(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
US Congress has now been front-loaded with a report on Afghanistan by its think-tank, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is a double whammy for Indian policymakers.
The report talks of “fear of encirclement” in Pakistan over India’s commercial and diplomatic ties with the Afghan government which has led the Islamic nation, in retaliation, to patronize Taliban insurgents for decades now.
In reality, India is staring at a failed Afghan policy. It trusted United States to provide a strong democratic government in Afghanistan. Now United States is looking for a face-saving exit from the mountainous terrain and the Kabul government has never been weaker in years. The double blowback is the think-tank report which makes Pakistan, and not India, appear an aggrieved country which must be shored up with funds and arms.
All this is because Taliban is at its strongest in years. US had to woo it with a peace plan till recently even as Taliban ruled out ceasefire and the presence of Afghanistan government on the same table. Taliban peace-makers moved with ease in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran even though none of the three powers had a liking for Taliban. This was pragmatic for Afghanistan today can’t be solved without Taliban.
A little background is in order: Taliban owes a great deal to Pakistan. Its muscle is in southern Afghanistan which shares a fluid border with Pakistan and thus a safe cover to insurgents. US counters Taliban with funds and arms to Afghan government. It does stop Taliban from gaining a decisive military victory in the absence of international forces which left Afghanistan in 2014. But it does little else for the stability of the Kabul government.
The trouble is India has burnt most of its bridges with Taliban. In the 1990s, there was a brief window for diplomatic ties when Talibans were in power in Afghanistan. But then Talibans became “blood brothers” of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment and India had to look for its succour in fledgling Afghanistan governments. Afghanistan is of critical importance to New Delhi as it opened door for Central Asia and Middle East, overcoming the physical barrier of Pakistan on its north-west frontiers.
Over the years, India’s stance on Taliban has only hardened. It’s wary of presence of Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) which moved to Afghanistan in 2015 and whose core belongs to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. (It’s another matter that Afghan government props up this organ of ISIS in the hope it would counter Taliban). India fears that ISKP would always appeal to young Afghanis who have grown up on the killing fields of Afghanistan in the civil war of last two decades. One, there is not just Taliban but also Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbek insurgents in Afghanistan who need a rallying force. Two, Islamic State could use the base of Afghanistan for its revival and unleash terror in Kashmir.
Besides, India suffers from a fractured psyche in its long battle against terrorism. It knows Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) not only props up Taliban but also Haqqani Network which US has designated as a terrorist organization. Its deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of its founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, was reportedly involved in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 which killed 58 people.
India was pleased when Trump called off peace talks with Taliban following two bomb attacks by the terrorist group that killed 10 civilians and an American soldier in September. Afghanistan government lost little time in announcing elections for September 28. Taliban struck back with two suicide bomb attacks within an hour of each other: the first one at an election rally of president Ashraf Ghani and the second near US Embassy for a combined death toll of 48 people. The turnout predictably was low: Only two million out of 10 million registered voters turned up at vote-casting booths.
Not that it helped clear the mist. The results weren’t declared on intended date of October 17 nor did it come about this week. The winner would now be known only on November 14. The election commission puts the delay due to a hacking attempt on its servers and tampering with its digital lock. Taliban, predictably, has made accusation of rigging and mismanagement.
Thus, as things stand, India finds itself trapped in Afghanistan. The Kabul government is tottering. It can’t survive without United States which in turn is waking up to a Vietnam-like situation, looking for a face-saving exit. On the other hand, walking towards Taliban is a minefield. India can’t make a “fight against terrorism” as bedrock of its foreign policy and yet extend a hand towards Taliban. It’s Pakistan which seems to be holding all the aces for having backed the right horse in Taliban. And yet, a US Congress think-tank is alerting the world of Pakistan fearing “encirclement” from India in Afghanistan. Indeed it’s India which has a lot to fear—and lose—in the unending saga of Afghanistan.
(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
It would be a hectic two days for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (June 13-14). The flight detour through Oman and Iran too wouldn’t have helped. Then there is this little matter of bilateral talks with at least five heads of states: Xi Jinping (China), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Hassan Rouhani (Iran), Ashraf Ghani (Afghanistan) and Sooronbay Jeenbekov (Kyrgyzstan) besides the actual SCO Summit.
Modi’s diplomacy in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) isn’t just about his time. It’s also about the long shadow of United States which would follow his every move and not just with China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran—all in US crosshair for one reason or the other. Modi has the image of a tough leader, engaging the world but never aligned to any particular bloc. Much of it would be tested by Friday.
Modi, of course, can’t overlook the probing audience of a billion and a half people in India and Pakistan. There would be photo-ops with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. Every nuance of arched eyebrows, warm or cold smile, firm or limp handshake, would be dissected in reams of papers. A hug though is as good as ruled out.
In many ways SCO would be about optics. Its’ stated goal is to fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. But Pakistan would be spared this embarrassment. Our troublesome neighbour is making its debut in SCO since its formal induction in 2017—as is the case with India. This powerful Group of the East has had always China behind the wheels. Modi can enjoy the ride but can’t change the course. China is friends with Pakistan for nothing.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have chosen to embarrass each other on the eve of the 19th SCO Summit. India first sought a free airspace for Modi’s passage to Bishkek. However once it was granted, wisdom prevailed and Modi opted to decline the offer. Pakistan, or its propped-up separatists in Jammu & Kashmir, then killed 5 CRPF jawans in Anantnag on Wednesday. Be ready for some tough pictures from Bishkek.
It isn’t to say that SCO is without merit for India. US needs India for its Asia strategy and by appearing shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin and Xi, Modi would keep Donald Trump sober when the two meet in a fortnight’s time in Osaka for G20 Summit (June 28-29). Modi’s bilateral with Rouhani in Bishkek would further force Trump’s hands. That the host in Osaka would be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who is outreaching to Iran later this week, is no little matter.
India also needs to have the right thermostat to keep matters with China from running too hot or too cold. Modi’s recent visit to Maldives must have prodded the wounds of China. Bishkek would be a good place to straighten out the ruffled feathers since the two leaders, Modi and XI, are slated for a summit in October, a la Wuhan style.
There is no gain denying India sees a friend in Russia. It was Russia which facilitated the entry of India into SCO which, to begin with, was primarily a Central Asia lobby that needed an axis after Soviet Union exploded in 1991. Modi and Putin aren’t taking any steps back on S400 missiles or their growing defence cooperation and Bishkek would afford the two leaders a moment to align themselves against the evil eye of US.
SCO is as good a moment as any to keep Afghanistan in India’s good books. The mountainous country could be fuming for having been not invited for Modi’s oath ceremony last month. Kabul is insecure for more than one reason—Taliban, fostered by Pakistan, is gaining international currency; and US is vowing a retreat of its armed forces. India has always been an all-weather friend and Bishkek couldn’t have come at a better time.
India also needs access to information and intelligence from the Tashkent-based RATS (Regional Anti Terror Structure). China’s push for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also can’t be allowed a free goal. India also can’t afford to be hemmed in by Pakistan and China on its two flanks. A global economy can’t be known as only a South Asian behemoth. India needs physical access over and above its northern borders into Eurasia and SCO affords an excellent opportunity. A rising India is critical to all big powers and it must keep all its suitors on tenterhooks. A stronger and more empowered Modi by his people would only help.