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The unravelling of Pax Americana

The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.

Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.

The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.

It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.

Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.

For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.

As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.

One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.

What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.

This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.

First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.

Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.

Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.

Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.

This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.

Columns/Op-Eds, In the News, Politics / Globalisation

“The Karzai Caper: What India Must Do With Afghanistan”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Original link is here

HAMID Karzai is playing his final hand, or so it seems. Against the backdrop of his dithering over the Bilateral Security Agreement, President Karzai has embarked on another visit to India. This is not only an opportunity for Karzai to shore up support for his country post- 2014, but also for India to step up its engagement with Afghanistan, take steps to safeguard its interests and seek clarity on a number of dilemmas confronting it.

There are two posers in particular that India should be seeking to address. The first is the future of the US militarys role in the region. New Delhi is conscious of the fact that the larger Afghan polity should be comfortable with the contours of any future US role. Although currently there seems to be huge support for a US role post- 2014, Karzais obstinacy has led to an impasse.

Can India with its strong ties with the Karzai government and goodwill in Afghanistan play a constructive role to break this stalemate in a way that does not provide disproportionate space and influence to Pakistan or cause further Iranian disenchantment with the situation? Irrespective of an Afghan- US security pact, India should prepare itself for a scenario where it may have to look after its interests by itself. Kabul and New Delhi should also be looking at developing an understanding through which India can directly and independently engage with Pashtun tribal elders, provincial governors and even regional warlords to protect its investments.

India must also seek more security cover by the Afghan Public Protection Force ( APPF) for its projects. Obviously, given the security situation, India cannot demand without giving. It is imperative that India bear the costs for further development and training of this force which is currently largely borne by NATO. Therefore the second dilemma for India is to reach an understanding with the current Afghanistan government and yet ensure that this arrangement is sustainable beyond Karzais reign.

Maintaining the high level of engagement with Afghanistan with its obvious benefits for Afghanistan is likely to create a vested interest for whoever is in power in Kabul to continue the thriving bilateral ties with India.

Stepping up its support for the Afghan National Security Forces ( ANSF) is another way of ensuring that continued engagement with India becomes indispensable for any Afghan government. This assistance must not just be material, but rather one that builds local managerial and organisational capacity to enable Afghanistan to sustain such a force.

As the situation in Afghanistan continues to change and is likely to change even more dramatically in the future, India is faced with the choice of being a proactive game- changer itself or continuing to watch from the sidelines as it has for the last 12 years. Now is the time to shed its strategic ambiguity and to commit to an ever larger constructive role in the post- 2014 Afghanistan.

Columns/Op-Eds, In the News, Politics / Globalisation

As the US exits, New Delhi must adopt a gutsy Afghanistan policy to safeguard its interests

Original link is here

SAMIR SARAN & Abhijit Iyer Mittra Jun 27, 2013, 12.00AM IST

While John Kerry lauded India’s role in his June 23 speech in Delhi, events of the last 90 days tell a very different story; one in which the US disregards the concerns of both India and the Afghan government and continues to woo the Pakistani military establishment in search of its elusive salvation.

The US actions have allowed the Taliban to formally open an office in Qatar for direct negotiations, which the Taliban sees as the first step towards a new emirate. The victory of Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, in collusion with fundamentalists, allows radicals in that country certain influence over the civilian government and the military’s shadow over foreign policy looms larger and stronger as the US consolidates General Parvez Kayani’s pivotal role, established by a hurried and reckless K-3 meeting (Kerry, Kayani, Karzai).

Consequently, India has nowhere to hide. Three eventualities have to be prepared for in Afghanistan, possibly unfolding concurrently. The first is a Karzai government under severe pressure from a heavily armed Taliban backed by the new mandate available to the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan. The second is a Taliban takeover of Kabul. The third is some form of dismemberment of the country again. Each of these eventualities leads to India having to shoulder a greater share of the blowback, than the western countries that seek to drive the current agenda.

India’s exclusion is symptomatic of the short-termism that has plagued western policy that has sought to create a closed information loop to filter out inconvenient truths. The problem is, as history repeatedly shows, an unstable Afghanistan destabilises the region. Importantly, as 9/11 showed, it also has the potential to threaten western power centres. Yet it would seem nothing has been learnt and India would need to very quickly write its own script again.

India’s Afghanistan policy has historically always been cold, calculating, uncompromising, long-term and more than capable of absorbing significant reverses in the short to medium term. Its response today must also support those who it does business with in Afghanistan. It cannot be coy in providing soft and hard military support to its friends and it must not be seen as an unreliable and indecisive partner.

India has in the past succeeded in maintaining Afghanistan as a viable partner for over 60 of 67 years of bilateral history. Wading through the precarious years starting 1989 and through the economic crisis of 1991, India still managed to support one dispensation or another that held inimical forces at bay till 1997. After 1997, India continued to support the Northern Alliance in the hope of better times. That time came in 2001, when, following the US invasion, a government whose core elements had been supported by India, were installed in power.

