India's options in Afghanistan
02 February 2011, 02:14 PM IST
The Current Situation:
The security situation in Afghanistan is fast deteriorating, which is a cause for concern not only for the neighbouring countries but for all the countries in the world which are facing terrorism. This country along with Pakistan remains the epicenter of terrorism. Violent incidents have spiked over the last two years. In the first half of 2010, rose nearly by 70% over the first six months of 2009. This trend continues till now. In the year 2010, more than 700 foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan on an average of about two per day. The use of improvised bombs was up by 80% and the number of civilian casualtieS increased by third. In fact the year 2010 proved to be the deadliest year.
A number of aid organizations in Afghanistan are challenging the Obama Administration’s recent claim that insurgents now control less territory than last year. Nie Lee Director of the Afghanistan’s Safety Office recently stated that “the situation (in Afghanistan) is a lot more insecure this year than last year.”He further stated that “there are fewer places where we have complete unimpeded access”. Security experts say that “Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan’s 35 provinces”. Kandahar which was taken by NATO forces is witnessing violent incidents every thirD day. US and NATO intelligence assessment is that the Quetta Shura of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Haqqani network and the Hykmatyar clan are fighting together. The Al Qaeda leaders too provide assistance. These outfits work as a syndicate, sharing new recruits, coordinating propaganda and granting one another safe passage through areas under their control.
The Pakistani Army and ISI continue to support Taliban. The US National Intelligence Estimate offered a negative assessment in December 2010. It clearly assessed that Pakistan’s unwillingness to shut down militant sanctuaries remains a serious obstacle. Late Special Envoy of US to Afghanistan and Pakistan Holbrooke highlighted the links between the ISI and Taliban in an interview to CNN-IBN on July 22, 2010. He remarked that the LeT, Al Qaeda and Taliban as also ISI are all working closer together than ever before.
There is no dearth of funds with the Taliban as different channels continue to pour money to them. The opium trade provides substantial funds. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crimes, the Taliban could be getting $160 mn per year from this source alone. In addition, charitable organizations from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic States could be providing $200 mn every year. In these two activities, the involvement of ISI is well documented. Besides, the US intelligence agencies estimate that the Afghan security firms have been extorting as much as $ 4 mn a week from contractors paid tax dollars and then funneling the spoils to warlords and Taliban.
For India the situation is becoming alarming with bold attacks taking place on Indians and on Indian interests frequently. Of late, Indian consulates and Indian Embassy in Kabul are receiving threats almost daily. This is undoubtedly happening at the behest of ISI, which is focused on removing the Indian presence in Afghanistan. The intelligence reports suggest that plans of attacks on Indian interests are being worked out in the presence and guidance of ISI officials.
Objectives of the Main Players:
The current situation in Afghanistan is becoming more and more complex because of conflicting objectives of the main players. These are:
The Karzai regime - There has been a shift in Karzai regime’s objectives of late. While earlier it had been opposing talks with Taliban, now it is going ahead with talks with Taliban elements. Significantly, there has been a shift on the issue of involvement of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the assurance given to the Indian Foreign Minister during his recent visit to Kabul that Pakistan would not be involved in talks with Taliban, the recently formed joint commission (27th January,2011) involving intelligence officials, diplomats and others of Pakistan and Afghanistan to deal with militants suggests that Karzai is now prepared to associate Pakistan to deal with Taliban. This is the second indication of this change of attitude of Karzai regime. The first indication came when Ammanullah Saleh, the chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence (RAAM) who had been opposing Pakistan’s support to Taliban, was removed. Perhaps Karzai has come to accept the view of US that the involvement of Pakistan is inevitable for his continuation. He and his colleagues may be thinking that when US starts withdrawal of troops, Pakistan’s links with the Taliban would have to be used for dealing with them. The ability of the Afghan National Army and the police remains extremely weak to deal with the Taliban and warlords. The corrupt politicians, who are in the Afghan Government, can hardly be of any help to Karzai. The international aid is not being properly utilized. The corrupt members of the Afghan Government and powerful local commanders are pocketing the aid. Economic growth is also hampered by the growing black market.
The USA - The US has come to the conclusion that it can not continue to bear the cost of this war and therefore has worked out the strategy to start withdrawal of troops. The Task Force chaired by Richard Armitage, former Secretary of State and supported by Samuel R Berger, former National Security Advisor had pointed out that the cost of the war in Afghanistan was increasing and therefore the strategy needed to be changed. It suggested that power should be transferred to Afghans and for that suitable arrangement needed to be made. Crucially, it recommended involvement of China in this plan. While it is not clear how US is planning to involve China in this task, it is assessed that during Robert Gate’s China visit and Hu Jintau’s visit to US, this issue must have been discussed. The US is well aware of China’s old links with Taliban as well as its hold on Pakistan. Obama Administration’s strategy of Counter-terrorism Plus per se is a sound policy that envisages eliminating terrorism, building capabilities of the Afghan Government and then withdraws from Afghanistan. However, neither the objectives are completely achievable within the stipulated timeframe nor the strategy of involving Pakistan and China is actually going to improve the situation. In all probabilities, the situation would worsen in the coming period.
