WHY KABUL KICKED THE INDIAN BUTT

  0 comments   |     by Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar on November 01 , 2014

Most important, the bitter truth is that India overlooked the irrationality of its willingness to get locked in a great game in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role is central and irreplaceable in an Afghan settlement. Hopefully, Delhi will now at least be on a learning curve in the period ahead and concede that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan

It is extremely important that the real meaning is understood in Delhi within the government and by our woolly-headed pundits as to why Kabul has conveyed its decision that it is no more seeking military supplies from India. Kabul is sticking to its decision despite a last-minute mission by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. 

The blame game has begun. The Indian security establishment apparently attributes the Afghan decision to the delay in the Indian supplies. But this is like passing the buck. The heart of the matter is that the Indian agencies that were in the driving seat in crafting our Afghan policies in the recent years have made a mess of things and would now do what comes naturally to them when they botch up things — obfuscate the comprehensive policy failure. 

What has happened was waiting to happen. Anyone who lent ear to the Kabul bazaar would agree. A perception grew steadily over the past one-year period in Kabul (and in the region) that Abdullah Abdullah, who was a key interlocutor for Delhi from the Northern Alliance era in the late 1990s, would be India’s favorite in the Afghan presidential election in April and the runoff in June. 

Alas, the Indian pundits and some of our media persons also reinforced this perception by visiting Kabul and enjoying Abdullah’s lavish hospitality and thereupon voicing back home in India their backing for his candidacy. 

Of course, many Afghans believe — rightly or wrongly — that Indian agencies also bankrolled Abdullah’s election campaign. The sad truth is that perceptions matter in politics and the bazaar is an integral part of the Kabul political circuit. 

There is every possibility that Abdullah’s main opponent (and present president) Ashraf Ghani also would have had such perceptions regarding India’s alleged partisan role in the Afghan election. To compound matters, Ghani himself has never visited India.    

But there is much more to this bazaar gossip regarding the alleged magical spell that Abdullah cast on Delhi. For, it is also mixed up with geopolitics. 

Given Abdullah’s background as a “Panjshiri” and his role in the anti-Taliban resistance, the surmise was that Delhi probably took his “anti-Pakistani” credentials for granted. Whereas, Afghan political culture has transformed phenomenally since the Americans appeared in the Hindu Kush in 2001 and any serious politician such as Abdullah would have begun to cast the net wide. Suffice to say, Abdullah is no more in the dog house in Islamabad or Rawalpindi. This is one thing. 

Again, the very first political decision taken by Ghani after assuming office as president was to reopen the sensational Kabul Bank fraud case, which his predecessor Hamid Karzai had hushed up much to the annoyance of the US. What does that mean? 

The beauty about the Kabul Bank scandal is that it is a can of worms that implicates a large number of big daddy’s in the ancient regime. Ghani, in short, is in a position today to make an offer to many of his political opponents that they will find it difficult to refuse. He’s got them by the jugular veins.  

Arguably, this is going to be a major factor why there isn’t going to be an intractable opposition anymore to Ghani’s government, and why the stabilization program in Afghanistan may stand a fairly high chance of success as things are today. 

Indeed, the spectre of a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan has receded and no one talks about it anymore. Put differently, those regional powers, who were inebriated by the great game in Afghanistan and were rolling up the sleeves for the post-2014 scenario following the withdrawal of the US troops, have been put out of business. 

It is quite palpable that a pall of gloom has descended on many Indian pundits who were raring to go in the Hindu Kush mountains. 

By the way, make no mistake, despite the troop withdrawal; there will be a big American military presence in Afghanistan. The regular troops, special forces, auxiliary units, and the “contractors” (who are largely ex-servicemen) put together, the total strength of US presence is in the region of around 30-35000 personnel located in nine big military bases spread all over the country. And they will be having the support of airpower, including drones. 

However, there is still more to it. Ghani enjoys robust American backing and there is no daylight between him and President Barack Obama. Equally, Ghani is an “old friend” of China, as Chinese president Xi Jinping put it. That Ghani is acutely conscious of the importance of striking a deal with the Taliban is no secret, either. 

