February 04, 2010

Beijing broods over its arc of anxiety

Beijing will find little cause for joy in United States President Barack Obama's decision to dispatch 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, as outlined in a major policy speech on Tuesday.

Geopolitical logic (and China's interests) would dictate that the West disengage from Afghanistan and the Pashtun brief be placed in the eager if not particularly capable hands of Pakistan.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) would see to it that more tractable assets, such as the Haqqanis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, would battle the unruly Taliban to a bloody stalemate in Afghanistan's Pashtun regions, decouple the Pakistan Taliban from their Afghan patrons, and restore a semblance of stability to Pakistan's west

Meanwhile, as they have always done, the Afghan Tajiks, Hazaris and Uzbeks would turn to outside aid from some combination of Russia, China, Iran and the United States to contain the Pashtuns and forestall the spread of fundamentalist and al-Qaeda extremist contagion.

China has tried to shape the US debate over Afghanistan, repeatedly making the case for letting nature and anti-Western Pashtun militancy take their course and moving beyond counter-insurgency to reconciliation. As M K Bhadrakumar commented on a think piece by a Chinese defense policy authority, Li Qinggong:

The China Daily article makes several important points. First, it bluntly calls on Washington to forthwith bring the US military operations in Afghanistan to an end. There are no caveats here while making this demand, no alibis. (China maps an end to the Afghan war Asia Times Online, October 2, 2009.)

Clearly, China has lost the debate, perhaps not on the merits of its arguments and despite the heaven-sent justification for the Obama administration to depart Afghanistan: President Hamid Karzai's rigging of the presidential election and the subsequent absence of a legitimate, capable and honest government supposedly essential to successful counter-insurgency.

In addition to qualms over abandoning Afghanistan's people to the savage mercies of Taliban theocrats and creating a haven for anti-US extremists, the Obama administration probably calculates that adding a messy collapse in Afghanistan on top of 10%-plus unemployment in the US and the hangover of a brutal recession would spell disaster for the Democrats in the 2010 US congressional elections.

Instead, the United States is hunkering down in Afghanistan and relying on China's rival, India - the only nation, it can be safely said, that views continuation of the Afghan adventure with any enthusiasm - to help keep the lid on things in Afghanistan.

The Times of India reported with evident satisfaction on Obama's explanatory phone call to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prior to the Afghanistan "surge" speech at West Point:

During his recent visit to Washington DC, Singh had made a strong case for the US to remain in Afghanistan for the time being. He insisted that the "forces of extremism" had to be defeated in Afghanistan, and the US-India joint statement reflected the concerns about the sanctuaries and havens of terrorists that had to be destroyed.

In fact, before setting out to Washington, Singh had told Newsweek, "I sincerely hope the US and the global community will stay involved in Afghanistan ..."

The Obama-Singh conversation had another important component for India: India's own presence and activity in Afghanistan. The Indian takeaway here is that the Pakistan "line" which, in some ways was reflected in the report prepared by the top US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, that Indian activities in Afghanistan could be counter-productive, was comprehensively discarded. Obama reportedly told the PM that Indian activities were not only appreciated but they should continue.

The United States foreign policy commentariat is eager to see India step into the vacuum left by Western abhorrence of Afghanistan's desolate economic and security landscape.

In a November 23, 2009 Forbes Magazine op-ed revealingly entitled "We Need India's Help in Afghanistan", Marshall Bouton and Alyssa Ayres touted India's enthusiasm for doing the low-bid dirty work, if not actually sending troops.

India has demonstrated unique and effective capabilities that will make a big difference in Afghanistan. With its historic ties and cultural affinity to the country, India has already provided impressive civilian assistance. It is the fifth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan. India's US$1.2 billion contribution to date has supported projects in power, medicine, agriculture and education. Afghanistan's new parliament meets in a building constructed by India. Indian engineers built a port-access road in violent southern Afghanistan, and India has trained Afghan civil servants, demonstrating an Indian comparative advantage on the ground.

The reek of desperation permeates this op-ed as it acknowledges the unwillingness of Western governments, cost-ineffective "Beltway contractors", and international non-governmental agencies to handle the economic development projects on the "build" side of the counter-insurgency equation.

However, India is not quite ready to act as America's proxy nation-builder in Afghanistan.

As an illustration, a sentence in Bouton and Ayres' encomium - "Afghanistan's new parliament meets in a building constructed by India" - rewards a careful parsing.

