Get out, leave Af to Pak

The sharply polarised political debate on the nuclear deal was the most significant instance of the so-called holy national consensus on foreign policy breaking in India. Some of this spirit keeps returning vis-a-vis Pakistan any time the government reaches out to Pakistan, or when there is another terror attack. But beyond that, the larger consensus remains intact. It is not healthy for a democracy, and particularly not when it has a strategic community that has had even greater continuity than its establishment economists, defying all changes of government, leaders, ideology. That is why the time has come to question, or at least intellectually challenge, some other aspects of this lazy "consensus". Even at the risk of inviting the charge of apostasy, therefore, the time might have come to question the wisdom and prudence of our totally unquestioned, un-debated idea of engaging in a dirty little cold war with Pakistan in Afghanistan once the Americans withdraw from there.

Today, everybody seems to be accepting the idea that Afghanistan is of great strategic significance to India, and we can neither cede it to Pakistan, nor leave them to fill the power vacuum that the Americans will leave behind. Similarly, that this is the Great Game country, and we are back to the Great Game, somehow inheriting the mantle of the British power in the 19th century, except that we might have to deal with an additional distraction called Pakistan. Further, that Afghanistan is a resource (mineral)-rich land where we have future commercial stakes, and is a gateway to Central Asia, making transit rights of such paramount importance for us.

There is some truth to some, but not all, of these. But the larger picture may look very different on closer examination. Also, engaging in a policy that puts us permanently and, inevitably, violently at odds with the Pakistanis is an idea that is being accepted much too readily. As if this is our destiny, part of an ongoing blood feud. As if we have no choice.

All of this, frankly, is lazy, self-serving rubbish, dished out by a strategic establishment that suffers terminally from a cold war mindset, and does not quite know, like all bigger powers (the US included), when to declare victory, and when to cut its losses.

The more curious thing is, some of this is happening under a prime minister who never tires of exhorting his policy-makers to "think out of the box" and a national security advisor who has built a formidable reputation for doing exactly this, not just now but over many decades of diplomatic service.

What kind of strategic importance does Afghanistan have for us now? Yes, we need transit to Central Asia. But to reach Afghanistan, we have to first persuade the Pakistanis to grant us transit. The more we jostle with them for influence in Afghanistan, the lesser the chances of their being so nice to us. Yes, Afghanistan is resource-rich and the Chinese may get there if we are not there. But what are we, meanwhile, doing with our own mineral resources? So many of our mines are shut, or not accessible. We might get a hundred times more value by either fighting, or bribing (as everybody eventually does with insurgents in Afghanistan), our own Maoists to be able to exploit our own mines. And the Chinese will get there before us anyway. And yes, there will be a power vacuum in Afghanistan. It will still be a country of great strategic importance. But for whom, is the question. It will be of no strategic importance to us. None of our supplies or trade come to Afghanistan. None of our bad guys hide there. No Afghan has ever been involved in a terror attack on India. In fact, almost never has a terror attack on us been even planned in the more precise Af-Pak region. They have all been planned and executed between Muzaffarabad, Muridke, Karachi and Multan. Almost never has an Afghan, Pakhtun, Baluch, Tajik, any ethnicity, been involved in a terror attack in India. It's always been the Punjabis. Ask anybody in the Indian army who has served in Kashmir and he will tell you that the intruders he fought were exactly of the same ethnic stock as the bulk of the Pakistani army he may have to fight in a real war: the Punjabi Muslims.

Yes, as we said earlier, Afghanistan is still a country of great strategic importance. But for Pakistan, and certainly not for us. Pakistan has a long, unsettled border with it and a more-than-latent irredentist Pathan sentiment on both sides of the Durand Line that it dreads spinning out of control as (and if) Afghanistan breaks up along north-south-west ethnic lines. From tribal ties, to funny trade-links, like gun and drug-running, an unsettled Afghanistan will be a permanent thorn in Pakistan's side when six divisions of its army are already not able to get the measure of the armed anarchy in FATA. Why should India then get into this unwinnable mess? More importantly, why should India give the Pakistani army and the ISI just what they need, a great, holy, moral justification to pour into Afghanistan to "fight the Indian challenge"?

Leave Afghanistan to the Pakistanis. If the Pakistani army thinks it can fix, subdue and control Afghanistan, after the British, Soviets and Americans have failed to do precisely this at the peak of each one's superpower-dom, why not let the Pakistanis try their hand at it? If they pour another ten divisions and half of the ISI into that hapless country now, isn't it that much of a relief for us on our western borders? What could serve our strategic interests better than having the Pakistanis discover a permanent strategic threat/ challenge/ opportunity along their western borders? Won't that be some relief?

And if the Pakistani army thinks it can succeed in a mission in which their mightier predecessors, the British and the Soviet empires and the Americans, failed, good luck to them. Because it will fulfil a fantasy of "strategic depth" they have nursed since they were rocked by totally fictional visions of massive Indian tank assaults through the desert cutting their mainland into two during General Sundarji's Operation Brasstacks in 1987. It is since then that the Pakistani strategic establishment has been seeking "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. Now, if any army wants to seek the "depth" of Afghanistan for its armour, vital air force assets, or even nukes, good luck to them. In fact, it would be interesting to see how the rest of the world, particularly the Americans, would react if such a thing was even contemplated. Far from being a security asset ever, Afghanistan, for the Pakistani army, will be exactly what it has been for any other invading army in its history: a permanent Waterloo in slow motion.

So shall we leave the Pakistani army and ISI to their own devices in Afghanistan? Whether they fail or succeed, it will confirm only one widely held view in the global strategic community: that howsoever dashing it may be tactically, the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment's strategic thinking emerges not from its brains but that some place lower down in human anatomy. Maybe then, the best way we can serve our own strategic interests in Afghanistan is to stay out of their way.

sg@expressindia.com

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