President Trump’s announcement that his administration was working on a plan to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan precipitated a dramatic change in the geo-strategic equation. Pakistan has effectively deceived the Americans where on one hand she took billions of dollars of American taxpayers’ money and on the other hand, aided, trained and sheltered Taliban which killed more than 3,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. Now US policies in South Asia seem to be so inconsistent that they need Pakistan’s help, which, in the first place, is responsible for the Taliban’s resurgence after its defeat in 2001.
India’s geopolitical strategy in Afghanistan for almost 18 years was based on two notions. First, Americans are controlling Afghanistan and they would remain influential in Afghanistan, mainly by investing in civilian projects and by getting closer to the Americans as a global partner. Second, India wanted to have a permanent influence in the region by utilising Chabahar port as a trade route for landlocked Afghanistan and by granting her independence in the trade who always relied on Pakistani seaports.
Two notions on which the whole Indian regional strategy was based failed when President Trump restarted relations with Pakistan and decided that they will withdraw from Afghanistan before 2020 elections. American political and military elite understand that Taliban will recapture Afghanistan after the withdrawal and eventually Pakistan Army will be in control via the Taliban like the 1990s. However, it doesn’t matter for current administration if Afghanistan is ruled by some religious maniacs or secular democrats. President Trump only cares for next electoral victory which is only possible if he shows his support base that he has delivered previous campaign pledges.
Firstly, if there is a pro-Pakistan and anti-Indian government in Kabul, then Afghanistan would not need an Indian operated Chabahar port because Afghans will continue to use Pakistan’s seaports which they have been using for the last several decades. Secondly, suppose such predictions are wrong and, in a post-withdrawal scenario, somehow the Afghan Government could maintain its good relations with India and stop the Taliban retaking control of the country, what then would happen to India’s geostrategic calculus with respect to the port of Chabahar if there is a change of regime in Iran? Thirdly, if the first and second scenarios ought to be true i.e. Taliban rule in Afghanistan, then wouldn’t it be strategically possible for Pakistan to put all energy against India in Kashmir and beyond to harm Indian interests?
Since Nehru, all Indian Prime Ministers have been trying a similar type of South Asia strategy except Indira Gandhi who divided Pakistan into two by liberating Bangladesh. The idealist Indian political elite has always thought that they would somehow change the behaviour of Pakistan and peace is a practical possibility. If billions of American dollars did not change Pakistan’s behaviour and she supported the Taliban despite getting all the money, then why the trade of tomatoes and onions would change Pakistan’s anti-Indian nature? Why Pakistan would need peace with India if the whole existence of Pakistan is based on the two-nation theory? Wouldn’t any permanent peace with India further strengthen ethnic nationalism which will weaken the state of Pakistan if there is no religious justification for the oppression of nations like Baloch, Sindhis and Pashtuns who have never been deeply interested in the idea of Pakistan?
Even, if there is a short-term calm on the LOC and Kashmir region then can anyone guarantee that Pakistan wound not create problems for emerging India if the former gets stronger economically, politically and militarily? Is it possible for India to achieve the status of regional power and compete with China without settling the Pakistan problem once and for all?
The new geopolitical reality demands a new strategy from Indian political and military elite. The strategy needs to be a pro-active and mere reaction against Pakistani actions will not protect Indian national interests. The new reality is that Afghanistan’s democratic and secular forces will have no say in Afghanistan’s future, let alone India which Pakistan sees as its arch enemy. Furthermore, China is building naval bases in Balochistan to encircle India. India had an opportunity for almost two decades after Taliban’s defeat to challenge Pakistan with a comprehensive strategy but they have now lost the historical opportunity because successful United Progressive Alliance and National Democratic Alliance governments have failed to convince the West that Pakistan is the real terrorist state in the region and that that alternative nation-states could be carved out of Pakistan which would bring peace and long term prosperity for the whole region.
Realpolitik dictates that America should cooperate with Pakistan until there is a possible alternative in the region. The alternative has always been Balochistan because of its strategic location and secular political movement against Pakistan’s occupation. The philosophy of western countries is very simple. South Asia is not their region and that’s why they feel no hesitation cooperating with a terrorist state like Pakistan. West thinks that Pakistan is there, so they have to work with her until they find an effective and reliable alternative. Whereas geopolitical situation for India is very different, she cannot wait for the alternative, she must create the alternative because until India has total hegemony in the South-Asia it will never rise as a regional power and she will never have hegemony in the region until there is Pakistan.
India is expected to have the world’s largest population and wants to become the world’s largest economy by 2050 but such a dream cannot be realised until India has hegemony over entire South-Asia. The time has come that Indian leaders should start taking bold foreign policy decisions and learn from their Israeli allies. Israel from last several decades has been supporting Kurdish people in their struggle and today because of their long-term commitment Israel has allies in Syria, Iraq and in a likely post-regime Iran. India can follow Israel’s path by supporting stateless nations for regional influence.
The Baloch national struggle can effectively reduce the territorial size of Pakistan into half and can also provide India with potential long-term influence from Chabahar to Strait of Hormuz in a post-regime Iran. It will also strengthen the pro-Indian democratic forces in Afghanistan because there is already an understanding among Afghan and Baloch to see the region free of Pakistani backed terrorism. An independent Balochistan would pave the way for the total elimination of fake state Pakistan and after few years of Balochistan’s independence, Pakistan will be replaced by ethnic-based nation-states such as Sindh and Pashtunistan.
Moreover, India also needs access to raw material for its emerging economy. Balochistan’s gold, copper, iron and other mineral resources which are being plundered by Chinese and Punjabi establishment would be available for the Indian industries and in return, Balochistan will get a fair price for its precious metals and resources. Balochistan which has great economic potential could be a new market for Indian technology and goods if it is free and sovereign. Balochistan’s freedom will resolve many strategic issues and geographical dilemmas which India faces and create new markets for emerging India. Bringing geopolitical change in the region is an achievable and realistic goal; however, it cannot happen if the Indian political elite follows the same old strategy time and again and expect a different result.
(The writer is Free Balochistan Movement’s head of the Foreign Affairs Department and a member of Chatham House. He can be reached at @JNBaloch)
Jamal Nasir Baloch has studied Government and Politics from Birkbeck, University of London and became head of Free Balochistan Movement’s Foreign Affairs Department in 2019. He is also a member of the Chatham House.