Ten years of the U.S.-led NATO and International Security Forces (ISAF) having elapsed in strife-torn Afghanistan, the world’s most powerful nation is today unmistakably battle fatigued and financially more than weary. With the U.S. presidential elections scheduled for the end of this year, the United States is, electorally speaking, more than eager for a face-saving exit, notwithstanding any resounding success to talk about before finally departing from the rugged landscape of Afghanistan in 2014.
Its mission to stabilise fratricidal conflict–afflicted Afghanistan after 9/11 and cleanse it of both the world’s premier terror conglomerates, al-Qaeda and the extremist Taliban, to establish a stable regime in Kabul has met with no more than partial success. The only success was in 2001, when the U.S.-led international forces had militarily ousted the Taliban regime from Kabul and installed its favourite, Hamid Karzai, a Popalzai tribal Pashtun, as the president. Expending over 500 billion dollars, with nearly 2,900 fatalities among the fighting men from the coalition forces and nearly 30,000 Afghan casualties, excluding approximately 40,000 fatalities among the insurgents, the overall security situation in this hapless country is far from what was originally intended when the U.S. moved into Afghanistan to conduct Operation Enduring Freedom. With President Barack Obama having announced in mid-2009, a trifle prematurely, a plan to exit from Afghanistan by 2014, the political and security situation in the volatile land of Hindu Kush is far from stable. Consequently, Afghanistan’s all-pervading insecurity, now and likely too in the foreseeable future, threatens not only itself but the entire region, including India. By any standards, Afghanistan, thus, is a strategic imperative for all stakeholders in the region in ensuring its security equilibrium and political stability.
The overall security situation in Afghanistan currently displays an unmistakable resurgence of the Taliban and the writ of President Karzai’s government not extending substantially beyond the capital, Kabul. The Taliban persists successfully with its surprise attacks against high-value targets even inside fortified Kabul and in the last year has carried out high-profile assassinations of many senior government functionaries, including that of erstwhile president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the governor of Kandahar, and even Karzai’s own brother, among many others. The International Crisis Group in mid-2011 opined that the Taliban had expanded its operational capabilities far beyond its strongholds in the south and the southwest, to central-eastern provinces. It further pointed out that “insurgent leaders have achieved momentum—by employing a strategy that combined the installation of shadow government, intimidation and co-opting of the government officials.” This problem is further compounded by the fact that several politicians and government officials are both corrupt and under the Taliban’s influence. Some of these Taliban leaders also get their instructions from Pakistan’s infamous ISI. By now, Talibani shadow governors reportedly exert significant influence in all but one of Afghanistan’s 35 provinces! The White House, in September 2011, had also presented to U.S. Congress a report suggesting deteriorating trends in the security situation in Afghanistan.
It is pertinent to note that though the Taliban is not a formally structured monolith terror organisation, all factions and foot soldiers of the Taliban owe allegiance to terror chieftain Mullah Omar. The Quetta Shura, which is the apex controlling body of the terror conglomerate on both sides of the contentious Durand Line, has now also included the “neo-Taliban,” which is directly linked to and funded by the ISI. The Quetta Shura, since some time, has been endeavouring to synergise the terror activities of various terror groups and subgroups in Afghanistan, much to the ISI’s approval. However, another robust terror group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), remains anti-Pakistan army/ISI and continues to follow its own agenda against the Pakistani state. By U.S. intelligence estimates, only around 100 hard-core al-Qaeda fighters are left in Afghanistan, with 500 on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line ensconced in safe havens, which also serve as sanctuaries for terrorists of all hues nurtured by the ISI.
Drug cultivation and a booming drugs trade continue unabated, especially in the southern provinces in Afghanistan and, as before, are funding and fuelling terror-driven activities in Afghanistan. However, now, in a change of strategy, the U.S. forces have commenced targeting the 50 or so drug lords directly. Nevertheless, Afghanistan continues to have the largest concentration of illicit drugs cultivation spread over 10,000 hectares, especially in its southern provinces.
