Check out this video of Gurkha soldiers in Afghanistan bonding with the locals over Hindi/Urdu and Bollywood.
The situation in Aghanistan and Pakistan is often perceived in terms of the US involvement there- the “Just War’, “Obama’s War” or, more ominously, as another Vietnam. Such tired terminology ignores the fact that the Afghanistan war is more of a regional problem, in which the South Asian nation states of India and Pakistan have great stakes. The Obama administration certainly recognizes this, but has so far failed to get India and Pakistan, the two states with most to lose from a deteriorating Afghan situation, to join the effort in stabilizing the country.
The situation in ‘AfPak’ is fiendishly complicated. There is recognition by various sectors of the international community, including the US, that future stability in Afghanistan depends on getting the Taliban, a rag-tag group composed of ethnic Pashtun tribes who resent Karzai’s government, on board. The challenge is to defuse the threat to international security by rooting out factions of the Taliban that are close to Al Qaida or other terrorist groups. The approach adopted by the US so far in Afghanistan- to put more troops and more development aid on the ground-seems to have spectacularly backfired. As Atran points out, focusing on tracking down family and tribal networks, gaining a better understanding of family ties and intervening only when a group acts to support Al Qaida, or plans activities outside its region, would be a more effective strategy to curb terrorist threats emanating from the region.
However, the problem is not so much Afghanistan as Pakistan. The FATA and Balochistan areas in Pakistan is the source of most recent terrorist activities in the region. Groups like LeT, responsible for the Mumbai attacks, have been known to recruit from millions of displaced living in the region. The Pakistani army has stepped up its efforts to crack down on terrorists in the region, but these are very different from the people that are attacking the US in Afghanistan (or for that matter targets in India). Pakistan’s failure to effectively combat the Taliban has exasperated the Obama administration. At the same time, Obama also seems to be unclear on his plans to deal with the situation in Pakistan (he barely mentioned his Pakistan strategy in his ‘surge speech’)
There is much talk of ‘de-hyphenation’ of India and Pakistan, a notion partially pushed forward by the Indian government and diplomats. India’s growing influence in Washington made sure that Kashmir was not part of Richard Holbrookes agenda, despite the Obama administration expressing its keenness on the same. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that any prospects of regional security and stability would require India and Pakistan to co-operate on the situation in Afghanistan. Easier said than done- diplomatic efforts between the two countries broke down after terror attacks in Mumbai last year, and Pakistan’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Pakistani army on the other hand resents Karzais closeness to New Delhi, and continues to prop up Taliban factions to counter that partnership and maintain its geo-political advantage in Afghanistan.
These concerns have to be taken seriously and addressed by the international community. At the same time, India and Pakistan need to find a way back to stronger co-operation on Kashmir, and allaying the fears of the Pakistani military. This is important as regional security is staked on how the Pashtun insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan plays out, and how well the Pakistani army is able to deal with terrorist elements within the Taliban groups. As Usher says, the road to Kabul goes through Kashmir.
This brings us back to the video that got me started on this rant. The Gurkha soldiers in Afghanistan provide an interesting perspective into the conflict. The cultural knowledge that the Gurkhas bring with them makes them more effective communicators and hence more effective mentors for the local police force. The Gurkhas are recruited from Nepal, and do not share Afghan religious and cultural affiliations. Yet, they seem to share a value system based on a code-of-ethics, and bond over Urdu/Hindi (not the mother tongue of either of these groups) and Bollywood. The nations of South Asia share a history of interconnections, making it easier for them to understand regional cultures. This presents an interesting strategic opportunity: given the time-line for US withdrawal, engaging South Asian experts would aid in quick and effective training to the local police force and government capacity building. This again throws up a set of questions as to where these experts would come from (Nepal?), and how this would impact regional geo-politics. Nevertheless, it provides for an even more urgent call that India and Pakistan show more pro-activeness to ensure security in the region.
Although cultural answers to complicated questions of security may seem simplistic, there is a case to be made for larger involvement of South Asian experts in governance and development in Afghanistan. Western powers have been far from successful in their efforts to train a local police force and administration. With Obama setting a deadline, it is important that South Asian nations contribute in state-building and ensuring good governance in the Afghanistan. India, for example, can greatly aid the state-building process by providing civilian expertise in areas like anti-corruption, local governance as well as agricultural development. Further, knowledge of local culture would also be invaluable to root out terrorist elements from amongst the insurgents by tracking down family and tribal networks. India need to recognize that it needs shed it’s historic shyness of the international stage and work closely with Pakistan and the U.S in ensuring stability in Afghanistan. Failure to ensure this would only mean that the regional powers would have the heaviest price to pay.
Update: Check out Kim Barker reporting on the ground situation at Foreign Affairs.