During ancient and medieval times, Afghanistan was a part of India. Mauryan emperors ruled over Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, ceded to them by Alexander’s general and successor, Selucus. Prior to Alexander the Great, Hindu kings were ruling in Afghanistan. The Hindu Shahi dynasty ruled over Kabul for three centuries, till it was wiped out by Mahmud Ghazni, at the beginning of the second millennium. In the medieval period, Afghanistan was part of the Mughal Empire. Whenever the Indian Empire was weak, it was wrested by neighbouring Persian Empire. It was only in the modern period that Afghanistan acquired the reputation of being unconquerable and ungovernable. It became the graveyard of super powers—the British in the nineteenth century, the Soviets in the twentieth century and now the United States, desperately working on a face-saving exit strategy.
GEOSTRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF AFGHANISTAN
Afghanistan connects south Asia, central Asia and west Asia, or the Middle East as the Western powers call it. Afghanistan has land borders with Pakistan (south Asia), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (central Asia), Iran (the Middle East) and China. Central Asia and the Middle East have rich oil resources, and Afghanistan acts as a bridge to link the entire region. Afghanistan also possesses rich mineral resources. There are large deposits of lithium. It has always been a trade transit country.
AFTER 11 SEPTEMBER 2001
For more than three decades, a warlike situation has prevailed in Afghanistan, with death and destruction all around. After the 9/11 incident, the United States launched an offensive in Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom was a big success. Initially, Pakistan was forced by the United States to join the war against terror. Afghanistan was liberated from Taliban misrule. Thousands of Taliban and Pakistan army personnel in civilian clothes were encircled in Konduz. The United States permitted Pakistan to organise massive airlifts for them to Pakistan. Later, they became hard-core and began operating against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan. The United States’ generous aid of billions of dollars to Pakistan is being used to fund the Taliban and build Pakistan’s military strength for operations against India. The Taliban is out to kill U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan is playing a double game, attacking terrorist outfits that affect its security and, at the same time, supporting the Taliban covertly in its havens in Pakistan.
DIFFERENT INTERESTS OF
NEIGHBOURING POWERS IN AFGHANISTAN
· Use the Afghanistan territory for “strategic depth” for operations against India. Ensure a weak government in Kabul, willing to accept such an arrangement, which will also keep Indian influence in check.
· Keep the issue of Pashunistan and Durand Line on the backburner by installing a weak Afghan government dependent on Pakistan for support. Pakistan hopes to retain some leverage via Afghan Taliban factions not only for future Afghan outcomes but also for ensuring that Pakistan’s 27 million Pashtuns do not create a blowback for the Pakistani state. It is Pakistan’s Pashtun problem that is the principal driver for its “strategic depth” policies, which are legitimised by the India threat.
· Draw political, military and financial benefits from the United States and prolong the conflict scenario in Afghanistan for as long as it can.
· Use the Afghanistan corridor to central Asia and west Asia for the flow of oil on beneficial terms.
· Enjoy free flow of Afghan river waters by keeping Afghanistan weak, incapable of investing in economic development, and creating proper irrigation infrastructure.
The presence of U.S. troops close to central Asian countries and Caucasus, the area of her influence, is causing concern to Russia. The two seem to be competing for influence. Russia is also worried about increasing terrorist activities and narco trade and their adverse effects. The central Asian countries have used the presence of the U.S. and Western powers close to their borders to get better deals from Russia.
Iran wants both the United States and Taliban to remain in conflict and involved in Afghanistan. Iran is covertly fuelling the conflict by helping the Taliban, primarily because Tehran sees the Taliban in Kabul as a lesser threat than Karzai collaborating with the United States.
It encourages Pakistan to prolong conflict in Afghanistan. Such a scenario will help in keeping al-Qaeda and other Arab jihadi groups opposing the Saudi government busy and involved away from its borders.
India has committed generous funds to help Afghanistan in reconstruction and improving infrastructure. India and the United States have got closer, and both countries have worked out broad and dependable strategic partnership with Afghanistan. Pakistan felt threatened by this development. Pakistan is also apprehensive of India’s consulates in four major cities in Afghanistan and regarding the reconstruction projects. India’s enduring permanent interests in Afghanistan are as under:
China is keen to exploit rich mineral resources in Afghanistan to advantage for use in her industries as raw material that is cheap. China is also apprehensive of the Uighur movement and the narco trade in close vicinity.
There are many fish in the murky waters of Afghanistan. The situation is complex due to conflicting interests of different nations in the Afghan issue and its resolution. It has created a crisis situation.
