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Withdrawal from Afghanistan will mark the end of the American empire: India should return to the strategic fundamentals

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Withdrawal from Afghanistan will mark the end of the American empire: India should return to the strategic fundamentalsWithdrawal from Afghanistan will mark the end of the American empire: India should return to the strategic fundamentalsIt’s time to shun sentimentality and revert back to the old template of working with the governments in Kabul, regardless of ideology – anyway the hallmark of India’s Afghan diplomacy.

by Amb P. Stobdan

A dramatic change in Afghanistan is on the horizon. As the Americans failed to foresee the endgame, they are escaping from Afghanistan nearly after two-decade of war, leaving others to fend for themselves – a lesson in itself.

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But what accounts for India’s prescience to support the US favorites Karzai and Ghani and for the fortune of over $3 billion spent in Afghanistan in the last 18 years.

In all probability, Afghanistan could return to the 1996 situation or maybe not, as some would like to believe. But the Biden administration wouldn’t care less for the ensuing regional fallouts.

General Bipin Rawat has already raised the alarm bell about “disruptors” stepping into the vacuum. We don’t know how the new civil war will unfold probably among three or more factions – the Taliban, the Afghan Government and the warlords.

What does India do? The old recipe of aligning with Iran and Russia isn’t available, although the aging Afghan warlords have started visiting Delhi. The ‘good-bad Taliban’ notion has proved misleading. The cliché that it should be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled” appears essential but will it be so?

Having learned a lesson, Delhi needs a wiser response certainly either by falling prey to a depleting American trap or endorsing a Kremlin-style stratagem. It’s time India draws on its own historical strength and endurances, employing its realist wisdom and adaptability strategy.

The underpinnings of Delhi’s new Afghan policy should include:

First, Afghanistan’s territorial integrity is vital, for any prospect of falling apart would undermine Indian state.

Second, there are never any winners in the Afghan end-games – those who tried to control it had ended in a fiasco, draining their resources – the latest being the US.

Third, Pakistan by virtue of tribal and spatial reasons enjoy an edge, so it can’t be a zero-sum game for India.

Fourth, the Afghan irredentist claim in Pakistan’s Pushtun areas versus Pakistan’s revanchist ambitions in Afghanistan will continue to create mutual animosity.

Fifth, the Afghans impulsively loath being run by a puppet master, detest Pakistanis.

Sixth, irrespective of power shifts, Kabul can’t help but look towards Delhi for political legitimacy, and for quintessential protection against Pakistani threat.

Seventh, traditional Afghans ideologues whether Sufis, Wahabis, Deobandis, or secular unremittingly crave for their roots and ancestry in India – that can’t be wished away.

Eighth, the Afghan’s pangs of nostalgia for Hindustan unvaryingly turned them to Delhi, and this hurt the Pakistanis the most. The fear of Afghan protégés escaping from the Pakistani cage still causes nightmares in Rawalpindi.

Lastly, the law of attraction in India’s case always worked in a reverse way. The people, societies, and nations including the Afghans find their own ways to connect with India, instead of Delhi chasing for an influence outside.

These are some of the old ruses that underscored India’s Afghan policy until 1996 when then I.K Gujral’s government chose the long shot binary option to refuse de-recognition of Rabbani regime in the wake of the Taliban taking over Kabul. New Delhi openly lobbies along with Iran, Russia, and others to get the Northern Alliance group back to power. No clinical assessment was made on the Taliban, except for dubbing the militia as Pakistani protégés. India and others lent financial support to the Afghan factions and played a sort of mini great game in Afghanistan until the Taliban was chased out after the 9/11 operation.

India’s one-sided approach marked a severe deviation that critically induced an impression that Delhi was opposed to the majority Pashtun – a perspective since been exploited by Pakistan.

At this turning point, India needs to eliminate such a fallacy. The problem isn’t the Taliban, but Pakistan’s devilry, its manipulation with the Pashtun sense of identity that has traditionally been a thorn in the flesh of Pakistan.

To be sure, no one can control Afghanistan, but no one can understand the undulated layers of Afghan history better than the Indians. The key challenge for India is to rekindle the Pashtun nationalist spirit that Pakistan has been hell-bent on undermining in favour of supplanting it with Islamism.

Cleverer thinking would be to work on deflecting every sign of Pakistani ideology and instead promote the shared features of Pashtunwali (Pashtun way of life) – their honour (namuz), solidarity (nang), and other cultural etiquettes which are older than Islam, and is still prevalent amongst the Pashtun tribes. The challenge is to reunite the over 50 million Pushtuns living on both sides of the Durand Line—35 million on the Pakistani and 15 million in Afghanistan.

It could start with inviting the leaders of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-based Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) to Delhi. India enjoys strong credibility with non-Pashtun Afghans such as the Hazaras, Shi’ites, Tajiks, Uzbek, Turkmen, and others.

India’s old partners like Iran and Russia have shown their litheness for engaging with the Taliban. With the Americans leaving, we will stand alone. It’s time to shun sentimentality and revert back to the old template of working with the governments in Kabul, regardless of ideology – anyway the hallmark of India’s Afghan diplomacy.

But things would still turn around to India’s advantage if it decides to play the quiet game with the wisdom of patience and subtlety in its conduct. It wouldn’t necessarily amount to playing the emotional diplomacy that Gujral had displayed.

Only the Pashtunistan question can unlock all the regional paradoxes that would ultimately snowball into Pakistan’s disintegration, thereby reintegrating NWFP into Afghanistan, liberating Baluchistan and reverting PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan into India. This is a much-awaited policy focus that only PM Narendra Modi can bring about.

(The author formerly served in Central Asia; currently on the Advisory Council of Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, Washington D.C. and a Senior Fellow at Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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