India has limited Afghan options
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Greeks have a saying that the past is the vista that lies ahead while the
future lurks furtively. The improbable symbolism sums up the Indian perspective
on the announcement by the Pakistani civilian leadership last Thursday to
extend the term of army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani for another three
Quite clearly, the Barack Obama administration is pleased with the work Kiani
is doing and he is now assured of a term lasting until November 2013 - until
the date Afghan President Hamid Karzai has penciled in for the foreign military
occupation of his country to end.
In the late 1950s, when General Ayub Khan got a similar extension, the
geopolitics of the region were at a turning point. The United States pinned
hopes on Ayub to be the Praetorian
Guard of its Cold War regional strategies in Southwestern Asia and the Persian
Gulf, and he did acquit himself.
New Delhi senses that the Pakistani military has regained its pre-eminence in
that country's political economy after a three-year interregnum, and that Kiani
will now call the shots on Pakistan's ties with the US, India and Afghanistan
for the foreseeable future. The US already acknowledges Kiani as its point
person in Pakistan.
No US dignitary visiting Islamabad will want to fail to meet with him, lest it
detract from the seriousness of their mission. The US would dearly want its
Indian "strategic partner" to also get along with Kiani - or at the very least,
leave him alone to focus on the important task ahead in Afghanistan. But in a
full-page feature on Sunday, a leading Delhi daily caricatured Kiani as a
Moghul conqueror capable of raining death and destruction. It just about
captures the mood in Delhi.
The Indians simply cannot forget that Kiani was the first army chief to have
headed the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). David Headley, who was closely
associated with the planning of the terrorist strike on Mumbai in November 2008
and is at present in detention in a Chicago prison, recently reportedly told
Indian and US interrogators that serving Pakistani army officers and the ISI
were directly involved in the terrorist attack.
Calming Indian nerves
A dark horizon is enveloping India-Pakistan relations. Against this backdrop,
two senior US officials - special representative for AfPak Richard Holbrooke
and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - descended
on Delhi last week to ensure that the announcement of Kiani's extension had a
"soft landing" in the Indian capital.
For the Americans, the apple cart is delicately poised. The urgency of an AfPak
exit policy subsumes all other thoughts, and in that regard Kiani can help a
lot. In Holbrooke's estimation, as Taliban reconciliation still remains a
distant prospect, the US's counter-insurgency operations will continue, and
India shouldn't, therefore, worry unduly about the specter of the powerful
Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani network grabbing power in Kabul. He spoke of
signs of a positive shift in the Pakistani approach to fighting terrorism and
suggested that it deserves to be encouraged.
Holbrooke tried to impress on the Indians that Pakistan is a crucial player in
any strategy aimed at stabilizing the Afghan situation and India should not see
the US's expanding involvement with the Pakistani military in zero-sum terms.
Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan, but he gave his assurances
that India also would continue to have a role in economic investment in
Afghanistan. Holbrooke tried to be persuasive that the US's influence with the
Pakistani military leadership is a positive thing for Indian interests.
In essence, Holbrooke advised the Indians to calm their nerves and apply
themselves diligently instead to easing tensions with Pakistan through
dialogue. He gave a wide berth to the Kashmir problem.
On a parallel mission, Mullen drew attention away from the badlands of
Southwest Asia and harped on the strategic challenge posed by an increasingly
"active" and "assertive" China.
He underlined that the US and India should work shoulder to shoulder to counter
the Chinese challenge in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Mullen's thesis
was that India is being needlessly obsessive about US arms supplies to
Pakistan. The running theme was that India is neglecting the real strategic
challenge facing it in the medium term - China's expansionist intentions.
Mullen went public with an extraordinary statement during a TV interview that
in the event of any "crisis" in Sino-Indian relations (meaning an outbreak of
hostilities on the disputed border), Washington will always be supportive of
Delhi. He claimed that Indian officials shared the US's concern regarding an
Mullen's public diplomacy was brilliantly executed.