DRAWDOWN OF U.S. AND NATO FORCES
The presidential elections in the United States are scheduled to be held in November 2012. President Obama is seeking a second term in office. He has announced the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan by the year 2014, commencing from July 2011. Thinning out has already commenced. As the final dates of drawdown in 2014 get closer, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) appears increasingly anxious to leave with as few casualties as possible. The United States also wants an honourable exit to save face. The United States is likely to retain a few military bases in Afghanistan after the troops pull out to safeguard its strategic interests. It may rely more on its superior air power, intelligence, surveillance and high technology assets to interdict from great distances. Some Special Forces may also remain.
The Taliban is scenting victory and is quite content to bide its time with occasional high-profile targeted attacks, like the Rabbani assassination or the attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, designed to remind the world about its presence.
ELIMINATION OF OSAMA BIN LADEN
The brilliant Abbottabad raid in Pakistan by U.S. commandos, eliminating Osama bin Laden, fully exposed Pakistan’s duplicity. The tensions and frustrations that have boiled over in U.S.-Pakistan relations are the logical culmination of the policy of hunting with the hounds while running with the hare.
OBJECTIVE IN AFGHANISTAN
Since the 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon, Afghanistan is officially in transition. The idea of transition is that from 2014, Afghans will be fully leading what has been a heavily internationalised effort against Taliban, al-Qaeda and their regional allies since 2001—the objective, “an Afghanistan that stands on its own feet, but not alone.”
An international, conference on the future of Afghanistan was held in the second week of December 2011 in Germany. President Hamid Karzai asked for the continuation of political, military and economic support to Kabul for the next 10 years, which has been promised. According to estimates, Afghanistan would require a minimum of US$10 billion annually during the next decade. The international community, in return, has asked for certain promises as under:
Time alone will tell as to what extent promises are kept by both sides and how things take shape.
A PLATFORM FOR SUCCESS
LAUNCH PAD FOR THE MOVE FORWARD
During the last decade, Afghanistan has experienced unprecedented development in institutional, human and infrastructural sectors. These can be used as a launch pad for a positive move forward.
It was established and ratified in 2004. Afghanistan is a country of diverse groups—ethnic, religious and geographic. There was the historic challenge of negotiating a working internal framework for all the diverse groups. The constitution in vogue allows diversities in Afghanistan to blossom while extending protection, recognition and equal rights to all. It allows free markets and freedom of expression. It can be consolidated, refined and perfected over time, but the initial major hurdle is over.
INFRASTRUCTURE FOR GOVERNANCE
Prior to 2001, government presence was ill-configured for service delivery and constrained by a lack of resources. The infrastructure for delivery of services and governance has been improved considerably. This development is particularly noticeable in secure areas of the country. More administrative buildings, schools and clinics have also been constructed. More miles of roads have been paved in Afghanistan during the last decade. India has contributed generously toward infrastructure development.
CELL PHONES AND TV
In Afghanistan, over 12 million cell phones connect people. Prior to 2001, Afghanistan had only Radio Voice of Sharia. Today, there are more than 30 private TV channels and numerous radio channels.
Each year, over 4 million boys and girls go to schools. Prior to 2001, not even a million went to schools. Even within the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), literacy is being promoted.
An increasingly vibrant private sector has taken roots. International development and military presence have stimulated the sector. More and more production and service sector enterprises—small, medium and large—are emerging. Wealth is being created. People are taking risks, investing and creating jobs.
Effective relief, reconstruction and development work can help convince people to support the government against insurgency. Knowing this, insurgents have been targeting such works, threatening both those who perform it and those who benefit from the same. This highlights the fact that the people of Afghanistan are important and their well-being and security require to be focused on and given top priority in order to gain their trust and support.
To meet the security challenges, both external and internal, the development of ANSF, consisting of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), is important. It has been estimated that for meeting internal security threat, the strength of ANA should be 240,000 and that of the ANP 160,000, pegging the combined strength of security forces at 400,000 by the year 2014. ANA has already been expanded to more than 100,000. ANA units are being increasingly employed to fight the militants with the international force in support. Eventually, it is hoped that ANA would be capable of operating on its own, allowing the international force to pull out.
To counter insurgency, foot soldiers are required in large numbers. Afghanistan has been fighting war for more than three decades. The society is war-weary. Large-scale desertions are prevalent in ANA. Due to a lack of adequate educational facilities in the country, educational qualification of recruits at intake is low. Training facilities are also inadequate. These inadequacies act as constraints against the speedy development of a professional army.
