Militancy gestating next door, in Afghanistan, and in the notice of closest friend America places New Delhi in an awkward bind
Vladimir Putin’s visit last week was important on many counts, but its immediate value is that it nudged New Delhi much closer to the poker table where cards are being dealt to all regional players on the question of Afghanistan.
There have been two game-changing events in the region demanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focused attention — the farmers’ stir and the rise of the ascent of the Taliban in Kabul. The way he switched gears on the three controversial farm laws caused raised eyebrows when the announcement was first made.
The PM 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 near in Uttar Pradesh, and elsewhere, and the outcome of these elections will have a bearing on the 2024 general election.
Whatever the compulsions for the PM to make a tactical withdrawal on the farmers’ demands, he has, in doing so, signalled something Modi watchers hadn’t expected: the PM 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 American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Clearly, Mr 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, Taliban, 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. The Putin visit further loosened this rigidity.
Remember, one purpose of the Regional Security Dialogue organised by NSA Ajit Doval in November was to break out of this isolation. No one expected Pakistan to attend the meeting, but their NSA Moeed Yusuf could have refused in better language. In such a 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 Adm. Ali Shamkhani had a field day, tearing into the US military training skill — look how the much-touted 300,000-strong Afghan National Army collapsed. Indeed, they spread out the red carpet for the Taliban to take over.
Besides the anti-US invective, there was much else in Mr Shamkhani’s presentation which Mr Doval must have highlighted for the PM’s consideration — that Islamic State or Daesh mercenaries are being flown to Afghanistan. This wasn’t new. For years, Iranians, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been giving details of Afghanistan being readied as a centre for terrorism.
More recently, Mr 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 Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton: they were spending millions in arming militants, he claimed.
Is the centre of gravity for Islamic terror shifting to Afghanistan? Of late, these stories were emanating from West Asia, countries like Syria which were relatively “remote” from South Asia. Militancy gestating next door, in Afghanistan, and in the notice of closest friend America places New Delhi in an awkward bind. Little wonder that terrorism loomed large in the Putin-Modi exchanges.
The situation today is exactly the opposite of what it was on October 7, 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 post-9/11 Islamophobia, that Narendra Modi arrived in Ahmedabad to take charge as Gujarat chief minister. The February 2002 Gujarat pogrom almost blended with the hysterical global anti-Islamism unleashed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a host of others.
In the past 20 years, the world and the region have changed radically. It was its “sole superpower” moment that propelled the US to attack, invade and occupy Afghanistan. Its departure from that country showed the United States at its nadir. Surely, Mr Modi must change too.
Take the tennis racquet as an image: 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. Kazakhstan, which does not have a border, has also been holding military exercises with Uzbekistan on the Afghan border.
At the end of the racquet’s handle, across two oceans, is America. That leaves us somewhere near the “Y” holding the racquet’s head. The geography, the contiguity of states peering into Afghanistan, dictates its own policy of convergence.
In the recent three-hour virtual summit between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, there was nothing for the hawks to celebrate. Mr Biden reiterated the “one China” policy and the two leaders talked of “managing” their “competition”; saying they won’t allow it to spiral out of control.
It will be foolish to expect any ostensible change in neighbourhood policy until the February-March Assembly elections. But there must be an inevitable quest for a cooperative approach afterwards. Some good signs may already be there. A junior Pakistan hockey team was recently in India. Indian trucks can carry food aid to Afghanistan via Pakistan.
Television anchors aren’t 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.