Russia - Russia’s objectives in Afghanistan are elimination of terrorism which is affecting the security situation in Russia with Chechens receiving training in Afghanistan and checking drug trafficking. Russia is cooperating with NATO for this purpose. However, Russia desires concessions from NATO partners. It demands restriction on NATO deployment bigger than 3000 strong brigade in the combined territory of all former Soviet Bloc members as well as restrictions to be imposed on the deployment of aircraft in Eastern Europe and removal of the restrictions on Russian troops in the breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia is also aware of economic value of Afghanistan and therefore desires a friendly regime that would allow Russia lucrative development and mineral extraction deals. For Russia the best bet is Karzai or any other such person. Russia is unlikely to have good relations with Taliban.
China - China at London and Istanbul conferences (2010) asserted that Afghanistan was too critical an issue for regional security and stability to be left to Washington. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi spelt out clearly that China intended to play an active role in Afghanistan that would safeguard its interests. In essence China desires unconditional and total vacation of foreign troops. China knows that the Taliban would occupy an important place in new dispensation. For the Chinese that would not be against their interests. In the pre 9/11 period, China had maintained links with Taliban and had invested in the development of infrastructure. In this, Pakistan had provided an invaluable support to China. China had obtained unexploded US missiles from the Taliban for reverse engineering. China knows it can easily build relations with Taliban with the support of Pakistan and would be able to reap economic benefits in that country besides protecting its own interests.
Pakistan - Pakistan’s single point programme is to bring Taliban back into power to achieve strategic depth against India and ensure removal of Indian presence in Afghanistan. It is opposing Indian involvement in the development programmes. The Indian aid of $ 1 bn is seen as an attempt by India to enhance its influence. The Afghan students coming to India (about 1000 every year) for studies is also not liked by Pakistan. Pakistan has also made the US realize that without Pakistan no operations can be launched in Afghanistan. The ISI sponsored burning of fuel tankers after blocking the supply routes had displayed Gen Kayani’s resolve to squeeze US. This strategy had found favour, both domestically and amongst the Taliban. With this Pakistan seems to have entered into a phase of blackmailing the US to do its bidding. Pakistan is tactically seeking concessions from US in enhancing the aid in military terms and strategically it is bargaining for a key role in Afghanistan’s future dispensation, which US is willing to give in order to leave Afghanistan as per its schedule.
Keeping in view the interests and strategies of main players, the security experts draw a grim picture. They point out that Karzai regime is unable to control the situation the influence of Taliban is growing. The corruption is rampant and there is hardly any chance that this regime could win over the population. The pressure on Karzai to accommodate elements from Taliban is on the increase. Obama’s idea of re-integrating Taliban is deeply flawed and raises concerns that Karzai would be ultimately forced into making concessions to the Taliban in terms of power sharing. The entire exercise is aimed at a ‘graceful exit’ strategy for the US and its allies and appears to have been carefully stage managed to allow US and NATO troops to start scripting withdrawal. While making a prognosis of the complex situation is not easy, going by the current trends, only two possibilities emerge. First Karzai could become a puppet in the hands of Taliban elements and would be following their agenda and second he may be forced to leave power that would bring Taliban to power in most of the provinces. In all probabilities Afghanistan would be divided in two parts - one larger part that would be governed by Taliban and other smaller part that would be ruled by those who are opposed to Taliban. This means that the situation would be similar to what was in existence prior to US operations.
India’s options in Afghanistan have to be based on the emerging trends. India has to recognize the prevalent situation, likely scenario that is developing, be prepared to take necessary risks and act with far greater persuasion and resolve so as to apply soft and hard power instruments in an appropriate mix. Our national interest demands that Taliban control of the area would not be in our interest as the territory would continue to be used for training of terrorists of various hues. This in fact would not be in the interest of US and even Pakistan as they too are facing terrorist activities. However the Pakistani Army which is using terrorism as an instrument to deal with India is unlikely to change its stance. The US is in a hurry to leave Afghanistan and therefore is unlikely to wait till the capabilities of Taliban are destroyed and then hand over the country to the elected government of Afghanistan. Under these circumstances, cooperation with US is not going to help our cause. China has its own agenda and therefore the attempts to control Taliban with its help are not going to be of any help to us. The recent efforts to cooperate with China and Russia would require rethinking.
Of course, Russia and India have common interests and therefore we need to evolve common strategies to deal with Taliban. In the present circumstances, Karzai needs to be assisted to enable his regime to deal with the Taliban. His army’s ability needs to be significantly upgraded. However, pragmatism demands that we should also take measures to eventually deal with the divided Afghanistan, in which the Taliban would be controlling a substantial area. The Taliban should remain under pressure both from the northern side as well as from the southern side. For this we have to think of a broader strategy. At present our strategy is based on the concept that economic engagement alone will secure our interests. This may not work in view of changing scenario of Afghanistan. There is a need to work out a comprehensive strategy that would include dexterous use of all instruments of diplomacy, strategic intelligence operations and force projection. This is not suggesting that we should use armed forces but take a posture to indicate our will to protect our genuine interests at all costs. In our strategy much greater focus should be on the liberal Pashtuns, who oppose Taliban policy. There are people in Pakistan’s tribal areas who oppose the Talibanization of the area. Their hands need to be strengthened. Many liberal Pashtuns alleged that India did not back them strongly enough in the past. M Dawood, the Advisor to the Afghan Foreign Minister had aptly commented on India’s attitude, “India seems apologetic about its presence. It is a regional player and must behave like one instead of insisting on a benign presence with a penchant for staying in the background.”