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Afghanistan: India should keep a low profile for the present

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 18, 2010

    The Afghanistan situation is moving rapidly. For the Americans and NATO the end game is beginning as the present chapter heads towards a climax. For Pakistan, Afghanistan and for the region a new chapter seems to be beginning. However, to predict the unfolding situation with any degree of accuracy will be hazardous.

    Several important developments have taken place in the past few weeks which seem to reveal some of the complexity of the situation. President Karzai has set up a high peace council to conduct talks with the Taliban. This is the culmination of the Western strategy of the last few years to engage with the so called ‘good’ Taliban. President Karzai has publicly claimed that he himself and his representatives have met some important Taliban leaders. Ex-Mujahideen commander Rabbani, a Tajik, is heading the peace council. The Americans confirm that contacts with senior Taliban leaders have been made.

    The conditions laid down by Karzai to the Taliban for reconciliation are: laying down of arms, conduct of talks within the framework of the Afghan Constitution, and severing links with the Al Qaeda. These are sensible conditions. It is, however, not clear which section of the Taliban will come forward for talks by accepting these stipulations. Judging by American statements, talking to Mullah Omar is ruled out as he is still seen as being close to the Al Qaeda. That leaves the Haqqani and Hikmetyar groups. Under the present condition only low level Taliban and warlords may come forward for reconciliation. Whether that will be sufficient for peace remains to be seen.

    The July 2011 deadline for the beginning of the drawdown of US troops has created a major confusion. No one seems to be clear what that drawdown will lead to. Bob Woodward’s latest book Obama’s Wars reveals that there are major differences within the Obama administration on how to handle the Afghan war. Civil and military officials are at odds with each other. The National Security Adviser has been changed. In view of these differences it is difficult to say how the Obama administration will act in the future. A US-Pakistan strategic dialogue on 22 October, the forthcoming NATO summit in November, and the outcome of negotiations being undertaken by the Afghan peace council will throw some light on which direction the Afghan situation will move – towards stability or more violence?

    Experts are also divided on what will be the US strategy. Many feel that this is the beginning of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The domestic situation – poor economic condition, political differences among the Democrats on the conduct of the Afghan war, dwindling public support for the war effort, rising casualties – is compelling Obama to look for an early exit. But, before that happens, a face saving formula will need to be worked out. Getting some Taliban into a power sharing deal is one such option. That is why the US supports, even sponsors, Karzai’s reconciliation efforts. Recent reports suggest that NATO has provided safe passage for Taliban commanders to facilitate negotiations with the Karzai government.

    The other stream of expert opinion dismisses any talk of significant US troop withdrawal. According to this analysis, the US has major strategic interests beyond Afghanistan and will seek to increase its influence in Central Asia. It cannot afford to abandon Afghanistan given the rising influence of China and Russia. It will retain a military presence in Afghanistan for a long time to come. The talk of US withdrawal is, therefore, premature.

    The reality perhaps lies between these two extremes. The exit may mean significant reductions in troop levels but continued non-combatant military presence in Afghanistan. The precise course the US will adopt will depend upon the military situation in the next few months.

    The bottom-line is that the US cannot continue to take significant losses in lives and dollars for an indefinite period. It has already spent over a trillion dollars in Afghanistan and sustained over 1300 casualties. The number of countries that can share the burden with it is also reducing. Even Britain has announced a withdrawal of its troops by 2015. The US will certainly like to soften the Taliban so that its own commitment to Afghanistan may reduce. This is reflected in the sharp rise in the ferocity of US military operations inside Afghanistan in the last few weeks. In the coming months the violence level in Afghanistan will rise. But, will it defeat the Taliban militarily? That seems unlikely.

    Perhaps the most important development of the last few months is the emergence of the Pakistan military as the key to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. Karzai’s reconciliation efforts and US military operations are simply too dependent upon Pakistan for success. The Pakistan army’s heft was starkly demonstrated when the Pakistanis ‘punished’ the US and NATO for the latter’s helicopter gunship attacks 200 meters inside Pakistani territory on 30th September in which a few Pakistani soldiers died. Pakistan responded by stopping for over a week nearly 6,500 NATO trucks carrying supplies to Afghanistan from its territory. The supplies have since been resumed, after the US and NATO tendered their apologies. But the episode has also demonstrated the underlying tensions in US-Pakistan relations.

    Pakistan is playing a double game in Afghanistan. It takes billions of dollars from the US in the name of helping the US fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Yet, it supports sections of the Taliban and provides them sanctuaries in its territory. It also vehemently opposes those Taliban who show an inclination to independently negotiate with the Karzai government.

    On 19-20 November 2010 NATO will be holding its summit where it will discuss its new strategic concept. Afghanistan will no doubt be discussed. NATO is hoping that beginning 2011 the Afghan army will lead the military missions in Afghanistan. The Afghan war is not popular in many NATO member countries that are providing troops for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

    The conclusions are obvious. The main drivers of the Afghan situation are the US, Pakistan and Taliban. The US is looking at a short term strategy, the key Taliban are waiting and watching with interest having rejected the latest peace offers, and Pakistan is sensing a great opportunity to influence developments in Afghanistan. the Karzai government is constrained by several factors and is unable to act decisively. Little else in Afghanistan matters at the present moment. There is no credible regional initiative on the table. Nor is there likely to be one.

    Regional peace and stability will be adversely affected if Pakistan is allowed to have a preponderant say in an Afghan settlement. The interests of other counties in Afghanistan’s stability cannot be ignored. They also have a stake in a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, who have suffered earlier at the hands of the Taliban, also have an interest in a settlement in which their concerns are also addressed. Pakistan is likely to push the interests of its proxies in a future Afghan settlement. This will destabilise the region. Moreover, Pakistan itself may get embroiled in Afghan affairs which could prove to be destabilising for itself.

    What are the options for India? India has genuine interests in a stable Afghanistan. It has chosen to be an important partner in reconstruction efforts having committed nearly $1.5 billion in economic assistance and reconstruction. But its political influence, thanks to the Pakistan-US equation in the country, has been minimal. It is likely to remain so in the near future considering that the US depends on Pakistan too much.

    But the Afghan situation is dynamic. India must stay engaged, keep a low profile and earn the goodwill of the Afghan people through its multifaceted assistance programme. Learning from the US and Soviet experiences, it must stay away from any costly misadventures, particularly in the security sector. India must take a long term view of the evolving situation and avoid any overstretching in the country. It should continue to explore the options for a regional solution even though at present these look difficult.

    India must engage with all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, particularly with the Pushtuns. India has generally been opposed to talking to the Taliban on the grounds that there is no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. But it must accept that the current trend is towards engagement and reconciliation. That will not be reversed. Therefore, India should watch the result of the current efforts of the High Peace Council and calibrate its policy accordingly. It needs to have patience. The Afghan situation will develop further and there will be surprises for all.