Arun K. Singh was Indian Ambassador to the U.S., France and Israel, and served in various capacities in the Ministry of External Affairs, including dealing with Afghanistan post-2001. Now a teacher, commentator and keen observer of geopolitics, Mr. Singh discusses in this interview the evolving situation in Afghanistan and how it is linked to the security scenario in Jammu and Kashmir. Excerpts:
The U.S. appears to be planning an exit from Afghanistan after making a deal with the Taliban. How do you assess the evolving situation?
The U.S. under President Donald Trump clearly wants to pull out of Afghanistan. This is not something new. Even under former President Barack Obama, there was a concerted attempt to pull out of Afghanistan. There is a certain amount of wariness in American society about this prolonged involvement in Afghanistan. It has now gone on for almost 18 years. There have been costs, economic and social. Obama was not able to do it, partly due to the push from the U.S. military and partly because he was worried that if there was a major terrorist attack in the U.S. after the pullout, and sourced from Pakistan or Afghanistan... that would have been devastating. The U.S. also did not want to convey the message that it lost in Afghanistan. Then there would have been wider consequences.
Trump and his politics are different. I think he is in a position to handle the consequences of pulling out even if there is a subsequent attack in the U.S. Their challenge now is that the military is pushing for a slow drawdown, as they don’t want to create the impression that they have been defeated and leave, like they did in Vietnam. They would like to make an agreement on a political solution, and even if that collapses after a few months, the U.S. cannot be held responsible.
This is causing a lot of anxiety among groups within Afghanistan. The Afghan President has concerns. The Taliban is reaching out to different countries and groups within Afghanistan, barring the government. Much will depend on whether the Taliban is negating what happened over the last 18 years or accepting the broad parameters of the Afghan Constitution; whether it accommodates others, shows more moderation and also talks to the government. If it is not willing to do that, there will be further instability.
What chances do you see of the Taliban moderating and accepting the broad parameters of the present Constitution?
At the moment it looks difficult. The Taliban has managed to create an impression that the present effort is not succeeding, and it has an edge militarily. It also perceives the U.S. as being keen to withdraw from Afghanistan. I don’t think it would be willing to make much compromise. Also, there is the question of whether Pakistan is willing to accept an independent and autonomous Afghanistan. Pakistan will be tempted to think that it sustained the Taliban for 18 years and now if the Taliban is back in power, it can re-establish its pre-2001 equity in Afghanistan. That then raises the question of how much independence the Taliban will be able to exercise with regard to Pakistan.
Regardless of how the U.S. withdrawal happens, the Taliban will consider this as its victory, right?
The Taliban will consider it a victory, many in Pakistan will also consider it a victory. Since 2001, Pakistan has been under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to give up support for the Taliban, for the Haqqani network. Pakistan has managed to sustain its support for these groups, risking its ties with the U.S.
After the exit of the Soviets from Afghanistan, Islamists had claimed they would defeat the Western capitalist system. Will they feel vindicated?
Yes, they will. There will be a reinforced argument that the radical Islamist forces defeated the Soviets, and now they have defeated the world’s most powerful country. It will certainly encourage extremist tendencies in the Islamic world. We will see the impact of this in different parts of the world. In Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Gulf, Africa, and even European countries.
For the Islamists, Kashmir is also part of the same continuum. How do you think the situation in Afghanistan will influence the situation in Kashmir?
Clearly, there are some links. If you see reports about the Pulwama attack, people who were fighting in Afghanistan earlier put together the IED that was used. Afghanistan was, in the past, used to train terrorists for action in India. When the IC-814 hijacking happened [in 1999], the released terrorists were taken to Kabul and they reportedly had meetings with Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. There is a link between Afghanistan and Kashmir: the entity that controls both is the ISI [Inter Services Intelligence]. In the 1990s, when the challenges in Kashmir flared up, one of the factors fanning those was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Besides being a morale booster, this could also lead to redeployment of personnel from the Afghan front to Kashmir.
