As Modi heads to Herat, the worsening situation on the ground for the Afghan security forces provides an opportunity for India to retool its policy towards that country.
After President Obama confirmed that Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a drone strike, the hopeful believed that this takedown would cut the Taliban down to size and force its representation at the negotiating table. Almost immediately however, this hope was belied when Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada quickly took over. Akhundzada, a hardliner with credentials as a religious scholar, is known to have strong opinions against peace negotiations.
Before the drone strike, growing evidence indicated that the Haqqani network is more integrated than ever with the Taliban. Its chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has been leveraged into the Taliban as its deputy leader and this merger is one of the factors driving the Taliban’s spring offensive.
What does not change on the ground is that Afghanistan is facing nothing short of a war for survival. Nicholas Haysom, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan candidly said that for 2016, “survival will be an achievement for the National Unity Government.”
Such fears were reflected internally as well; in a speech delivered in the Afghan parliament, President Ghani warned that the nation has “six tough months of war and killing ahead of it” and asked parliamentarians to be united and support the security forces.
Never to be left out on the question of talks in Afghanistan, Pakistan claimed that the strike on Mansour would adversely impact the ongoing Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) negotiations. Regardless of what is officially said, Pakistan is unlikely to budge from its current position that it has limited control over the Taliban and cannot go beyond a point in forcing the pace of negotiations. Pakistan will also not agree to any arrangement that forces it to give up its ‘strategic assets’ such as the Haqqani network (HN) and the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT). It needs the HN to control Afghanistan and the LeT to quell those who rebel against the Pakistan army (the Tehreek -i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, for example) and for use against India. Further, US pressure is limited in this context even though the HN has been directly responsible for deaths of American soldiers.
Given this scenario, it would be unwise to expect that the Taliban-Haqqani combine will relent or dissipate on its own even after Mansour’s death. In fact, the Taliban will aim to make its spring offensive an even greater operation to prove that it continues to remain relevant, with or without Mansour. These gathering clouds over Afghanistan mean that traditional partners such as India must get involved in ways that they chose not to earlier. The danger of a re-emergence of warlordism is now a very likely possibility if the Afghan security forces are not helped in their task of taking on the Taliban.
What would the components of a refashioned Afghanistan Policy be? What will be the elements over and above the extraordinary work that India is already doing in Afghanistan?
- India can strengthen the ANSF. Indian boots on the ground would be a very difficult proposition as that would fuel a genuine proxy war. But that does not stop India from training and equipping the ANSF to fight the resurgent Taliban. Capacity building need not be restricted to training; the embryonic Afghan air force, which has benefited enormously from the gift of Mi-25 attack helicopters, can be further bolstered by transferring some of our superseded assets in the Indian inventory. To Afghanistan, these would be force multipliers of significant value.
- India should revive contacts with provincial leaders. India’s support in the late 1990s kept the then government of Afghanistan afloat and provided just the beachhead that the US needed in 2001. India can cultivate contacts with key anti-Taliban elements to construct a a bulwark against the Pakistan–sponsored Taliban. Lt Gen Abdul Raziq in Kandahar, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi in Panjshir, Abdul Rashid Dostum in Balkh and Jowzjan, Atta Mohammad Nur in Mazar-i-Sharif, Ismail Khan in Herat are a few of the provincial leaders that India could work with.
- India can be the bridge between the US and Afghanistan. Though it is highly unlikely that the US will reverse its decision of reducing its military presence, Afghanistan’s elite is favourably inclined towards the US and there are many, particularly in the urban areas, who would like the Americans to stay. The US still remains the most influential geopolitical actor in Afghanistan, and India can play a role in furthering the interests of Afghanistan by working with the US. India must also lobby for a seat for itself in every forum that discusses the future of Afghanistan. With the Obama presidency in its last year, the US would be less inclined to take any major initiative; thus, an Indian initiative would find favour amongst all friends of Afghanistan.
on our foreign policy front, there is a need to de-hyphenate our Afghan policy from Pakistan. There is no need for us to factor in Islamabad in our calculations. Ideally, India should appoint a special representative to Afghanistan to fast track cooperation between the two countries. Talks between the two countries, at the foreign secretary/deputy NSA level can be instituted at a regular sequence. These measures will signal India’s commitment to Afghanistan without an overt emphasis on Pakistan.
India’s help can be effective in building a norm-based international regime against terrorism of all kinds. As a country which has combated insurgency for over 60 years, India has been pushing for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) at the UN so that every state pledges and cooperates against terrorism of all kinds. However, across the world, India’s position on terrorism is viewed as directed against Pakistan. If India were to lead its narrative with Afghanistan, its position is more likely to gain legitimacy as it is Afghanistan and India that have suffered the most from Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
India would also need to take the lead and help create a regional dialogue aimed at containing the problems that emanate from Pakistan – terrorism, radicalisation, narcotics, fake currency, nuclear proliferation, etc
India can help in forging alliances with other international actors while being mindful of the varied interests of these countries. China realises that an unstable neighbourhood could cause problems in its restive Xinjiang province. With the failure of the QCG process, China is seeking to deepen military ties with Afghanistan, including counter-terrorism intelligence cooperation and joint drills. As such, China would not necessarily be uncomfortable with a marginalisation of the Taliban, but does not want to address the root of the Taliban insurgency because of the Pakistan factor.
Russia and Iran, which have resourced an anti-Taliban movement in the past, would be concerned about doing so now as it would benefit a continued US military presence in the region. Iran would like a stable Afghanistan in order to curb narcotics trafficking across its borders, prevent the influx of Afghan refugees and stall any anti-Shia activity. Russia is concerned about narcotics trafficking and the impact on its own restive population. The resurgence of the Taliban is of concern to the Central Asian Republics as well. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which share a border with Afghanistan, are concerned about Taliban activity in the northern part of Afghanistan.
The worsening situation on the ground for the ANSF coupled with the immediate trigger of Mansour’s death provides an opportunity for India to retool its Afghanistan policy. India can and must help the state not just survive but enable it to thrive and progress.
Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane work with the Geostrategy Programme at Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru based think tank.