Unnatural selection

The US tried and failed to choose and protect ‘suitable’ leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan. India must not repeat this mistake.

In Afghanistan, with election results being contested as “a coup against [the] people”, it took an emergency intervention by US Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a tenuous settlement between rival candidates Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Interestingly, instead of backing either candidate, Kerry demanded only that both candidates restrict themselves to constitutional and non-violent means, and emphasised the maintenance of national unity.

SACEUR, Admiral James Stavridis, visits ISAF

In doing so, he broke from a long tradition of regime selection by successive U.S. governments in the region and beyond. This new approach may be no more than the result of President Obama’s hard deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan, but it embodies an important lesson: in volatile scenarios, backing any particular candidate exposes the sponsor to untenable levels of political risk. It is a lesson India will do well to apply in our dealings with such nations in the future.

In a situation riven with factional conflict, choosing to back one party to the exclusion of others is a high-risk strategy which undermines its own successes. Even if the sponsored faction does win power, rival factions blame the foreign sponsor for their defeat; they grow all the more committed to being spoilers in the post-conflict scenario, and may even gain legitimacy at the cost of the victor in the bargain. This is a strategy that reshuffles the deck mid-game: any wildcard may emerge, and while no one is any closer to winning as a result, the sponsor’s own sunk costs drive them to seek a resolution in an increasingly intractable conflict. The traditional game of regime change leads only to stalemate.

Ironically, this outcome is one the US has come to recognise only belatedly, and still only selectively at best. No such concerns were evident in Afghanistan in 2009, when Hamid Karzai blatantly stole the election from Dr Abdullah – a fact that goes a long way in explaining the latter’s intransigence today. Stuck in Cold War era rhetoric about protecting a friendly head of state, the US quietly accepted Karzai’s fraudulent re-election; this not only soured relations with various other factions in Afghanistan, but also emboldened Karzai to grow increasingly belligerent and demanding in his relations with his sponsors.

Similarly, in Iraq, US aid continues to prop up an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian regime under Nouri Al-Maliki.Senior US officials themselves have long warned that Maliki was leading Iraq into ruin, undoing years of painstaking confidence building measures with his ill-advised persecution of Sunni local and military leaders. Unfortunately, their advice has gone unheeded, and Maliki has indeed reduced Iraq to a rump state, where Kurdish forces fight “Islamic State” terrorists to protect oilfields in the Iraqi army’s stead.

What can India learn from these failures to engage successfully with volatile, faction-riven polities? Simply put, that we must resist playing this particular game. The only plausible strategy is to hedge risks by cultivating multiple power centres, and being agnostic as to which (or which combination) of those actors gains power. Rather than play for a stalemate by keeping ‘unsuitable’ candidates (read: endorsed by our geopolitical rivals) out of power, we should actively promote a consensus solution based on shared values.

Such engagement must begin early to gain adequate leverage; indeed, India would do well to apply this lesson immediately in Afghanistan. Rather than endorsing a particular candidate for leadership, we must cultivate even-handedly cordial relations with any and all of the factions which are willing to interact with us, save only that we will not accept the return to power of the Taliban or their ilk. It remains paramount to our national interest to prevent the resurgence of terrorists and their sponsors in the region.

It is, however, a particularly narrow construal of national interest to claim that this outcome can be avoided only by selecting some resident strongman and supporting him against all comers. It is precisely such views that provide traction for the cynical narrative of après moi le deluge that Karzai and Maliki have used to proclaim themselves indispensable; the longer that myth prevails, the greater the sunk cost accruing, promoting a wilful blindness to the excesses and flaws of that ostensibly irreplaceable leader.

Rather than deciding whom to approach, engage with or accept on the basis of personality, we are better served by articulating a set of values that will serve as the minimum criteria for our ‘selection’. What would these values be? At a minimum, India should insist that all parties commit to seeking a non-violent solution to conflict, through an inclusive and participatory political process. Abjuring violence and committing to building a tolerant and unified nation can thus become the minimum basis necessary to claim a legitimate seat in negotiations, much as the “Mitchell Principles” embodied a starting point for peace talks in Northern Ireland.

This approach also capitalises on India’s reputational advantage, gained from decades of single-mindedly promoting the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) agenda. Creating consensus on common minimum criteria across the conflicting parties itself increases the chances of a negotiated solution, while simultaneously positioning India – by virtue of having channels of communication with all reasonable parties – as a natural mediator. It is a strategy that enhances our leverage and protects our interests at each stage. The only cost is explicitly renouncing a role in the selection of leaders themselves – a trade-off whose benefits should be obvious.

Photo: US Embassy