Event ReportsPublished on Oct 03, 2019
Afghanistan: At yet another roundabout
Organised by the Neighbourhood Initiative under the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation on 24 September 2019, the half-day conference titled ‘Afghanistan: At Yet Another Roundabout’ brought together academics, journalists, regional security analysts and defense experts for a productive exchange of ideas and perspectives on the brewing chaos within Afghanistan. The conversations explored how the collapse of “peace talks” has added to political and strategic uncertainty in Afghanistan, and the best possible ways for India to navigate through a turbulent phase in regional dynamics, while maintaining the strategic balance required for the fulfilment of its national security objectives. In the first session titled ‘Afghanistan and Continuing Uncertainties’, Dr. Shakti Sinha began by commenting on Afghanistan’s perilous journey as a country so far, and how in the absence of a truly legitimate government, the Taliban was pressed as a valid interlocutor by other countries given its massive power on ground. This raised the question of whether reconciliation on the Taliban’s terms is better than no reconciliation at all. Amb. Rakesh Sood highlighted the periods of stability that existed in Afghanistan historically, hindered by external forces motivated by competing strategic and national interests. Although the US intervention in Afghanistan received national and international support, a series of cumulative errors by the US—which boasts of the biggest military and economic footprint in Afghanistan—ultimately led to the Taliban being seen as a legitimate political actor to be negotiated with, instead of a terrorist organisation. Mr. Rana Banerjee flagged the ground realities of the country, which pointed towards sustained Taliban terror with increased control of land. Despite the existing capabilities of the Afghan forces, problems related to capacity, corruption, attrition, internal structural frictions led to sub-par functioning. Briefly describing the demands pursued by the Taliban, he listed the inevitability of Afghanistan facing complex security-related problems. He argued that the most likely ground scenario going forward would be one entailing perpetuation of the status-quo, with decreasing international troop presence but with continued air support from Afghan National Security Forces. Brigadier N.K. Bhatia reiterated the struggles of the Afghan army, in the backdrop of transforming strategies of the US. The cited aim of US presence in Afghanistan was to counter terrorism and provide ground support to the Afghan Army in the form of ammunitions and building their combat capabilities. Discussing the different forms of defense and security forces in Afghanistan, he explained the in-fighting within them that led to further friction. Concluding his remarks, he laid out the missions taken on by Afghan forces, their strengths and weaknesses, and recommended prospective changes. Ms. Maria Abi Habib drew on her extensive field experience in Afghanistan to shed light on regular public life in Afghanistan. She referred to Afghanistan as a failed British experiment and asserted how the US has made analogous errors by deepening the warlords’ pockets and making them the country’s leaders, leading to increased corruption and misery. The exclusion of some significant stakeholders was one of the reasons for the collapse of the peace negotiations, she argued. Despite the folly of the US, the emergence of a civil society seems like a silver lining for the country. The second session titled ‘India’s Options’, commenced with Mr. Sushant Sareen emphasising the need for India to reinvent its approach towards Afghanistan. Thereafter, Maj. Gen. B.K. Sharma brought up the very real possibility of cross border repercussions of the Afghan presidential elections, and the need for India to adopt a fresh approach towards the Taliban. He emphasised the US’ pro-Pakistan stance and the likelihood of the creation of a Pak-China consortium which would seek to remove India from the arena.  He asserted that India’s historic goodwill in Afghanistan necessitated a more active involvement in the region and further outlined several areas where India could offer assistance ranging from terrain appropriate training exercises, helping build an effective counter terrorism strategy, to assisting in equipment upkeep and creating a joint knowledge sharing platform. Ms. Indrani Bagchi emphasised India’s importance as a benevolent regional power for Afghanistan, and therefore, why it would be important for India to ‘be present in the room’ during peace negotiations. In other words, the need for India to redefine its position with regard to the political situation in Afghanistan, and adopt a less hesitant approach in dealing with matters related to the war-weary country, stems from the fact that India enjoys considerable influence in the region, Ms. Bagchi argued. Assessing the situation as it exists, Mr. Tilak Devasher underlined how Trump’s decision to call-off the “peace talks” could prove to be a window of opportunity for India, and the security implications of sitting out and refraining from acting. He accentuated Pakistan’s distrust of Indian presence in the region, and highlighted the fact that the Taliban was not in the game to share power. He illustrated myriad ways for India to espouse a stronger position in relation to Afghanistan, publicly supporting the Afghan presidential elections, maintaining a neutral stance, and developing ports and strengthening the diaspora, being a few key ways. Amb. Vivek Katju started out by stating that the policies made by the Indian government are in national interest and based on an assessment of the ongoing situation, and how changes in the situation prompt changes in the policies. Further, he discussed how the evolving situation in Afghanistan called for an open minded approach in dealing with the Taliban, which, depending on the outcome of the presidential polls, is something that the country might have to do. He highlighted the need for inclusive peace negotiations, and stressed on the great powers exercising caution and rationality in dealing with radical groups such as the Taliban.
Prepared by Jahnvi Aggarwal and Ria Kasliwal, research interns at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.
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