Afghanistan Takes Turn For the Worse, But India Must Still Stay the Course

Henry Kissinger once said that the US ‘exit strategy’ was all about exit and not at all about strategy, and that making it the defining objective in Afghanistan is not sustainable

“Afghanistan is healing,” President Ashraf Ghani told India’s leadership in New Delhi on 28th April. His extraordinary optimism and determination to script a new narrative with Pakistan comes from a synchronicity of circumstance. This includes his warm reception in GHQ, Rawalpindi, where he met General Raheel Sharif, before calling on Pakistan’s President and Prime Minister, the assertion by Nawaz Sharif – following the Peshawar school massacre last December – that Pakistan shall now not make any distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, and Pakistan Army’s assurance that it would take action against all terrorists, without discrimination. The simultaneous endorsement of this approach by both China and the United States seemed to point favourably to peace with the Taliban and stability in Afghanistan.

Actually, by accepting an Islamabad-mediated process of negotiations with the Taliban, Afghan politics might have been placed in a Pakistani pickle. Will Ghani’s gambit pay back as he expects? The early portents are not encouraging. Taliban’s activities have accelerated, but not in the pursuit of peace. Afghan expectations included neutralisation of the Haqqani network, access to the Quetta Shura leadership, and a season of declining insurgency, none of which have materialised. Optimism has abated following the 13th May attack on the Park Palace Hotel in central Kabul, within hours of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s departure from Kabul, and the earlier massed attack on Kunduz delaying Ghani’s  departure for India. Four Indians were killed in the May 13 attack and early indications are that the target was chosen because of the likely presence of foreigners, and especially Indians, at a classical music concert being hosted there at the time.

Spate of attacks

If at all the security situation has changed in Afghanistan post-Karzai, it has been for the worse. Since the launch of Operation Azm, the Taliban’s 2015 summer offensive, there have been a spate of attacks across Afghanistan. The level of violence in Afghanistan in 2014 was higher than at any time since the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, and the first quarter of 2015 has been even worse.

The key to Afghanistan’s future lies in its relationship with Pakistan. Through the 1980s it became the fulcrum of the U.S., Saudi, and China-led effort to oust former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It helped establish the post-PDPA government in Kabul in 1992 constituted by the Peshawar-based seven party alliance. It then installed the Taliban government in 1996. And post-2001, while assisting the United States in its global war against terrorism, it sheltered the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, and nurtured the bruised Afghan Taliban back into a fighting force that is ubiquitous across Afghanistan. Ironically, while taking military action against the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistan Army is brokering peace with the Afghan Taliban and pushing the Afghan Government to share power with it.

Pakistan itself faced considerable terrorist violence in 2013 and the first part of 2014. The resulting civilian casualties then were higher in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. By delaying Zarb-e-Azb until the U.S. and ISAF forces were well into their drawdown phase, the Pakistan Army ensured that the Taliban and associated terrorist groups were pushed out from Waziristan and into Afghanistan without the risk of their dissipation. In the process, the discourse about the threat of terrorism emanating from the region got reversed. Pakistan was recognised as the epicentre of terrorism until last year. That attribute might now be shifting to Afghanistan.

An embattled Pakistan is beginning to discover, nevertheless, that the security of its western frontiers is irrevocably tied to Afghanistan. For its own future stability, it should invest in Afghanistan, rather than undermine it. The three and a half decades of uninterrupted wars in Afghanistan have taken a big toll on Pakistan. There might be strategists there re-imagining 1995, and the easy Taliban victories that followed. If history were to repeat itself, howsoever partially, Pakistan might drown in the strategic depth it has so avidly sought.

Afghanistan needs security, governance, and economic development, with security trumping the other two.  Maladministration and corruption have retarded Afghanistan’s development, but are not primarily responsible for it.  Much of the failures of its administration and economy result from the resurgence of terrorism and insurgency spearheaded by multiple factions of Taliban, whose leadership and training centres have remained in Pakistan.  These include the Quetta Shura’s Mullahs Omar, and Abdul Ghani Biradar (co-founders of the Taliban), the father and son duo of Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Hizb-e-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in all about 100 to 150 senior Taliban cadres from its inner circle.

Formidable challenges

Afghanistan’s challenges are formidable. A Gallup Poll conducted last autumn shows two in three Afghans believe the economic situation is getting worse, and only six percent believe conditions are better. The job outlook remains poor. Its tenuous coalition is fraying around the edges. There is a flight of talent and capital, shrinkage of external assistance and investments, and collapse of construction, logistics, and transportation.

Henry Kissinger once said that the US ‘exit strategy’ was all about exit and not at all about strategy, and that making it the defining objective in Afghanistan is not sustainable. That is not perhaps the best way to build a ‘brave new world’ in Afghanistan and its contiguity. What the international community has to do instead, India included, is to stand by Afghanistan and sustain its stabilisation with a long-term commitment. There has been talk of a regional solution, but it has never been given a fair trial so far. It is time to try this out – by bringing into the equation Iran as much as Pakistan, together with the other major neighbours, such as China, India, and Russia. It is never too late to try, for Afghanistan remains one of the most formidable security challenges of our times.

Jayant Prasad is Advisor at the Delhi Policy Group. He was India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010.