Endgame in Afghanistan: lessons for India

Endgame in Afghanistan: lessons for India

The declaration of a clear exit date (even without a well-formulated exit strategy) has the remarkable ability to focus the minds of key policymakers on the endgame in any scenario. The announcement by the Obama administration that it will start drawing down troops from Afghanistan, starting in the middle of 2011 for an eventual and complete withdrawal, is no exception. Although Washington later clarified that this withdrawal would be gradual and dependent on the security situation on the ground, it has led to a virtual stampede among the key players in Afghanistan to position themselves for this inevitable endgame.

All of these visits, which are taking place in the wake of significant military progress in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and even as the US troop presence in that country is increasing, have two clear objectives. First, to manoeuvre their respective countries to play a role in Afghanistan. Second, to hedge their bets on the future outcome in Afghanistan.

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The latter objective is premised on the inability to predict the long-term impact of the current troop surge and of the limited military success in Afghanistan. One scenario predicts the outright defeat of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine and the strengthening of the Karzai government. Another scenario envisages a militarily weakened, but a politically strong Taliban, which will have to be accommodated in any post-withdrawal political arrangement. Yet, another unlikely scenario forecasts the outright defeat of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the collapse of the Karzai government.

Secure future: Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) shakes hands with a military officer at the National Military Academy graduation ceremony in Kabul on 18 March. He told the newly graduated military officers that they had to ensure peace and stability in a nation that has been in conflict for three decades. Musadeq Sadeq/ AP

In the evolving Afghan scenario, what are New Delhi’s options? While the strengthening of the Karzai government and the defeat of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine is the ideal outcome for India, it cannot be assured without the continued and long-term ISAF and US presence.

This has prompted some strategists to suggest that India should either deploy its own troops in Afghanistan following the eventual US/ISAF withdrawal or at the very least revive the Northern Alliance, in partnership with Iran and Russia. While the latter possibility appears to have been discussed with Putin during his recent visit, a resurgent Northern Alliance will inevitably lead to another Afghan civil war. Such a war would not only?prolong?the sufferings of the ordinary Afghans, it would also destroy the vital infrastructure and other development schemes that India has so painstakingly built over the past decade.

On the other hand, it is worth remembering that even when the Taliban regime controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, it had a limited impact on India’s strategic national interests. Though Kashmir saw an upsurge in terrorist attacks by groups with clear links to the Taliban culminating in the dramatic and traumatic hijacking of Indian Airlines IC 814 to Kandahar in 1999, India was able to deal with this adverse scenario, albeit at some cost to its citizens and troops.

With this historical insight, India should launch a three-pronged approach to address the evolving situation in Afghanistan. First, it should insulate its territory, particularly Kashmir, from any terrorist activities that might be exported out of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Second, reach a binding counterterrorism agreement with Islamabad and Kabul to ensure that Pakistani and Afghan territories, individual or institutions are not involved in launching terrorist attacks against India.

In addition, the US and its allies should guarantee this agreement by committing themselves to respond to such attacks as if they were attacks on their own territories and personnel. Third, given its impending entry onto the UN Security Council, India should also facilitate a UN-led international reconciliation in Afghanistan so that the choice is not confined to either a Taliban-led regime or a civil war. This approach would not only ensure India’s strategic interests and security, it would also ensure the security and prosperity of the Afghan people. It would also be in keeping with New Delhi’s aspiration to be recognized as a responsible emerging regional and global power.

W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at borderline@livemint.com