Prime Minister Dr Singh laid the foundation for the Afghan parliament building in 2005. However, to date the Indian government has been unable to find a contractor willing to brave the dangers of operating in Kabul to build it. In 2007, the Indian government sought to entice the interest of Indian business by increasing the budget from the original $25 million to $46 million. As of May, 10 contractors had purchased bid documents but nobody had actually tendered for the job. If and when the contract is let, the construction timeline calls for 30 months.

If Bouton and Ayres are referring to this potentially noble edifice (whose initial design caused an outcry inside Afghanistan because it referenced proto-Indian motifs of the ancient Ghandara period while ignoring Afghanistan's dominant Muslim traditions), it will be many years before the Afghan parliament can enjoy this symbol of Indian generosity and geopolitical determination.

According to James Risen of the New York Times, the Afghan parliament currently meets in a building owned by the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce ... which is run by Hamid Karzai's brother. It is not clear that India erected this relatively modest structure.

India's caginess about its commitment to Afghanistan undoubtedly reflects concern that the Western adventure might come to an abrupt end. It also reflects the fact that India's key foreign policy objectives vis-a-vis Pakistan and China do not require success in Afghanistan - they merely demand that the current dismal status quo be perpetuated for as long as possible.

Pakistan is paranoid about India's reach into the Karzai regime (Karzai himself studied in India), the opening of Indian consulates in remote Afghan cities, India's financing of roadbuilding projects meant to reduce Afghan reliance on the Pakistan-controlled Khyber Pass route for trade and military resupply, and alleged black ops shenanigans by India's Research and Analysis Wing spooks.

However, active mischief by India inside Afghanistan is not needed to destabilize Pakistan. Merely prolonging the Western military effort in Afghanistan sustains the disastrously unfavorable configuration of forces destabilizing Pakistan, and is a geopolitical victory for India.

As the United States persists in its efforts to forestall a Taliban triumph in Afghanistan, Pakistan is forced into Washington's orbit as an indispensable asset in the West's Afghan strategy, charged with depriving militants of their havens in Pakistan's western borderlands.

Despite the determined efforts of Pakistan's military to work the military, political and economic levers to keep a lid on things on the Afghan border, bending to Washington's will in opposing the Pashtun insurgency in Afghanistan is preventing Pakistan's security establishment from meeting with the Pashtuns on a matter of deep, shared interest - the desperate desire to expel the Karzai regime from Kabul - while exploiting the potential for splits between the Pashtun factions to its advantage.

Some of these factions, such as the Hekmatyar and Haqqani organizations, have close ties with Pakistani army and intelligence that go back to the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s and predate the very existence of the Taliban. In fact, the established jihadi factions actually fought the Taliban in the 1990s before Pakistan, in a monumental miscalculation, decided to back the Taliban in the contest to control Kabul.

Pashtun factions that would otherwise engage in lethal intramural bickering and turn to Pakistan for support against the Taliban and each other are ignoring the needs and importunities of their patrons in Islamabad in order to join the Taliban's effort to terminate an unwelcome pro-US, pro-Indian non-Pashtun regime.

Pakistan's military is expected to confront these groups wholesale in the name of the US anti-terrorism crusade, instead of engaging them piecemeal.

United Pashtun militancy is too much for Pakistan to handle, even in the west of the country. Worryingly, the Pashtun militants have the resources, doctrine and increased determination to spread religious, ethnic and class strife far beyond the Pashtun areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province to the southern port city of Karachi and Pakistan's heartland provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

It is possible that an Afghan surge will succeed.

However, whether it does or not, disastrous blowback in Pakistan is likely, both from Pashtun militancy and the increasing alienation of Pakistan's security establishment from a civilian government beholden to Washington for its political and economic survival and compelled to pursue a ruinous security policy at America's behest.

If Pakistan sinks into political and ethnic/religious chaos, China will lose the services of a capable, loyal and effective proxy - and India will benefit.

India's mischief-making along its borders has received little attention, perhaps because of the contrast between India's thriving democracy (especially when personified by the cuddly and blandly accommodating Manmohan Singh and not represented by the relentlessly Hindu-chauvinist and confrontational Bharatiya Janata Party) and China's one-party communist rule and harsh repression of Tibetan and Uighur aspirations.

In this context, it is ironic that, while the post-Mao Zedong Chinese communist regime has largely kept to its economic and internal security program, with the exception of the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, India, the world's largest democracy, has, like the world's greatest democracy, the United States, shown an embarrassing tendency to involve itself in great-power scrapes in recent years.

