M.K. Bhadrakumar

The politics of the vast deserts and steppes of Central Asia will significantly determine the contours of any durable Afghan settlement. The implications for South Asia’s security will be far-reaching, too.

Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century traveller, described the Hindu Kush ranges as the “slayer of the Indians,” as people from the “land of India” mostly perished in the snowy heights of extreme cold. The ranges that run through Afghanistan did indeed split the Indian historical consciousness about that country.

When policymakers in New Delhi grappled with the Mujahideen takeover in Afghanistan, it suddenly dawned on them how little they knew about the tribes that inhabited the northern side of the Hindu Kush. It was those tribes who won the tight race for Kabul against the Pashtun Mujahideen groups during the dramatic “transfer of power” in 1992 by the communist regime headed by Najibullah, and New Delhi had on its hands the unenviable “post-Soviet” task of establishing a narrative suitable for a new dawn in the region’s ancient history.

The point is, the geopolitics of Afghanistan always had two halves. Which, of course, posed a major challenge to U.S. President Barack Obama when he crafted the new Afghan strategy. Equally, for regional powers like India or Uzbekistan, the dichotomy came in the way of creating a common space that would open the vistas of a regional initiative. Viewed from Delhi and Tashkent, the “great game” in the Hindu Kush mountains assumed different shades. Some things do not easily change in life — even for an aspiring regional power. Even today, Indian discourses on Afghanistan run a predictable course. Has the U.S. administration finally woken up to the harsh reality of the Pakistani military’s doublespeak in the fight against terrorism? If so, will it turn the screw on its single most crucial partner in the fight? Period.

From this point, the angst deepens somewhat. Will the U.S. finally abandon the willing suspension of disbelief about the Pakistani military’s passion for its strategic asset, the Taliban, and realise instead that New Delhi is Washington’s sole “natural ally” in the region in the fight against terrorism? And, therefore, will the U.S. allow itself the privilege of India’s cooperation in “stabilising” Pakistan? This range of issues more or less hogs the quaint Indian approach toward the Afghan problem in the seminar circuits in Delhi where one hears the thesis being rolled out ad nauseam like a repeatedly-vulcanised rubber tyre not possessing its original tensile strength any more.

Meanwhile, the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush leading to the vast Central Asia are preparing for a new dawn in the region’s history. To be sure, the politics of the vast deserts and steppes of Central Asia that span the space between the Caucasus in the west and Xinjiang in the east will significantly determine the contours of any durable Afghan settlement. The downstream implications for South Asian security will be far-reaching too.

Three aspects to the emergent Central Asian security are of interest to India. One, China is venturing out as a provider of regional security and stability — supplementing Russia’s traditional role. The opening of the 1,833-km gas pipeline on December 14 connecting the energy fields in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Xinjiang with an annual capacity of 40 billion cubic metres resets not only China but also the world community’s terms of engagement with the region. The pipeline becomes part of China’s 7,000-km long East-West trunk route that feeds its booming centres of production on the eastern seaboard and will provide half of China’s present gas consumption.

Such a vital economic lifeline requires security guarantee and China is going about that task in its usual way by creating “win-win” situations with its Central Asian partners. In sharp contrast to the predatory instincts of western companies that zero in on the region’s huge untapped mineral resources and rare earths, China is stepping in with a comprehensive engagement plan based on equity and mutual trust and partnership that promises uplift of the Central Asian economies from their post-Soviet trough.

From Beijing’s perspective, the security of Central Asia (and Afghanistan) becomes integral to Xinjiang’s stability, apart from China’s overall energy security, which heavily depends at present on the extended supply routes via the U.S-controlled Malacca Straits that can prove a choke point. Flush with surplus capital, China, therefore, is showing the will to invest in Central Asia’s prosperity and stability and thereby create a matrix of mutual dependence. The West cannot cope with this audacity. The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit estimates an 8 per cent growth rate for China’s economy, whereas overall contractions of 2 and 4 per cent are forecast for the U.S. and the eurozone economies.

Two, the West would have ideally liked a clash of interests between China and Russia in Central Asia. But the emerging paradigm is instead pointing in the direction of a convergence of mutual interests. With the global downturn and the deep economic recession plus the sharp fall in energy export revenues, Moscow is accepting China’s investments as the only realistic way out for the development of the vast Russian Far East and Siberia as well as Central Asia. In May, President Dmitry Medvedev openly called for a tandem approach by Moscow and Beijing to the RFE and Siberia’s development, on the one hand, and the resuscitation of China’s dilapidated northeastern industrial base, on the other.

Russia is pleased that Central Asia has no pressing need for alternative U.S.-backed gas pipelines headed for Europe. Russia and China have a shared interest in keeping the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the U.S. out of Central Asia. Both harbour misgivings about a hidden U.S. agenda of keeping open-ended military presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan and of manipulating Islamist elements as instruments of geopolitics. Both search for ways to influence a swift “Afghanisation” of the war that paves the way for the vacation of foreign occupation.

Three, a U.S. attempt to draw the Central Asian states into the AfPak is indeed apparent. The day after the commissioning of China’s Central Asia pipeline, the U.S. State department stated in a testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “The [Central Asian] region is at the fulcrum of key U.S. security, economic, and political interests. It demands attention and respect and our most diligent efforts … any examination of U.S. policy towards Central Asia must start with the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan … We [the Obama administration] have begun to establish high-level mechanisms with each country in Central Asia, featuring a structured annual dialogue to strengthen ties and build practical cooperation.”

Never before has the U.S. Central Asia policy been framed in such priority terms. It doesn’t need much ingenuity to estimate that the U.S. “surge” on Kandahar, which is projected in terms of the Taliban challenge, can be seen in a broader perspective. A recent study by the influential Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says: “Kandahar is the key road connection between the new Pakistani port of Gwadar and Afghanistan and, beyond that, all Central Asia, Europe, and much of the Middle East. Pakistan began the development of Gwadar with aid from China and has now engaged Singapore for the second phase of work … On Gwadar, the interests of the U.S, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are aligned … With Kandahar now in its eye, the U.S. should plan to build on future success there by making the opening to Gwadar a high priority … Pentagon officials estimate the cost of upgrading this connection at about $1 billion.” Obviously, any U.S. contingency plan would need to overcome the regional powers’ “more specific interests and competitive inclinations that obstruct” the U.S. grand design. The CSIS report names China, India, Iran and Russia and flags the “sustained insecurity in Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Kashmir, and other parts of Eurasia” as the challenge to the overall U.S. strategy.

Clearly, these new templates in regional security underscore that India’s normalisation with China increasingly assumes a regional dimension. This needs to be seriously factored in as the two countries sit down for the next phase of relations. As the distinguished former Indian diplomat and respected China scholar, Ambassador C.V. Ranganathan, put it recently, “Our shared neighbourhood should come on the agenda of serious discussions extending to concentric circles of expanding the dialogue to include all the primary parties affected by the situation in the AfPak region.”

China has remarkably transformed in the past quarter century. All indications are that it has no inclination to fish in the troubled India-Pakistan waters. On the contrary, as a Xinhua commentary pointed out last week, “For solving the dispute over the Mumbai attacks [of 26 November 2008], India and Pakistan should count on bilateral efforts to reduce tension rather than allow the situation being further complicated by other issues such as the U.S.-led Afghan War.” Plainly put, the China discourses of our strategic community are caught in a time warp. Stereotyped thinking should not impede new pathways from being opened in strengthening regional security.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)