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Policy sans frontiers

If India leaves Afghanistan at this juncture, it would accept the Chinese game of restricting our role to our national borders. Vikram Sood writes.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2011 21:57 IST
Vikram Sood

When Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister tried to explain to Parliament the significance of Aksai Chin, he referred to it as an area where not a blade of grass grew. He was stressing that Aksai Chin was barren, desolate and inhospitable. By implication, therefore, that India had lost only some useless piece of real estate to the Chinese. Mahavir Tyagi, Nehru’s friend and critic, shot back and pointing to his bald head asked, “Nothing grows here... should it be cut off or given away to someone else?”

One is reminded of this anecdote because of a similar suggestion recently made that we should leave Afghanistan to Pakistan and come home because we have no interests there anymore. This sounds very much like the proposal from the former US commander in Afghanistan General McChrystal who, exasperated by his own lack of success, advocated that India should adopt a lower profile in Afghanistan. There have been many suggestions from US circles that India should satisfy Pakistan by withdrawing from its interests in Afghanistan. They do not recognise regional interests or strategic needs of a nation trying to establish its role in the region.

The argument that we back off Afghanistan is one step ahead of the one offered by the report of the Sherry Rehman led-Jinnah Institute released in September. The report, that of the elite of Pakistan, accepts India’s role in Afghanistan in a limited way for economic development but suspects that India is far too deeply involved, which was against Pakistan’s interests.

There is more than one reason for India to remain engaged in Afghanistan and let us not forget that India would like its extended neighbourhood to be friendly and aware of India’s interests. It is not understood how a Pakistan rampant in Afghanistan will serve Indian interests, even if it is for a short while. A country that has played duplicitously for so long with the US, its main benefactor, is hardly likely to give us great comfort. It will use its strategic depth, something it has striven so hard for so long, to launch attacks on India and still have the deniability that these attacks do not originate from Pakistani soil. It has taken the world two decades and a few hard knocks to accept that Pakistan has been the epicentre of terrorism and this sort of retreat by India will take away this dubious title.

One of the arguments for withdrawal is that no Afghan has ever been involved in nor has Afghan soil been used for anti-Indian activities. Today, there are 14 Afghan terrorists in custody in Jodhpur and seven in Srinagar for terrorist activity in India. We all know the extent of involvement of the Taliban and the ISI in the IC-814 episode in Kandahar in December 1999. The Afghan and Pakistani border regions have been notoriously porous and Pakistan has used this for its strategic interests ever since the first Afghan jihad.

Besides, the powerful Haqqani Network, close to the ISI and operating both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is avowedly anti-India. It was this group that carried out the suicide attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Pakistan’s active role in the insurgency in Afghanistan is far too well-known. It has also used the Afghan Shura of Quetta and even inducted elements of the Lashkar-e-Taiba for both battle inoculation and as a policy hedge against the Taliban. Training camps like Khost in Afghanistan raided by Clinton’s cruise missiles showed up Pakistani terrorists from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

The first premise should be that Afghanistan is for Afghans and not Pakistanis, nor is Afghanistan a desolate piece of territory of little or no significance to India and, therefore, for Pakistan to have. Located as it is, Afghanistan is rich with an estimated $3 trillion worth of vital mineral resources. The Chinese have already moved in with a $3 billion investment in the Anyak copper mines, along with a power station and a rail link. We are not far behind with a $6 billion contract for a SAIL-led consortium to develop the rich Hajigak iron ore mines in the Bamyan province, construct a steel plant and a railway network. This is besides the $2 billion that India has committed to Afghanistan.

India and Afghanistan signed the wide-ranging Strategic Partnership Agreement last month. This was Afghanistan’s first such agreement signifying the country’s closeness to India and mutual trust between the two nations. In this context, some might even argue that we should be sending troops to Afghanistan to protect Indian investments, and if need be Indian strategic interests. India is poised for a breakthrough and any recommendation calling for withdrawal at this stage makes very little sense.

Afghanistan is not just about India and Pakistan in a supposedly post-US phase. China, because of its growing interest in the region has strategic interests in trying to reach the Gulf through Afghanistan and Iran. It eyes Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources as vital for its continued economic development, especially of the Xinjiang and Tibet regions. It would seek an alternative route to the Gulf and not remain completely dependent on Pakistan seeing how it has used its location to blackmail the US.

Simultaneously, China continues to strengthen its presence in the vital Gilgit-Baltistan area which would ultimately give it better access to Afghanistan. Besides, Iran has abiding interests in Afghanistan as it sees and worries about the growing hold of the radical Sunni Islamist Taliban in that country.

We need to think beyond today and tomorrow to the hereinafter. We need to think of our geo-strategic requirements and geopolitical situation 20 or 30 years from now. A retreat from Afghanistan now would mean accepting the Chinese game of restricting our role to our national frontiers. Nations that think only in the short term are doomed to oblivion. Nations that think of only their national boundaries without a forward policy are doomed to remaining small nations. The 21st century belongs to Asia and we are an important part of that new Asia. Let us not choose a destiny that casts us aside. Thinking differently is always desirable but thinking dangerously can be fatal.

Vikram Sood is former secretary, Research & Analysis Wing

The views expressed by the author are personal