A bruised Kashmir and a divided India are strategic risks
Despite appearances of policy and intelligence failure, the regime change in Afghanistan was a calculated move by the United States (US). But its consequences don’t bode well for India.
The US is the most experienced among the players of the Great Game. It is incredulous that the Americans were unaware of the true capability of an Afghan Army minted by them. Also, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban onslaught, in terms of coordination, logistics and leadership, could not but have been approved, or at the very least, acquiesced to by the US. The fact that marauding Taliban fighters did not kill any Americans, and neither did the withdrawing US troops destroy weapon dumps or aircrafts parked in bays, even after Taliban had overrun them, indicates a degree of mutual understanding. Also, while we may chastise US intelligence failures, India was blindsided as well.
A leader’s focus is towards his constituency. Joe Biden chose to listen to his war-weary citizens rather than world opinion. Actually, beyond echo chambers and think-tanks, world opinion matters little these days. Everyone understands this realpolitik so while many countries criticised the US, unsurprisingly, none offered to replace it with boots on ground. There is no hue and cry in the United Nations to raise a coalition task force either.
All nations have agendas. The US decided to cut losses and confront its adversary China, in the Pacific theatre, rather than hemorrhaging in Afghanistan. And lobbed a live grenade into Beijing’s backyard by re-weaponising Taliban. Russia savours the US withdrawal as a comeuppance of its own retreat three decades ago, and aims to fill that vacuum. China woos Taliban warily to further its belt and road initiatives through Afghanistan, thus outflanking India. China also wants to stop radical Islam at the gates to prevent it from spilling over into its hinterland.
Pakistan, however, hit the jackpot. By installing Taliban, it has outmanoeuvred India from Afghanistan for the foreseeable future and also created an ultra-hardline neighbour. Thus, they continue Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s strategy of leveraging a Pashtun militia to do the dirty fighting — and the nuclear deterrent to keep it from escalating and drawing in the Pakistani Army.
The one player which hasn’t got a seat in this edition of the Great Game is India. A Talibanised Afghanistan is a major strategic threat for us.
The Taliban and Afghanistan have millions of young men, who know how to fight proficiently, and nothing else. The Taliban’s advantage against much stronger and better-equipped opponents is the fanaticism of its jihadis, fuelled with fundamentalism. Such jihadis don’t resettle into peace very well. Peace and democracy need foundations of respect, accommodation, compromise and tolerance. Fundamentalists care for none of them.
So, we now have tens of thousands of victorious, battle-hardened fighters looking for the next land to liberate from non-believers. And given that Pakistan is Taliban’s compass and China is belligerent towards India, it is obvious which valley the Taliban fighters will target next.
With its security establishment already stretched, India cannot afford an additional threat. We have the bulk of our security forces and reserves overcommitted in fronts along China and Pakistan. Casualties are mounting in Kashmir in routine skirmishes. These losses may be in a trickle in themselves, but they tie down large formations and alienate local populace. We have serious internal security challenges in many regions, and an increasingly divisive society. Any country, even in the best of times, can ill-afford diversion of national resources and mindshare into defence and security. This crisis couldn’t have come at a worst time, when our economy is reeling.
Our adversaries have the initiative right now. It would be in the interests of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to threaten Indians stranded in Afghanistan or to take them hostages. The Taliban has played that game against India before and won. Showcasing the helplessness of a supposedly strong Indian government compelled to negotiate with the pariah Taliban through “inferior” Pakistan will be the latter’s comeuppance. Supporting the Northern Alliance is futile because they don’t have the stopping power against the revitalised Taliban, and while they may barely hold out, Panjshir has little influence over rest of Afghanistan.
Strategy is about the long term and not the next election cycle. The Pakistani Army and the Taliban are a miniscule percentage of Pakistani and Afghan populace. The citizens of both countries are exhausted by rapaciousness of their militaries and militia, and seek genuine democracies with foundations of respect, compromise, accommodation and tolerance. Which in theory, ought to be championed by India.
Our immediate strategy must however be to buttress Jammu and Kashmir, against ideological and military influx from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Previous insurgency attempts by Pakistan were thwarted repeatedly because Kashmiris refused to aid them. A bruised and alienated Kashmir and a divisive India are our biggest strategic risks. And that is where our internal consolidation and national alignment must begin. By creating an environment of genuine respect, accommodation, compromise and tolerance. Because as the US discovered after two decades and trillions of dollars and several thousand dead, people can’t be bludgeoned into consolidation, alignment or nationhood by compellence.
Raghu Raman is the founding CEO of the National Intelligence Grid
The views expressed are personal
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