Despite an alarming security environment currently prevalent in Afghanistan, in some indices of human development, Afghanistan has displayed welcome signs of improvement. President Karzai, speaking in October 2011 to the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, had expressed that in the education arena, there has been a tremendous surge in recent years in the number of students both in the schools and universities, including the number of girls attending school in Afghanistan. He optimistically observed that “in 2002, . . . had an income per capita of 150 dollars, today we stand at 600 dollars; where we had a GDP of 3 billion dollars, today we stand close to 18 billion dollars . . . where we had a foreign reserve of a mere 180 to 200 million dollars, we nearly stand with 6 billion dollars.” He enthusiastically mentioned the advancements Afghanistan has made in the fields of mother and child mortality rates and in combating polio and malaria in his country. President Karzai finally lamented that “where Afghanistan has not succeeded is to bring security to its people.” He chided the international community, NATO and the U.S. for having failed in bringing peace and stability to the country.
U.S. EXIT STRATEGY AND DRAWDOWN SCHEDULE
It is amazing how the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is in sync with U.S. president Barack Obama’s electoral campaigns, first in 2007–2008, during his first shot at the presidency, and now for his re-election for the White House, due at the end of the year. Electoral strategies may not make for sound military strategies, but the latter, exclusively conceived for electoral reasons, certainly will be found lacking in military accomplishments! The United States, still not having recovered from the acute 2008 financial setbacks to its economy, would be loath to continue bearing the staggering costs of sustaining Operation Enduring Freedom, and thus a face-saving exit for the United States was always on the cards. The United States’ costly and strategically ill-advised misadventure in Iraq also remain factors egging the United States not to perpetuate its stay with no great success in Afghanistan visible on the horizon. Nevertheless, goalposts have kept changing, and to some analysts, the United States has appeared rather inconsistent with its strategy for Afghanistan.
The United States had, after a surge of 30,000 troops last year, reached a force level of 110,000 troops, with the other nation constituents of the NATO and ISAF. As per schedules worked out, the United States had withdrawn 10,000 troops last year and, this year, proposes to draw down another 22,000 troops. The overall foreign military footprint in 2012 will see a reduction of around 40,000 troops in all, including those of the United States. By 2014, only 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, and as they depart, there will likely be a surge in U.S. Special Forces to assist the Afghan army in keeping up with offensive operations against the insurgents. However, displaying the perceived confusion among the U.S. hierarchy regarding its exit strategy, U.S. defence secretary Leo Panetta further surprised all on 1 February 2012 by announcing that American forces would step back from their combat roles as early as in 2013—more than a year earlier than their troops are staying. All such statements reveal the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to close the two arduous ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration. That electoral gains are expected by the end of this year owing to such decisions, militarily unwise though, is no coincidence!
PAKISTAN’S PERSISTENT KABUL OBSESSIONS
At the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom, in October 2001, the United States had declared Pakistan to be its frontline ally in the war on terror. Consequently, the United States rewarded Pakistan with generous doles of financial aid and military largesse—modern military equipment for ostensibly combating the insurgents—which Pakistan conveniently diverted for the purchase of equipment for future conventional conflicts against India. All these years, as is accepted universally, Pakistan has been playing a two-faced game with the United States, running with the US hares and hunting with the Talibani hounds. Nevertheless, the successful elimination by U.S. Navy Seals of terror chieftain Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, in an operation independent of the crafty Pakistanis, has greatly ruptured the U.S.-Pak relationship and the United States, for a change, has adopted a realistic stand towards its duplicitous protégé. Public opinion in the United States, especially in an election year, will not allow the U.S. military to pardon “carte blanche” persistent transgressions of the Pakistanis vis-à-vis American interests in Af-Pak.
Afghanistan has been the victim of many “great games” in its turbulent history and, even today, suffers from the same malaise. Its Islamic “brother” Pakistan contributes much to its problems by propping up anti-West and anti-Karzai groups like the Afghani Taliban, al-Qaeda elements, the Haqqani network and warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to ensure that any future Kabul regime remains Islamabad pliant. It remains hopeful that in the eventual departure of the United States from Afghanistan, it will move into the strategic space vacated by the United States. Pakistan continues with its myopic and outdated policy of seeking “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India to protect its western flank and thus is always out seeking opportunities to limit India’s even development-oriented role in Afghanistan. Entirely in tune with its Machiavellian nature, Pakistan suggested to Afghanistan to dump the United States and, instead, look for a long-term strategic partnership with Pakistan and its ally China. In Kabul last year, Pakistan prime minister Yousuf Reza Gilani had conveyed this to President Karzai, stating that since the Americans had failed them both, Afghanistan must not allow a long-term presence in Afghanistan! President Karzai subsequently denied any such suggestion coming from Pakistan and added that “even if they did, the Afghan government would never accept it.”