On the one hand, he tried to rev up latent unease in Indian opinion regarding
China's long-term intentions and the future trajectory of Sino-Indian relations
pending their unresolved border dispute. In the process, he renewed the
demarche that the US arms manufacturers are genuinely interested in securing
the lucrative US$10 billion contract for India's planned acquisition of 126
On the other hand, Mullen pitched hard to create misgivings in the Chinese mind
regarding the recent Indian diplomatic and political overtures to Beijing for
chartering a "new stage" in the bilateral relationship.
Reaching out to Russia
A lot of shadow-boxing is indeed going on as the geopolitics of the region
shifts gear, and the Indians would probably choose to remain skeptical about
the Holbrooke-Mullen mission. They cannot be unaware that within Obama's AfPak
team Holbrooke has been one of the most fervent advocates of accommodating the
Taliban in the Kabul power structure.
The Indians estimate that the US regards the Pakistani military as an
irreplaceable ally today, and the latter is seeking parity for Pakistan with
the US-India strategic partnership. They couldn't have missed the point,
either, that Mullen came to Delhi with the express intent of integrating India
into the US's current acrimonies with China.
Neither can the Indians afford to agree with Holbrooke and Mullen's sanguine
assessments regarding the Pakistani military leadership, or afford to accept
Washington's assurance regarding the US's capacity to restrain the Pakistani
military. Equally, it seems highly unlikely that Delhi will want to partake of
the US's needling of China.
However, the US is negotiating with India from a position of advantage.
Washington expects Kiani to be beholden to it for using its good offices with
the Pakistani civilian leadership to formalize his extension of tenure, which
can translate as greater US clout in Pakistan. While in Delhi, neither
Holbrooke nor Mullen would be drawn into any criticism of Pakistan - not even
India's diplomatic options in the region today, including its relationship with
Iran, are fairly limited. In recent years, US diplomacy has virtually wrecked
Delhi's strategic understanding with Tehran, and its ties with China do not yet
allow scope for forging a mutual understanding, although the two countries have
shared interests with regard to regional security issues such as terrorism and
religious extremism emanating from the AfPak region.
Add in the fact that Obama's "reset" with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev has
thrown into disarray Moscow's equations with Tehran and, in short, it can be
seen that the US has succeeded in ensuring a Russian-Indian-Iranian axis, or
any joint regional initiative by them over the Afghan problem, remains a long
Delhi seems to belatedly realize, though, that its regional diplomacy has been
weak and there is an awful lot to catch up with now. Close on the heels of the
departure of the two US officials from Delhi, India's Foreign Secretary
Nirupama Rao is proceeding to Moscow.
Recent statements by Moscow - the Foreign Ministry on July 1 and Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kabul conference on July 20 - regarding the
Afghan situation are indicative of thinking similar to India's, especially as
regards the extreme caution needed in proceeding with the reconciliation with
the Taliban. Rao can be expected to probe the scope for India-Russia
cooperation over Afghanistan.
The Kremlin views Afghanistan also through the prism of Medvedev's "reset" with
Obama. Meanwhile, Medvedev has invited his Pakistani, Afghan and Tajik
counterparts to a summit meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in August.
Russia is also expanding its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) by supplying military hardware such as helicopters for the
Afghan operations and facilitating the so-called northern supply route by land
All this while Lavrov in his intervention at the Kabul conference demanded a
"neutral" Afghanistan and severely questioned the feasibility of reconciliation
with the Taliban. In essence, the Russians are working on multiple tracks.
A recent article in the Foreign Ministry's journal criticized India's
US-centric diplomacy and hinted at the growing need for Moscow to
"de-hyphenate" its ties with Delhi and Islamabad. There seems to be some
heartburn in Moscow especially that the US is poised to overtake Russia as
India's biggest arms supplier. Moscow wouldn't like cooperation over
Afghanistan to be a stand-alone enterprise limited to mitigating Delhi's
current regional isolation.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.