The politics of the vast deserts and steppes of Central Asia will significantly determine the contours of any durable Afghan settlement. The implications for South Asia’s security will be far-reaching, too.
Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century traveller, described the Hindu Kush ranges as the “slayer of the Indians,” as people from the “land of India” mostly perished in the snowy heights of extreme cold. The ranges that run through Afghanistan did indeed split the Indian historical consciousness about that country.
When policymakers in New Delhi grappled with the Mujahideen takeover in Afghanistan, it suddenly dawned on them how little they knew about the tribes that inhabited the northern side of the Hindu Kush. It was those tribes who won the tight race for Kabul against the Pashtun Mujahideen groups during the dramatic “transfer of power” in 1992 by the communist regime headed by Najibullah, and New Delhi had on its hands the unenviable “post-Soviet” task of establishing a narrative suitable for a new dawn in the region’s ancient history.
The point is, the geopolitics of Afghanistan always had two halves. Which, of course, posed a major challenge to U.S. President Barack Obama when he crafted the new Afghan strategy. Equally, for regional powers like India or Uzbekistan, the dichotomy came in the way of creating a common space that would open the vistas of a regional initiative. Viewed from Delhi and Tashkent, the “great game” in the Hindu Kush mountains assumed different shades. Some things do not easily change in life — even for an aspiring regional power. Even today, Indian discourses on Afghanistan run a predictable course. Has the U.S. administration finally woken up to the harsh reality of the Pakistani military’s doublespeak in the fight against terrorism? If so, will it turn the screw on its single most crucial partner in the fight? Period.