STRATEGIC PATIENCE OR SANCTIMONIOUS INACTION
1. Not too far back in history, an ex-PM of the nation was at the receiving end of quite a few riles for his oft quoted statement; “Not to take a decision is a decision in itself”1 or words to that effect. This was the modus vivendi during the troubled times of coalition governments in Delhi. While we saw a categorical departure under the present dispensation when it came to handling the immediate neighborhood be it Op ZAFRAN2 or Op SNOW LEOPARD3, however when it comes to Afghanistan, the sanctimonious inaction which has been curated and coiffed to be termed as Strategic Patience has come to the fore. “In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, It’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish” says Professor Klaus Schwab4, World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman. This laggard approach to the fast paced evolution of events in Afghanistan has literally left India with egg on its face and its claim as a regional player deeply dented.
2. Last week I had the TV humming in the background and was passively listening to the random noise which is generated in newsrooms of Indian Media Houses during Prime Time TV. Two words combined that hadn’t registered in my mind before. Right away I began actively listening to learn more about the context of the phrase. The phrase was “strategic patience” and it turned out to be quite loaded. So exactly what does it mean? I’ve come across various definitions like “passive or purposeful inaction”, “wait and see”, or “slow and steady”. The term showed up over and over with respect to foreign policy strategy.
3. US Government officials were being all coy and succinct about the evac undertaken from Kabul and POTUS himself was glowing with the mispalced sense of having brought the the ‘Longest War’ to an end. India while was having Cabinet Committee on Security meeting on the evolving situation in Afghanistan and what transpired there is for us to gestimate. Yet India’s reaction to say the least to the turmoil in AFPAK region has been one of patience. While it may not set the alarm bells ringing with the doom day prophecy of a deluge of Jihadi fighters overwhelming the vale of Kashmir, but then should we sit back reassured because the current chaos has yet to achieve the level of the devastation and carnage being predicted or is the real source of our metastasizing anxiety is … the news media.
4. This passivity — strategic, syntactical, ideological — is more than just a reaction to the perceived overreach of the present dispensation which may have kept all the eggs in the NUG basket and not appreciated a situation where in Taliban would form a caretaker government of the Mullahs for the Mullahs by the Sharia. Is it a fear of failure or our deep belief that we are standing tall at a pedestal of being moral super power which must desist from meddling into other nation’s affairs even if they directly impact our national interest, or is the lack the moral authority to engage, to project, i.e., to lead in the sub-continent. Rather than question the policy options of India, I decided to evaluate the context of “strategic patience” against the backdrop of 21st century leadership along with the massive transformations and disruptions that we’re facing in a VUCA environment and operational space. It may actually be worth the while to adopt a policy of strategic patience.
5. Using the list of definitions as a starting point, it seems counter-intuitive to undertake this kind of approach to leadership these days when we’ve seen time and time again that organizations and countries which are slow to shift directions are repeatedly being disrupted or destroyed. Yet there are instances where “strategic patience” may be the best approach. I have tried to summarize a few in the succeeding paras.
6. Passive or Purposeful Inaction. During the first 90 days of a new leader’s tenure, the best approach may be to “listen” and do nothing as in passive or purposeful inaction. There are times when leaders must act decisively to address challenges. However, decisive action may not always mean swift action. Effective leaders study and reflect on what needs to be done, line up their resources, take nuanced actions, measure outcomes, adjust their approach, and move on to the next objective. Passive or purposeful inaction is about doing the right things right — at the right time. Listening is a leadership responsibility that does not appear in my present job description and to utter horror of my team and contrary to the spoken reputation, I have treaded lightly. Those who do listen to their team are in a much better position to lead the increasingly diverse and multi-generational team.
7. Wait and See. When immediate responses to problems are necessary, adopting a ‘wait and see’ posture can often spell disaster and especially in an organization which wants everything done ‘yesterday’. Today it only takes one negative tweet to bring a government to its knees or an individual’s cult status to naught through the clever use of trending hashtags. John Maxwell points out in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership — The Law of Timing (#19) that “when to lead is as important as what to do and where to go.”5 The question again goes back to Afghanistan are we waiting for too long or we are seeing more than what is actually there to see.
8. Slow and Steady. When performing intricate experiments, dynamic operations or complex transformations — ‘slow and steady’ may often be the best approach. The tortoise in the famous Aesop’s fable reached its destination through deliberate, thoughtful actions and won the race whereas the hare moved quickly, taking his speed and cunning for granted while making lots of mistakes along the way. Does the fable still ring true today? In general fast and reckless decision making is never a good approach. However, taking deliberate and thoughtful actions like the hare at fast speeds like the rabbit is an approach that many leaders won’t argue is a solid approach given today’s rapid shifts. The challenge is to determine the appropriate 21st century pace. It took decades for the telephone to reach 50% of households, beginning before 1900. Smart phones, on the other hand, accomplished a 40% penetration rate in just 10 years, if we time the first smart phone’s introduction from the 2002 shipment of the first Black Berry.6
9. When I began examining this topic I couldn’t fathom how “strategic patience” would ever be the best approach for leaders given the pace of change that we’re experiencing right now. The sentiment expressed by Professor Schwab certainly gives one pause when thinking about taking it slow and steady. However, wisdom prevails and patience still works in life. There are times when it’s best to move fast and there are times when it’s best to move slow and steady or not at all. Leaders have to pace themselves. From Rwanda to Cairo and to Kabul, the U.N. has displayed strategic patience and now stands at the precipice of irrelevance. I am just saying that India deserves better. The policy options for India with Afghanistan in grip of Taliban are as under:-
(a) Financial Incentive India should faithfully pursue a strategy of financial incentive, and should continue to urge an increasingly exasperated Russia and Iran to do the same to develop a counter balance to China’s deep purse.
(b) Leveraging Alliances Although we should continue to factor Russia and Iran’s strategic interests into our calculus and push them to pressure Taliban, which is overly dependent on the Chinese. Not only have our objectives been misaligned with China in the past, but the question also arises of how interested is China iin Afghanistan given its history as grave yard of empires. India should begin to lean more on our relationships with Itan, Middle East Kingdoms, Vietnam and the QUAD, and the capacity these countries to incentivize amenable behavior from cash strapped Taliban. Like so many variables in in this arena, it is important here, as well, to maintain a careful balance. This means taking Chinese interests into account more consistently.
© Political Subterfuge Political disruption can come in the form of assisting factions of Taliban who have’nt found favor in the new government structure. Political sabotage alone is not enough, but it will help to challenge an administration that depends on a high degree of structure and the obedience of his citizens to remain in power. Cyber- attacks and espionage, while not sufficient to disrupt the asymmetric threat, could help to sow distrust among Taliban’s elites.
10. If India applies the correct combination of levers simultaneously and consistently, they can create the right circumstances to open up room for dialogue. India should focus additionally on other players in the region, remembering to maintain a positive relationship with Iran, Russia and CAR States.
1https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/pv-narasimha-rao-was-a-master-tactician-a-fox-who-was-remarkably-decisive-jairam-ramesh/articleshow/48716892.cms?from=mdr accessed on 06 Sep 21.
5https://daveschoenbeck.com/john-maxwells-leadership-law-19-the-law-of-timing/ accessed on 07 Sep 21.
6https://hbr.org/2013/11/the-pace-of-technology-adoption-is-speeding-up accessed on 07 Sep 21.