Originally Published 2016-12-28 07:44:21 Published on Dec 28, 2016
Given his limited choices in stabilising Afghanistan, which include supporting a national election, US President-elect Donald Trump will find India to be a reliable and trusted partner in this process
Afghanistan, India, and Trump

On January 20, next year, Donald Trump will take over as the 45th President of the United States of America, at a time when the U.S. remains engaged in the longest war in its history — the war in Afghanistan. He will be the third President to deal with the war launched in 2001 by U.S. President George Bush and sought to be brought to a conclusion by his successor U.S. President Barack Obama.

Even though ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ ended on December 28, 2014 implying an end to formal combat operations by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces, the U.S. still maintains approximately 9,800 troops as part of the international troop presence numbering over 12,000 under ‘Operation Resolute Support’. Primary responsibility for fighting the insurgency was transferred to the Afghan National Security Forces (consisting of the military and the police) two years ago but U.S. presence is essential to provide critical domain awareness, intelligence and surveillance support, air power and special forces.

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For Mr. Bush, the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan was an integral part of his “war on terror”, launched on September 20, 2001. The U.S.-led effort enjoyed broad international support which continued even after Mr. Bush’s ill-conceived invasion in Iraq in 2003 in search of the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq invasion however diluted Washington’s focus on the challenges it faced in Afghanistan.

In 2009, Mr. Obama drew a clear distinction between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, describing the latter as “a war of necessity”, a “war that we (USA) have to win”. He ordered a troop surge in 2009 while simultaneously announcing the date for withdrawal of the U.S. from combat operations. This flawed decision may have been the result of domestic compulsions but it breathed fresh life into the insurgency.

Gains and losses

Much blood and treasure has been expended in Afghanistan. The U.S. alone has spent more than $800 billion in Afghanistan, of which $115 billion has been spent on reconstruction; more than the inflation adjusted expenditure under the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II at $105 billion! The ISAF (consisting of over 40 countries) suffered 3,500 fatal casualties during the last 15 years, with the U.S. bearing the largest loss at 2,400 lives. At the NATO summit in Warsaw earlier this year, it was agreed to maintain the current international troop presence till 2020 while providing annual financial support of $4.5 billion for the Afghan security forces.

It is clear that this is unlikely to bring about a material change in the situation in Afghanistan. In fact, casualties among the Afghan forces and civilians have risen rapidly in recent years. The total civilian casualties are estimated at 31,000; this year witnessed a spike. The Afghan security forces have suffered significant casualties, rising from 21,000 in 2014 to about 30,000 today.

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Out of 408 districts, the government writ holds in 258 while 33 have come under the control of the insurgents, largely in the south. The remaining 116 districts are contested zones.

It is true that some progress has been registered. Life expectancy has gone up from 40 years in 2002 to 62 years today. From 9,00,000 boys in school then, the number of children in school is now more than 8 million, more than a third are girls. Literacy figures have gone up from 12 per cent to 34 per cent in 15 years. Today, with a median age of 18 years, Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations with 60 per cent of the population below 21 years of age. This progress can be sustained only if peace can be restored.

Different political approaches

Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai realised early on that the key to restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan lay in Pakistan. He described the Taliban as “Pashtun brothers” and tried to improve relations with Pakistan. In many of his speeches, Mr. Karzai referred to India “as an old friend” and Pakistan as “a brother and conjoined twin”. The metaphor may not be apt — because half the conjoined twins are stillborn and an additional one-third die within 24 hours — but it does capture Pakistan’s critical role. Eventually, he became exasperated with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s rebuffs and tried, unsuccessfully, to open up his own channels for dialogue with the Quetta Shura, first with Mullah Obaidullah and then with Mullah Baradar, only to have them successively neutralised by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