Pakistan, in spite of its advantageous geography, had succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan for just four to six years at best. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of the region will know that it takes a lot more than common borders to manage bilateral relations.

Going into a winning war is easy but wading into uncertain waters to safeguard vital interests is the true test of realpolitik. That is why India’s Afghan gambit must be gutsy and counterintuitive. Given the high stakes and high probability of failure, too much talk is counterproductive and blueprints for the post-2014 chaos that will be Afghanistan are urgently needed.

India in 2014 is not the economic cripple it was in 1991; a $290-billion reserve buys more loyalty and battle resilience than 15-day currency reserves. Over the last 12 years India has worked exceptionally hard to win over significant pockets of support among the Pashtuns. Unlike the 1990s when India’s support base was the ethnic minorities, support for India is now deeper and wider.

Taliban 2.0, therefore, will find a house divided, facing the enemy without and also within. India has four consulates in addition to the embassy in Kabul. These are the prime nodes of aid dispersal, which is counted as the most effective of any country’s efforts there.

The nearly $2 billion dispersed so far have gone to infrastructure, agriculture and education, especially self-sustaining schemes at the village and micro levels in Pashtun areas. It is precisely these schemes that connect India directly to the Pashtun’s day-to-day life and make India a friend in their view. It will be Pakistan’s inability to deliver — systemically and financially — on this score that will make Pakistan the outsider.

Afghanistan post-2014 must not by default become a neutra-lised backyard of Rawalpindi and its proxies. Any interference must necessarily require significant injections of Pakistani treasure and blood. India could lay for Pakistan the same trap that the US laid for the Soviets in Afghanistan.

If Pakistan marches in directly or by proxy it gets bogged down and alienates any residual western sympathy. If Pakistan does not, it loses the prize. Win or lose by default Pakistan loses and win or lose by default India is likely to succeed.

The writers are vice-president and programme coordinator, respectively, at the Observer Research Foundation.

In the News, Politics / Globalisation

Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai at ORF, October 2011.

The National, October 6, 2011, New Delhi.
Link to original website.
Watch here all speeches of the event online.

NEW DELHI // Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai sought to reassure Pakistan yesterday after signing a series of agreements to boost trade and security cooperation with India. “Pakistan is a twin brother, India is a great friend. The agreement that we signed with our friend will not affect our brother,” said Mr Karzai in a speech in New Delhi yesterday.

Mr Karzai is on his second visit to India, and is widely seen to be building ties with the Indians out of frustration with Pakistan. Afghan officials claimed that the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and head of the peace council that conducted talks with the Taliban, was planned by Pakistan-supported Taliban militants in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Pakistan denies being involved in Rabbani’s death.

During his speech, Mr Karzai laid out his vision for Afghanistan’s future after a decade of war and emphasised that the strategic partnership deals were “not directed against any country” but done to “support Afghanistan”. On Tuesday, Mr Karzai and Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, signed a number of agreements including one under which India will offer more military and police training to the Afghan forces ahead of the US troop withdrawal, scheduled to take place in 2014.

India is already one of the biggest aid providers to Afghanistan, having pledged up to US$2 billion (Dh7.35bn) since 2001 and promised spending on infrastructure, such as the construction of highways. Yesterday, the Afghan national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, reiterated Afghan accusations that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was supporting pro-Taliban militants.

“The Haqqani network and the ISI are one and the same. It is a group managed, trained and led by the ISI,” he said. After the September 20 assassination of Rabbani, Mr Karzai announced that negotiating with the Taliban was “futile,” a statement he repeated in his speech yesterday. “We have decided not to talk to the Taliban because we do not know their address. We do not know where to find them … therefore we have decided to talk to our brothers, our neighbours in Pakistan,” he said. If the growing rapprochement with New Delhi has ruffled feathers in Islamabad, Pakistani officials have not let it show.

“Both are sovereign countries, they have the right to do whatever they want to,” the Pakistani prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said yesterday. Nitin Pai, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a think tank in Chennai, believes Mr Karzai’s visit to India provides Afghanistan with leverage in future negotiations with Pakistan.

How deep the relationship between India and Afghanistan can develop remains a matter of debate. “The question is not what Karzai said, but what the Indian prime minister left unsaid: is India capable and willing to play the role of a guarantor of stability in Afghanistan?” said Mr Pai. He said that India was politically unwilling to take on responsibility for security in Afghanistan, which might rile Pakistan, its nuclear-armed rival.

Samir Saran, the vice president of the Observer Research Foundation, which hosted Mr Karzai’s address yesterday, said the Afghan leader had a serious message in his speech, directed at Pakistan and America, about how he planned to approach security issues in the future.

“By 2015, Afghanistan will be entirely responsible for its security. Afghanistan will be looking to its affairs on its own in cooperation with India, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and our neighbours,” Mr Karzai said in his speech. Mr Saran said Mr Karzai was diversifying his options for peace and stability. “The invocation of Iran is a serious message that anything is better than the current situation. He knows he will have to create new partnerships, even if they are with countries like India and Iran.”