Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India and later New Delhi’s lobbyist in Washington, has stirred up a heated debate with his now famous Plan B for Afghanistan. This involves effectively partitioning the country, with Pashtun-predominant southern Afghanistan ceded to the Taliban and, by proxy, to Pakistan. A US-Nato force of some 40,000 soldiers, down from 150,000 today, would confine itself to northern Afghanistan. Throwing one child to the wolf, Blackwill apparently believes, might save the other.
Plan B, or so the argument goes, would satisfy everyone who counts: the Taliban, which would re-establish control over their homeland; Pakistan, because its proxy control over southern Afghanistan would satisfy its quest for “strategic depth”; the US, which would remain a significant power in south and central Asia without a crippling price in blood and treasure (currently 700-1000 soldiers dead and $100 billion spent each year); Nato, because of its namby-pamby preference for stationing European soldiers in non-combat or low-combat areas; and India, because of Pakistan’s reduced capacity to extract US tolerance for India-directed terror.
While acknowledging that Plan B has its drawbacks — notably the abandonment of non-Pashtun groups, non-Taliban militias, and womenfolk in southern Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban — Blackwill points out that Plan A, i.e. the current surge of US troops, has changed little in Afghanistan. Therefore, by summer 2011, with US elections looming, Congressmen will be debating the even more disastrous Plan C: the withdrawal of all foreign troops within a couple of years.
Even as the US policy debate centres on a minimally damaging withdrawal, India’s moribund strategic community remains in denial, chanting the mantra that if the US does ever pull the bulk of its forces out of Afghanistan, it will be too far in the future to worry about presently. This delusion stems from New Delhi’s self-defeating apprehension that it would be left without options in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
This illusion of Indian helplessness, paradoxically, enjoys greater currency in India than it does abroad. While Pakistan realises how much India’s influence is expanding, New Delhi focuses on the negatives: there is no Ahmed Shah Masood, around whom anti-Taliban forces can coalesce, 1990s-style, nor for that matter a coherent Northern Alliance. With the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) controlling swathes of northern and central Afghanistan, India has little opportunity for resuscitating Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias. And while Moscow and Teheran still share India’s revulsion to a resurgent Taliban, they are less willing now to work jointly in undermining the Taliban. 2010, New Delhi concludes, is very different from 1996.
This unnecessarily gloomy Indian view of Afghanistan springs from our traditional view of influence as a function of hard power, of bayonets and boots on the ground, the more the better. In Afghanistan, however, this last decade has delivered one unmistakeable lesson: hard power is not the answer. In the alternative currency of soft power, India’s nine-year-long, $1.3 billion humanitarian and development aid programme has created a powerful equity in Afghanistan.
Indian confidence in this intangible, but nevertheless real, asset must guide our strategy in Afghanistan. Our alternative to Blackwill’s Plan B is Plan E — Exit Now. Counter-intuitively, India has more to gain than lose from an immediate US withdrawal.
America’s pullout from Afghanistan will immediately deprive the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda, and a smorgasbord of other radical groups of the glue of a common enemy. Inevitably, driven by the contradictions within their unholy alliance, they will turn their hostility upon one another. A key loser in this fratricidal game will be the traditional referee, the Pakistan Army.
As the Taliban imposes its writ across Afghanistan and Pakistan’s noose tightens, resentment will start to build. In the 1990s, Taliban-imposed order seemed preferable to many Afghans than the outright anarchy and indiscriminate killing and destruction that characterised the post-Soviet “mujahideen” power struggles. The Karzai government, despite its corruption and ineffectualness, would contrast favourably with the Taliban’s religious totalitarianism. As for the “foreign domination” that Afghans cite while railing against the ISAF, none of those free-spirited citizens have any illusions about the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan. The traditional Afghan resentment of Pakistan would bubble up to the surface.
A popular argument from India’s strategic elite is that Afghanistan would provide a training ground for India-bound terrorists. This is outdated; today, Pakistan is the terror training academy not just for India-focused jehadis, but for a wide assortment of Islamist radicals with grievances against the US, Europe, Russia, Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, even China. A resurrected Taliban regime could hardly offer better-located training grounds than those around Sialkot and Peshawar.
An American pullout from Afghanistan would free the US military to strike at Pakistan-harboured terrorist groups, something that Pakistan’s control over logistical routes into Afghanistan prevents today. A key element of Blackwill’s Plan B is the retention of US troops in northern Afghanistan for strikes into Pakistani tribal areas; paradoxically, though, America’s continued logistic dependence on Pakistan would hold back effective action. This conundrum would only be resolved through a major American diplomatic breakthrough with countries (Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) that could offer alternative supply routes or bases. For differing reasons, that seems unlikely to happen.
“The Pope”, Joseph Stalin once sneered, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” But that was in a different era. Today, New Delhi would exercise influence in Afghanistan, even without a physical presence. The heavy lifting for that has already been done; it is time now to act with confidence.