No policy for northwestern front

India needs a strategy to deal with Afghanistan after the US troop draw- down is complete

By H K Dua

Normally, celebrations are held when foreign troops leave a native soil. No Kabuliwala has, however, brought good tidings from back home after most US troops have pulled out of Afghanistan.

The belief in the White House and at the Capitol Hill that peace would return to Afghanistan with the boys coming home after the 13-year war may turn out to be misplaced.  Guns are not going to be silent simply because Americans and the British soldiers have returned to  the waiting arms  of families and friends.

The Taliban have not stopped killing people. They covet power in Kabul now when US troops have practically left the mountains.  And then just across the Khyber there is Pakistan, waiting greedily for acquiring what their policy-makers describe as “strategic depth.” across the western front.

Not before long, Afghanistan is going to  get caught  in uncertainty despite the fact that there is a democratic set up in place in Kabul, and the people, particularly women who went  through tough time in the 1990’s when the Taliban were playing havoc, are now feeling free.  Somehow, the  Americans and the British tend to believe that the Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah Abdullah dispensation brought about by Secretary of State John Kerry will provide political stability and social peace to the  Afghans, whose ethnic divides are notorious for sharp divisions.

The West also tends to be optimistic that the Afghan National Army it is leaving behind with some left-over arms, will be capable of fending off the Taliban groups who might try to make a bid for power in Kabul. On both counts, the US optimism may prove to be only self-serving, meant to rationalise their pull-out, and convey to the world that this is not America’s Vietnam moment.

There are two reasons why the US had moved into Afghanistan: One, to give a decisive blow to international terrorism after 9/11; and the other to ensure its strategic presence in the area. Both the missions remain unaccomplished.

The reasons were actually domestic for the US. President Barack Obama had no stomach for wars begun by George Bush Jr. Also the Afghan venture was upsetting the US economy headed as it was for a recession. Fairly, in the beginning of his tenure, President Obama had told his band of policy advisors to start thinking of an exit strategy.

Obama  came out with a delectable coinage: “There are good Taliban, there are bad Taliban”.“What are the  good Taliban and what are the  bad Taliban?” I asked  a former US ambassador I had run into at a think tank meeting in Delhi.

“A good Taliban are those  who accept our money, the bad Taliban are those who don’t; and  are hard-core fellows  moved only by IsIamist ideology”, he said with a chuckle.All these years Obama’s men have been secretly talking to the so-called “good Taliban, discussing perhaps not money matters, but a smooth pull-out of US troops.”

Western policy wonks who visit Delhi these days to explain the rationale of the pull-out don’t hide the battle fatigue that had set in among US and Nato powers after 13 years of fighting and at a high cost no one was ready to pay.
Most western visitors contend that they are not abandoning Afghanistan. There will be12,000-odd US-NATO troops plus drones for contingencies. Also the Afghan National Army is now well equipped to handle the situation. So goes the logic of the apologists for troops withdrawals.

Just 12000 troops – Mostly observers, advisers and their attendants – can’t do the job being done by earlier 2,25,000-odd western troops. Also, drones can only kill from the air, but cannot control the situation on the ground.,  Ill-equipped Afghan National Army with little air support cannot defend the government in Kabul either for long. The defence and strategic treaty US signed with Hamid Karzai before he demitted office may not be enough of a guarantee for peace.

The US might give some economic aid to Kabul, but for how long? This year’s poppy crop is going to show a massive surge, but who will this help – the Kabul government, the warlords or the Taliban? There is always a link between terrorism and narcotics money.

Political situation in Afghanistan may not remain stable for long as anticipated by the Obama administration. The handshake between President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah doesn’t provide durable friendship or efficient teamwork.

For India, the Afghanistan situation has emerged as a major foreign and security policy challenge. India was thrown out of Afghanistan by the Taliban regime in power in the 1990s. Remember an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked in 1999 and Minister of External Affairs Jaswant Singh had to escort a Pak terrorist leader, to hand him over to the hijackers on the tarmac of the Kandhar airport – to get 160-odd Indian hostages released! This was  perhaps the most humiliating moment for India after its defeat in the 1962 Indo-China war. After the Taliban was defeated post-9/11, by the US-Nato troops and Hamid Karzai was installed as President, India again began investing in Afghanistan, politically and strategically. By now, it has also  invested over $ 2 billion in Afghanistan’s economic and social development which has earned it considerable popular goodwill.

Pakistan and Taliban factions, however, hate Indian presence in Afghanistan.  Indian Embassy in Kabul and missions in Jalalabad and lately Herat have been attacked by Pakistan-backed Taliban.  For India the security problems with Pakistan won’t be confined to the Wagah border or the Line of Control in J&K but will also  have to be faced in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, Ashraf Ghani may not follow Hamid Karzai’s policy vis-a-vis India. After taking over as President, he has approached the Chinese for help. He has got in touch with Pakistan, believing perhaps that Islamabad will be able to dissuade   the Taliban from making attempts to destabilise the new Government in Kabul. Off and on, Hamid Karzai also made similar attempts, but failed.

Stability in Afghanistan is important for its people as well as the entire region – but it does not help Pakistan which essentially wants to install a pliable Taliban faction in Kabul.
Pakistan’s policy and designs – a part of its overall plan to acquire  strategic depth in Afghanistan can lead to more tensions in the region.

If the Indian Government has worked out a policy on the emerging situation in Afghanistan, it is not known to the country.  Sooner or later,  it may have to  take people into confidence about how  it is going to face these challenges in the north-west.
The writer, a Rajya Sabha MP, is a
former editor of ‘The Indian  Express’