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Ashraf Ghani: America’s New Subedar?

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 07, 2015

    Six months after assuming office, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has finally made his choice of selecting a strategic partner amid questions over what the future holds for Afghanistan given the continuing uncertainty. Following Ghani’s visit to Washington on 23 March 2015, at least the anxieties surrounding the post-drawdown situation seemed to have been put to rest. Ghani fervently pleaded for a slowdown of the withdrawal timeline suggesting that a delay "will pay off the investments over the last 14 years." His plea seemingly found ready acceptance. President Obama said it is “well worth it” and agreed to prolong the withdrawal timeline until 2017 despite an earlier pledge to cut the currently deployed 9,800 troops by half to 5,500 by the end of this year.

    President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah renewed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with the United States and secured more US commitments for stabilizing Afghanistan. This came a week after the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2210 (2015) on 16 March 2015, which presented a positive report card of achievements and expressed a “renewed hope” for a stable Afghanistan ahead.

    Quite possibly, the “Iraq lesson” and the consequences of prematurely leaving a fragile ally may have weighed in favour of the slowdown in the American withdrawal. In fact, the Taliban described NATO’s departure as an admission of defeat. The Afghan militia, in a sense of victory, launched the deadly spring offensive and showed no let-up in its fresh recruitment drive. This was underscored by the worst ever toll of 10,000 civilian casualties in 2014. Not surprisingly, many Western analysts anticipate a nightmare scenario with Afghanistan once again falling into a vicious cycle of chaos. The report of ISIS spreading its wings in Afghanistan was not good news either.

    Interestingly enough, Ashraf Ghani’s advocacy in Washington went beyond the need to sustain peace in Afghanistan. Of course, the best thing was his style of winning the hearts and minds of American lawmakers and think tanks by speaking in a language understood by them. The substance of his speeches and the words chosen for addressing the American strategic elite at the Pentagon, Camp David, Congress and elsewhere unmistakably smacked of a well-thought-out strategy for a long-drawn US presence in Afghanistan. The texts seemed well choreographed, for he also spoke like an American strategist clearly to boost the US agenda.

    Ghani’s speeches had a subtle message. Even as he expressed utmost gratitude for America’s efforts to bring stability back to Afghanistan – he cited American sacrifices and loss of life in this regard – he showed a keen desire to reciprocate the US gift in an equally strong manner. Ghani told the Americans "Tragedy brought us together, but interests now unite us."

    That interest had intriguingly featured in an op-ed column in The Washington Post on 20 March titled “The importance of the U.S.-Afghanistan alliance”, penned jointly by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The op-ed tried to define Afghanistan as a hub of opportunity rather than a problem; a potential strategic asset for America and its interests rather than a liability. The duo ingeniously evoked the very vital strategic location of Afghanistan in the ‘heart of Asia’, which they pointed out was both a curse and a blessing. The location curse, according to them, made Afghanistan a victim of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, meddling by regional actors who fuelled feuding factions thereafter, and followed by the Taliban’s destruction and making the country a safe-haven for al Qaeda terrorists. The write up reminded that it took over a decade for Afghanistan, the US and other nations to get rid of regional terror networks.

    As for blessing part of Afghanistan’s location, it can become “the eastern wall standing against the butchery of ISIL or the Islamic State”. The Afghan leaders pressed for a continued security partnership to ensure that “we will be an important ally in the decades to come” and “never again become a launching ground for terrorist attacks”.

    The commitment to combating terror apart, they invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and promised to ensure democracy, human rights, justice and peace. The Americans must be surely convinced that Ghani is the person they could work with. Ghani’s predecessor Hamid Karzai, who incidentally compared America to the Taliban, was perhaps too wobbly and perhaps too pro-Indian for the American liking.

    This is how America creates long term assets. Hosting Ghani for two decades had finally paid off. He proved his credentials as a pro-America Afghan and John Kerry correctly hedged his bets on Ghani to head the National Unity Government. Abdullah Abdullah too would be given a chance someday. All in all, the US finally has an entirely predictable regime in Kabul that can be employed as its subedar for the region even if that means dumping deceitful Pakistan.

    The duo pleaded their case before the US for supporting their “Self-Reliance” project of assuming full responsibility for combat operations and fixing Afghanistan’s economic and political mess. However, the op-ed piece made no mention about talks with the Taliban for which Ghani had keenly sought Pakistani, Saudi and Chinese support. Ghani, in fact, went an extra mile to mend fences with Rawalpindi, made several important overtures even at the cost of ignoring India and at the risk of disappointing sections of Afghans, especially the security establishment.

    Instead, Ghani, through the op-ed, asserted that Afghanistan has become immunized against ideologically based challenges after 36 years of conflict. He and Abdullah noted that “there will be setbacks…because we will negotiate peace from a position of strength...…we will not surrender the gains that we have made in education, health, democratic development, the media, civil society, and women’s rights.” And they added that if “properly supported, Afghanistan is uniquely positioned to block the spread of extremism.”

    This poses a rather perplexing question and gives no indication whether the negotiation process with the Taliban, nudged forward by Rawalpindi, is progressing. In fact, except for Pakistan, Qatar and Turkmenistan, no other country is really keen to facilitate talks with the Taliban. Further, the Taliban itself is in a state of disarray, with ranks in the group defecting to the ISIS. Or is it that Ghani has started doubting Pakistan’s sincerity in serving as an impartial mediator? It is obvious that the majority of Afghans continue to nurture lurking apprehensions about the duplicitous moves of Pakistan.

    The Ghani-Abdullah op-ed talks about Afghanistan’s plans for building trust and trade, joining free-trade arrangements, and engaging neighbours across Asia “from India to Azerbaijan and beyond.” However, it does not refer to cross-border trade prospects across the Durand Line. Instead, it highlights the new ecology of terror, and external enablers pushing terrorists from across the Pakistan border that “threatens to block not just our (Afghan) prosperity but yours (American) as well.”

    Ghani’s appeal for a rethink of US Afghanistan strategy comes at a time when the US is confronted with a host of issues in South and Central Asia. Afghanistan’s strategic utility would come against the backdrop of American’s yet-to-be-settled issues with Iran, heightening faceoff with Russia, recasting its Central Asia policy, challenges of dealing with nuclear-armed Pakistan, and monitoring the unfolding developments in Xinjiang. Afghanistan is also in proximity to Jammu & Kashmir. No wonder, after being relatively relieved from the war efforts in Afghanistan, Washington is now reportedly putting together an interagency policy paper to recast its Central Asia strategy. Washington has been repeatedly showing concern about the ripple effects of the Ukraine crisis in Central Asia. Russia’s renewed political and economic assertion in the region has been quite irksome, with the US recently cautioning Moscow not to “determine unilaterally the political and economic orientation of another country" probably in the context of Russia’s creation of the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and its possible designs on a Central Asian state. A shift in US policy would also seem inevitable given China’s aggressive push for its “Silk Route” project in Eurasia.

    The US also knows that ISIS has heavily recruited in Central Asia as more and more Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz have joined its ranks. China’s concerns in Xinjiang underscore the gravity of this threat.

    All in all, the Afghan President has extended an open invitation to the US for an open-ended military presence in his country. He has virtually expressed a readiness to play the role of a ‘frontline state’ for any future American contingency. Considering the unfolding geopolitical imperatives, it is an offer that the Americans cannot afford to ignore. It would be interesting to observe how Afghanistan and America develop their future strategic partnership. The current balance of advantage seems to indicate that the Americans may have hijacked some of the gains made by India. The new unfolding game on the Afghan front is critical for India to take note of.