Afghanistan: US Must Regionalize To Resolve
Abandoning the policy of regionalization in Afghanistan is costing the US dearly as events unfolding over the past few weeks have shown. While the situation in Afghanistan remains as precarious as ever, India has been peeved particularly after the attack on its citizens in Kabul and the Holbrooke gaffe of berating Indian sensitivities. In turn Indo US relations are likely to see a downward slide with the Defence Minister openly complaining of US supply of advanced munitions to Pakistan. Other major regional players, Iran, Russia, China and Central Asian states are also apprehensive of a policy which is marginalizing their interests in Afghanistan.
This is a deleterious outcome as in March 2009, in his first policy delineation on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama had adopted a very pragmatic regional approach involving all the major players such as India, Iran, Russia, China, Central Asian States and of course Pakistan. However by the London Conference in January 2010, this approach was jettisoned for a Pakistan centric strategy which effectively marginalized the regional players.
The folly of this shift is evident with growing apprehensions even in Kabul on what a Pakistan dominated scenario would mean in the years after international forces start leaving the country. Kabul was hoping that regional forces would balance Pakistani overbearing influence in the country which had in the past created instability but it appears that this will not be. The net outcome is that there is dissatisfaction on all sides except for Islamabad. Here is why?
Pakistan Afghan relations continue to be acrimonious despite the overall linkages between the two countries. The Afghans are possibly wary of an exclusive influence of Islamabad in Kabul and therefore want adequate intermediary support be it from the international community or regional players as India. Islamabad on the other hand feels that Kabul remains its strategic territory which cannot be breached by others in the periphery. This obsession has led to objections to Indian presence in the country.
On the other hand influential analysts as Mr Imtiaz Gul writing in the Dawn news indicate that there are over 60,000 Pakistani workers in Afghanistan and many Afghans are educated in the country. This is against 4000 or so from New Delhi, more over Pakistani commitment to the refugees is well known. Therefore it is apparent that despite these interjections the so called threats faced by Islamabad are unreal and only contributing to apprehensions amongst Afghans who are wary of being a Pakistani proxy.
Abandonment of the regional approach after the London Summit has only encouraged the Pakistanis. A review of the overall policy may therefore be called for to integrate the region as a whole and raise the confidence of the Afghan government and the people by providing regional balancers.
India in turn has naturally made overtures towards Iran also given that most recently the Prime Minister has been to Saudi Arabia and balancing in the relationship was required. The two countries have a similar approach on Afghanistan and Iran stayed out of the Afghan London conference as it found that regionalization had been abandoned. Therefore both Iran and India have much to talk about including terror emanating from Pakistan where the Jundullah an anti Tehran Sunni militant group is reportedly based. It is obvious that India is now expanding its options in the region given the US tilt towards a Pak centric solution in Afghanistan and therefore a leaning towards Iran was on expected lines.
The Indian decision not to suspend the mission or the activities in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan after the recent attack on the citizens including army officers in Kabul is also sound. While this is the third direct attack targeted on the Indian personnel after the two in the previous occasions on the Embassy, the Indian commitment in Afghanistan cannot be allowed to wither away given the long term interests of the country in the region. More over any weakening of the position would have also not gone down well with the international effort to stabilize the country. However all future Indian assistance will be on a low and key and would have sufficient security built in.
While the attacks on Indians in Kabul have been highlighted now, there were a number of attacks on Indian road construction teams on the Zaranj Delaram highway in previous years which had not deterred New Delhi; hence expecting it to pull out at this stage was not really expected. While this may not reduce the possibilities of attacks on Indian citizens and assets, continued commitment would go down well in Kabul as well as with the international community.
The need for a review in the US policy on Afghanistan would be necessary to switch back to a regional approach, hopefully the current US strategy is a temporary one to get Pakistan to act, however in the long term Washington must stick to the regional approach to resolve the entanglement in Kabul.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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