we feel as necessary — to move forward the process of creating the opportunity for reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan and also ensuring a stable future for Pakistan.” Combine this with President Trump’s remarks that “the US has been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars and at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that the US is fighting,” the picture becomes crystal-clear.

India has already been involved in a big way in infrastructure development in Afghanistan — construction of highways, hospitals, schools, the electricity distribution network, etc. It has been faced with a major problem of helping the land-locked country with food supplies, owing to the denial of access to land route to Afghanistan passing through Pakistan. As part of New Delhi’s search for an alternative supply arrangement to fulfil its commitments made to Kabul, India got involved in the development of Iran’s Chabahar port, which was recently used for a shipment of wheat to Afghanistan. More wheat is to be shipped to Afghanistan through Chabahar in the coming months to prove that India remains firm in honouring its commitments to Kabul.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, the operationalisation of Chabahar port “will open up new opportunities for trade and transit from and to Afghanistan, and enhance trade and commerce between the three countries (India, Iran and Afghanistan) and the wider region.” The alternative route will also help India to promote trade with the Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Increased food availability as well as a spurt in economic activity in Afghanistan can work as an effective weapon to weaken the Taliban’s hold on the Afghans. Though the US has indirectly accepted that the Taliban factor cannot be eliminated, there should be no let-up in the efforts to systematically make the extremists irrelevant. The policy of luring them to join the government has so far not yielded the desired results. Taliban factions continue to stay on the destructive path, believing that they can capture power in this way to impose their inhuman system of governance as could be seen during the late nineties before the Taliban regime was defeated by the Northern Alliance supported by US-led multinational forces.

The Taliban opposition to the overtures to become part of the ruling dispensation in Kabul is based on their primary demand that there should be no foreign troops in a sovereign Afghanistan, leaving the matter of governance to the Afghans. This sounds quite logical and is justifiable in accordance with international conventions, but the situation in Afghanistan is far from being normal. Once the US forces, whose strength has been increased, leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, the country will slide back into chaos again, threatening peace in Central and South Asia. The Afghanistan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani is too weak to ensure that its writ runs beyond Kabul, in the countryside. The Taliban factions still remain a major force in Afghanistan with the Al-Qaeda and the IS (Islamic State) having their noticeable presence there. In such a situation, Pakistan’s ISI is bound to intensify its destructive activities more aggressively. This will mean that any strategy devised for stability and growth in Afghanistan will prove to be ineffective without the active involvement of Pakistan. The Chinese intelligence network too will get involved on a larger scale in aid of Pakistan.

The US troops in Afghanistan are, therefore, a balancing factor also, besides providing security to the government and the masses. This, however, does not mean that there should be no effort to find a regional solution to the issue of peace and stability in Afghanistan. Any search for a regional solution must be undertaken with India as a major participant, now that the US too has highlighted the importance of India’s role in Afghanistan.

But this is not the only reason for Trump to revise his administration’s Afghanistan policy. His new strategy must also have been prepared keeping both the China and Pakistan factors in view. The US does not want to leave a vacuum in Afghanistan to be filled by China and its proxy Pakistan when the Americans have invested so much in terms of money and human resources since the decimation of the Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11.

China is mainly interested in the mineral deposits in Afghanistan. According to studies done by various agencies, including those conducted during the Soviet occupation of the country in the eighties and the United States Geological Survey after 9/11, the landlocked country is rich in many precious minerals such as gold, copper, lithium, uranium, iron ore, cobalt, natural gas and oil worth trillions of dollars. It is believed that Afghanistan’s resources can transform it into one of the richest mining regions in the world and a Saudi Arabia in lithium. The US does not want any other country to reap the crop of natural resources in Afghanistan. President Trump is seriously interested in getting US investments in Afghanistan recovered by mining its precious resources. There are certain logistics-related problems like the lack of motorable roads and security-related issues. These have been working as a deterrent for investors. But these problems are not insurmountable.

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