For meeting external threats, modern military weapons and equipment such as artillery guns, missiles, armed helicopters, drones and air support are required. Due to financial constraints, lack of technological base and lack of proper education, ANA is not being given such support capabilities. This is bound to be a major constraint in employing ANA to fight external military threat in the event of hostilities.
There was much talk of good and bad Taliban. The United States tried to strike a deal with the good Taliban before quitting Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role was crucial in this. Several rounds of talks were held, with no result. Even President Karzai and facilitators, like Saudi Arabia, tried to broker talks, with little tangible progress. The question is, why will the Taliban come for talks when it smells victory and is not under any pressure?
There has been no serious effort to get the regional powers together to cooperate and solve the Afghanistan issue. Due to competing interests of regional powers, the task is difficult. A West-oriented group in Afghanistan may not be acceptable to Russia in view of its known opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion. While Russia has agreed to provide transit facilities for NATO supplies to Afghanistan, it would not accept any decrease in its influence over former USSR’s strategic space. Iran has on-going standoff with the United States and the West over its nuclear programme. It would not be prudent to expect much cooperation from it. Pakistan continues to play a double game. China has its own views about central Asia and Afghanistan. Under the circumstances, it may not be possible to expect any spectacular results.
A small beginning can perhaps be made by encouraging regional trade through Afghanistan. In the past, Afghanistan has acted as a bridge between Europe and central and south Asia. The United States ought to take lead in shaping a common vision to unify central and southern Asia with a stable Afghanistan as its fulcrum. Infrastructure can be created to connect central Asia through Afghanistan to the Indian Subcontinent and beyond, to Southeast Asia. Resuscitating old trade links amongst these regions has the potential of bringing prosperity to the countries along the way and also act as a good financial inducement for Pakistan to join greater regional cooperation for constructive purposes. The United States, Russia, China and India should take the lead and try and reach for more substantial regional cooperation.
STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP TREATIES
Afghanistan has a strategic partnership treaty with the United States. On 4 October 2011, Afghanistan also signed a strategic partnership treaty with India in New Delhi. NATO might disapprove of it. There is violent opposition from Pakistan as well. The United States must have directly or indirectly facilitated it, without which this would not have been feasible.
For the first time, India and Afghanistan have moved out of the realm of “soft power” and entered hard power space of mutual security. India is to train Afghan security forces in counterterrorism, which has expanded into conventional operations as well. This area was earlier given to NATO.
NATO troops have always been reluctant warriors in Afghanistan, operating under individual national approvals regarding location and choice of mission. Spain succumbed to pressure and pulled out its forces. The UK has decided that it has done its bit and that it is advisable to terminate its fruitless involvement in a frustrating war, with no tangible benefits and only casualties. As the final dates of the drawdown in 2014 get closer, NATO appears anxious to leave with as few casualties as possible. The Taliban is scenting victory and is quite content to bide time.
ANALYSIS OF EVOLVING SCENARIOS IN AFGHANISTAN
According to the plan, as U.S. and other foreign forces are reduced, Afghan security forces are to be inducted to replace them. For effective training of newly recruited Afghan security forces, it is essential that there be mutual understanding and sympathy between the trainers from abroad and freshly inducted forces. The incidents being witnessed tend to erode the sense of shared purpose. The goal is becoming that much harder to attain.
Quiet attempts to talk to Taliban belonging to some of the more amenable opponents of the Karzai government have been going on. The initiative was taken by President Karzai. There were one or two false starts and imposters got exposed. However, talks have since broken down, with a Taliban announcement that they are breaking contact. The Taliban believes that the tide is in its favour. It seems to be preparing for what might happen after U.S. troop withdrawal and how to dominate the entire country at that stage.
India must clearly understand all aspects and dimensions of the situation it seeks to enter into. The aim must be to deny Pakistan the strategic space of an Afghanistan controlled by a power structure hostile to India. There are too many unknowns in Afghanistan, including the long-term prospects of the Karzai government itself. India should undertake an exercise as to how much of its presence and influence in Afghanistan would be sustainable in the event of a weakening U.S. position and how to sustain it. We should not extend and expand our direct and open presence and influence beyond realistic limits. A greater injection of realism into our Afghan policy is called for.
The situation in Kabul is posing increasing concerns. The steady weakening of the security situation a few months before the U.S. presidential elections is reminiscent of the 1974 weakening of the security situation in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, which led to Saigon’s capture by the Vietcong and the hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1975. Let us hope history does not repeat itself in Kabul. The situation is quite bleak.
India should carefully strategize its engagement with Afghanistan. Deliberate decisions are called for.