A South Asian Power Play

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh with the President of Afghanistan, Mr. Hamid Karzai, in New Delhi on April 10, 2006. Image from Pravasi Today.

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh with the President of Afghanistan, Mr. Hamid Karzai, in New Delhi on April 10, 2006.

Pakistan has been gambling for a long time with its use of militants as a strategic edge over India. The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) created and utilized different groups that we generally label as “Taliban” in order to counter Indian power in the region. This has been a several decade-long endeavor but is now showing signs of failure as India is increasing its influence in Afghanistan. In this context, Indian-Pakistani relations will likely prove to be an even more critical national security issue as we scale back military efforts in the region.

Pakistan wanted as few potential fronts with their enemy, India, as possible, so they put their money on the Taliban and similar radical groups. It is well known that the ISI funded and trained the growing Taliban movement in the early and mid-nineties in order to increase Pakistan’s strategic depth in the region. The ISI has dedicated an entire division of the organization to dealing with the militants, referred to as the S-Wing,

“a secretive, powerful and probably dispersed network that includes a number of retired military personnel. The S Wing may have ‘hundreds of retired military officers and terror leaders’ on its rolls.”

Its purpose is to aid financially and militarily those various militant groups:

“American officials said that the S Wing provided direct support to three major groups carrying out attacks in Afghanistan: the Taliban based in Quetta, Pakistan, commanded by Mullah Muhammad Omar; the militant network run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; and a different group run by the guerrilla leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.”

Another militant group supported by ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), was created to counter Indian rule in Kashmir and has been responsible for high profile attacks against India, most notably the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. One ISI agent helped facilitate the pre-attack surveillance of the target, but fresh, more concrete information has come to light this past week as one of the plotters, Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, was arrested and extradited to India. His interrogation has painted a more vivid picture of the attack. He explained that,

 “LeT reportedly called in al Qaeda to train its operatives because it was convinced that the organization could do a better job of preparing them for the Mumbai siege.”

Furthermore,

“Ansari allegedly directed Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman to survive the attack, and other terrorists from a control room in Karachi, Pakistan . . . . Some state support was there for these people.”

This new revelation will likely strain the relations between the two countries.

Things will likely get even more heated as India obtains more influence on Pakistan’s western border. India has been setting itself up to control economic investment in Afghanistan,

“signal[ing] the move — which came after months of prodding by the United States — by hosting an international conference here [in New Delhi] to discuss the possibility of investment in Afghanistan’s mines, infrastructure and agriculture. The country’s mineral and hydrocarbon wealth alone is estimated to be between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.”

This new move into Afghanistan is part of a greater regional agenda. First, it establishes some sort of a tangible presence in Afghanistan, which shows Pakistan that their policy of containing Indian influence has failed. Second, it will bolster the Afghan government’s ability to fight off the various militant groups, who are the same militants that threaten Indian interests. This is especially promising for India as Afghan-Pakistan relations have soured in recent weeks. After anti-Pakistan Taliban beheaded some Pakistani soldiers, “Pakistan lodged a protest with NATO and Afghan forces… accusing them of failing to act against militant safe havens in Afghanistan.” In response, the Afghan government accused the Pakistani military of firing rockets into Kunar province over the past several months. They said that If diplomatic discussions bring no positive results we will refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.”  The third part of India’s agenda in Afghanistan is to counter their other rival, China. We’ve seen the two countries flex their muscles at each other in past months as India stood up to Chinese military assertiveness by testing a long-range nuclear-capable missile (followed by Pakistan showing off their missile capabilities). It’s not surprising that their rivalry would extend to Afghanistan, since China has a huge interest in the well-being of their Afghan neighbor:

“A vital security zone to China’s west, Afghanistan is also an important corridor through which it can secure its interests in Pakistan (a traditional ally in China’s competition with India), and ensure its access to vital natural resources in the region . . . . China’s development of the Aynak Copper Mine was the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s history. China was also engaged in constructing a $500 million electric plant and railway link between Tajikistan and Pakistan. Last December, China’s state-owned National Petroleum Corporation signed a deal with the Afghan authorities that would make it the first foreign company to exploit Afghanistan’s oil and natural-gas reserves.”

India’s securing of an effective foothold in Afghanistan should be a top U.S. priority. Reducing Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, or in other words, stopping the Taliban and other militants, has been a top priority since the beginning of the war. Furthermore, simultaneously checking Chinese economic expansion is a winning scenario as it plays into the Pacific-pivot strategy the Department of Defense has adopted.  Policy makers should bolster India’s ability to become a larger regional player against Pakistan and China.

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