India's role in Afghanistan & Af-Pak Strategy

January 22, 2010
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar
Time: 
1030 to 1300 hrs

Chairperson: I. P. Khosla
Discussants: Ravi Sawhney and Srinath Raghavan

Dr. Shanthie D’Souza’s presentation noted that the Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy has brought the importance of the region to the forefront as a “hub of terror”. The author notes that US policy in Afghanistan has had its direct ramifications on India. The US withdrawal which is expected to lead to a deterioration of security and conflict will spill over into India. It will compel India to make tough policy choices. While noting that debates on post- US exit strategies are gaining momentum in India, Shanthie suggests that it would be timely to deliberate on available options in case of the US withdrawal.

While attempting to interpret the Af-Pak strategy, the author points out that it appears to be a ‘containment strategy’ aimed at containing the conflict at four levels- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and the un-stated goal of improving Indo-Pak relations. Shanthie points out that there is little evidence of change from the previous administration’s short term counter terrorism policy of pursuing a political strategy of supporting institutions and programmes.

Shanthie described the problem areas of the strategy where she notes that analysts in the region have viewed the Af-Pak strategy as a ‘reductionist’ strategy and a prelude to a US exit from Afghanistan. President Obama’s December 1, 2009 speech only reconfirmed such apprehensions.

There are seven problem areas. 1. Draw down of forces; By linking additional troop deployments to a timetable for the drawdown of forces and narrowly defined goals. However, the strategy misses out on the core essentials of COIN campaigns which hinges on time, long term commitment, institution building and a larger political strategy. Moreover, by announcing the exit, it runs the danger of working to the advantage of the insurgents and their sponsors who will ‘wait for their time’. 2.Troops surge- Increase in troops numbers; While an increase in troops numbers for a ‘population centric’ policy is an essential step forward, without clear Rules of Engagement (RoE) in dealing with the tribes, especially the Pashtuns in South and East Afghanistan, it could result in further alienation of the people. 3. Civilian Surge- Problem of Unity of Effort- The present strategy has focused on the civic component or the ‘civilian surge’. But the need is not to send more American experts but to build local Afghan capacities in better governance and aid delivery mechanisms. 4. Building Afghan National Security institutions in a limited time frame- A major problem in outlining a time table for downsizing troops hinges on the need for a phased transition to Afghan national security forces, capable of independent action, to take over from the US forces in 18 months. There is also a problem of mentoring and funding such huge projects. 5. Transferring authority to credible Afghan government- A credibly elected Afghan president and his capacity to extend his writ beyond Kabul are critical to an eventual US exit plan. The shortcomings of the electoral process, redressal mechanisms and re-election procedures have highlighted the problems associated with the lack of political sector reforms. 6. Issues of sanctuaries and safe havens- The author points out that in the present scenario, increased dependence on the Pakistan army and without addressing the issue of ‘sanctuaries’, selected targeting of the Pakistani Taliban will not significantly dent the Afghan Taliban capability in the long term. 7. Sources of funding of insurgency- One of the major short comings of the present strategy is the lack of attention paid to the sources of funding for the insurgency. After this, the paper deals with the regional responses regarding American intentions in Afghanistan.

In the next section, Shanthie discusses India-Afghan relations. While highlighting the historical developments, she mentions that India’s relations with Afghanistan have been shaped by shared history, geography, culture and economy. On post 9/11 Afghanistan, India took an active role as an ‘ideational power’ by adopting a soft approach aimed at long term stabilization, institution building and augmenting economic growth in Afghanistan; integrating Afghanistan in the South Asian framework and reviving the role of Afghanistan as a ‘land bridge’ connecting South Asia with Central Asia. India is the sixth largest bilateral aid donor country, pledging 1.2 billion dollars and invested in diverse areas such as infrastructure, communications, education, healthcare, social welfare, training of officials, institution building etc.

While describing the challenges to India’s aid policy in Afghanistan, Shanthie points out that India needs to accept responsibilities and risks that come with that stature. The growing bonhomie between India and Afghanistan, coupled with the increased presence of India’s development projects in Afghanistan, remains the target of the Taliban-led insurgency. Also geopolitical rivalry continues to shape Pakistan’s response to the increasing bonhomie between India and Afghanistan. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has serious consequences for India’s security interests.

Shanthie has generated three plausible scenarios for the future of Afghanistan. Scenario 1- US withdrawal or draw down of forces- Return of the Taliban; The author points out that in case of a complete US withdrawal, the probability of the return of the Taliban is not far fetched, thereby condemning Afghanistan to what US analysts as the worst case scenario. This would also lead to an emboldening of the Al Qaeda, instability spreading to Pakistan and Central Asia, thus reducing the region to become a base for Al Qaeda operations. Scenario 2- US limited engagement-‘proxy war’; The most probable scenario beyond 2011 is the reduced US presence in Afghanistan with troops limited to protecting key cities, a shift from overstretched counterinsurgency operations to internal defence. This would allow Pakistan to continue its ‘hedging’ strategy whereby it will continue supporting the Afghan Taliban to destabilise Afghanistan with the eventual goal of reinstating a pliant regime. Scenario 3- US long term commitments- Building on Afghan state capacities; According to the author, this is the best case scenario for Afghanistan, though such a state of affairs is highly unlikely given the reduced public support for the Afghan war in the United States. This would call for additional resources including troops to train and partner with Afghan forces and continuation of the institution building programmes. In this scenario, India could play a long term role in the training of the Afghan national institutions, institutional building political, and security and justice sector reforms.

In the last section, the author suggests policy options for India. According to Shanthie, India can play an active role in training and building the capacity of Afghan national security forces. India should also reestablish its support base among the Pastun tribes and invest in acquiring better human intelligence. These support groups can be cultivated as protectors of Indian aid projects by making community participation and local ownership a key plank of India’s aid policy. The author cautions that these goals should be achieved in the next 18 months.

However in the scenario of US limited engagement in Afghanistan beyond 2011, India could continue with its assistance programme in Afghanistan. Shanthie argues that in a revamped diplomatic strategy, India can work towards creation of Concert of Powers’- a regional grouping including US, Russia, EU, India, Iran, Central Asian Republics and China. India could play a lead role in carving out a greater role for the United Nations and deployment of UN forces in Afghanistan symbolizing the UN Security Council’s endorsement would not entirely be a misplaced policy option.

Shanthie concludes her presentation by suggesting that in near terms, India needs to pursue a reinvigorated Afghan policy in terms of protecting its projects and carving out a larger regional role in the stabilization of Afghanistan. India needs to consider near term and long term scenarios to rethink its political, diplomatic and military options. Given the limited time frame, before the summer 2011, India will have to make tough policy choices.

Points raised during the discussion.

  • Obama administration should come out with a clear and determined Afghan policy. With frequent changes in the AF-Pak strategy, desired results can not be achieved.
  • Indian policy makers will have to take bold initiatives to develop a regional mechanism to effectively deal with terror activities in the region.
  • Afghan nation building is essential to effectively solve its problems. The international community should take effective steps towards this direction. India can play a lead role in this process.
  • Too much reliance on Pakistan in the Afghan war is not the right approach. Regional players such as India, Iran Russia and China should be given more space in order to seek an Afghan solution.
  • However a solution can only come from within Afghanistan. Global and regional players can help them achieving it.

Report prepared by Sanjeev Kumar Shrivastav, Research Assistant at the IDSA.