New Delhi: Volker Perthes, executive chairman and director of the influential Berlin-based think tank, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, was in the capital recently to participate in two seminars with an India focus. He is an expert on German and European foreign and security policy, part of which is focused on West Asia and Afghanistan, transatlantic relations and West Asia. He took some time off between his engagements to speak to Mint on a range of issues including an enhanced role for India in Afghanistan despite objections raised by Pakistan, and the need for countries such as India and China to exercise a leadership role. Edited excerpts:
You have come to India at the point when there is a very contentious debate happening in the region on the issue of Afghanistan, especially with respect to India’s role vis-à-vis that of the neighbouring countries. What are your initial thoughts?
Well, I think it is important that everybody debates the regional policies of one’s own country, and there has been an international debate about how much one wants India to be involved in Afghanistan. For example, from my perspective as a think tank from Germany, I would certainly say that India needs to be more involved, politically at least, also developmental-wise, in Afghanistan. We don’t fear Indian participation in the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. On the contrary, India could do more. I could think about police training, for example, or the training of the armed forces of Afghanistan, (where) it would probably do well.
But that’s a little tricky because India’s involvement in many ways is calibrated to how Pakistan reacts or doesn’t react. So how do they manage that?
But no one is asking India to send divisions of its troops to Afghanistan. And, that would probably be the wrong approach because Afghanistan would actually feel itself much more in a pincer; and in a military pincer now than it probably feels itself in a political pincer. But still India is a neighbour of Afghanistan, not a direct neighbour, and it certainly has an interest in what is happening there and it should be involved. I know it is involved in building bridges and roads and providing electricity or building electricity networks. I think when we speak about training, and that is one of the headlines now after the London conference, in order to stabilize Afghanistan, there was something like cultural affinity here and it’s probably easier for Afghan cadres, be it police or civilian cadres, to be trained in India or in the hands of Indians than being trained in Germany.
Do you agree with the surmise that there has been a quite a significant shift in the strategy towards Afghanistan by the allies? What then are the consequences?
Yes, there has been a shift in the strategies; there has been a rethinking. I think it is useful and important that the strategy has been revisited; it has taken a long time. And, of course, the Americans were in the lead, the (General Stanley) McChrystal report was instrumental for the rethinking of the strategy. It’s now more human-focused strategy, focus is on the human security of the Afghans, and it is also aimed at not staying there forever; not cutting and running but preparing the circumstances for a drawdown of forces once certain benchmarks are achieved. And I think that’s the right strategy, because no country, no society would want foreign forces to stay forever in one’s own country.
Power balance: Volker Perthes says countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa should have a larger role in global affairs. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
But there is an interpretation based on President Obama’s remarks that 2011 is the time when the Americans will pull out and the allies will follow. Is that correct?
I think some people have misinterpreted Obama’s 2011 date and some people have probably done so on purpose. Obama never said that the US would withdraw in 2011. What he rather said is from 2011 US would begin drawdown of forces and what that means, of course, would be in response to the circumstances on the ground. It could mean that a company is withdrawn, it could mean that a battalion withdrawn, it could mean an individual is withdrawn; that has to be according to the circumstances, according to certain benchmarks. I think security benchmarks, development benchmarks, training benchmarks have to be established internationally.
What about Germany and Europe?
We have the same discussion, of course, and since we are not a very small, but a smaller partner in the coalition in Afghanistan, of course, the American discussion is very important for us. In Germany, the time corridor that has been set is 2013-2015. That means a couple of years to go and the aim is to be able to withdraw, or I would rather say transfer full sovereignty and responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan authorities by that date within the time corridor. To go there, we have to set benchmarks. To say now it is 2010, four years on, we would want to have so many provinces handed over to Afghan sovereignty; so from year to year, we can measure whether we are on the right way or not.
You had mentioned earlier about how India should enhance its role. What about China?
Well, we think that China is doing some very important things. China is investing. It is not much more audacious as some European countries are and investment is definitely necessary for Afghanistan. So this is a good thing. And China is also interested in building infrastructure links through Central Asia or directly to Afghanistan and from Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. So this is all laudable and important but we also see that China in a way accepts that the Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces are protecting their investments in Afghanistan without themselves being very much committed to helping establish security in Afghanistan.
Implicit in your remarks is the statement that both India and China need to perform more in a leadership role globally. It’s already playing out in G-20 (Group of 20), the climate change discussion. Do you think that’s the case?
Well, the establishment of the G-20 is a reflection of the fact that countries like China—and China always was and has been the (United Nations) Security Council’s prominent member—and certainly countries like India and Brazil and others are playing a more important role. And, playing a more important role also means that these countries have to be part of the decision-making bodies of the world, also take responsibilities. Yes, we do want countries like India and Brazil and South Africa and Indonesia and others to play a larger role in global affairs and global governance issues. We know and we realize that it also means that we also will have to adapt and that probably not all the decisions will look like decisions made in the G-8 (Group of Eight). But that comes with widening of these bodies and these clubs of important powers in the world.
Going back to the debate over the timelines for exit from Afghanistan, does it queer the pitch? In the sense, you set a finite time frame and then work backwards?
Look, I am convinced, though I may be wrong here, but I am convinced that it is wise to set a time horizon or a time corridor and say we want to be out by 2013-2015. Of course, we need to implement the benchmarks; if they aren’t implemented, then it may take longer, but this is when we want to be out. It is also important to send out a signal to the local and the regional actors that we will not be there forever. Because foreign troop presences also create dependencies. They make actors complacent in a way to say: “Ah, the foreigners will solve our problems. We may criticize them for being rough and being insensitive to our society, but at the same time, we are quite happy that they are solving our security problems. So we depend on them.” It is important, I think, to make local and regional actors know that, in the end, they are in charge and, in the end, they will be in charge.
Finally, while there is a case being made out globally for India and China to step up to the plate on a lot of issues, not just Afghanistan, is the world prepared to accept and pay the price for giving them that leadership role as it has done in the case of the United States?
Well, as I try to say, if India, China, Brazil and others participate in decision-making, if they are part of the inner circle or the club, then decisions of the club will look a bit different from the decisions of G-8, for example. I guess we are, from a European perspective, prepared to pay that price; even though we have certain interests which we certainly defend and we are discussing it and debating it and we are trying to find compromises on climate change, for example, on proliferation issues where India can go along as much as other new middle or strong powers...have their stake and also take on responsibilities.
Megha Chhabra contributed to this story.