Digging tubewells in an earthquake - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 28 December 2010

Digging tubewells in an earthquake

During my recent visit to Kabul, it was clear that Hamid Karzai has chosen between Islamabad and Delhi. For an isolated and apprehensive Karzai, Pakistan is the more compelling partner.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 28th Dec 10

India’s sway in Afghanistan has, over the last four decades, been an alternating saga of triumph and despair, driven largely by tumultuous events beyond our control. But now, for no reason other than negligence, New Delhi’s star is fading over Kabul and the rising sun is Pakistan’s.

Nine years ago, on the 13th of November, alongside a swarm of Tajik soldiers of the Northern Alliance, I entered a Kabul from where defeated Taliban stragglers were fleeing for their lives. From a no-go zone during the five nightmarish Taliban years, the Afghan capital was suddenly strongly pro-India. Having openly backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, New Delhi enjoyed close relations with Afghanistan’s new power centres, even with Hamid Karzai, a token Pashtun leader, who was grafted in to head a new government.

Over succeeding years, New Delhi burnished its image through the well-directed injection of some US $1.3 billion of humanitarian aid. India’s soft power contrasted pleasingly with the heavily armed soldiers that emblemized the presence of many countries, and with Pakistan’s brazen support for radical anti-Karzai groups, especially the Taliban, the Haqqani network and old-favourite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. India looked good in the eyes of the Afghans and the world; and the lower price that we paid in lives gave us sustainability in Afghanistan, something that was denied many other countries by their concerned publics.

Ironically, the very success of this strategy may have engendered the complacency that prevented New Delhi from trimming its sails along with the changing strategic winds in Afghanistan. Washington’s decision to pull out troops from that country --- whether in 2011 or 2014 will be a mere historical detail --- has knocked the bottom out of India’s aid-led strategy, which rested on the foundation of security provided by the US-NATO combine. In the bedlam of a post-US Afghanistan, political presence and muscle will count for more than hearts and minds won.

From the presidential palace in Kabul, a beleaguered Hamid Karzai contemplates this reality: while Pakistan flaunts its proxies, India remains inexplicably unwilling to provide the overt political support that would reassure Karzai in confronting the looming threats. Unsurprisingly, the beleaguered Afghan president is dealing himself a playable hand by negotiating with the ISI-backed jehadi groups and cosying up with Islamabad.

Both these transgress the thickest of Indian red lines but India’s political leadership remains unconcerned, focusing apparently on domestic political survival rather than the impending death-by-neglect of a crucial foreign policy initiative. The prime minister has not visited Afghanistan in five years, even as Kabul fervently seeks an unambiguous gesture of Indian support. Meanwhile, numerous visits to India by senior Afghan ministers and officials remain unreciprocated by their Indian counterparts. And Indian industry, risk-averse and content with picking low-hanging fruit in sheltered areas, has proved unwilling to invest in that country.

If New Delhi is not to be marginalised once again in Kabul, it needs to address a key Afghan complaint that I heard repeatedly from senior Afghan officials during my return to that country this month: “India’s development aid, while deeply appreciated by the people of Afghanistan, cannot substitute for a political policy. As the pre-eminent power in South Asia, is India prepared to just build tube-wells in Afghan villages while the country falls into Pakistan’s lap?”

Adds Fahim Dashty, the vocally anti-Pakistan editor of Kabul Weekly: “Every Afghan, whether Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara, regards India as a very good friend. But what is this friend prepared to do to prevent Afghanistan’s neighbours (meaning Pakistan and Iran!) from playing their games in our country? While those countries make their intentions clear, Kabul has no idea what New Delhi is prepared to do in Afghanistan”.

New Delhi must respond with clarity to these important questions from Kabul. India’s riposte to the setback in Afghanistan needs to begin with an overdue state visit by Dr Manmohan Singh to Afghanistan, something that would be recognised in Kabul as an unambiguous gesture of continuing support. That country’s newly elected parliament (the Wolesi Jirga) will soon hold its inaugural session; India’s prime minister should offer to visit at that time, which would almost certainly elicit an invitation to address the jirga, given India’s democratic credentials and the fact that it is constructing Afghanistan’s new parliament building. That inauguration, a year or so from now, would provide the opportunity for another high-profile visit, perhaps by a ten-member team of India’s youngest Lok Sabha members.

