The changing geopolitical landscape in Afghanistan, particularly the potential deal between the US and the Taliban, facilitated by Pakistan is one of the reasons behind the Narendra Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and bifurcate the state into two Union territories, said former ambassador and strategic affairs expert Phunchok Stobdan in an interview with
. In fact, India’s Afghan policy may sooner than later require a major strategic rethink, says Stobdan. CNBCTV18.com Here are the edited excerpts of the interview: Q. How much has the changing landscape in Afghanistan guided the Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370? Phunchok Stobdan: Well, it is one of the backdrops behind the government’s decision with regards to abrogation of Article 370 reasons and the bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir State into two Union Territories. You know that the Americans have been negotiating with the Taliban for a deal in Afghanistan as they are also keen to withdraw US troops from the country. With the war in Syria now coming to an end, ISIS fighters are dispersing from there to various other places and majority of them are now regrouping in Afghanistan. There are apprehensions that the Taliban and the ISIS could join hands with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and Pakistan will facilitate that to create now a new wave of jihad in Kashmir. Q. What is your view on the bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir, particularly the creation of a separate union territory of Ladakh? PS: We have been talking about resetting the J&K map especially separating Ladakh from Kashmir in order to save the region from the growing radical tendencies in the valley, which has become a chronic issue. It had been long policy folly by the Centre to focus too much in the valley, which is just 15 percent of J&K territory. The narrative so far has been built along the valley. In a shift of thinking, narrative has to be built around 85 percent of the territories including the areas occupied by Pakistan i.e Gilgit-Baltistan. Q. How much has the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor been a factor in the bifurcation of J&K? PS: The Chinese have long consolidated their political and military hold not just in Tibet but also in Xinjiang province. A lot of activities are taking place in the vicinity of Ladakh area both in the West through CPEC as well as in East through Tibet-Xinjiang national highway No 219 that passes through the Aksai Chin road. On the western part of it, the Chinese have been building now the CPEC - $62 billion from Kashgar downwards from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) to Gwadar Port in Karachi. So these are strategic encirclement which needed to be taken into consideration.
Creation of Ladakh as UT should bring back India’s northern areas into a strategic focus. So instead of now being defensive in this area, the whole idea is to be forward looking in terms of opening up borders with China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to connect with the greater Eurasian landmass and rejoin the fable Silk route through Ladakh border.
Q. Coming back to Afghanistan, the Chinese and Americans don’t look worried about the influx of ISIS terrorists or a Taliban regime there ... PS: I am little bit surprised why Chinese are not so worried about the Taliban threat into its own territory or ISIS because the Daesh has a huge component of Uighur terrorists trained in the northwestern Idlib area of Syria. These Uighur terrorists are believed to have been shifted from Syria to Afghanistan for it becomes easy for them to disperse or infiltrate into China. That is a reason the Chinese are now building new military base in the Wakhan Corridor along Afghan-Tajik-Xinjiang borders.
The US government takes a very realist stand on most issues where morality is not a big factor. They are not reluctant to use any militant, any jihadi as a tool, as an instrument of policy. If Taliban was an enemy of US yesterday, today they are talking to each other. It doesn’t matter to the US if ISIS is useful or not useful. They have a bigger geopolitical agenda against Iran, Russia and China. Even on India, the US policy seems fickle.
Q. Should India play a bigger role in Afghanistan as US President Donald Trump said? PS: While we have a lot of interest in Afghanistan, we have been hesitant to send troops there. The Americans now seem pressurising indirectly on India to contribute troops in Afghanistan or else it will have to strike a deal with the Taliban. It is a bigger geopolitical game and possibly, we will be forced to do something now. Even Afghans complain that India is lacking in its commitment to play a game in their country. Q: With this sort of situation in Afghanistan, what options does India have? It seems like Pakistan will actually end up calling the real shots in Kabul again. PS: We have given this impression to the entire international community that we have a huge stake in Afghanistan, but our capability to engage in Afghanistan in a big way is questionable. Afghanistan is far more sophisticated and much more complex. Unfortunately, our Afghan policy is Pakistan centric which is a flawed one. To play a forward looking Afghan policy India has to engage with Russia, Central Asia and China through the SCO or any other framework. Prof P. Stobdan is a distinguished academician, diplomat, author and foreign policy expert. He served as India’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in Central Asia.