On January 2, 2019 US President Donald Trump slammed Pakistan for “housing” America’s enemies and for doing nothing for the $1.3 billion it used to receive as aid which he had earlier terminated. Because every bit of anti-Pakistan spouting by Trump is celebrated by the Indian Press as if it is some great big gong given India by Washington, surely it must have been unprepared for Trump saying virtually in the next breath that he looked “forward to meeting the folks from the new leadership in Pakistan [and] we will be doing that in not-too-distant future”. That a Trump-Imran Khan meeting is in the works was confirmed by the Pakistan Foreign Office.
The Modi government, however, was undoubtedly taken aback when, on this same occasion, he showered contempt and derision on India’s $3 billion plus development assistance over the last few rears to Afghanistan that, among other things, saw libraries being built and stocked in Afghan educational institutions. It is activity he summed up as Delhi funding a “library”. “You know what that is? That’s like five hours of what we spend. And, we are supposed to say ‘Oh, thank you for the library.’ I don’t know who is using it in Afghanistan.” MEA was left impotently raging against Trump’s unfair take on India’s contribution.
The fact is Trump will not be satisfied short of Delhi defining its engagement in Afghanistan by deploying boots on the ground as part of the coalition effort to contain the Taliban forces, the aim of defeating them on the battlefield having been given up long ago. Because this won’t ever happen, India will always be at the receiving end. Except Trump’s barbs reveal the US’ long term objective of courting Islamabad at the cost of Delhi, something Modi, his PMO and MEA seem unable to reconcile to, and the still larger meta-strategic goal of “balancing” India’s power by arming and sustaining Pakistan by rendering it ever more pliable that they won’t even acknowledge.
Making allowance for Trump’s allergy to reading anything, including policy briefs — whence his remark about the Afghan library, and to generally winging it on instinct and impulse, the issue that Prime Minister Narendra Modi even at this late date will be compelled to ponder is just how much American insult and policy waywardness is too much for the Indian national interest to bear, and should yesterday not have been soon enough for this country to finally assert itself in its own backyard? Underlying these concerns are Modi and the compromised Indian officialdom’s desire to get close to Washington at any cost. including self-respect. This when Trump’s actions on a daily basis prove why the US cannot be trusted and is an immensely unreliable partner.
Does the PM, moreover, not realize India’s position as the central pillar of a security architecture, leave alone southern Asia, in Asia at-large? And that if the approaches to the subcontinent are to be protected, the entry of interloper countries — whether it is the US, Russia or China, into South Asian affairs, especially Afghanistan, have to be resisted? And because such entry is usually in the guise of “peace” initiatives, that these have to be undermined? But this requires a concert of the countries in the region and coordinating actions with Imran Khan’s regime, which thus becomes a necessity.
The opening has been offered by Imran Khan with his ‘Kartarpur corridor’ (KC). It only remains for Delhi, rather than seeing it as a terrorist/Khalistani/ISI trap, to convert it into a strategic opportunity. This won’t happen if the PMO, the NSAB and just about every agency supposedly consulted by Modi is filled with Doval’s select friends and veterans from the spook-world of RAW, IB, MI, etc. The result of such monopolizing of the prime minister’s time by persons who have spent their time in the shadows is predictable and is on display. Modi’s political gut said he should run with Imran’s KC proposal, described by him as the coming down of another Berlin Wall. But under pressure of contrary advice he turned around, and in the process doused Islamabad’s enthusiasm.
Rustam Shah Mohmand, among the more perceptive practitioners — he was Interior Secretary and ambassador — and analysts in Pakistan, feels much the same way. Afghanistan, he writes, “should not be a battleground for proxy warfare. Both India and Pakistan must begin to explore avenues for cooperation in Afghanistan. Regional countries must create an environment for the US to pull out all its troops within a time frame. The insurgency will abate only when foreign forces have left the country.”
Pak COAS General Qamar Bajwa has time and again offered an olive branch, and talked of the sheer instability engendered by extremist Islam as the principal threat to Pakistan. This threat has at its core the Daesh/IS element now raising a presence in Jammu & Kashmir. Indeed, Mohmand is of the view that, with the US military solution only strengthening the Taliban hold on Afghanistan, the fear of the daesh establishing itself in that country is what’s driving Russia and China to seek a coalition government in Kabul headed by the Taliban. Moscow apprehends as Beijing does that Daesh will soon infiltrate their territories with Muslim populations, and the Daesh standard will be borne aloft by discontented Tatars and Muslims in Russian Caucasus, and by Uyghurs.
If this is a fair reading of the situation in Afghanistan, and it seems to be, then it makes ample sense for India and Pakistan to join in supporting a coalition-run Afghanistan, while attempting to whittle away at the influence wielded by the US, China and Russia both with Ashraf Ghani-led Kabul and the Taliban, and for Delhi to call a summit of India, Iran and Afghanistan to agree on a cooperative agenda and ways of pushing it. After all, with Chabahar Tehran is, willy-nilly, in the game. This is an eminently doable task. Particularly because even the Taliban are appreciative of the Indian projects such as the Zaranj-Delaram highway, perhaps, for the wrong reasons — they can more easily transport raw opium — the main source of revenue — for processing in laboratories on the Iran border for onward transmission to the West and other markets. In any case, most of the Taliban will happily respond to a joint peace move by India, Iran and Pakistan than depend on the merciless ministrations of extra-territorial powers with uncertain outcomes. Further, the Taliban have no truck with the Daesh, and will gladly fight them if sufficiently incentivised, and which financial inducements Delhi can readily offer (because the economic health of Iran and Pakistan do not permit them to).
But when has Modi shown any real strategic vision and, importantly, inclination for a regionally inclusive policy that involves trusting Pakistan to do the right thing for itself, the region, and India? In the context of Modi’s supping with Xi and hugging Trump, which has fetched India little and has not weakened China’s or America’s overarching resolve to keep India down by diminishing it, Delhi’s ignoring the potential and possibilities of an India-Iran-Pakistan entente — the ‘triple entente’ for a new age, is egregious.