India's ambassador to Kabul, Jayant Prasad, with Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, after a car bomb attack on the Indian embassy on 8th Oct 09.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th March 2010
The gunning down on 26th February of Indian workers in Kabul, followed by the stoppage of work by Indian doctors at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health, is a tragic step towards what this column has long predicted: that, as the Taliban inexorably extends its influence, India will thin out in Afghanistan; and pull-out entirely when a Taliban takeover appears imminent (Planning for doomsday, 15th July 2008; and The Indian ant in the Afghan flood, 6th Oct 2009).
Assessing whether it was already time to scale down was part of the mandate of National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, during his weekend visit to Kabul. Despite Menon’s brave words about not cowing before terror, New Delhi understands that its public has little appetite for receiving body bags from Kabul. Unable to send in troops to protect its aid workers; India’s options are narrowing.
What will remain after India’s inevitable departure from Afghanistan is an enormous fund of goodwill generated by our billion-dollar aid-driven engagement since 2001. Projecting soft power rather than hard has been a wise and far-thinking strategy. Pakistan’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan; its cultural and religious affinity; and its self-destructive wielding of the instruments of radicalisation, all mean that Islamabad can out-kill anyone in Afghanistan. Most Afghans, including the Pashtuns, distrust and resent Pakistan; but the power to kill and to coerce looms larger in the short term than the power to feed, to teach and to enrich.
But from a longer-term perspective, India will retain enormous influence within Afghanistan, a dormant clout that will survive the power fluctuations that characterise that country. When the environment changes, that influence will flower again.
Inexplicably, the Ministry of External Affairs, the creator of India’s far-sighted and pragmatic Afghanistan strategy, sheds this sophistication while dealing with our more immediate problem, Pakistan. The Indian public is entitled to fulminate about Pakistan’s self-destructive support to cross-border militancy and terrorism. But Indian policymakers, while reflecting public anger, must also have a cooler plan. Instead, while correctly visualising Afghanistan as a patchwork of competing constituencies, the MEA addresses Pakistan as a wall-to-wall bad guy. New Delhi talks to Islamabad, but India remains disengaged from the real Pakistan.
So which Pakistani constituency should India address? The United States, with its penchant for immediate fixes, has invariably chosen to talk to the Pakistan Army. But there is a structural reason why India cannot follow this path: the most fundamental institutional interests of “the khakis”, as Pakistan’s liberal fringe calls the army, has traditionally lain in holding up India as an adversary. The India bogey guarantees status, funding, housing and the freedom to run the country.
Today, India is especially vital as the spectre that will extricate the Pakistan Army from messy counter-insurgency operations in its tribal areas. So crucial is the Indian bogeyman that Kashmir is now getting a back-up for keeping the animosity bubbling. India’s perfidy in water sharing is being dragged centre-stage, most recently by Lashkar-e-Toiba chieftain, Hafiz Saeed, that old and trusted servant of the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Without a trace of irony, he calls it “water terrorism”.
If the khakis are ruled out as interlocutors, what about the candle-lighters: Pakistan’s liberal fringe, an ineffectual ménage of rights activists, academics, authors poets and members of the English media. Pleasant individuals for the most part, they have served Pakistan well by masking a deeply regressive society with a patina of western-style modernity. But they have notably failed in bringing change to Pakistan and, because so few are listening to them, are granted their little space in society.
That leaves the Pakistan proletariat, small-town residents and rural peasants, most of who are inimical to India because of the educational, social and political environment that they live in. Their religious environment is even more worrisome, with an increasingly radical clergy preaching the message of global jehad. At first look, this might appear a wasted cause for India; but deeper thought indicates that this is the audience to be addressed.
Admittedly, shaping opinion amongst the Pakistani masses will not yield results in the immediate and directly political way that shaping opinion in India does. In that under-developed democracy, security policy is only weakly linked with public perception. But, just as in Afghanistan, where India has nurtured roots that will survive a brushfire, a carefully targeted perception campaign can temper rural Pakistan’s reflexive anti-Indianism. The most potent weapon in this endeavour is information.
I remember listening, on radio monitoring networks in J&K, to conversations amongst radicalised and indoctrinated jehadis who had just infiltrated across the Line of Control. They had been told in Pakistan that every mosque in J&K had been burnt and that the Indian Army carried off any woman they fancied; all this is uncontested truth in the villages of Pakistani Punjab. It is a reality that India needs to challenge with information.
Such a campaign cannot be mounted by the MEA, which focuses excessively on scoring diplomatic points with Pakistan. Nor can it be an intelligence-led operation, which will quickly lose credibility. What is needed is a multi-disciplinary effort that carefully nuances the message and obtains the means of delivery, perhaps a special organisation under the Ministry of Culture. India needs to think carefully about spreading its message within Pakistan.