Originally Published 2014-01-27 06:21:29 Published on Jan 27, 2014
India cannot afford to be a mere bystander to developments in its immediate Neighbourhood. A failure to assist Afghanistan at this crucial juncture would not only undermine India's long term security interests but would reflect poorly on New Delhi's reliance as a friendly partner in troubled times.
Securing Afghanistan: India needs to go beyond symbolism
" "The coordinated group martyrdom attack which struck the restaurant 'Taverna du Liban' of foreign invaders at 07:30 pm last night (January 18) lasted till 09:30 pm local time in which the invaders suffered heavy losses, according to officials. The target of the attack was a restaurant frequented by high ranking foreigners."

The above statement by Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesperson claimed responsibility for the dastardly attack in the heart of Kabul's diplomatic zone on 18 January that killed 21 people. The scale of preparation and ammunition required to execute the attack must have been smuggled into the capital. This points to gaps in the intelligence mechanism -- something that the country can ill-afford as Afghans increasingly take to the drivers seat. The attack was a stark reminder of the escalating levels of violence. Further, such attacks underscore a significant psychological victory for the Taliban and their patrons. It also helps the Taliban capture public imagination far more than their ability to control territory in their traditional strongholds. Finally and significantly, it causes immense anxiety concerning if and how would Afghanistan be secured once the transition process is complete. Accentuating this sense of anxiety is the impending political transition in April 2014 as well as the refusal by President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US.

Spelling out a chronological timeframe for the transition, not necessarily linked to performance benchmarks of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Obama in June 2011 appeared resigned to the inability of the US mission to secure Afghanistan. He remarked: "Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security?.We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government."

This admission comes notwithstanding the monumental scale of international intervention can be gauged from the fact that since 2001 over US $ 286.4 billion in military and humanitarian aid have been allocated to Afghanistan. The security sector has been the largest recipient of aid flows, with US $ 29 billion of the 57 billion dollars in aid disbursed being allocated to the security sector.

However questions abound in many people's minds is that as Afghanistan inches closer to completing the inteqaal ( the Pushtu-Dari word for transition) process by December 2014, is the Afghan state ready to truly step up to the plate?

As the ANSF takes the lead in providing security across the country, figures available do not appear to support Obama's proclamation in his last state of the Union address: "?by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over". It contradicts the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Committee which notes that the "...Taliban-led insurgency?remains resilient and capable of challenging US and international goals." As the ANSF takes charge of security there has been a steady escalation in levels of violence with United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) recording a "...10 per-cent increase in civilian casualties in 2013" compared to 2012. Further, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on-going conflict has internally displaced an estimated 600,000 and with this number expected to rise further in 2014. It has also ensured that Afghanistan continues to be the world's largest producer of refugees.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) attempts to highlight the ANSF's quantitative surge as a tangible measure of progress. While the growth of the ANSF cannot be denied, nor should one overlook the growth in the ability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to respond to crisis. Yet the ANSF continues to be saddled with multiple challenges. To begin with attrition rates in ANSF remain high, averaging at 3 per cent- almost double the monthly target of 1.4 per cent. This is undermining the ability of the ANSF to train and retain people whom it would need the most as transition inches completion. Added to this is the spike in casualty rates of the ANSF, which is increasingly leading combat operations. According the Ministry of Defence in Kabul have shown an increase of 14.25%, leading NATO Commander General Dunford to remark "I'm not assuming that those casualties are sustainable."

Second, the ANSF lacks a full-fledged air wing to speak off. This is unlikely to change at least until 2017 according to the NATO's own timeline for complete operationalisation of air force. With impending departure of NATO troops the ANSF will lose firepower from the skies. While the US military has also cancelled contract for delivery of refurbished cargo planes that would impede transportation capability of the ANSF. This could seriously undermine the operating capability of the ANSF in the field as the insurgency escalates.

Third, the creation of Afghan Local Police (ALP), set up with the intention of aiding ANSF counter-insurgency operations, may help yield dividends in short term. However stories of abuse of local populace by the ALP, coupled with their allegiance primarily being to their international paymasters may in long term end up repeating mistake of 1990's by creating militias that turn predatory on the population.

