28 May 2014


Wednesday, 28 May 2014 |
 Raj Kaushal |

The developments being played out in Afghanistan and the neighbourhood offers much to our understanding of the post-2014 situation in the India-Pakistan and the regional context. We must be prepared to take on challenges

Afghanistan is a nation that has been beset by invasions, external pressures since before the time of Alexander the Great and internal upheaval due to its multi-ethnic population. Afghanistan remained an area of strategic competition because of its unique geopolitical location — being the link between Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.

In the 19th century, the British feared that the Tsar’s troops would subdue the Central Asian Principalities and the Emirate of Afghanistan might then become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India. ‘The Great Game’ was a term coined for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British and the Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia. In the post-colonial period, the term continues to be used to describe the geopolitical machinations of the Great Powers.

The modern day ‘Great Game’ is playing out once again in Afghanistan, but for different reasons. It has geo-strategic and geo-economic dimensions. The spread of Islamic terrorism represents the geo-strategic dimension, while the lure to tap its hitherto unknown mineral wealth represents the geo-economic dimension. China, India, Russia, and the United States are the major powers embroiled in competition but Pakistan and Iran are also very much in the game.

The spread of global terrorism can be attributed to the creation of a Frankenstein’s monster by way of the mujahideen, by the United States in 1979, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, to undermine Soviet power in Afghanistan. Once the Soviet troops left in 1989 and the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992, the Taliban dropped off the US radar. The Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996 and provided a safe heaven to the Al Qaeda; an epicentre of international terror. The 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers made the US realise that its own creation had hit their ‘impenetrable fortress’. Thus began Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. All these years, though the ISAF has not been able to eliminate the Taliban, it was able to keep them on the run and engaged.

However, the withdrawal of the ISAF at the end of 2014 could create a vacuum having implications for the regional security. Afghans are a fiercely independent race and will not countenance occupation by any power. Moreover, neither Russia nor China or India will be willing to get into this quagmire. Some observers believe that Afghan Government forces cannot effectively deal with the resurgent Taliban and the current presidential election will lead to anything but political stability, giving rise to infighting that will only benefit the Taliban. The large turnout of Afghans for the first phase of presidential election in April 2014 despite the Taliban threat is a good omen.

In run-up to the election, TOLO News had hosted several debates. One such debate included front-runner Abdullah Abdullah, and two other candidates. All three candidates accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban. Mr Abdullah claimed that Pakistan was using the Taliban “as a tool for foreign policy” and to maintain Afghan sovereignty, Afghan Government has to prevent Pakistan from destabilising Afghanistan through proxies. They argued that the Taliban was a tool of foreign intelligence agencies, and that in order to marginalise the Taliban the Afghan people needed to unite behind a unifying authority.

Much will also depend on Pakistan’s primary national interests and how those interests play out in the context of the interests of the other major actors that are engaged in this Great Game. Pakistan, like in the past, would support Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his cohorts to have a pliant regime in its backyard. Let Pakistan be warned not to destabilise the Afghan Government, lest it once again becomes the hub of Al Qaeda and also prove detrimental to its own security in North-West Frontier Province. Some observers also warn that the battle-hardened Taliban with the support of some leading intelligence agencies and the ISI will spread terrorism in the Central Asian republics, China’s Xinjiang province, Iran and India.

To protect their interest vis-à-vis the Taliban, Russia and China also should assume a greater role in the area and support the democratic process in Afghanistan. Both Iran and India will have a strong incentive to work with them. They should do their best to strengthen, train, equip and support the Afghan Armed Forces and a National Government in Kabul.

While Afghanistan is acknowledged as a strategic hub in Central Asia, it is located at the crossroads of pipeline routes and major oil and gas reserves, and its huge mineral wealth as well as its untapped natural gas reserves were not in the public domain till 2010. The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centres in the world and become one of the richest economies in this region, not depending on doles and poppy exports. However, Afghans must create business-friendly environment.

China has immense economic interests in Afghanistan. In 2008, for example, a Chinese company won the rights to the Aynak copper mine project. In 2011, China National Petroleum Corporation signed a contract to acquire the oil fields of the Northeastern Provinces of Sar-i-Pul and Faryab. Both projects require China to make huge investments for operations and creation of communication infrastructure. As China increases its investment in Afghanistan, it also must address the problem of how to protect its economic interests. The largest risk arises from instability. In the face of such challenges, Chinese investors and political leaders must work with Russia, India, Iran and other like-minded countries to stabilise the democracy in Afghanistan.

India has been following the policy of being a soft power and having people-friendly projects at the grassroots level in agriculture, rural development, education, health, energy, and vocational training. Important infrastructural projects undertaken include the construction of dams, power project and electricity transmission lines, construction of the Afghan Parliament building, helping in the expansion of the Afghan national television network, and construction of a 218km Zaranj-Delaram highway, enabling Afghanistan to have access to the sea via Iran.

In February this year, India and Afghanistan inaugurated a new agricultural university in Kandahar. India is expected to provide more assistance to Afghanistan through a number of projects. These include establishing iron ore mines, hydro-electric power projects, steel plants, transmission lines, power plants, roads etc. India and Iran are also supposed to sign a transit agreement that will help with transport of goods to the land-locked country. India also plans to lay a 900km railway line connecting the Chabahar Port in Iran to ease shipment of minerals while bypassing Pakistan.

Ironically, India’s successes have not pleased the West and Pakistan’s Government and their security establishment. It is ironical that the Obama Administration has been pressuring New Delhi to curtail its role in Afghanistan to appease Pakistan.

This ‘New Great Game’ stratagem offers much to our understanding of post-2014 situation in the India-Pakistan and regional context. We must be prepared to take on the challenges.

As Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel consolidated the princely States after Independence with dedication and dexterity, so must Prime Minister Narendra Modi consolidate our geo-strategic and geo-economic potential for India to take its due place in the comity of nations. The invitation to SAARC heads of the Governments for the oath-taking ceremony was an excellent diplomatic move in this direction.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)

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