In sum, Ghani hopes to work closely with Pakistan in the crucial weeks and months ahead. He has, therefore, begun doing the right things to clear the air of distrust in Afghan-Pakistani relations. 

On its part, Pakistan too is bending over backward to convince Ghani that it will help him reach a deal with the Taliban, provided he remains sensitive to Pakistan’s legitimate interests. 

The Pakistani president and security and foreign policy advisor have visited Kabul in the recent weeks to meet Ghani. A visit by the Pakistani army chief is on cards. 

The US visualizes that if the security situation improves, China will make big investments in Afghanistan including in the sectors related to Beijing’s Silk Road strategy. Unsurprisingly, Washington is encouraging Beijing to play a “proactive” role in the reconciliation in Afghanistan involving Pakistan and the Taliban. And the indications are that Beijing is switching to a “proactive” role. 

What we in India need to factor in is that Washington and Beijing have a shared interest in regional security and stability and they, therefore, support the Afghan-Pakistani detente.  

In all of this, the unwavering bottom line for Pakistan will be three-fold, namely, Iron-clad assurances that: a) the Afghan intelligence will not lend itself to be an instrument for Indian agencies to settle scores with Pakistan’s ISI; b) Afghan soil will not be used for staging terrorist acts in Pakistan; and, c) whittling down the Indian presence in Afghanistan to an appropriate scale from its excessive level, especially on Pakistani border regions. 

Alas, the UPA government lost precious time by not engaging Pakistan in a sustained dialogue leading to a modicum of understanding regarding the Afghan situation. If anything, the Narendra Modi government has resorted to a policy of inflicting “pain” on Pakistan. 

Taking into consideration the interplay of all these factors in regional politics, it can be assumed that Ghani is moving in the direction of addressing Pakistan’s core concerns and vital interests. Kabul will consider it prudent to mark a distance from the rabble rousers in Delhi. 

The demarche withdrawing the request for arms supplies is probably the first move. Delhi should expect that there will be other moves by Kabul too in the coming weeks and months such as severely delimiting the activities of the Indian intelligence in Afghanistan and generally telling us to “cool it” in places such as Kandahar and Jalalabad close to the Pakistani border where we have consulates. 

The big question here is how Indian policies reached this cul-de-sac. To my mind, the blame squarely falls on the Indian agencies who played the great game in Afghanistan. 

The great game has its invidious charms, no doubt, but it is also a treacherous game where it can prove a fatal mistake not to have sensed at a very early stage itself the incipient signs of the ground beneath the feet trembling, presaging shift. 

Plainly put, India has come a cropper by misreading the flow of events in Afghanistan leading to the ascendance of the Ghani presidency. 

Now, a subsidiary question can be asked as to why an intelligence failure of this magnitude happened. The answer is rather simple: Afghans are often an underestimated lot. 

Foreigners overlook that Afghans have an uncanny knack for role reversal — incrementally getting their mentors do things as they want. Then, of course, what happens in such cases is that vested interests develop. 

When you begin to see only those things you want to see and hear only those things you want to hear and reject whatever or whoever doesn’t fit in, a nadir is reached in no time. 

In retrospect, Delhi should have anticipated that at some point or the other, as the year 2014 draws to a close, an effort will begin for reconciling the Taliban. In other words, the US’s calculus in putting Ghani in power in Kabul should have been understood — and, equally, therefore, the sheer hopelessness of Abdullah’s candidacy. 

The growing US-China proximity over the stabilization of Afghanistan could have been easily anticipated. Most important, the bitter truth is that India overlooked the irrationality of its willingness to get locked in a great game in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role is central and irreplaceable in an Afghan settlement.

Hopefully, Delhi will now at least be on a learning curve in the period ahead and concede that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan (which are no less than India’s core interests in Nepal or Bhutan), and realize that there is total awareness on the part of the US and China that an enduring settlement in Kabul needs to be riveted on Pakistan’s whole-hearted cooperation.

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.

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