With Islamic terror centre shifting to Afghanistan, India will have to be more flexible & supple
Prime Minister Modi's about turn on farm laws shows he can change. Similar flexibility and suppleness are required now in dealing with neighbours and the Taliban
There have been two game changing events in the region demanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focused attention – the farmers' agitation and the ascent of Taliban in Kabul. The way he has switched gears on the three controversial farm laws has caused raised eyebrows.
The Prime Minister has a reputation for being tough, firm, uncompromising, determined, even obstinate, secure in the massive mandate of 2019. And yet he paused after having pitted the government against the farmers almost to the point of no return. Of course. elections are round the corner in UP, and elsewhere, and the outcome of these elections will have a bearing on the 2024 General Elections.
Whatever were the compulsions for the PM to make a tactical withdrawal on the farmers’ demands, he has, in the course of doing so, signaled something Modi watchers had not expected: the Prime Minister can change. He has demonstrated a suppleness and this, precisely, is what will be required in full measure in coping with the regional challenges precipitated by the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Clearly Modi’s men had such faith in the Americans and their handpicked Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, that they chose not to notice much else – the, Taleban, for instance, who they saw as an extension of Pakistan. This gloomy, self defeating appraisal, imposed a kind of immobility on policy. This would inevitably have led New Delhi to a dead end.
One purpose of the Regional Security Dialogue organized by the National security Adviser, Ajit Doval, was to break out of this isolation. No one expected Pakistan to attend the meeting but their National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf could have refused in better language. In a situation of such flux all doors should be left ajar, by Pakistan as well as India and others in play.
At the New Delhi conference, Iran’s NSA Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani had a field day, tearing into the US military training skill: look how the much touted 3,00,000 strong Afghan National Army collapsed. Indeed, they spread out the red carpet for the Taleban to take over.
Apart from anti-American invective, there was much else in Shamkhani’s presentation which Doval must have highlighted for the Prime Minister’s consideration – that Islamic State or Daesh mercenaries were being flown to Afghanistan. This was not new. For several years now Iranians, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been giving details of Afghanistan being readied as a centre for terrorism.
More recently, Vladimir Putin gave similar details to a group of ex-military officers. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2016 that the US was training militants in Syria. Donald Trump corroborated all of this in his conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper. In fact he named Obama and Hilary Clinton: they were spending millions in arming militants, he said.
Is the centre of gravity for Islamic terror then shifting to Afghanistan? In the recent past, these stories were emanating from the West Asian theatre, countries like Syria which were relatively “remote” from South Asia. Militancy gestating next door, in Afghanistan and in the notice of closest friend, the Americans, places New Delhi in an awkward bind.
The situation today is exactly the opposite of what it was on 7 October 2001 when the US launched missile attacks on Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and its head, Osama bin Laden. It is an amazing coincidence of history that it was exactly on that date, basking in the post 9/11 Islamophobia, that Modi arrived in Ahmedabad to take charge as Gujarat Chief Minister. The Gujarat pogrom of February 2002, almost blended with the hysterical global anti-Islamism unleashed by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and a host of others.
In 2001 New Delhi’s plaint was against the Americans having incorporated Pakistan as “the” frontline state in the “global war on terror”. It was painfully ironical because New Delhi’s much amplified chant was against “cross border terrorism” from Pakistan. New Delhi’s tormentor was now being chaperoned by the US as democracy’s protector. The 13 December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament was a terrible event, but it went some distance in restoring New Delhi’s self image as a victim of Pakistani terror.
In the past 20 years, the world and the region have changed radically. It was its “sole super power” moment which propelled the US to attack, invade, occupy Afghanistan. The departure from that country showed the US at its Nadir.
Imagine a tennis racquet. The round frame with a network of tight strings is, for our image, Afghanistan surrounded by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Russia and Pakistan, all shoulder to shoulder, quite literally on the Afghan issue. Even Kazakhstan, which does not have a border, has been holding military exercises with Uzbekistan on the Afghan border.
At the end of the racquet’s handle, across two oceans, is the US. That leaves us somewhere near the “Y” holding the racquet’s head. The geography, the contiguity of the states peering into Afghanistan, dictates its own policy of convergence.
In the recent three hour long virtual summit between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, there is nothing for the hawks to celebrate. Biden reiterated the “one China” policy and the two leaders talked of “managing” their “competition”; they will not allow it to spiral out of control.
It would be foolish to expect any ostensible change in neighbourhood policy until the February-March state elections. But there has to be an inevitable quest for a co-operative approach post the state elections. Some good signs may already be there. A junior Pakistan hockey team is in India. Prime Minister Imran Khan has made an exception: Indian trucks can carry food assistance to Afghanistan via Pakistan territory.
TV anchors are not busting their lungs out on a new Chinese village in Arunachal Pradesh. This allows cool headed policies to take shape. The US is a good enough friend to tolerate a shift in nuance – from fixation to consistency.
( The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent and commentator based in New Delhi. Views are personal)