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Mr. Ghani went a step further. Having witnessed Mr. Karzai’s doomed efforts and conscious of the political fragility of his National Unity Government, he swallowed his pride and even called on the Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, at the GHQ, in Rawalpindi in 2014, a departure from protocol that raised many eyebrows. He tacitly accepted Pakistan’s demand that Afghanistan diminish the salience of its relationship with India, in the expectation that Pakistan would play a positive role to ensure political reconciliation. A new track was opened with the Quadrilateral Coordination Group consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. However, Mr. Ghani too felt betrayed when he learnt that the myth of Mullah Omar had been sustained for at least two years and despite his pleading, the ISI went ahead with the anointment of Mullah Mansour as the new Taliban leader. As insurgency grew, he publicly blamed Pakistan of sending “a message of war” when he had held out a hand of peace.

In their own fashion, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama saw the Pakistan problem but were content to manage the situation rather than push for a solution. Mr. Bush ensured the first round of peaceful elections in Afghanistan by laying down clear redlines for Gen. Musharraf but during his second term, he was preoccupied with Iraq. Mr. Obama tried diplomacy by appointing the high profile U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for AfPak but eventually decided that the best way for the U.S. to address the issue was to reduce its role and presence in Afghanistan. The Kerry-Lugar assistance package for Pakistan turned out to be more carrot than stick.

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Pakistan’s overreach

Given a porous border with Afghanistan with tribal linkages cutting across the Durand Line, Pakistan’s legitimate interests can be understood as also the fact that it is critical to any political reconciliation in Afghanistan. However, what Pakistan has been seeking is to exercise a veto over Kabul’s relations with Delhi which the Afghans are unwilling to concede.

Pakistan’s policies towards both India and Afghanistan are determined primarily by the Army which sees India as an existential threat. Looking at its relations with Afghanistan through the India prism makes it inevitable that Pakistan can only have a relationship with Afghanistan that is mired in mistrust, suspicion and hostility. Since relations with India are unlikely to normalise in the foreseeable future, the only way out for Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghanistan is to accept the idea of Afghan sovereignty and autonomy and refrain from making it a zone of India-Pakistan rivalry.

Unless Pakistan changes its attitude, political reconciliation in Afghanistan will remain unlikely. The Taliban today is a fractured lot, neither a Vietcong nor even a Hezbollah. Its fragmentation does not affect its ability to launch terrorist attacks in Afghanistan but certainly makes it more difficult to get it to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, the National Unity Government in Kabul is not a strong and united entity thereby reducing its negotiating space. All this diminishes Pakistan’s ability to deliver the Taliban too; it can ensure presence for a one-off meeting but lacks the political capital needed to underwrite the reconciliation process.

The challenge for Kabul is that it has to engage in multiple reconciliation processes — with the Taliban and with the Pakistani army. The hardline Taliban represented by the Haqqani network is determined to continue the fight militarily. However, even the more moderate who are willing to talk demand the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Not only could this bring about a collapse of the fragile coalition in Kabul but it would also reduce the international financial support which is critical to keep the government machinery working. Power sharing can be worked out, as demonstrated recently in the accord with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but no government in Kabul can accept this Taliban redline.

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The India factor

India has had the most effective economic cooperation programme, having spent more than $2 billion and committed another billion dollars earlier this year. Indians have also lost lives in deliberate attacks linked to the Haqqani group and the Lashkar-e-Taiban but this has not diminished the Indian role. It has only cemented Afghan-Indian relations which are now developing a military dimension. Never again will India be forced to close down its embassy in Kabul as it happened during the Taliban regime.

When President-elect Donald Trump takes charge, he will find that he has little choice in the matter. A complete withdrawal is out of question. His challenge will be to change the calculus of the Pakistani establishment, increase capabilities of the Afghan security forces to inflict attrition on the insurgents, and, in 2019, support an election in Afghanistan that brings about a more cohesive government. In all this, he will find the Narendra Modi government to be a reliable and trusted partner.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Rakesh Sood

Rakesh Sood

Ambassador Rakesh Sood was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs economic diplomacy and ...

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