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Last updated: 20 Jul, 2021  

India.Growth.9.Thmb.jpg South Asia in India's focus

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D.C. PATHAK | 20 Jul, 2021
Developments in Afghanistan marking a steady rise of Taliban's hold on that country -- this resulted in the evacuation of staff from the Indian Consulate at Kandahar -- confirms many readings on how the Pak-Afghan belt would shape up in the aftermath of the withdrawal of American troops from the messy theatre, the scene of an unending 'war on terror' launched by the US in Afghanistan way back in the wake of 9/11.

The date of withdrawal finally announced by President Biden had taken into account the fact of Taliban refusing to abide by its own part of the Doha agreement about eschewing violence during the run-up to the intra-Afghan dialogue that was meant to evolve the future set-up of the country. The US excessively relied on Pakistan as 'a friend in need' facilitating the interaction between the Taliban and the American Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and evidently ignored the deep-seated vested interest that Pakistan had in helping the Taliban to regain its stranglehold in Afghanistan. The US was also not bothered with the implications of the Sino-Pak military alliance providing a great advantage to Xi Jinping's China in a country that had always been a vital fulcrum of international politics in the historical past.

That Afghanistan could throw up a global problem for the US in future may still be a distant story but for India the likely dominance of the Taliban there creates a challenge in South Asia nearer home where developments could help Pakistan to emerge as a stronger adversary. The US President primarily focused on the rise of China as a potential superpower representing the ideological rivalry between a democratic system and a one-party dictatorship, may not quite understand the reality of the Indian subcontinent -- of how a communally based partition accompanying the Independence of India had continued to poison the politics of South Asia enabling Pakistan to play the Muslim card against India in the region on both external and internal issues. President Biden has gone by the 'comfort of distance' that the Doha Peace Agreement offered to the US against the terrorist threat from Islamic radicals -- India does not share any of it and has to plan for an enhanced danger of exposure to Pak-instigated militancy rooted in Islam.

A combination of three factors seemed to be helping Pakistan to have its way in Afghanistan -- willingness of the US President to end the American military involvement in Afghanistan on the basis of a half-baked 'peace agreement' with the Taliban, implicit endorsement by the Imran regime of Afghan Taliban that derived strength from the bases it had in Khyber Pakhtunwa (KP), the historical birthplace of this anti-US radical force, and the geopolitical advantage that Pakistan had gained from the Sino-Pak military alliance. Correspondingly, India's presence and role in assisting Afghanistan has become less tenable because of growing instability in that country.

The process of consultation between the major stake holders including US, Russia, Iran, India and the regional forces represented by the neighbouring countries did not catch up strongly enough to secure a place for India at the Afghan round table. As a consequence, the threat of faith-based terror emanating from the Pak-Afghan belt seemed to be deepening for India. India has to remain proactive about mobilising international opinion in favour of a democratic Afghanistan, prepared against a possible escalation of the threat of cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere from an emboldened Pakistan and engaged in constantly building its capabilities of countering any aggressiveness of the two hostile neighbours on the borders.

This is the time for India to assert its role as the predominant power in South Asia and work for the security of the region by consolidating its relationship with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the ASEAN on the one hand and actively supporting QUAD for the broad security of the Indian Ocean against any Chinese moves, on the other. Indo-US relations have to be put on a solid strategic footing since the two democracies had the same global commons. The Biden Administration's emphasis on rebuilding the bonds with NATO in pursuing the policy of countering any threats 'jointly with its allies' suits India because among other things many European nations face the ire of Islamic radicals, like India does in this part of the world. These countries have denounced Pakistan in no uncertain terms for harbouring Islamic extremists and terrorists and their friendship is valuable for India for this alone, the shared values of democracy providing a basic link in addition.

The Indian economy has been hit hard because of the pandemic -- this has been a global phenomenon -- but its 'revival from below' backed by Prime Minister Modi's perceptive policy of 'vocal for local' suits the genius of India and has already produced a visible impact. If even President Biden's Jobs Plan aims at executing a 'blue collar blueprint for building America' then India's emphasis on restoring the strength of 'the middle class' made a lot of sense. India had the advantage of having many leaders in business who had a global reach -- this would keep the top of India's economic pyramid strong while the local effort went into reviving its base.

A steady shift of the global scene towards bipolarity between the US with its allies leading the democratic world on the one hand and China with its one-party dictatorship heading, on the other, the residual Communist empire left at the end of the Cold War, affects all geographies but the play of Pakistan in this equation makes South Asia the region of prime concern for India. The strategic alliance between China and Pakistan representing the axis of a Communist dictatorship with a regime wedded to Islamic fundamentalism, adds to the security concerns of India that have to be meted out with a well-considered framework of strategic response.

First is the challenge in Jammu and Kashmir, more so in Ladakh, on account of the Chinese grip on Pakistan that had become progressively strong because of the ambitious CPEC project built by China in POK on land ceded by Pakistan for that purpose. The threat of Sino-Pak combine has to be countered in Ladakh particularly after the build-up of PLA there and it is only natural for India to seek to make its military presence there strong enough with the help of aerial power, to provide a deterrent against the adversaries. China wants an opening into the Arabian Sea but it would be aware also of the vulnerability of its economic corridor to India's prowess.

The second concern for India arises from the likely domination of Taliban in a future set-up in Afghanistan -- it could even be the restoration of the Afghan Emirate that Pakistan had installed at Kabul in 1996. Chinese support to Pakistan in Afghanistan would at least partly be in lieu of the Pak silence on the mistreatment of Muslim minorities in China. China's foreign ministry has in a fresh statement found fault with the US for forcing a rule of its ideological choice in Afghanistan in the name of 'freedom and democracy'. India can clearly see that Imran Khan's Pakistan had become recalcitrant towards US and beyond posturing as a friend of America helping the peace dialogue between the US and Taliban in Afghanistan, it had no intention of drawing down on its 'all weather friendship' with China. India had to fight another battle with Pakistan, in Afghanistan. The pullout of American troops from there, in a somewhat messy situation, leaves India only with the diplomatic turf to work on and nearer home with the only option of stepping up its effort to thwart an increased threat of Mujahideen violence in the Kashmir valley. And finally, India has to deal with the operational capability both Pakistan and China have of fishing in the troubled waters of India's domestic scene -- from Punjab to the North-East and even down South.

Prime Minister Modi's foreign policy has largely rested on bilateral relations and some multilateral associations designed to serve the economic and security interests of all sides. This has served India well by taking national security out of the ideological packaging of the past and letting go of the baggage of the Cold War. India needs to have relations with Israel, Iran and the Gulf states and keep up its defence dealings with Russia to maintain the sovereignty of its own security without hurting its other strategic partners. Our diplomacy has been able to achieve this equilibrium and must be complimented for the same. Our national security doctrine has proved to be very effective, upfront and convincing -- the response of the international community to our stand on security-related issues like Kashmir, has confirmed it. These are the times requiring close monitoring of the external threats and an equally close attention to various facets of our internal security.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)
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