The ISAF, for its logistical sustenance, is heavily dependent on the two overland routes from the Pakistani port of Karachi to Afghanistan—first via Chaman to Kandhar and the second one across the Khyber Pass. Though the United States belatedly has commenced despatching nearly 40 per cent of its logistical requirements through the Northern Network Distribution via Russia and central Asia at an exorbitant expense, the criticality of the overland Pakistani routes for U.S. forces is rather significant, though, currently, Pakistan has suspended U.S. cargo movement on it. In case he survives the current power struggle in his country, it is expected that President Zardari may be able to reopen the Pakistani overland routes to Afghanistan, contrary to the views of his recalcitrant army.
Pakistan is currently undergoing intense internal turmoil following the “memogate” controversy, the anticorruption struggles between the Zardari government and a hyperactive Pak judiciary on opposite sides and with the Pak military weighing its future options; yet Pakistan persists in its age-old Kabul obsessions. Nevertheless, most international analysts opine that the sheer geopolitical compulsions of Af-Pak suggest that Pakistan must be encouraged to become a part of the solution for Afghanistan and not remain, as now, a part of the problem. However, this is only possible if Pakistan sheds its old animosity towards Indian presence in Afghanistan even for developmental activities and, importantly, rids itself of an almost fatal obsession for an Islamabad-loyalist regime installed in Kabul. Many analysts also opine that Pakistan is discreetly working for an Islamic caliphate in the region, comprising a Taliban-led Kabul dispensation supported by its own varied terror groups in Pakistan under the tutelage of the Pakistani army—an ominous development that needs to be more than carefully monitored by all in South Asia.
U.S. PARLEYS WITH TALIBAN
Pursuit of national interests makes for strange and changing bedfellows. The United States, having not been able to achieve any substantial gains militarily or in strengthening either President Karzai’s hands or establishing a viable self-reliant Afghan National Army, perhaps, has rationalised the ultimate outcome once it departs from Afghanistan. As felt by most, on the departure of the Americans, Karzai will be able to survive the Taliban onslaught only if a strong U.S. military presence continues in Afghanistan. Thus, in a change of strategy, they are willing to negotiate with the same people they have been fighting with since 2001. There is a growing feeling in the United States that the moderate Taliban elements are exclusively focused on their own country and not the United States and, thus, pose no danger to the American homeland.
With Saudi assistance, a Taliban liaison office has been opened in Qatar, where negotiations with the Taliban are already underway between Taliban representatives and the United States. The former are also in touch with other stakeholders in the region, and the Pakistanis have been rather proactive in spearheading negotiations with the Taliban to also display their indispensability in any future political outcomes for Afghanistan.
STAKES OF OTHER REGIONAL POWERS
Other than India and Pakistan, the other important regional powers that have major stakes in the stability of Afghanistan are Russia, China, Iran and the central Asian states. Though current Russia-U.S. relations may not be very warm owing to differences regarding regime changes in Iran and Syria, in Af-Pak, there will be no wide differences between these two formidable nations. The Russians have aided U.S. logistical supplies through the Northern Distribution Network, and Russia would want no more than a stable regime in Kabul that promotes trade activities with it and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and does not train Islamic terrorists for creating ferment in its peripheral regions or support the Chechens.
China, since the past few years, has displayed a major interest in the mineral-rich regions of Afghanistan and, as its wont, carefully orchestrated its long-term strategy for the Hindu Kush. Though it has maintained friendly relations with the Karzai regime, it will likely, also with Pak prodding, cultivate close relations with any Taliban regime in the future. Importantly, apart from its stake in Afghanistan’s minerals, China would not want any of its own Islamic Uighur terrorists from its restive Xingjiang province being trained by the various militant groups in Afghanistan, which reportedly has taken place along the many terror sanctuaries astride the Durand Line. It has been also reported that Chinese intelligence agencies have been in touch with the Taliban as also Chinese specialists have been training Taliban fighters in the use of infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles—the Pak connection is always more than evident in such activities.
