After mid-July America will start troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. NATO troops will follow. By the end of the year America plans to withdraw 10,000 troops. By 2014 it plans total withdrawal except for a token force.
Time will tell if Washington can stick to this promise.
Regardless, India needs to formulate its own clear and specific policy for Afghanistan and the region.
What might that be?
Policies are dictated by goals. First, India should have a clear vision about what kind of Afghanistan it wants in what kind of South Asia.
Repeatedly it has been stated in these columns that South Asia was the victim of Imperialism that bequeathed a legacy of unnatural international borders violating all norms of nationhood. To restore stability and allow the laws of nature to prevail there can be either a restructuring that destroys the present sovereignties, or reform that allows cultural nationalism to prevail without these being disturbed. In other words some sort of union or confederation that allows free movement of goods and people across borders would have to be established. That is undoubtedly the safer and better option. But to achieve it would require uncommon skill. That is what India must summon in the time ahead.
It is commonly feared that the US withdrawal can plunge Afghanistan into chaos and violence. These fears can be thwarted. Contrary to the views expressed in these columns it was held that there can be no talks with the Taliban. Today the Americans are attempting a dialogue with the Taliban. It is facile to talk of the good Taliban and the bad Taliban. There is in fact the Afghan Taliban and the Punjabi Taliban.
The former seeks self rule and withdrawal of foreign presence from Afghanistan. The latter seeks Jihad as envisaged by the Al Qaeda.
The former is influenced by Mullah Omar who is not dictated to by the ISI regardless of his long stay in Pakistan. The Punjabi Taliban is controlled by the ISI. Were it not for American obduracy Mullah Omar was prepared to surrender Osama bin Laden to any western nation except the US immediately after 9/11.
The multiplicity of warlords belonging to different tribes should not obscure that Afghanistan can be neatly divided into ethnic zones. South of the Hindu Kush up to Kandahar the Pashtuns dominate. In the west around Herat are the Persian speaking Shiites. Up North are the Uzbeks and Tajiks. In central Afghanistan are the Shiite Hazaras clustered in Hazarajat. Kabul in the east has a mixture of different tribes. When intra-tribal warfare forces warlords to seek sanctuary, Uzbeks find it in Uzbekistan or Turkey; the Persian speaking Shiites find it in Iran.
That is why Former US Ambassador to India and leading strategist Robert Blackwill advocated the de facto partition of Afghanistan. He recognized the ethnic divide in Afghanistan between the largest community of Pashtuns who ruled all Afghanistan and the remaining tribes of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Shiites and the rest.
This ethnic divide is accompanied by a geographic divide. The Pashtuns are mostly in the South, the rest are in the North and Central Afghanistan.
So Blackwill proposed US troops to be stationed in North Afghanistan inhabited by the non-Pashtun tribes. US troops would withdraw from the South and East where the Pashtuns dominate. Thereby the Pashtuns would achieve a modicum of self-rule. Thus from central Afghanistan down south across Pakistan’s tribal belt up to Peshawar the Pashtuns would enjoy unfettered rule. Already, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border exists only in name with heavy unchecked cross border movement. In short, Blackwill’s formula would help create a de facto Pashtunistan across borders!
The rest of Afghanistan in the north and centre would be left to the residual tribes. The demand for an independent Khorasan covering that region has already been voiced by non-Pashtun leaders within Afghanistan. Loss of control over Khorasan would be compensated for the Afghan Pashtuns by consolidation with their tribal brothers inhabiting the Pakhtunwa Khyber province of Pakistan. The Durand Line Treaty had advocated the return of the Pakistani Pashtun region to Afghanistan after completion of a hundred years in 1993. A confederation or union with soft borders would make the dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan related to the Treaty infructuous.
This is what India must achieve.
New Delhi must initiate a formula satisfying the Pashtuns, the non-Pashtuns and the Taliban. Former Afghanistan foreign minister and candidate for the presidency Abdullah Abdullah, who is a Tajik, had discussed the prospects of a federal Afghanistan with American diplomats. That had angered President Karzai. The President needs to reflect and revise his opinion. While federalism would satisfy the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the rest, power sharing would satisfy the Taliban. Former Taliban ministers could be re-inducted into the government while Mullah Omar could play the role of a religious guide like Ayatollah Khameini in Iran.
But for the above formula to succeed the cooperation of Pakistan would be necessary. How could that be achieved? For that, India would have to play the Kashmir card. By now it is established that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former President Musharraf were a whisker away from a Kashmir settlement when talks were interrupted. The formula revolved around soft borders and autonomy on both sides of Kashmir. The flaw was that no institutional arrangement for cooperation between Islamabad and New Delhi was stated. Unless New Delhi and Islamabad achieve complete trust, which implies defence cooperation, all talk of dual autonomy and soft borders in Kashmir remains meaningless.
Can the Pakistan army conceivably change its mindset to accept joint defence with India? That alone could effectively eliminate terrorism in both nations.
There are pro-terrorist elements in the Pakistan army that must be purged.
On June 17th I wrote that Pakistan’s army chief General Kayani must confront these elements inside his army. He had to choose between preserving the unity of his army or the unity of his nation. Subsequently General Kayani arrested Brigadier Ali Khan and four other officers for their links to the terrorists. That is a beginning.
There is no reason why enlightened self-interest will not persuade the key players both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan to cooperate in creating a South Asian Union that helps preserve present international borders. They must be made to believe that it is possible.
Before the Indian government can persuade them it must itself believe that it is possible. The leaders of South Asia can show to the West and to rest of the world what their culture is capable of. They can convert South Asia into the world’s role model for the 21st century.