I have always felt that the use of the term, “Endgame Afghanistan” by political pundits for exit of the US combat forces from Afghanistan as taking a very narrow view of the issue- more a parroting of a term picked up from the western media looking at it completely from America’s point of view. For those ditched behind, it is not an endgame. It is the beginning of the “new” great game.
The geostrategic situation in Afghanistan has multidimensional aspects. Much can go wrong; pushing Afghanistan over the edge and creating serious issues for countries geographically situated in closer proximity, in particular Pakistan. The Afghan regime is unlikely to be able to successfully lead the fight against the insurgency that is most likely to erupt once the American backs are turned and they head home particularly if a broad based political representation is not facilitated before their departure. The trust deficit between the nuclear powers Pakistan and India is a factor that will require particular attention owing to its grave impact upon the region especially post 2014 Afghanistan. The recent coming-to-near-blows on the “Line out of control” between Pakistan and India reasserted once again the real issue of Kashmir and water-war simmers just under the surface, waiting to blow up in our faces at any given excuse. Many other grievances have gained roots sprouting from the main ones. These will be resurrected with fresh vengeance in a not-so-new playground; Afghanistan. An inevitable happening for which India is prepared having honed her tools well while Pakistan has been embroiled in the “War on Terror” and her multidimensional internal problems.
India fears that with the “official end” of war in terror in Afghanistan heralded by the departure of US combat forces, Pakistan shall launch the jihadists in India-occupied Kashmir. Nothing can be further from the truth. One; Pakistan does not “own” the jihadists as claimed by India and two; Pakistan is facing terrorism within its borders. As recently as in the second week of September 2013, roadside bomb attacks and a Taliban ambush killed seven soldiers/policemen including two senior army officers in Pakistan’s troubled north-west. A major general and a lieutenant colonel were visiting troop positions in the Upper Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, along the Afghan border, when their vehicle hit a bomb which killed them and a private soldier. TTP has owned responsibility for the attack. This is not the first attack of terrorist nature. Many more such attacks have taken place before. Had Pakistan “owned” the jihadists, it would certainly not have used them against its own security forces and civilians. Obviously the militants are working on someone’s agenda. But it’s obviously not Pakistan’s agenda.
Kashmir has been the point of focus of conflict as the result of British imperialism's divide-and-rule partition of the subcontinent when it relinquished direct rule in 1947. This issue stands ignored by international forums; a dangerous approach. The only solution is holding of a referendum, also supported by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; in his address at a news conference in September 2010.
America has to leave Afghanistan one day. No country can maintain its physical occupation of another indefinitely. India has made her moves intelligently and like an excellent chess player has positioned herself in a strategically strong position in anticipation of the happening. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan lie in the north of Afghanistan, Iran to the West, Pakistan to the South-East and China to the remote East. A narrow stretch of Afghan territory separates Tajikistan from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The importance of this region for India's security is huge. Tajikistan is in Central Asia, a gas-rich region in which India has developed growing interests. Tajikstan also happens to be extremely anti-Taliban. India, in order to gain strategic depth, focused on the Ayni Air Base, also called as 'Gissar Air Base' located 10km west of the capital of Tajikistan-Dushanbe. In the post 1979 era of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan it had served as the key air base for Soviet military air transportation of its troops to Afghanistan. It fell into disuse and neglect later. Between years 2002-2010, India invested approximately $70 million in renovations, installing state-of-the-art air defense navigational facilities. The runway was further extended. This access offers immediate strategic depth in the region to India.
The second place of Indian foothold is the Farkhor Air Base; a military air base located near the town of Farkhor in Tajikistan, 130 kilometers south east of the capital Dushanbe. In 1996-97, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) started negotiations with Tajikistan to use the Farkhor Airbase to transport high-altitude military supplies to the Afghan Northern Alliance, service their helicopters and gather intelligence. At that time, India operated a military hospital in the Farkhor region. Since Pakistan does not allow India overland access to Afghanistan, India has had to channel its goods to Afghanistan through Farkhor. The IAF airlifts supplies to Ayni, which are then transported to Farkhor and onward to Afghanistan by road. More important, aircrafts taking off from Farkhor could be over the Pakistani skies within minutes.
The disclosure of representative of the Tajikistan interior ministry to the news agency AFP on September 21, 2013 that police in Tajikistan have arrested 10 people suspected of planning a series of attacks to destabilize the country ahead of the presidential polls mostly young men who “received training in Pakistan”, is rather amusing in this backdrop.
Without question, the “forward policy” by India in Central Asia is viewed very uneasily by both Islamabad and Beijing. America should logically be in favor of India’s assessment of the situation as India’s rise in the region effectively checks Chinese and Russian influence. Americans cannot afford to be strategically out of the region. Russia on the other hand is moving in as a major regional player once again. It is willing to execute the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project, ignoring the US sanctions on Iran. This will be done in view of the new Russian policy to look towards South Asia. Lest we forget: a road was built by the Indian engineers from the Chahbahar port leading to Dilaram for onward linkage across Oxus, thus creating and giving an alternative transit route to Afghanistan. The first Tripartite Agreement was executed between India, Iran and Russia and the second one between India, Iran and Afghanistan-a brilliant move by a consummate player on the chessboard.
These combined steps places India in a strong position for the ‘new’ great game that is emerging with a changed political landscape in Afghanistan. Islamabad fears; and for good reason that an India and Tajikstan nexus will lead to an infiltration via Afghanistan, using an unprotected westernflank that will “encircle” Pakistan, cutting off oxygen. What Pakistan must do; is to redraw its foreign policy. The ground realities are changing. Time is rolling; Mr Prime Minister.
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.