Fourth, with a view to make ANSF financially viable, the strength of the forces is to be whittled down from a high of 3,50,000 by end of 2014 before being cut to 2,50,000. However plans for the socio-economic reintegration of such sizeable numbers of retrenched soldiers remain unclear. Questions surrounding the sustenance of the country's security sector-vital for providing security and creating an enabling environment for economic growth- are likely to be further thrown into sharp relief in 2014. Consider in this context the World Banks projections: while the security sector expenditure has ballooned from 7.3% of the GDP in 2009 to 11.7% in 2014; economic growth fell from a high of 14.4% in 2012 to 3.1% in 2013; while revenue collection for the first half of 2013 too has fallen by 11% compared to 2012. Afghanistan's targets of raising domestic revenue and increasing self-sustenance to meet its expenditure on security and infrastructure development are contingent on attaining average economic growth of 5% which in turn is contingent on growth of agriculture, extractive industry and a stable political and military transition. However fragile security situation has translated into scaling down of investment pledges. Consider for instance that The Afghan Iron and Steel Consortium from India that won the bid to extract iron ore from one of the biggest deposits at Hajigak has already tweaked its investment from a whopping US $ 11 billion to US $1.5 billion.

Fifth, the existence of sanctuaries in Pakistan for senior Taliban leaders continues to undercut progress towards securing Afghanistan. According to the US Intelligence Community assessment the Taliban leadership operating from Pakistani sanctuaries continue"...to provide strategic guidance to the insurgency without fear for their safety." For neighbouring countries such as India the re-emergence of provinces such as Nuristan as hotbeds for recruitment and training of groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, is not inimical for its security but would also make it even more excruciating to hold Islamabad to account in event of future attacks. For the operation of these groups technically would fall outside Pakistan, yet in a territory where writ of the Afghan state does not exist. Noteworthy in this context is the fact that while safe havens have allowed the insurgency to acquire an unprecedentedly strong foothold in the south and south-eastern provinces that border Pakistan, including in areas previously cleared by the NATO troop surge, inept governance has aided its spread beyond in Logar and Wardak that ring the capital.

Finally, the ANSF's biggest handicap is the lack of a clear and coherent ideology. This is seminal towards boosting the morale of the forces. However President Karzai's repeated references to the Taliban as "our brothers" created a vacuum. The lack of clearly defined enemy and ideology and values that the troops are fighting to protect is deeply problematic.

Clearly the road towards securing a stable and functioning Afghanistan is going to be a tumultuous one. Developments unfolding in Afghanistan would foremost have implications for the larger neighbourhood. New Delhi must put its best foot forward to prevent a relapse of Afghanistan into the hands of forces inimical to its security interests as had happened in the late 1990's. Pockets in the South-East and Eastern parts of Afghanistan already conducive for operations of the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taiba that are inimical to India's security interests. Notably in the BSA, it is al-Qaeda and not its local allies or sympathisers such as the Lashkar and the Haqqani's who are identified as the primary threat. Clearly differences concerning prioritisation of terrorist threats exist between New Delhi and Washington.

India must seize the moment by using the emerging camaraderie between Washington and Tehran to build a broad consensus on Afghanistan. It must also provide teeth to its Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) it inked with Kabul in 2011. New Delhi needs to go beyond symbolism of the kind on display during Karzai's last visit whereby a transfer of measly three military transit choppers was announced. India's commitment towards "?training, equipping and capacity building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces" under the framework of the SPA must be wisely executed. The training component in particular could include specific focus on counter-insurgency and mountain warfare techniques. As for equipping the Afghan army, there does exist healthy scepticism of the equipment falling into wrong hands should the existing order collapse but New Delhi would have to undertake this calculated gamble. Building up a strong security sector should be one of the crucial components of India's policy to support the Afghan state.

India cannot afford to be a mere bystander to developments in its immediate neighbourhood. As transition nears completion India must rise up to the challenge of helping secure Afghanistan as a relatively stable, functioning and sovereign state. A failure to assist Afghanistan, at this crucial juncture would not only undermine India's long term security interests but would reflect poorly on New Delhi's reliance as a friendly partner in troubled times.

(The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany)

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