Such political initiatives must go hand-in-hand with confidence building with Pakistan, working towards allying Islamabad’s suspicion about our motives. It is worth recalling that, in Colombo, in July 2008, before 26/11 blew away the India-Pak dialogue, the two foreign secretaries --- Shiv Shankar Menon and Salman Bashir --- sensibly discussed their respective roles in Afghanistan. Two months later, India’s National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan, briefed his visiting Pakistani counterpart, Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, with a presentation on India’s developmental activities in Afghanistan. Durrani’s response: Pakistan would be prepared to join hands with India in developing Afghanistan’s schools and hospitals.

It will be, as the saying goes, a cold day in hell before India or Pakistan take such statements at face value. But if India is to remain a political player in Afghanistan, it must quickly move beyond humanitarian aid and seize the political initiative.


  1. Karzai learnt his lessons well from Najibullah's fate. That apart which country will back a power that sits pretty after its embassy gets blown up.

  2. Karzai is bargaining with the devil to hang to power by the skin of his teeth.

    Not only Karzai, but many have learnt from all that has transpired in Afghanistan. In the long term, Afghans will treat Pakistani domination with the same welcome all intruders/invaders have faced. And Pakistan will suffer more.

    As for India, it is true that we need to show spine and savvy in our support for Afghan aspirations, but it is also true that India will be remembered for kindness, and not for double dealing shit like the Pakistanis.

    Anon@18:12 - Don't you worry about India sitting tight. Keep watching to see who will laugh last.

  3. I wish India starts destabilizing Pakistan to secure Afghanistan. That I feel is the only way to control Pakistan's ambitions in the region. Pakistan and China have effectively encircled and cutoff India in the North. My only worry is, what will happen next if we don't take action now? I say forget America, keep strong relations with the Russians, & Tajiks. Put pressure on China by defining our own "Core interests", provide diplomatic support and setup embassy in Taiwan, Indians don't know how much Taiwanese like India, Indian leadership is showing its ineptness and infertility by not courting a well-groomed Taiwanese people. Pro-actively support Tibetans and Pro-India Nepalis to counter Maoists in Nepal. It is time not to act timid and responsible, but aggressive and against American directed strategies for our region. America has been a pest for our region, forever playing a destabilizing role and continuing the great game started by the British.

  4. I too believe that India will have the last laugh in all the matters, but before that a lot of red muddy water may be flowing in the river Kabul and getting deposited at both the banks of Indus.

    Let us understand that Afghanistan is again getting back to the square one i.e. in the olden days of 1995. Historically Afghanistan has always stuck to this square one since the invasion of Alexander. This was the heavy price the Afghan had to pay for being the real and ancient Gateway of India. Greeks were replaced by Shakas and Hoons, Arabics, Tatars, Turks, Iran, British, USSR and USA but Afghanistan always managed to return back to this square one each time.

    Once America withdraws, Pakistan will be able to pull back Talibans on their side and Indians will be thrown out the day Karzai moves to exile.

    Nothing will be left in the game except an escalated war which India will be watching to while listening to the old records of Saigal and contemplating a new series of actions and counterattacks with the remnants of the USSR and the reformed Northern Alliance.

  5. Afghans have long memories. Afghans remember which side india was on when 2-3 million afghans where butchered. Do you think you can compensate that with a token 1.3 billion dollars? If you understood our culture you would understand that what pakistan has earned by feeding and housing between 3-5million of our people!

    If you think Pakistan will allow you unhindered access to Afghanistan and thereby CAR nations just to make you happy, you are greatly mistaken. Indian has tried to undercut pakistan at every point it can...try speaking to some Pakistanis. Next question what can india offer to pakistan?

  6. The politics in India hasn't mature yet.Indian politicians,these days have shown more eagerness for political survival than ever.

    India is a growing power and foreign policy will be major player in determining India's rise.Indian parliament has rarely seen debates over foreign policy.But now time has come to understand that we should not depend on other powers to take decisions.

    Afghanistan remains a key point in India's foreign policy.But political will is weak.The mere humanitarian aids can't establish strong relations.India may argue over its ability to provide political support but it will be a shame for power like India if it can't do an act of kindness on its own.
    In near future,i see India loosing Afghanistan again.However i hope With Indian economy will rise the courage to take decisions on our own.

  7. An Afghan official recently commented that the amount of development work done by the Russians during the Soviet intervention was even greater that the one being done by Americans nowdays. Hardly any remains of those schools, hospitals and dams remain now. The Afghans prefer to barter all that away in exchange for Pakistani guns and bombs to blow each other away. So, anyone looking for any lasting goodwill in Afghanistan is myopic at best. Just because afghans recite a few old Raj Kapoor songs doesnt mean they are friendly towards India. I have interacted with many Afghan Taxi driver in middle east many of them ex-mujahideens and they are rabidly islamist (even holding arabs as lesser muslims) and enemical towards India.

