India on a sticky wicket

Having forfeited strategic autonomy, it doesn’t have standing to rally the region

India on a sticky wicket

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: India’s bandwagoning with the American project is out of sync with the regional thinking. Reuters

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

THE regional conference of top security officials regarding Afghanistan, held in New Delhi on November 10, was a noteworthy event. It signified an audacious Indian bid to remain relevant as regards Afghanistan’s future, the region’s response to it and its efficacy in the current circumstances.

Our foreign policy and diplomacy are showing signs of pedantry and resembling post-doctoral research work on international relations and the world order.

The collapse of the Afghan policies has been most unexpected for the Indian establishment. The networking with a clutch of individuals in Kabul inevitably led to tunnel vision. Last week, the Russian ambassador in Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, said, ‘We knew that he (President Ghani) would not be supported by the army because he did not pay wages to soldiers. We learned it from Afghan soldiers.… And most importantly, we had information from various sources, including the Taliban camp, that the Taliban’s entrance to Kabul would be peaceful, with no bloodshed and threats to the Russian diplomatic mission and other diplomatic missions, too.’ Zhirnov mocked at countries that closed their embassies and ‘fled’ Kabul.

Evidently, there has been an intelligence failure. Gen Sir Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of general staff, also admitted to the House of Commons Defence Committee last week that he knew a collapse of the Afghan army was on the cards. Again, in a stunning interview with BBC last week, Afghanistan’s ex-finance minister Khalid Payenda blamed the government’s fall on corrupt officials who invented ‘ghost soldiers’ and took payments from the Taliban.

Payenda said the numbers of the army’s strength were inflated by more than six times and the actual fighting force was only around 50,000 soldiers, but included ‘desertions (and) martyrs who were never accounted for because some of the commanders would keep their bank cards’ and withdraw their salaries. Delhi probably realises by now that a clutch of operatives in Ghani’s circle played India and compromised Indian interests. Those fellows fled Afghanistan and are spent forces today.

Alas, in our country, foreign policy and diplomacy are showing signs of pedantry and resembling more and more like post-doctoral research work on international relations and the world order. Fundamentally, the geopolitics of Afghanistan is that the US is desperate to have local partners, since it is poorly supported by nominal Asian or European allies and senses that the confluence of Chinese and Russian regional influence is poised to grow and the surge of Iran is a new reality. India made an awful mistake to join yet another US-led ‘bloc’ in West Asia at this juncture — a recipe for further marginalisation.

India’s bandwagoning with the American project is out of sync with the regional thinking. Yet, the paradox is that there is still a groundswell of goodwill towards India, as the attendance at the Delhi conference testified. Arguably, the regional states would encourage Delhi to reassert its independent foreign policies. China and Pakistan were the only two countries that spurned the Indian invitation. Given the backdrop of the bloody turf war between India and Pakistan as well as the current history of their bilateral tensions, unsurprisingly, Islamabad remains highly sceptical about Delhi’s intentions in holding the meeting. Nonetheless, PM Imran Khan has shown envious pragmatism that Pakistan will ‘favourably consider’ Kabul’s request for transportation of wheat offered by India via the Attari-Wagah border.

As for Beijing, it takes cognisance of the hostile trajectory of India’s regional strategies devolving upon Quad and the zest to not only speak, but also act as America’s junior partner to contain China, including in derailing CPEC. The US is bent upon using Afghanistan as a springboard to destabilise Xinjiang. Strategic communication between Beijing and Delhi is nonexistent today, which leaves no scope for cooperation or coordination over Afghan developments, although the two countries would have common concerns and interests.

Even those regional states who participated in the Delhi meet remain unsure about India’s Afghan policies. Looking ahead, the close relationship between Russia, China and Iran creates the possibility of joint action, if not coordination of independent activities, regarding Afghan developments and the trio must be watching closely the frantic Anglo-American moves to ‘return’ to Kabul.

The US narrative is transforming rapidly from an open-ended standoff with the Taliban toward negotiating a deal with them so as to open the pathway for according diplomatic recognition to the interim government in Kabul and build a new relationship to advance American interests. No doubt, there is bound to be unease in the region, justifiably so, that Delhi might be called upon to smoothen the pathway.

Suffice to say that the challenge for Delhi is to strategise India’s role. Where India can be singular is by reorienting its strategy to make it ‘Afghanistan-centric’ rather than geopolitical. But then, as former foreign secretary K Srinivasan wrote last week, ‘Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, by ideology, inclination and threat perception, is inclined to greater alignment with the United States whether under the nebulous rubric of the Indo-Pacific or otherwise.’ Although the bandwagoning with the US in Afghanistan turned out to be sterile, India finds itself in a predicament like that of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. The US is openly talking about a ‘road map’ leading to recognition of the Taliban government. General Carter refused to accept that the western powers suffered a ‘defeat’ in Afghanistan. The drift of events is predictable.

Thus, the cautionary word at the Delhi meet from the top Kremlin official, Nikolai Patrushev, against replicating newer regional formats regarding Afghanistan must be noted carefully. India just doesn’t have the standing today to rally the region, having forfeited its strategic autonomy. Its motivations are ambiguous. Yet, Delhi ventured to separate those in the kingdom of God and those outside the kingdom of God.

Tribune Shorts


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