External Affairs

As the US Struggles in Afghanistan, India Has Reason to Be Wary

It will be best if Modi takes the many lessons that history holds out for those who think of venturing into Afghanistan for one reason or the other.

Afghan security forces prepare for battle with the Taliban in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. Credit: Reuters

Afghan security forces prepare for battle with the Taliban in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. Credit: Reuters

The political pot in Afghanistan keeps boiling constantly, the churn so rapid that an instant becomes history almost immediately. Akhtar Mansour is distant memory already. People may soon ask, ‘Who was he?’ Whether they actually do so is not the issue, what is important is this; will we ever know the truth about the killing of Mansour, the Taliban Chief? Or for that matter about the death of his predecessor Mullah Omar who was fictionally kept alive for two years? Nor are we likely to ever know the extent of Pakistan’s involvement in the hosting and then the betrayal of Osama bin Laden.

There were huge protests in and by Pakistan following the night raid on OBL in Abottabad. But the muted, pro-forma Pakistani reaction after the incursion by American drones into Balochistan to kill Mansour raises questions. Was Pakistan complicit? Did it encourage the strike? After all, it is not every day that American drones transgress Pakistani airspace. In fact, over the years, drone attacks on Pakistani soil have reduced vastly. From a peak of 117 in 2010 there were just 11 drone strikes in 2015. And only 3 this year up to 22 May 2016—these 3 include the strike killing Akhtar Mansour. Clearly then, transgressing drones have become the exception and the US might be exercising this restraint due to a combination of factors: collateral damage, Pakistani protests and/or the lack of ground intelligence to effectively guide drone strikes. Or is this reduction in strikes an acknowledgement by the US that Afghanistan cannot be turned around and that Pakistan controls the winning cards there.

American rethink

There are indications that the Obama administration is engaged in reconsidering its options in Afghanistan. Though the war there is no longer in the list of US Defence department’s priorities, it is not a “forgotten war” yet. But it is also a fact that even when the US had committed vast resources, its mind and muscle were never fully in the war effort. During the brief “surge,” US forces were concentrated in the wrong place, and were unable to produce the desired decline in enemy attacks.

Afghanistan itself is a deeply fragile state, in continual conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Today, Afghanistan faces huge challenges all over. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world, poverty is widespread, and other social indicators are dismal. Its governance is paralyzed by a weak and divided central government, which the World Bank and Transparency International rank as among the least effective, and most corrupt in the world.

Effectively Afghanistan is governed by rival power brokers who often have their own security forces and compete with the Taliban for income from Afghanistan’s narco-economy.

In almost every parameter of governance, the Afghan government draws as close to minimum marks as possible. From rule of law to the government’s efficiency, from political stability to control of corruption the writ of the government simply does not hold. In fact it is the Taliban who are in effective control, directly or indirectly, of 30% of Afghanistan today. This writ is steadily being expanded to other parts. As the US found in Kunduz, when it was briefly captured by the Taliban, the actual strategy and conduct of operations there was driven by Pakistani army officers.

Taliban new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen in an undated photograph, posted on a Taliban twitter feed on May 25, 2016, and identified separately by several Taliban officials, who declined be named. Credit: Social Media via Reuters

Taliban new leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is seen in an undated photograph, posted on a Taliban twitter feed on May 25, 2016, and identified separately by several Taliban officials, who declined be named. Credit: Social Media via Reuters

This brings us back to the questions we started with. Why were Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour cast aside? Did the Pakistani establishment find them becoming too independent and a possible challenge to its authority as the eventual puppet master in Afghanistan? Will the new Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada be more amenable to it and its aims in Afghanistan? It is a fool’s errand to make definitive claims in such matters especially in a situation as fraught as the one in Afghanistan. But the speed with which the Haqqani faction and Mullah Omar’s son endorsed Akhundzada’s elevation is an indication that an invisible hand was guiding the process. Pakistan gets its way in other spheres too. It is now widely acknowledged that despite evidence, US allowed itself to be deceived about the support Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were giving the Haqqani group and the Taliban.

Therefore, when Obama makes his decision about the scale and type of the future US presence in Afghanistan he will be acutely conscious of the Pakistan factor and the resurgence of the Haqqani and the Taliban combine. He will also be conscious that on their own the Afghan security forces may not be able to protect large populations and their provincial governments.

If Obama makes the unlikely decision to cut his losses and quit Afghanistan, he will virtually be handing it over on a platter to the Taliban-Haqqani combine. On the other hand, if he decides to keep about 5000 troops besides special advisors beyond 2016, and recommends that policy to his successor, there is a good chance that Afghan forces will try to hold out for as long as they possibly can. But even in this case, the American heart will not be in the effort because Afghanistan is no longer the strategic priority it was once. Nor is nearby Central Asia of any great strategic interest to US now.

Resist the lure to get involved

The US too has changed vastly since 9/11. Now, its strategic resources are limited and there are many more areas where it needs to use them. Alas humanitarian concerns, the scope of aid and intervention are determined by their results, not by need or good intentions. Viewed thus and selfishly from a US viewpoint, there may be a good strategic case for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. But such selfish realism carries risks and Pakistan/Taliban ambitions may not be satiated by Afghanistan alone. Moreover, a US force of 5-6000 troops is no guarantee of stability because a major counter-insurgency campaign like the one in Afghanistan cannot be won by military means alone. It must be supplemented by political and developmental effort that wins broad popular support. In effect, therefore, as Obama cogitates, he might come to the view that the US must have an effective mix of civil and military strategy, and that the US by itself cannot provide that mix. It needs a strategic partner to make it work.

This will not be the first time that the US has asked India for such support. In all previous cases, India has resisted and with good reason. It may be good policy to repeat what it has said in the past to such approaches and it will be better still to take the many lessons that history holds out for those who think of venturing into Afghanistan for one reason or the other. It is good that Prime Minister Modi will be visiting Afghanistan before he meets President Obama in Washington. He will be carrying with him impressions of the present state of affairs in Afghanistan. This, of course, will be the second visit by Modi to Afghanistan in six months. In December 2015 he flew impromptu from Kabul to Lahore on his way back to Delhi. The attack on Pathankot airbase had followed soon thereafter. This time his path out of Afghanistan leads him to the surer grounds of Washington, but to decisions that could be seminal.

Rajiv Dogra is a former diplomat and the author of the book, Where Borders Bleed