Iran’s relations with Afghanistan have shown a distinct improvement, with growing trade relations now touching a $2 billion turnover. Iran is primarily concerned about the large Shia population in Afghanistan and, in the earlier years, had supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Iran will like to see the Karzai regime remaining in power, and not any unknown Sunni Wahhabi dispensation. The CARs, though energy rich, know that their economic resurgence is possible only with a stable Afghanistan that offers them adequate connectivity outside their region to the Arabian Sea via Iran or Pakistan. In addition, their ethnic commonalities with Afghanistan’s northern populace propel them to maintain friendly relations with a Karzai-like dispensation in Kabul more than with a Pashtun-led Taliban.
INDIA’S ROLE AND OPTIONS
India has a major stake in the stability of Afghanistan. India has age-old civilisational links with Afghanistan and, in recent times, cordial relations with all governments in Kabul except the Taliban. Since the last 10–12 years, India has been a major contributor in Afghanistan’s development story, with 2.5 billion dollars in aid so far. Among its notable projects have been the construction of the strategic 215 km long road Zaranj-Delaram in southwest Afghanistan that connects Kabul along the Garland Highway to Iran and is a gateway for trade from the Iranian port of Chabahar to the CARs. In addition, India has constructed the Pul-e-Khumri-to-Kabul transmission line, an electricity substation at Chimtala, and the Afghanistan Parliament, besides many other schools, and has provided assistance in telecommunication and agricultural projects. Besides training the Afghan army and police personnel on a regular basis, India has given thousands of scholarships to Afghan students in universities in India. That all these humanitarian activities and Indian personnel, including its medical teams, apart from two ferocious attacks on India’s Kabul embassy, have been regularly targeted by the ISI/Taliban terrorists is part of Pakistan’s discomfort with anything Indian in Afghanistan.
On 4 October 2011, in New Delhi, India and Afghanistan signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which creates an institutional mechanism for multifaceted cooperation, including in security matters, between the two countries. The signing of this agreement in the current state of flux in the security situation in Afghanistan is crucial to both countries, though President Karzai has been at pains to emphasise that this agreement is not directed against any other country or entity. With the United States having firmed in its departure plans by 2014, this agreement will come into its own for India to support the Karzai administration as the United States folds up its commitments. An emerging India seeking its rightful place on the “global high table” will have to display pragmatism in its foreign policy formulations and military prudence as it shapes up its Afghan strategy for the foreseeable future.
Overall, India must continue with its developmental and humanitarian activities in Afghanistan spread over various regions. That it may have to ensure the security and safety of its personnel working in Afghanistan, India may consider beefing up its police detachments deployed there with additional Indian subunits and local Afghan security personnel. Secondly, India must avoid being sucked into deploying regular army or air force units in Afghanistan but concentrate on capacity building of the Afghan security services. However, apart from supplying nonlethal equipment like B vehicles, helicopters, uniforms, radio sets, surveillance equipment and mine clearing and bomb disposal equipment, India can also consider donating some lethal equipment like T-55 and T-72 tanks, BMP infantry combat vehicles, 105 mm artillery guns, heavy machine guns, mortars and small arms. Nevertheless, training both the Afghan army and the Afghan police in greater numbers should be given adequate emphasis. In addition and importantly, India must take the lead in requesting the UN to have a multination force to be deployed in Afghanistan prior to U.S. departure, which can include troops from some neutral Muslim countries. India will also have to engage, with President Karzai’s consent, with some other Pashtun leaders whilst it re-establishes its contacts with the erstwhile Northern Alliance and the tribes in northern Afghanistan.
The stakes are very high for the Afghan people as they look into an uncertain future compounded by the impending withdrawal of weak-willed U.S.-led forces, a not-so-secure government in Kabul, Taliban resurgence and the ever-prevalent Pakistani machinations. The world community and, in particular, all regional stakeholders for Afghanistan must endeavour with their genius and resources to establish a multiplural, multiethnic society in this long-suffering land. The United Nations cannot forsake Afghanistan because it is imperative for the world community and all peace-loving nations in Asia to ensure that the world’s first and concerted global war on terror be taken to its successful conclusion. The UN, thus, must step in to stabilise Afghanistan and take on the responsibility from where the U.S. leaves. India, as the leading regional power, will have a major responsibility to shoulder in the years ahead to bring a modicum of peace and stability to a nation that is of critical strategic significance to the entire region, primarily to defeat the dark forces of terror, instability and extremism.