Beyond fighting three wars with Pakistan, abetting the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, stage-managing the annexation of Sikkim in 1975, engaging in non-stop interference in Nepalese affairs, rigging elections in 1987 and bloodily suppressing massive 2008 anti-Indian demonstrations in Kashmir, and inciting Tamil separatism in a conflict that contributed to 80,000 deaths in Sri Lanka, India has now entered into an alliance with the US that includes a deep involvement in Afghanistan. This is Pakistan's backyard, a border nation of China and a Muslim Central Asia that is way out of India's plausible cultural, economic and geostrategic bailiwick.

On the ethnically, politically and militarily complex border between China and India, the balance of forces and expectations is easily disturbed.

China - bedeviled by unhappy ethnic groups in the vast western and southern reaches of its country - prefers the status quo. India - emboldened by its economic rise, Pakistan and China's vulnerabilities, and a de facto alliance with the United States - finds instability to its advantage.

In addition to the destabilizing influence of the US effort in Afghanistan on Pakistan, China is also dealing with the reality of a more assertive and capable Indian presence on its Tibetan border in the contested areas of Arunachal Pradesh, facing off against New Delhi in a risky tussle for power in Nepal, and confronting the nagging issue of Aksai Chin, in the northwestern region of the Tibetan Plateau, and Kashmir.

In this context, Beijing is tempted to view New Delhi's continued restraint in not playing the "Tibet card" - declining to tolerate anti-Chinese agitation by militant groups in the Tibetan diaspora inside India - increasingly as a matter of tactics rather than conviction.

As a result, both sides are strengthening their geopolitical and military assets along their long border.

In the eastern area of Arunachal Pradesh (claimed by China, occupied by India), both sides are pouring money into infrastructure construction along the border and ramping up their military presence.

The border nation of Nepal, traditionally an economic and political satellite of India, is currently in play as Nepalese Maoists (eager to limit Indian influence and willing to call on Chinese support) are making a determined push for power.

The Chinese are perhaps looking longingly at India's persistent and extensive Naxalite Maoist insurgency slicing through India's eastern heartland up to the Nepalese border (the tantalizing "Red Corridor") as a suitable pressure point against India. However, even if the Nepalese Maoists gain power in Kathmandu, they are unlikely to make the suicidal move of supporting their Indian brethren in an overt and effective way.

If New Delhi has an Achilles' heel, it is Jammu and Kashmir, an overwhelmingly Muslim and unhappy state largely controlled by India, partially administered by Pakistan, and with a contested border with China to the north.

It was probably no coincidence that at the same time the Dalai Lama paid a high-profile visit to Tawang, one of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader's favorite monasteries in Arunachal Pradesh, China found it convenient to invite influential Kashmir separatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq - also a religious leader affiliated with the largest mosque in Kashmir - to visit Beijing on a trip.

The development was significant in that troublemaking in Kashmir is traditionally the job of Pakistan, allegedly carried out by the ferocious mujahideen such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (implicated in the Mumbai terror attacks of last November) who honed their bloody skills in Afghanistan under ISI sponsorship.

However, Pakistan's civilian government under President Asif Ali Zardari is currently smothered in the embrace of the United States and has shifted its Kashmir rhetoric from support of religious identity politics and Muslim aspirations to condemnation of terrorism.

As Kashmir journalist Fayaz Awani wrote:

The political observers in Kashmir attach significance to China's renewed interest in Kashmir. "Since the eruption of turmoil in Kashmir in 1989, China has been silent and never gave any space to the separatist voices. One of the senior separatist leaders in 1990s had sought appointment with Chinese envoy in Indian capital to discuss the Kashmir issue but was politely refused permission by the embassy officials," said a political science teacher of University of Kashmir, highest seat of learning in Kashmir.

Beijing's new willingness to meddle directly in Kashmir issues was a message to India - which has adamantly opposed internationalization of the issue by the United Nations for decades and mounted a concerted and successful campaign to remove Kashmir from the brief of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's designated AfPak fixer - that, despite the unwelcome fact that its Pakistan proxy is on the ropes, Beijing would not abandon its "Kashmir card".

The Kashmir issue will remain active as long as China worries about its southern borders. Given the structural dilemma of China's governance problems in Xinjiang and Tibet, a true equilibrium may never be reached.

However, odds are the Western position in Afghanistan is not sustainable. Through some combination of Pashtun insurgency and rebellion by Pakistan's military against the destructive US strategy, the pro-Washington government in Kabul will probably be replaced and some rather ferocious anti-Indian rollback - eagerly abetted by the ISI - will occur.

This will be a welcome development for Pakistan and its ally China, and an eminently survivable setback for India. With Afghanistan and the stability of Pakistan off the geopolitical table, the other border security disputes between India and China - Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, the composition of the government in Nepal - will survive as festering but manageable - if not curable - wounds.

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