India’s security competition with Pak is unique in its complexity and unprecedented in its dimension
No sane person can ignore the immense benefits of improving relations between India and Pakistan, because it will lead to an atmosphere of peace and stability in the subcontinent. In fact, the primary objective of Indian foreign policy is to ensure that the neighbouring countries should inevitably focus on economic development by burying all differences. But India should remain cautiously optimistic as it would be premature to celebrate the beginning of a new era.
Afghanistan has become a strategic headache for America. The violence and chaos perpetrated by the Afghan Taliban has forced the US to agree to complete withdrawal of troops from the Afghan soil by May 1, 2021. Scared of inviting Vietnam-like ignominy to its name, the new American administration seems incapable of figuring out what to do in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden himself is not sure that he will be able to honour the May 1 deadline as he said in a recent interview. Both options – maintaining or withdrawing troops – have consequences which Washington is keen to avoid. This is going to be perhaps the most consequential foreign policy decision following President Donald Trump’s departure and Biden’s arrival, and it may well herald the arrival of a new era of American engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the downside of American predicament is that the US wants India to extend a helping hand.
There is no doubt that ties between India and the US are at an all time high. And Biden’s desire to work with a coalition of allies and partners, instead of Trump’s unilateralist approach to foreign policy, is much appreciated by New Delhi. However, India cannot clear up the mess for which both the Pakistanis and the Americans are responsible. Pakistan has been an active participant ever since the USSR invaded Afghanistan four decades ago. Since 2001, the best strategic bet for the US was to try to shape Pakistan to be more open at home and responsible abroad, and then adjust its strategy if that reality did not materialize. But the US has spectacularly failed to punish Pakistan for its ill-conceived policies in Afghanistan, even after being directly involved in Afghanistan for the last two decades. Now when the US is desperate to extricate itself from Afghan quagmire, it is keen not to antagonize Pakistan.
The first sign of thaw between India and Pakistan was witnessed last month with the announcement of the ceasefire along the LoC. It was indeed a huge confidence-building measure. Now, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan and the Army Chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, have underlined the need for India and Pakistan to mend fences. However, it is impossible not to be cynical about Pakistan’s outstretched hand. Whenever Pakistan’s political class finds itself in unmanageable troubles, they often resort to extending the hand of friendship towards India. But we have seen many such false and half-baked initiatives unravelling. If Pervez Musharraf’s primary motive through the Agra summit diplomacy was to get legitimacy for his military rule, Nawaz Sharif was removed by the Army with the help of a pliant judiciary because he was in favour of peace with India.
Pakistan’s sitting government seems to be faltering already as the opposition parties have got an upper hand over national narrative. Bajwa’s path is also not easy because his grip on the army brass may not be as strong as it used to be because he is on an extended tenure till November 2022. In fact, continuation of the Khan government, with which the Army is “on the same page”, has become a political liability for Bajwa. On the other hand, Pakistan is facing blacklisting threats from the FATF, and economic conditions have deteriorated further.
That is why Pakistan is suddenly reminding India of unlocking huge trade potential by linking Central Asia with South Asia. But the question is: who has obstinately blocked the regional economic integration of South Asia? Much has been made of the fact that Bajwa did not mention Pakistan’s oft-repeated position about the UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, but toning the rhetoric down a few decibels against India does not mean that Pakistan has made a radical shift in its strategic intentions. Thus, Bajwa’s claim of economic security being the most important component of Pakistan’s national security will be tested by Pakistan’s actions on the ground, particularly in Kashmir.
Regardless of where one comes down on the exact blend of policies that India should adopt, the important step is to base its assessment of Pakistan that rejects the myths and accepts realities about the country’s capabilities and intentions.
Let’s come to the moot point. Besides the urgent need to adapt to new strategic challenges amid fiscal constraints, public opinion in India has often been either sceptical or against sending troops outside India in peacetime. Therefore, the US needs to understand that India cannot afford to send its troops to Afghanistan. Moreover, the Narendra Modi government will never fall for Pakistan’s peace narrative and give legitimacy to the discredited regime and its backers in Rawalpindi, even if this is what the Biden administration wants. India’s security competition with Pakistan is unique in its complexity and unprecedented in its dimension due to its geographical location as well as synergetic linkages with China. India’s response will be shaped by its own calculations.
There is a talk of a transitional government in Kabul. But the idea is quite dreadful as the Taliban would be given substantial representation without showing their electoral strength. Reduction in violence and tensions in and around Afghanistan is imperative before India focuses its attention to Central Asia. If the situation in Afghanistan is to improve, the primary responsibility lies with the big sharks of the anarchical international system – Washington, Moscow and Beijing – whose interests will be directly affected if the Taliban capture power in Kabul. Is the world prepared for another civil war in Afghanistan?