This piece has appeared in the Mumbai edition of DNA on May 28, 2012
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) summit at Chicago on May 20-21 had set out an exit plan by which its International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) will be withdrawn from combat operations in Afghanistan by end of 2014. Nato forces will however remain as part of a training and support role. A decade-long war in Afghanistan, which is at the doorstep of south Asia – it is now strictly part of souh Asia because of its membership in South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) – seems to be winding down but not ended.
A war can be declared to have ended if the enemy is defeated as in the case of Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War in 1945. When it began in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, the enemy was Al Qaeda which was in turn supported by the Taliban. Neither Nato nor the US, which has been in the lead, has declared that the Al Qaeda or the Taliban have been defeated in spite of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the acknowledged commander of Al Qaeda. It has been called a war against global terror, which is a very vague term because the enemy is not clearly identified. This confusion is reflected in the hundreds of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp who did not belong to the Al Qaeda.
Whether the war aims have been achieved or not is a debating point, which should engage not just those involved directly in the war – the strategy experts and the policy-makers in Brussels, the Nato headquarters, and Washington – but also those in New Delhi. India cannot pretend that the war in Afghanistan is someone else’s war. In 2001, then foreign minister Jaswant Singh and the BJP thought that India’s terror concerns from across the border would be addressed by the American presence in Afghanistan. It was only after the terror attack on Parliament in December, 2001, and the BJP-led NDA had to mobilise troops on the India-Pakistan border, that it became clear to Indian experts and the government of the day that the Americans and the West were fighting their battle in Afghanistan and that India will have to fight its own.
The bigger picture still eludes the pundits in Delhi. What is the meaning of the presence of more than a hundred thousand strong Western force in Afghanistan 50 years after the British colonial armies left the subcontinent. It is true that the West has struck Afghanistan in response to a terror attack from Al Qaeda – the point has not been proven satisfactorily enough though everyone in West including its pretentious liberal and free media – supposedly backed by the Taliban government in Kabul. There is no need to quibble about the fairness and morality of the West’s war in Afghanistan. There is no morality in wars. There are issues of who is strong in the international arena.
India in 2001 was still a strategically insignificant country in the international scenario. There was no request for Indian troops to fight Al Qaeda-Taliban, though two years later there was pressure for India to send troops to Iraq. Had India been in the fray in Afghanistan, then it would have logical sense to be in Iraq as well. The US had to keep Pakistan’s sensitivities in mind and keep India out of Afghanistan. New Delhi was assigned the role of contributing to economic reconstruction like building roads. India also was kept at the margins in all the international conferences on Afghanistan right from the one in Bonn in December 2001.
The 2005 India-US agreement in Washington regarding the civil nuclear deal between the two countries was a turning point in leveraging the Indian position in the region. This was however only a recognition of India’s growing economic clout in the world – notwithstanding the fragility of the economy at the moment – as reflected in the India visits of American presidents George W Bush in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2010. This has not however changed the ground reality in south Asia. India, the emerging economic giant, remains a marginal player in Afghanistan and in south Asia.
This discrepancy between its economic and strategic muscle should make the strategy experts in India to sit up and take note of the global balance of power in military terms. Nato, which is basically a European unit, has extended its footprint to south Asia. The Americans have been around for a longer time because of their close alignment with Pakistan during the Cold War era. At that time, Nato was tied down to the European theatre. In a post-Cold War situation, Nato is reinventing itself. It is gearing itself to represent European interests from north Africa to west Asia to south Asia because the Americans take care of their own. Nato remains a European force despite the conspicuous presence of the US and Turkey in the organisation.
In realistic terms, India cannot protest against the US or Nato forces because there is not much it can do about it. All that it can do is to rationalise their presence in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. The Saarc member-countries cannot be expected to look to India to play a lead role in the affairs of the region. The situation may change in another decade or quarter-century. It will be useful if India begins to think as to how it can bring about the change.