US President Barack Obama has finally made a decision on Afghanistan. After months of dragging his feet, he has now decided to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total US forces in the country to at least 100,000.
The number of additional troops to be sent in stages from January next year will be in line with the assessment of US General Stanley McChrystal, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, who had asked for 40,000 additional troops. Obama has specified political and military benchmarks for Afghan progress to assuage the concerns of the American public, in particular setting a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops.
Photograph: Charles Dharapak / AP
The most important aspect of the new strategy is the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans for specific areas and the implementation of governance reforms by the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. In an attempt to rally Afghanistan’s neighbours behind his strategy, Obama called the Indian Prime Minister and updated him on the strategy even as Washington has made it clear that diplomatic engagement with Pakistan is a key aspect of its strategy in the region.
This balancing act is an acknowledgement by the US that progress towards stabilization and development in Afghanistan is being heavily influenced by India and Pakistan, and the rivalry between them. Pakistan has always been suspicious of New Delhi and Kabul cooperating against it, and as India’s influence in Kabul has increased in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Pakistan has stalled in its efforts to curb extremists. Its failure to contain cross-border militancy has been a key factor behind its deteriorating relations with the Karzai government.
India’s approach towards Afghanistan remains a function of its Pakistan policy. It is important for India that Pakistan does not get a foothold in Afghanistan. India would like to minimize Pakistan’s involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan and ensure that a fundamentalist regime of the Taliban-variety does not take root again. Pakistan, meanwhile, has viewed Afghanistan as an effective means of balancing out India’s preponderance in South Asia. Good India-Afghanistan ties are seen by Pakistan as detrimental to its national security interests as the two states flank Pakistan’s borders. A friendly political dispensation in Kabul is viewed by Pakistan as essential to escape the strategic dilemma of being caught between a powerful adversary in India in the east and an irredentist Afghanistan with claims on the Pashtun-dominated areas in the west. Given these conflicting imperatives, both India and Pakistan have tried to neutralize the influence of each other in the affairs of Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s frustration at the loss of political influence in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban has been compounded by the welcoming attitude of the Karzai government towards India. Karzai may not be deliberately crafting a Delhi-Kabul alliance against Islamabad, but he is certainly hoping to push Pakistan to take his concerns seriously.
Karzai remains suspicious of Pakistan. It remains unclear if the security establishment in Pakistan has any intention of reining in the Taliban operating from its tribal areas. With Obama pledging to start bringing American forces home in the middle of 2011, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) will do its best to bolster the Taliban to make Afghanistan a Taliban-dominated client state. With the uncertainty of American plans in Afghanistan, and a strong sentiment in Pakistan that India is creating trouble in the restive province of Balochistan and the tribal areas, it is highly unlikely that the Pakistani army will abandon the militant groups it has used to fight as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir against India. The idea that the US can strengthen its hand by announcing in advance that it plans to fold is the most dangerous part of Obama’s decision.
There is a convergence between India and the US in viewing Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan’s insecurity and the suggestion that the world must act together to cure Islamabad of its political malaise. India, however, remains concerned about the central operational element of the US strategy towards Pakistan that considers the Pakistani army the primary instrument for attaining Western goals in Afghanistan. India’s problem with the new strategy is that the Obama administration seems to have given the Pakistani army the perfect alibi for not complying with American demands for credible cooperation in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Pakistani army now has very little incentive to reduce tensions with India in the hope of bargaining more from the US.
The consequence of abandoning the goal to establish a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security. The brunt of escalating terrorism will be borne by India. India should be worried that ISI would be emboldened to set up terrorist attacks against India once it is satisfied that the Taliban will provide it strategic depth in Afghanistan. There is a general consensus in India that it should not send troops to Afghanistan. Yet, beyond this there is little debate about what policy options it has if greater turbulence in Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region spills over into India. The US can leave after cutting its losses without significant costs. But India will be left facing the consequences. Now that the US has put its cards on the table, it is India’s turn to come out with its own Af-Pak policy.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London, and is currently a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org