The Afghan conundrum

Much at stake for India

Three vectors have appeared in the Afghan war. One, Afghan presidential elections exposed the simmering differences between President Hamid Karzai and Washington. Washington cast Karzai as the fall guy for the war’s failings and he began distancing himself from the US (which, in turn, enhanced his stature in the Afghan eyes).

The consequent impasse over Karzai’s election victory forms a crucial vector, and how it resolves will impact significantly on what lies ahead. The US paid lip service to ‘Afghanisation’ while keeping Karzai on tight leash or often bypassing him. By selectively branding Karzai’s allies as ‘warlords,’ the US robustly contested his coalition-building efforts involving established Afghan groups. Unfortunately, the US’ advocacy of a ‘national unity’ government also aims at harnessing Karzai.

A second vector is about the US’ grit to pursue the war against the backdrop of a split in the US (and European) domestic opinion. To be sure, there is urgent need to calibrate an effective military strategy to tackle the rapidly worsening ground situation in Afghanistan.
Much at stake

While there are few calls for a US pullout from Afghanistan, they are not to be taken seriously. Given the vital bearings of American military presence in Afghanistan on the overall US regional policies, a withdrawal from Afghanistan necessitates a major review of US global strategies and there is no sign of that happening.

Besides, al-Qaeda is still a diminished adversary. The US can summon sophisticated ‘over-the-horizon’ capabilities such drone aircraft or long-range missiles to attack the al-Qaeda or keep it under pressure. But experience shows that keeping al-Qaeda bottled up in a small geographical area requires local physical presence.

In short, the Barack Obama administration needs to walk a fine line to make US/NATO military presence politically sustainable. On the one hand, it needs to ensure that war casualties are kept low so that anti-war sentiments do not grow while on the other hand its military strategy does not bolster Taliban’s claim to represent resistance to foreign occupation.

From the US perspective, therefore, the way ahead lies in a swift ‘Afghanisation’ of the war, which would have two parallel tracks: rapid capacity build-up of Afghan state institutions, especially security and military agencies, while probing a political reconciliation with the Taliban groups who are not committed to al-Qaeda.

A third vector has also appeared in the recent period with regard to the role of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The European opinion is getting disenchanted with the war, while at the same time, the NATO’s first-ever ‘out-of-area’ operation cannot be allowed to fail.

Since nothing less than trans-Atlantic partnership is on the firing line, major European powers like Germany, France, Britain or Italy will not force the issue of a summary withdrawal by the alliance from Afghanistan. We may expect that some member countries may pull out and others may scale down their military role or operate under caveats or switch to new modes of participation, but in the ultimate analysis, they won’t confront or defy the US strategic resolve to keep the NATO presence in Afghanistan. The US leadership of NATO seldom if ever comes under challenge.

Given the contradictory tendencies, India needs to factor in various considerations. First and foremost, the NATO cannot win the war. This realisation has dawned on the western powers. The issue is how to achieve success by strengthening the Afghan government forces.

Against the above complex backdrop, India needs to carefully weigh the dynamics of any ‘Afghanisation’ process. The US approach of selectively co-opting the Taliban with the help of British, Saudi and Pakistani intelligence is certainly worrisome. Indian interests lie in supporting Karzai’s approach based on an intra-Afghan process of political reconciliation. For any settlement to be durable, it needs to be Afghan-driven. The traditional Afghan modes of reconciliation hold continued relevance.

Reconciliation process
The big question is, firstly, how India can advance Karzai’s idea of an intra-Afghan reconciliation process involving all Afghan groups, and, secondly, how India can help Karzai’s government establish control over the whole country. Of course, the bottom line is that it is only through encouraging ‘Afghan-ness’ the country can shake off foreign interference.

Two, ‘Afghanisation’ involves rehabilitation of most Taliban elements. India needs to come to terms with its past animus against the Taliban and to appreciate that what passes for Taliban today is far from a monolithic movement. India must work with other like-minded regional actors, which are equally concerned over the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region — Russia, Iran, China and the Central Asian states — for achieving a broad-based Afghan government.

Three, open-ended US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan complicates the geopolitics of the region. The Afghans also resent foreign occupation. There ought to be a vacation of foreign occupation as soon as ‘Afghanisation’ is achieved. India’s interests lie in a neutral Afghanistan. The present set of circumstances works to the advantage of Pakistan’s geopolitical positioning. The working of the US’ AfPak strategy affects Indian interests.

A summary US withdrawal is improbable. But it needs to be factored in that Pakistan’s ISI will most certainly attempt a takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban if the US/NATO were to ‘cut and run.’ According to the respected British think tank The International Council on Security and Development, 80 per cent of Afghanistan now has a permanent Taliban presence and 97 per cent of the country has ‘substantial Taliban activity.’

Unsurprisingly, the ISI pins hopes on hardcore Taliban as strategic assets for projecting power into Afghanistan. The US overlooks the contradiction in its heavy dependence on Pakistani cooperation, while at the same time harping on the ‘Afghanisation’ of the fight against terrorism.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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