    The major problem for us, once taliban re-establish themselves formally in Kabul will be the influx of its jehadi cadres in Kashmir and other parts of India to fight the ISI's war. Unfortunately, there isnt much India can do about it.

  8. Ajay,
    Only political policy is `willingness to stand up for your right'. As you rightly say, how long will we dig tubewells? Well in my view forever! We can only be good at serving. Need is for equals!!

  9. Simple math says Hamid Karzai is not very popular in his country for known reasons. So, India doesnt want to support him. And India is still blind sided by the previous election held there.

  10. India's should concentrate on only one thing. Keep the Americans in Afghanistan as long as possible.

    For a change, let the Americans bled in doing what India would like to do. Let the US bled more in it's chess game with it's favourite rental nation.

    For the time being things are going fine. US is been played around by Pak. And as far as Afghans, unfortunately for them, for some strange reason, people around the world (from terrorists to super powers!) are obsessed with their land(strangely enough where most of them is barren!)

    Hence if American stay there will war and if they leave there will more war. They should stop behaving as a nation and ask the UN to take it under it's control. The world is better off in investing to build a fence b/w Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tell the Afghan soliders to shoot anything that moves around the fence. Much easier than training them in COIN, warfare and what not.

    Actually it would be a really wise move by India, if it declares that it will start investing in such a fence. We know our fence works.

    This will more effective than stationing 150k/ 150 million US troops in Afghanistan.

  11. You have pointed out something very important no Indian minister of stature has visited that country in 5 years, let alone the prime minister. This is a worrisome trend. Recently after the last bomb, I read India was seriously contemplating training afghan army in Indian institutions in numbers no less than 100,000, that we were prepared to provide old T-55 tanks retired from Indian service.
    A better strategy would be like sending Rahul Gandhi for a charm offensive, even if he was killed who cares, he martyred for the nation's cause. We need to gang up with Russia since they are not seeing eye to eye with Iran anymore, the first batch of Indian transfer needs to include t-55 tanks, ALH dhuruv weaponised version in 12 numbers, the russians could provide armaments and ak-102 7.62 caliber assault rifles. As afghans acquaint themselves with the platform, we can slowly introduce Indian trained afghans. Replenishment can be done through tajikistan with Russian help, we should have a platform by the time Americans winddown. without American Help, the pakistani's cannot sustain supplies to taliban unless patronised by saudi arabia which is an US poodle. hence in a war of attriction, we would eventually win out. But, it still requires Iran's Confidence.

  12. India should commit troops to Afghanistan, if not in bulk, a few special forces squads to lead Afghan forces wont hurt.

    To get leverage in Afghanistan, you need boots on the ground, not dollars in the bank account.

  13. Informative post. But ain't it the problem with India's overall foreign policy (or rather lack of it).
    Pakistan is not only at an advantageous position in Af, but also building good inroads in Sri-Lanka and nepal

    China already has a 'string of pearls' around India.

    And even with so much tow-towing US and the NATO, we have been not been able to escalate the political pressure on pakistan beyong a point

  14. Tell me why Pakistan, Sri-lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal all dislike india? Is it because india always tries to think that it owns them? It is a pleasure to see paks pay india back in kind.

  15. Col. Shukla-

    Thank you sir, for all the interesting reading in 2010.

    I wish you and your family a healthy and fulfilling New Year!

  16. As Nirupama Rao a Congress Puppet rod into Foreign Sec seat on the success over LTTE by SL Govt forces and not on her you know THE skills... to be presice pak and chink weapons... she has one agenda to appease UPA chair by doing negating everything NDA did in Foreign policy... even at Republic of India's cost

  17. @ "Ben - yours truly" -

    What are you smoking? Share the secret for a good new year for the rest of Col. Shukla's readers.

    Have a good new year! And do keep writing.

  18. India's legacy of non-alignment has left its foreign poliy initiatives to be weak, inept and understaffed. The few successes, which India had, such as in E.Asia, are because of other nations aggressively pursuing her.

    The Indian PM, most likely, will not visit Kabul. We've a PM who has not cared to visit Mumbai on a single anniversary of 26/11 or some of the Naxal infested Indian states; the turmoil in Kabul is too far away for this government even if our embassy there gets blown up again.


  19. Shukla Ji,

    Happy New Year!

    There seems to be a long silence from you. What is the matter?

    Please write your comments about Tejas IOC...


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