India must rally forces against Taliban
The defeat and withdrawal of United States from Afghanistan opens an opportunity for us to rise and shine on the global scene.
The defeat and withdrawal of United States from Afghanistan opens an opportunity for us to rise and shine on the global scene. The US is in sunset mode. Its technological prowess is eroding. China has made its own fighter jets, nuclear arsenal, landed craft on the mars, made temperatures equal to those of the sun in its laboratories, and its apps like Zoom and Cam Scanner by far dominate the global app space.
Indeed, the US still leads in a number of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and supercomputers. But the lead is fast eroding. This erosion is seen in the loss of nerve leading to the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. This decline of the US, by default, is leading to the rise of China just as the small shrub rises into prominence when the big tree is cut. Reports indicate that China is befriending the Taliban. It is not clear though whether this friendship will endure given the hard Islamic orientation of the Taliban and the possibility of the friendship spilling over in mainland China.
We cannot ignore, though, that the US has been the harbinger of freedom. It released the slaves it had brought from Africa. It assisted Europe to rebuild after the Second World War. It even helped India and other colonies obtain independence from their colonial masters. Winston Churchill had met with US President Roosevelt during the Second World War, seeking the latter's support against Germany. One condition that Roosevelt placed was that England would give independence to its colonies. That contributed to India's Independence. The US also provided us with free food grains during the droughts in the sixties under the PL-480 program. But that was then.
The conduct of the US in the recent years, however, leaves much to be desired. Its commitment to democracy runs hollow given its support to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Let us not forget that the MIG fighter jets that were the mainstay of our air force were obtained from Russia while US provided F-16 jets to Pakistan. The US has routinely destabilised democratic countries in Latin America such as by securing the removal of Salvador Allende of Chile. The US pushed the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). One major aspect of the WTO is the global protection provided to intellectual property rights. The multinational corporation innovators now have a 20-year licence to sell their patented products at high price. Companies like Pfizer have made huge profits during the Corona pandemic. The US was against diluting the patents protection for vaccines even during such humanitarian crisis. The US has consistently refused to cut down its carbon emissions.
A recurring issue in foreign aid is whether the aid should be tied to the donor countries' interests. Often the donor countries require the recipient to engage consultants or buy equipment from the donor country. The money given thus recirculates in the donor's economy. I am told by persons working in this field that the USAID is notorious for such backward linkages. Thus, notwithstanding the noble contribution of the US towards the developing countries in the past, the present conduct leaves much to be desired.
We have to chart our future course in Afghanistan in this backdrop. The Taliban are pitted against India as seen in their stoppage of trade with us. On the other hand, they seem to open to China. It is possible that a Taliban-China axis may emerge against India. It is even possible that Pakistan may fall to the Taliban. Then we would truly find ourselves encircled by China.
It is clear, therefore, that India must act against Taliban. Perhaps we have lost an opportunity to have stepped in while the US was withdrawing. We could have made an alliance with NATO and taken over the ground combat responsibilities like the (then failed) Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka. That may be an option even now. India could form and lead a global alliance against Taliban. It is better to fight with Taliban in Afghanistan rather than on our western borders.
The crucial question is whether we should make this alliance with NATO or with China. Two possible scenarios can emerge. India-NATO may bet pitted against Taliban-China; or India-China can be pitted against Taliban. The latter possibility will be more enduring because Taliban would be weaker without the support of China. The Taliban-China relationship is evolving and we do not know which way it may go. Our effort must be to make a common front with China against Taliban rather than confront the Taliban-China combine.
A major hurdle in this direction is the border disputes we have with China. Neville Maxwell has explained in detail in his book 'India's China War' how the 1962 war was precipitated by the misadventure of the then Defence Minister Krishna Menon. He had implemented the so-called "forward policy." China had, in the main, in their words, "taught India a lesson." We must accept our folly. Further, we must look at the larger danger in the ascent of Taliban on our western border.
Even if China has rubbed us on the wrong side in the past, we must consider making a "tactical retreat" to be able to confront the larger enemy. We should take a lesson from Europe. Germany had occupied France during the Second World War. Yet, the two countries are the mainstay of the European Union. We have settled the border disputes with Bangladesh. The Arab countries have de facto accepted the State of Israel. North- and South Korea have reached a truce. The list of settled border disputes goes on and on; just as the list of unsettled disputes. It is time for India and China to bury the hatchet and, if possible, make a joint front against Taliban, the bigger enemy standing on our borders.
A personal note is in order here. I have received my education in the United States. I was provided a fellowship by my university. I am thankful for that opportunity and kindness of the US. However, a higher dharma is involved here. I do not see the US as the protector of the weak and even the democratic countries today. Rather I see the US using its prowess to promote its own commercial interests to the detriment of the poor and developing countries. The larger interest compels me to acknowledge the past US charity individually to me and collectively to the meek and poor of the world but not be bound by it.
(The author is former Professor of Economics at IIM, Bengaluru)