Yes, unless there is continued instability in Afghanistan. If they get free, they could be deployed elsewhere.
Pakistan is at the centre of all these calculations. The U.S. was categorical in calling out Pakistan after Pulwama. How does it square with its priorities in Afghanistan?
India must continue to explain to the world the challenge that Pakistan is posing to global stability. Not every country faces those challenges in the same fashion as India does. We are right next door. But it is not just India. Recently, Afghanistan and Iran came out with statements directly accusing Pakistan. Attacks in the U.S. and the U.K. have been sourced to Pakistan. At the same time, we should be aware of the limit to what one can achieve in the short term. Each country looks at its relationship with Pakistan from the perspective of its own interest. Of all statements from other countries on Pulwama, one can say there is widespread support for India, but very few countries have directly named Pakistan. The U.S. specifically named Pakistan and asked for measures against terrorists; in the French statement, there is a reference to cross-border terrorism. All the other countries made general statements on terrorism. So one has to understand the limits. Three countries are critical for Pakistan. One is China, for political support, military equipment and investment. China will not discontinue its support. Saudi Arabia will continue its support for Pakistan, which it sees as a large Muslim country where its interests are critical. When MBS [Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] was under international pressure, [Pakistan Prime Minister] Imran Khan went to support him. Similarly, the U.S., despite all the current challenges in the relations, does not want to burn all its bridges with Pakistan. Despite all that has happened, it has not declared Pakistan a terrorist state as that would disrupt diplomatic engagement.
India-China ties also keep oscillating. How will China respond to the current tensions between India and Pakistan?
We will have to wait and watch. China has not come 100% to the side of Pakistan. China sees Pakistan as a useful partner to challenge India, but it will not come fully in support of Pakistan and against India. In Kargil, in 1971, it did not fully support Pakistan. It also made the right noises along with the international community during Kargil and after 2008, asking Pakistan to control terrorism. It would not want to lose India completely. Due to two issues — China’s opposition to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and on the question of declaring [Jaish-e-Mohammed chief] Masood Azhar a global terrorist — the mood about China in India is negative. But I think it would be very careful to not get 100% on the side of Pakistan.
Why do you think China is staking so much on one individual, Masood Azhar?
I think it is clearly at the request of Pakistan. All the reports suggest that there are very deep links between Azhar and the ISI. Pakistan does not want to be in a position where it is compelled to take action against him. Azhar has remained loyal to the Pakistani establishment through thick and thin, and has been a great leverage for it in Afghanistan and India. It is clearly at the behest of Pakistan that China is giving him cover.
Given this context, how should India approach the conflict in Kashmir?
There are two dimensions to the problem in Jammu and Kashmir. One is the external — cross-border terrorism, state support from Pakistan, the situation in Afghanistan, etc. Then there is an internal dimension — the relationship between the Central government and the State government and the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The two have to be addressed, broadly speaking, in separate tracks. The radicalisation of youths in the State must be addressed urgently and politically. It has to be a battle of hearts and minds.
After every terrorist strike, there is a flurry of comments that broadly say India is paying the price for being soft. The argument is that India should have used more military force earlier. How do you see that?
A challenge like this has to be handled in a long-term framework, though short-term steps are necessary. In 2001-2002, after the attack on our Parliament, the government took a lot of short-term measures — diplomatic and military, including mobilisation at the border. It had some impact and a message was conveyed to the world and Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf made some moves, such as banning Lashkar-e-Taiba and JeM. But short-term measures cannot do away with a problem of this nature. If one were to look at what the U.S. has done since 2001, nobody would accuse it of being a soft state or not having used power. But despite having used all that power, it has not quite achieved the objectives it set out to achieve. Or look at France and its use of hard military power in Africa. That has its utility, but that cannot resolve a problem. So it has to be a sustained effort, a multidimensional effort. It has to be handled with care and patience. One clear objective of Pakistan is to use terrorism to create a divide among communities in India, and that must be thwarted. If the people of India show unity and solidarity as these challenges are mounted, that would be a clear defeat of terrorism.