So, as promised, I went and talked to some informed people about India’s interests in Afghanistan. And by talked to I mean, of course, listened to. The informed Indians in question were Ambassador KC Singh (former Indian Ambassador to Tehran and current Co-ordinator on Counter-Terrorism for the Indian government), Ambassador Kanwal Sibal (former Foreign Secretary, amongst many other posts) and Praveen Swami, an assistant editor at The Hindu. They were joined by Pakistanis Gen (r) Aziz Khan (a former Chief of General Staff), Talat Husain (of Aaj TV) and Aamir Rana (Director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies).
Right, so what’s the story?
Well, as far as one can tell, Indian interests in Afghanistan seem to be driven by two material concerns. First, there is the security dimension, and the concern regarding having a possibly religiously radical and ideologically driven State in the neighborhood, with the associated concerns regarding possible attacks on Indian soil. To be fair, one of the panelists did note that attacks on Indian soil did not rise during the Talibans’ previous time in power, from 1996 to 2001, as compared to other periods, so this link is not entirely direct. Nevertheless, there is the concern of having a State that can harbour militants antagonistic towards India in the neighborhood.
The second interest is perhaps the more pressing one. India needs a stable Afghanistan in order to have a stable land route into Central Asia. This land route is not, of course, for Manmohan Singh to have a convenient and picturesque place to take off on a road trip to: it’s for trade. As noted rather interestingly here by Yousuf Nazar, the Indian model of power is built not primarily on military strength, but on economics (though this was not admittedly the thrust of Nazar’s piece). Indian foreign policy is driven by two things, both linked: economics and energy. In that sense, having a stable Afghanistan is vital in order to have access to both power from, and trade to, Central Asian states.
In fact, while the debate at the panel began in the expected rather friendly and conciliatory tones, as time went on one panelist said that if it came to a situation where the Taliban were seen to be taking control in Afghanistan in a manner inimical to India’s ‘interests’ (security, trade and ideological opposition, in this panelist’s case), India would not hesitate to work “together with Iran and Russia” to work towards ousting that regime and to defend its interests.
The Indian argument is couched in strong moral tones. The words ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘evil’ often make an appearance, with one ambassador terming the West’s apparent turnaround in its stance on talks (“We won’t talk to those evil terrorists” to “Well . . we’ll talk to those of them who are willing to lay down arms, to the reconcilable elements” to “Well, we’re going to have to talk to them eventually, aren’t we?”) intensely “disheartening”. He then delivered a grimace to his mostly British audience, as if in reproach.
Now this is not to say that morality doesn’t have a part to play in international relations. I’m just not sure what such a role is, and, further, whether or not this is just another case of packaging real strategic interests in easily defended moral terms.
So India supports the Karzai regime, because at the moment that’s the only game in town that protects its interests in that country. And the underlying reality to such a strategy is this: India’s strategy in Afghanistan is defensive, not offensive, and is certainly not directed against Pakistan in particular. This may come as a shock to some Pakistanis. Deal with it – we are not the be-all-end-all.
There are other underlying issues within this discussion. The first, obviously, is the idea that the war is already all but over, that the US-led coalition has lost, and that Afghanistan is going back to the Taliban. The second, flowing from the first, is that the Taliban can be negotiated with in a reasonable manner. Further, there is also the contention that the Afghan Taliban has no outward-looking designs in the region, and that they are essentially only interested in defending their homeland. It seems that on a policy-making and strategy-formulating level, there is a huge disconnect between Pakistani and Indian thinking on this matter.
More on these later.
Today’s random reading:
This, in the Guardian, from Julian Glover, about how Britain needs to figure out how big a power it really can be. Interestingly, Praveen Swami, the assistant editor at The Hindu, raised the same question regarding the United States. “Great powers need to be prepared to make sacrifices. And so the US needs to decide if it wants to be a great power,” he said, responding to a question.
This story from The News, about proposed amendments to the Pakistani constitution. Highlights include clauses making signing on to a PCO by judges an act of treason, and changes to eligibility criteria for MNAs and MPAs (taking out a clause disqualifying anyone if “he [sic] is propagating any opinion or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty, integrity of Pakistan or morality or the maintenance of public order or the integrity of independence of judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings ridicule to the judiciary or the armed forces of Pakistan.” This, of course, means that I’ll soon be eligible to run for Parliament. Excellent.
This, on Pakistan’s power woes and our lack of movement on a power deal with Iran. Interestingly, also in the paper recently was a story about how we were all set to buy some 85MW from a rental power plant that is to be shipped in on the coast, near Karachi. Something’s not quite right here.
This, from Shahzad Chaudhry in the Daily Times, on issues in Afghanistan.
And finally, this, on Leo Messi’s sublime performance against Zaragoza for Barcelona on in the Spanish League on Sunday. Highlights are here. I watched the game, and, just as Sid Lowe notes, was breathless by the end. Messi is . . magic. I’ve been a Barcelona fan for about ten years now, and, this team that Pep Guardiola has put together is the very embodiment of the club. Receive, Pass, Offer. Receive, Pass, Offer. Being pathologically wary, though, I will note this: Messi’s brilliance this year is making up for the lack of sharpness in Barca’s play this year, as compared to last. Eto’o’s industry is missed, and passes are going astray which were pinging from foot to foot last year. But then, this is me quibbling over perfection.