At a time when nations have gone all out to broker peace in Afghanistan, India has to find ways to not only maintain its presence but also protect its interests
US President Donald Trump has now decided to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. His patience is wearing thin. Disagreeing with the views of some of his Generals and strategic advisors, he intends to pull out of the unwinnable 17-year-old Afghan war. Trump changed his earlier calculation of keeping the American troops engaged in Afghanistan without paying too heavy a political price. But if the war situation deteriorates and results in high rate of American casualties, domestic political opinion will change.
The situation is now changing for the worse. Attacks by Taliban insurgents have become more vicious and violent and Afghan security forces’ casualties are going up disproportionately high. The proportion of districts under Government control and influence have fallen from 72 per cent in 2015 to 50 per cent now. A Taliban attack on the training base for pro-Government militia claimed at least 43 lives, underlining the prevalent perilous security situation. President Trump’s decision to withdraw his forces stationed in Afghanistan has evoked critical responses from many strategists and generals. A report authored for a US-based think-thank by James Dobbins, former US President George Bush’s special Envoy for Afghanistan and others, clearly said that in an event of a precipitous withdrawal, the Government in Kabul will lose influence and legitimacy.
Terror groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State would be encouraged to intensify their attacks on various US targets. Afghanistan will irreversibly slide into a wider civil war. Then there is also the danger that Pakistan may become more open in its backing of Taliban insurgents.
Besides, some US commentators, too, have expressed their fears that Trump may withdraw the American forces even without an agreement with the Taliban because he strongly feels that important regional countries should come forward to create stable conditions in Afghanistan rather than US, which is “six thousand miles” away.
Trump also criticised India for building “libraries” in Afghanistan without providing any troops on the ground. Trump’s moves on Afghanistan prompted the resignation of his Pentagon Chief, Jim Mattis, who in a letter to the President wrote that he should find a Defence Secretary who is better aligned with him. A cut of about 7,000 troops in Afghanistan would likely mean that the US abandons much of its mission of advising the Afghanistan forces and remain engaged in counter-terrorism operations and protection of military installations such as the Bagram airfield.
A big problem of the present Afghan Government is all-pervasive corruption. Afghanistan has become a kleptocratic state where every transfer and promotion depends upon power and patronage. Some of the powerful warlords fighting against the Taliban epitomise corruption and misgovernance.
Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are going to be held soon and the present micro-managing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has not inspired confidence. Other candidates, too, are in the fray. Only a credibly elected Afghanistan President can strengthen the position of the Government to negotiate with the Taliban. The new President, with a strong
mandate of the Afghan people, would be in a happier position to discuss issues with the Taliban. America’s pointman on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalil Zad, has expressed the hope that dialogue for a comprehensive ceasefire will be successful.
The key sticking point is to persuade the Taliban insurgents to speak to the Afghan Government, which they have so long derided an ‘American puppet’. The Talibans will have to pledge that they would not allow international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and IS to use Afghanistan as launching pads for attacks against America.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has said that the news from Doha was encouraging. America has also involved other stakeholders like Pakistan, Russia and China. Talibanis have appointed Mulla Baredar Akhund as their chief negotiator. Akhund is one of the top leaders of the Taliban, and is expected to negotiate with authority.
Pakistan, in its turn, has given up the ambition of ruling Afghanistan as a puppet state in its quest for “strategic depth.” It now wants an Afghan Government which is not an ally of India and not hostile to Islamabad. It realises that without stabilisation in Afghanistan, its own stability will be imperilled. Gen Dunford, Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, was spot-on when he said that providing sanctuary to the terrorists by Pakistan will be the single biggest factor that would cause the failure of the coalition.
The neighbouring power, China, wants peace and stability in Afghanistan so that there are no unsettling repercussions on Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Province of China. China and Russia, too, are interested in the stabilisation in Afghanistan. Developments in Afghanistan will put India in a tight spot. If the Taliban strengthens its grip on Afghanistan, its influence could subsequently spread to neighbouring Pakistan and Kashmir, which would be bad news for India. It may be quite possible that the Taliban will join hands with Pakistani militants to create safe-havens for the terrorists targeting India.
India has made huge investments in developing soft power in Afghanistan. It is a big donor to Afghanistan, having provided about three billion dollar to that country. The new Parliament building, Salma Dam in Herat province and a highway to Iran’s Chabahar port are some of these big projects. At this stage when affairs in Afghanistan are fluid, protection of Indian interest will require close contacts with all groups, including the Taliban. But this has to be done covertly. Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat’s suggestion that India will join the bandwagon by talking to the Taliban was unsolicited. If Pakistan succeeds in keeping some people in the new Afghan Government, who are hostile to India, it will seriously affect India’s interests and assets that it has built painstakingly over the years. India will have to thwart such designs of Pakistan.
(The writer is a former Director-General of the National Human Rights Commission and former Director of National Police Academy)