Obama, “AfPak” and India

Opendemocracy, May 2009

Barack Obama has moved quickly to fulfill his pre-election promises regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration has already re-focused significant attention on the region, demonstrating a serious desire to undo the mess in “AfPak” created by George W. Bush.

Such serious intent was demonstrated by the international conference held in The Hague on 31 March under the aegis of the United Nations, was attended by foreign ministers and senior diplomats from more than 75 countries.The US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, who played a key role in organising the Hague conference, said that the Obama administration has also stopped using the infamous and counter-productive appellation, “the war on terror”, opting for the far more technical “overseas contingency operations”.

The softening of the rhetorical hard-edges of US policy have been accompanied by real policies as well. The US has committed $40 million out of an estimated $100 million for elections in Afghanistan in August 2009. This money is designated to cover the cost of ballot boxes and the counting of votes. More money will be allocated to cover the other costs of the election.

Policy-makers have also turned to Pakistan, which will receive $3 billion and $7.5 billion of military and economic aid respectively over the next five years, with the condition that this money is not diverted to terrorists indulging in anti-India activities. This condition has been formalised by Congress’ approval of the Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement (PEACE) Act. Central to these moves is the recognition that the establishment of democracy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is necessary to defeat terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

Broadening the lens

For the first time, too, Iran has been accepted as a partner for establishing peace and security in the region. Iran is now recognised, along with Afghanistan, as a victim of the narcotics economy. Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been a great source of funding for the Taliban, facilitating the acquisition of weapons, while Iran struggles with high levels of heroin addiction amongst its young people. The Shia regime in Iran and the Taliban have traditionally been at loggerheads, and for the last decade Iran has had to spend a great deal in manning its border with Afghanistan in order to keep a check on the drug trade.

The authoritative Asia Society Task Force report (“Back from the Brink? A Strategy for Stabilizing Afghanistan-Pakistan”, April 2009) quite correctly emphasises a multi-regional approach to restore democracy and establish peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report urges the establishment of “regular dialogue and exchanges over Afghanistan and Pakistan with Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey, the Central Asian states, and Saudi Arabia, seeking a means of cooperation with all in conjunction with our NATO allies and other international partners to… seek agreement with regional and global powers over the stabilization of Afghanistan”.

Washington will nevertheless have to navigate tricky waters in winning broader cooperation. Can the Obama administration, for instance, collaborate with Iran in tackling the narcotics trade while leaving other
outstanding disputes on the back-burner? The US role in supporting the military dictatorships of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and in propping up other leaders in central Asia for its own narrow interests also needs to be reconsidered. Supporting a dictatorship in one region to establish “democracy” in another can only yield short-term results at best.

India’s role

India remains an important but problematic component of the puzzle. It has historically played a significant role in promoting democracy in Afghanistan. But again, like the US, its approach has been largely instrumentalist. It has allied with those “democratic” elements of Afghanistan which New Delhi saw as its strategic, regional partners in countering Pakistan. This was the logic behind India’s support for the Northern Alliance led by the (at times brutal) warlord, the late Ahmed Shah Massoud.A similar logic applies to India’s support of Hamid Karzai’s government.

Nevertheless, India is playing a serious role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Since Karzai took over, India has committed $750 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, which makes it the fifth largest b-ilateral donor after the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany.

According to reports there are over 3,000 Indians working on different projects in Afghanistan, many of whom have been targeted by the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, who see India’s presence in Afghanistan as opposite to Pakistani interests. Investigations have now proved the ISI’s role in the infamous bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul on 7 July 2008.

The mention of “supporting the lowering of tensions with India, especially through composite dialogue” in the Asia Society Task Force Report is being seen by many in India as a suggestion for third party intervention in its long standing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. The view is further reinforced by the Indian diplomatic and political establishment’s general scepticism of the Democracts when it comes to the question of Kashmir; the impression in New Delhi is that US Democratic governments historically tend be “Pakistan-friendly”.

That the Obama administration’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, is ostensibly tasked only with Afghanistan and Pakistan (and not India) is a measure of how gingerly Washington is stepping around the issue of Kashmir. India resists any suggestion that the situation in Kashmir and the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan are linked. India also insists that Kashmir can only be resolved bilaterally, opposing any third party intervention.

It helps New Delhi that it can argue from a position of strength about Kashmir. The country’s rise on the geo-political stage, its increasing economic strength, its nuclear power, and its desire to present itself as as a responsible stakeholder in the international system all weigh in its favour.

Events in Kashmir also abet New Delhi’s line. The high turn out in recent state elections in Kashmir, the decision by Sajjad Lone, a major separatist leader, to contest in this year’s parliamentary elections and the public wrangling over calling for an election boycott by the Hurriyat, an umbrella organisation of separatists, point to improving conditions in the restive region.

At the same time, these positive signs should encourage India to be less touchy over Kashmir. Whatever the causes of violence in Kashmir, the ongoing crisis there has symbolic redolence across the border in Pakistan, strengthening the hand of Pakistani hard-liners, militarists and Islamists. As a mature democracy, India should be open to dialogue with any country that shuns violence and is willing to resolve differences through dialogue. This will open more space for the democratic and liberal elements of Pakistan (and of Afghanistan) to counter Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in their region. It will also isolate the right wing Hindu chauvinist parties in India that have been trying to whip up communal rhetoric after the Mumbai attacks of last November.


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