For a while there was some doubt as to whether the United States would have to exercise the so-called ‘zero option’ in Afghanistan, and pull out in 2014 without leaving any residual support forces there. Such a scenario would have been disastrous since it would have led to the pull-out of the NATO forces followed by the loss of billions of dollars of funding for the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan government. The poorly trained Afghan forces would have found the going difficult against the Taliban since they lack vital air assets, or heavy weaponry.
But now, after some hard-nosed bargaining, it seems that the US and the Afghans have a deal. On Saturday evening, after nearly 24 hours of intense negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai announced that they had reached an agreement on the key elements of the deal that would enable US forces to stay. However, the deal-breaking issue of providing immunity for prosecution under Afghan law for the US troops remains to be fully resolved. This was the issue which the US was unable to resolve in Iraq and led to the complete pull-out of US forces from Iraq in 2011. The fudge here is that according to Karzai, the ‘Afghan people’ will decide i.e. through a Loya Jirga or traditional popular assembly. It is unlikely that an assembly convened by the government will reject the bilateral pact that is being proposed by the government. Thereafter it would go to the Afghan parliament. It is important for Mr Karzai to show that he is an independent actor, and the Americans are playing along with him.
The American withdrawal of 2014 has set the proverbial cats among the pigeons. On one hand, we are witnessing a surge of Chinese interest in Central Asia, determined to establish a definitive Chinese presence, before the US consolidates itself in Afghanistan and resumes its push into Central Asia. Likewise, China appears to be revising its Pakistan relationship, trying to move the partnership away from its India fixation and orienting it towards the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.
Fresh from its success in Syria, Russia is, too, seeking to regain its momentum in Central Asia. But more than Afghanistan, it is the possible thaw in US-Iran relations which could upend geopolitical calculations in the region. Indeed, by adopting a minimalist posture in Afghanistan, the US could actually free up its resources to intervene more effectively in the Gulf and Central Asia.
As for India, it is dependent on the US/NATO security umbrella to operate within Afghanistan. As long as it focuses on development projects, there is little problem. Indeed, New Delhi is being asked to step up its assistance to the Afghans, but is somewhat chary as of now. Even now we do not know just what will be the contours of the US posture in the area. No matter how you look at it, it will require a great deal of Pakistani cooperation and so there will be lines that the US will not like to cross in relation to Islamabad.
In Central Asia, Chinese resources and diplomacy has outclassed New Delhi. In September, an Indian claim for a stake in the giant Kashagan oilfield was given to a Chinese company by the Kazakhstan government. There is so much you can do based on history, while India invests in millions, China does in billions. Today’s geopolitics require today’s commitments, and that is something New Delhi is loath to provide. Even so, India is not giving up the contest without a fight. Last year India launched its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy which features a number of policy initiatives, including high level visits by Indian leaders, including Vice President Hamid Ansari and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Besides oil and gas, India has interest in importing uranium from both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And beyond natural resources, the effort is to focus on education, IT, pharmaceuticals and medical tourism.
We must be clear that we do not have the ability to be a principal player in Central Asia or Afghanistan. We should then cut our coat according to the cloth available and evolve a policy that will further our interests which, without doubt, are the opposite of what China and Pakistan will be seeking. In the past, Russia has been our strategic ally in the region. The Russians are making a bid to re-establish ties in the region, but they are also being outbid by China when it comes to natural resources. The Russians remain the main security providers and have taken over the use of the Ayni airbase from India in Turkmenistan. New Delhi retains use of the Farkhor base in Tajikstan courtesy the Tajiks and the Russians.
The US will remain a player through Afghanistan and, possibly, Uzbekistan, which has pulled-out of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and is cosying up to Washington. To remain a player, New Delhi needs to put its money where its mouth is and develop the North South Transit Corridor (NSTC) linking the Iranian port of Chah Bahar with Afghan and Central Asian destinations. That will be the only way in which we can change things. That, of course, brings us to our relations with Iran. The US, Russia, Iran, are all friendly actors. Clearly, the possibilities are endless, but the big point is to do things, rather than talk about doing them.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.