Even a 'Hinduist' India’s aim should be to secure the goodwill of a stable Afghanistan that is not a base for terrorist attacks
Twenty years after Nine-Eleven the world is as much at sixes and sevens as it was before Al-Qaeda’s vicious attacks. It’s no surprise, however, that nothing came of America’s promise (threat?) to reshape the world. Tom Paine, the heroic author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, first made that promise two centuries before Richard Nixon’s bombastic “We have a historic opportunity to change the world”.
For India the most important message of this failure is the confirmation yet again that it must determine its own place in the world and defend it accordingly. The immediate imperative is to reach a modus vivendi with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In the long run, India must reconcile its need for America’s helping hand with its own indisputable position as South Asia’s leading power with regional and global interests to defend. The two need not be in conflict. But Narendra Modi should take a look at Asian history and remember that however flattering America’s patronage might seem now, it has time and again proved to be the kiss of death for Third World governments.
A second message of the crisis concerns the ability of “a powerful Hinduist party” (citing Eric Hobsbawm) which leads “a movement to reduce the multiplicity of Hinduism to a single exclusive and intolerant orthodoxy” not to take an alarmist view of the seemingly powerful historical link between Islam and extremist politics. India’s 195 million Muslims places it after Indonesia and Pakistan as the third most populous nation in Islamic terms. The demographic factor can’t thus be ignored, but foreign policy takes precedence.
India has invested about $3 billion in Afghanistan. It has funded 500-plus development projects in all 34 provinces. While these must be safeguarded, the goodwill of a stable Afghanistan that is not a base for terrorist attacks matters far more to India’s future. That permanent interest can be sustained only through the cooperation of whoever controls Afghanistan.
Cozying up to the United States is a position Mr Modi quietly adopted from Dr Manmohan Singh. Of course, it was Atal Behari Vajpayee who warbled about “natural allies” but Dr Singh’s nuclear deal injected substance into the relationship in George W. Bush’s time. Another Bush-Singh legacy that Mr Modi has enthusiastically taken up and developed is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between the US, Japan, Australia and India that was initiated in 2007 on the sidelines of the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila. The dialogue was paralleled by joint military exercises on an unprecedented scale: Exercise Malabar.
The diplomatic and military arrangement was widely seen as a response to China’s rising economic and military power, and Beijing responded to it by formally protesting to its members. Dr Singh then announced he had already assured Hu Jintao, then China’s paramount leader, that the Quad wasn’t “a military alliance” and there was “no question of ganging up against China”.
The times have changed. The Ladakh confrontation may justify greater forthrightness. But the situation also calls for a calibrated response that takes into account China’s history and traditions as well as the US record in its relations with other Asian nations.
Mr Modi must know there is a long and sad list of Asian rulers who felt abandoned and betrayed. In the case of South Vietnam’s President, Ngô Đình Diệm, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the US was accused of turning a blind eye to the military coup that murdered them. Asked if she wanted asylum in the US, Nhu’s beautiful widow said: “I cannot stay in a country whose government stabbed me in the back!” When he saw how the wind was blowing, another South Vietnamese President, Nguyen Văn Thieu, resigned and fled to Taiwan.
It used to be said if an American President called any foreign dictator “our son of a bitch”, it would have been South Korea’s Syngman Rhee. But came the day when the US and Gen. Mark Clark, the US and UN commander, wanted him out. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines may not have gone into exile in Honolulu, where he died eventually, if he had not realised that while the US was his only patron, he was just one of America’s many allies. Among the many reasons why the Shah of Iran became such an embarrassment for Americans was, as Amnesty International listed, “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief”.
So, Ashraf Ghani’s was by no means a unique experience. Donald Trump pointedly excluded him from the Doha negotiations with the Taliban. He wasn’t even told the Americans had quit the Bagram airbase, the largest in Afghanistan. Joe Biden’s decision to pull out (like Mr Trump’s) had everything to do with US interests that took no notice of Afghanistan or Mr Ghani. The stark truth is that the US doesn’t stick by its smaller allies. It has displayed little concern for the Philippines, with which it has a 70-year-old mutual defence treaty, and which feels threatened by China in the Spratly Islands.
Mr Modi’s problems are rooted in India’s geopolitical location, culture, identity and aspirations. They will not be solved by becoming, as Sitaram Yechury once warned, a second Pakistan.
As the Kabul airport bloodbath demonstrated, the Taliban is not a monolith. It’s made up of many motley groups, some less extremist than others. Not all are Pashtuns; not all have Pakistani links. As of now, they speak in many voices. That the dominant elements among them seek an engagement with India is significant. With food running out and money in short supply, a landlocked, poverty-stricken Afghanistan denied access to its own foreign exchange reserves cannot afford to be reckless. In theory it can turn to China for technological and financial help, but given the 12 million mostly Muslim, mostly restive Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Chinese cannot forget earlier Afghan military assistance to the short-lived Turkic Islamic Republic of East Turkestan.
Security knows no religion. Even a “Hinduist” India’s aim should be to secure the goodwill of a stable Afghanistan that is not a base for terrorist attacks. The Quad may or may not be an “Asian Nato”, as China claims, but India must be prepared for it to go the way of the now forgotten South-East Asian Treaty Organisation and the Baghdad Pact once the US has resolved its present differences with China. Mr Modi’s government must then face up to the reality of having to adjust to Muslim numbers… abroad as well as at home.