By deciding to work with Russia, China and the Central Asian countries within a regional framework, India has made a significant policy decision.
An appreciable level of seriousness underscores the government's thinking on pressing ahead with the bid for iron ore blocks in the fabulous Hajigak mines in Afghanistan as well as to sponsor the Steel Authority of India proposal to set up a steel plant in that country. The Hajigak mines hold an estimated reserve of 1.8 billion tonnes of iron ore. The “hands-on” interest shown by the new Foreign Secretary, Ranjan Mathai, in the progress in the bidding process testifies to the new thinking. From the Indian policy perspective, the Hajigak project has three dimensions.
The project, quite obviously, stands at a junction where foreign policy intersects national policies. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon said in New Delhi recently: “Our primary task now and for the foreseeable future is to transform and improve the life of the unacceptably large number of our compatriots who live in poverty, with disease, hunger and illiteracy as their companions in life. This is our overriding priority, and must be the goal of our internal and external security policies. Our quest is the transformation of India, nothing less and nothing more.”
Looking back, an esoteric Afghan policy conceived in the ivory tower in the classical mould of the “great game” in the Hindu Kush never really made sense for India. Things, after all, need to add up in life. When Russia supplies helicopters to the Afghan government, it makes the United States buy them at market price from Russian stocks, and servicing and repairs will be met from a trust fund set up by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to that end.
NATO's war is related to Russia's own security as well as its “near abroad.” Yet, when the western alliance (or the U.S.) uses the Northern Distribution Network to transport supplies for the troops in Afghanistan, Russia levies a transit fee, estimated to be in excess of $1 billion. Such realism makes sense. Again, the Pentagon, although neck-deep in the uncertain war, did undertake an exhaustive study of Afghanistan's multitrillion-dollar mineral wealth. Indeed, has there ever been a “pure war” in history since Alexander? Hopefully, the Hajigak project will be a “leap of faith” also for the Indian strategic pundits. It is senseless to pursue politics without economics. This realism has long been in coming in our regional policies — be it toward Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh.
Second, New Delhi is beginning to look beyond the din of the war into a future that seems misty. The Hajigak project is located in the central Bamyan province, which is relatively stable, but it can be optimally realised only if peace arrives in Afghanistan. So what lies ahead in Afghanistan? The U.S. is finding itself in a strategic cul-de-sac and the Taliban pushing the NATO commanders into an “increasingly reactive operational posture,” as a former Pentagon analyst, ‘Chuck' Spinney, blogged recently, where they are reacting to events rather than moulding them. Indeed, the Taliban has switched gear and is focussing on exhausting the NATO forces and paralysing American willpower “by inducing our [U.S.] military to over and underreact to an unfolding welter of widely dispersed insurgent attacks.” In a brilliant analysis, Spinney added: “The probable result is that the U.S. will not leave Afghanistan on its own terms but on its adversary's terms … other than reversing the troop withdrawal and escalating the conflict with yet another troop surge, the only way out of the trap is to negotiate a political settlement with the insurgents … The goal should be one of establishing conditions for the emergence of a neutral and prosperous Afghanistan … It is too late for American leaders to be adhering to the primitive idea that one can only negotiate from a position of strength abroad and economic strength at home — both those bases of power have been blown.”
Without doubt, the Taliban is demonstrating great skill in adapting itself to the changing conditions. Its recent operations testify to the impressive reach of the insurgency and a loss of initiative for the U.S. From this point, small decentralised insurgent groups can be expected to create havoc when the American troop withdrawal continues. Fewer and fewer forces will be available to counter them. There is also the great danger that somewhere along the line the Taliban might do a “Khobar” on the NATO. It took just a single team of suicide bombers belonging to Hezbollah Al-Hejaz in October 1983 to attack the famous Khobar Towers in Beirut, where the U.S. Marines were based, and kill 241 of them. This, in turn, compelled President Ronald Reagan to order the troops home post-haste.
In sum, the new thinking in the government on the Afghan situation, as was manifest during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Kabul in May (and presently over Hajigak), has come not a day too soon. Delinking the Indian policy from U.S. strategies in Afghanistan was long overdue. As indeed the need to keep communication lines open with all Afghan groups while dealing principally with the Kabul government; scrupulously avoiding taking sides in that country's fratricidal strife; not even remotely contemplating a military deployment; and, most important, doing all we can to ensure that Afghanistan does not become an arena of conflict with Pakistan. The indications are that much ground has been covered in this direction. Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's reference to Islamabad's “outreach to Afghanistan and India” in the same breath, in her recent speech at the National Assembly, conveyed a positive signal. This brings us to a third point. How do the Indian regional policies adapt to the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan?
In a nutshell, the U.S. retreat should encourage India to be more active in its regional policies. If one thing is absolutely certain about the Hajigak project, it is that India's involvement in it — or, for that matter, in any Afghan or Central Asian project of large scale — is one hundred per cent predicated on the climate of relations with Pakistan and Iran. Pressing ahead with the Hajigak project would seem to convey a degree of optimism that the improving relationship with Pakistan is sustainable and could possibly be taken to a qualitatively new level of cooperation. Similarly, it also presupposes, perhaps, that new life can be breathed into the insipid ties with Iran. These are hopeful signs.
What has been lacking at the policymaking level is a conceptual framework of regional cooperation. This is evident from the predicament inherited by Mr. Mathai as regards a possible mechanism to evacuate iron ore from Hajigak. The options being considered are through a Pakistani land route and/or through the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran. Evidently, for this to happen, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran ought to form a hub of regional cooperation. Clearly, such a hub has immense potential, be it in terms of energy, market, mineral resources or manpower. But the ground reality is that we have a long way to reach that goal.
Most certainly, Mr. Mathai asked a pertinent question: how do we evacuate iron ore from Afghanistan? A land route via Pakistan is theoretically possible but it will mainly have to be through the Iranian port of Chabahar. That being the case, do we factor in adequately the importance of India's ties with Iran, which are in great disrepair? The fact remains that India hurt Iran's core interests and thereafter subjected the relationship to benign neglect. It could afford this misadventure because it had no economic ties worth mentioning with Afghanistan or the Central Asian countries. Alas, India failed to evolve coordinated policies toward Central Asia in the post-Soviet period. And the appalling failure to exploit our enormous soft power to build the sinews of an economic relationship is all-too evident. Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Prime Ministers fly back and forth every now and then, but no one regards India as a serious player in the region.
However, things can change when India gets full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The American rhetoric often spoke of a Great Central Asia strategy aimed at rolling back Russian and Chinese influence in that region by bringing it closer to the Indian market. By deciding instead to work with Russia and China and the Central Asian countries within a regional framework, India has made a significant policy decision. The diplomatic challenge now will be to put in place the underpinning to galvanise India's economic ties with Central Asia once the SCO membership gains traction. This underpinning principally involves robust ties with Iran and pressing ahead imaginatively with the normalisation process with Pakistan. In sum, India's Hajigak challenge is to get the act together in its regional policies by evolving a strategy of mutually beneficial cooperation with Afghanistan and Central Asia, built on predictable ties with Pakistan and Iran.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)