Tuesday, 10 August 1999

India should Move to Protect its Interests in Afghanistan

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Should the Taliban consolidate its hold over Afghanistan, it will
be bad news for India. At present, the fundamentalists in
Kashmir are using Pakistan as a base for their operations. Now
under US pressure to cease such support, Islamabad may simply
transfer formal responsibility for the Kashmir insurgency to
Kabul. Given that there will not be an extension of the "Turn the
other cheek", policy adopted towards Pakistan, New Delhi will
then have to decide on the methods of retaliation.

In geopolitics as in public health, prevention is better than
cure. While the Najibullah regime, identified with the Soviet
occupiers, was not sustainable among the Afghan people, that of
President Burhanuddin Rabbani is. The only way to prevent
Taliban's consolidation is for New Delhi to declare that it
continues to recognise the Rabbani government, and to give it
assistance to beat back the fundamentalist offensive. Should
India dither and Rabbani’s forces get routed, the ISI will ensure
that the next target is the democratic government that will soon
get formed in Srinagar.

There are excellent legal and moral reasons for such a stand.
While a change of government brought about by democratic
means needs to be accepted, a shift in power brought about by
force is unacceptable. It is indeed remarkable that the very
countries that correctly waged war on Saddam Hussain for
annexing Kuwait are today condoning the Taliban’s recourse to
"Saddam" methods in Afghanistan.

This appears to be less the product of a well-conceived
strategy than one more aberration created by the Pakistan-
centric leadership at the South Asia division of the US state
department. Thanks to such officials, Washington has ignored
the twin holes in its anti-terrorist front caused by Saudi Arabia
and Pakistan. While Iran, Libya and Sudan are sought to be
contained, as yet little has been done about Saudi funding and
Pakistani training of extremists.

New Delhi will need to implement a programme of help to
the legal government in Afghanistan, besides taking up through
diplomatic sources the dangers to regional security caused by
the virulent teachings of the Taliban.

In Kashmir, India is attempting to fashion a democratic
alternative to rule by the extremists. They can be expected to
respond by sending in fresh levies of terrorists, once they are
freed of the need to deal with the Rabbani forces. Thus, security
in Kashmir is tied to the success of the legal government in
Afghanistan against the extremists.

The international drug bazaar has become an important
source of funding for extremists, almost as important as Saudi
millionaires. Through the UN, India needs to spearhead an
international campaign against drug cultivation in Afghanistan,
Pakistan and elsewhere, a campaign that includes the aerial
spraying of defoliants on areas where drugs are cultivated. In
addition, the domestic laws against drug trafficking need to be
made much more stringent, so that they are brought on a par
with Singapore. Extremism cannot be fought only by soldiers.
The roots need to be tackled, through helping Afghan moderates
fight extremists, and by fashioning an international campaign
against drugs in the subcontinent.

Sadly for this country, the Rao-Manmohan years witnessed
a "penny wise pound foolish" policy on security. As a result of
lack of support for Afghan moderates and parsimony in defence
expenditure, vast amounts of money had to be spent fighting the
insurgencies that such a policy encouraged. Today, should New
Delhi hesitate to help President Rabbani, it will be spending
many times that money in the next three years fighting the
Mujahideen that may flood it after Rabbani’s final defeat.
This is true despite the fact that the Taliban's success may
prove as self-defeating for Islamabad as the growth of Hamas
proved for Tel Aviv. In the early years of Hamas, Israel saw it
as a counter to the PLO. It was only much later that it realised
that it had a monster on its hands far more potent than chairman
Arafat’s men.

While the Pashtuns in the Taliban have thus far been willing
V to take Islamabad’s help, once they themselves form the Afghan
government, traditional ethnic nationalism will come into play,
and there is a high probability of a future linking up of Pakistani
and Afghan Pashtuns to attempt to carve out an ethnic state out
of both countries, Many within the Taliban—those that are not
fully under the control of the ISI—may realise that a policy of
jehad in Pashtun areas has lower costs and greater returns than
attempts at subverting Kashmir.

Rather than adopt in its entirety the Narasimha Rao policy
of turning the other cheek whenever slapped by Pakistan, New
Delhi needs to evolve separate responses to Pakistani businessmen
and people, and to the attempts by the Benazir government to
foment insurgency in India. While the first group needs to be
won over through concessions and contact, the second needs to
be tackled firmly.

In this, the US is a model. Despite international disapproval,
Washington went ahead with its show of force in Iraq, to
reinforce the point that defiance will not pay. Hopefully, the
apparent confusion at the Taliban takeover of Kabul will be
replaced by a policy that serves this country's strategic interests.

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