IDSA COMMENT

Exit from Afghanistan: Playing the Game and not learning the lessons

March 3, 2010

With the launch of Operation Moshdarak, the US has clearly started the race to beat a retreat from Afghanistan, like all "Firangees" before them. However, the timing, the confusion and the events following launch of Op Moshdarak conjures up the image of a race-start gone wrong. The official starter has fired the gun, as per his countdown, but unfortunately the race officials are still standing in front of the starting line holding the runners behind the restraining rope. Not that bad, but adding to the chaos is the fact that the potential winners and dark horses have all been tripped, tumbled and crushed to allow the starter’s favourite to emerge the winner. That just seems to be how races are often run in these parts.

Under the terms and conditions of the race for withdrawal, Pakistan has clearly told the United States that it wants a central role in Afghanistan. Acceding to this demand is the tall price the Americans will pay for having “cohabited” with Pakistan for so long. For, it seems that Pakistan like the mythological creature "Succubus" has drawn out all the life-force from America and its coalition partners in order to sustain itself. One might ask just how or why the US has allowed itself to become such a willing victim of guile and seduction. But perhaps they should be answering these questions. Pakistan army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has however projected a rather benevolent approach towards Afghanistan: “our objective is to have peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan. We cannot wish for Afghanistan anything that we don’t wish for Pakistan [read: Talibanisation]. We do not want to control Afghanistan.” Why would anyone accept this statement is unclear. What is clear, however, is that there is utter confusion and exhaustion amongst the partners of the international coalition; even leading to collapse of a government in distant parts of the world, taking us right back to 2001, turning a full circle to reconcile with the Taliban. One supposes that for the Americans, Operation Moshdarak, meaning "together" (as it is being co-executed by its architects), offers an opportunity to gain a tactical victory and “peace” with the potential winners and rulers of Afghanistan – before throwing in the towel.

As a precursor to the events that were to unfold in this new version of the Great Game, the announcements – particularly at the NATO conference in Brussels, as well as at the London and Istanbul meetings – Pakistan blatantly and loudly proclaimed that it wants Indians out of Afghanistan. Before the dust from the bombs dropped in Op Moshdarak settled, the clear target was India. In a cowardly attack against the norms of Geneva conventions, facilities that housed Indian Aid workers and medics was attacked last Thursday leaving 6 Indians, including a popular Doctor, English teacher, and a musician dead. The shock waves of this attack against these non-combatants who are not in any way involved in the ongoing operations against the Taliban leads one to believe that it is part of the grand strategy for withdrawal negotiated and enacted by ISI-funded organisations in connivance with the “Good Taliban” to purchase a “safe” exit for US forces.

India in no way seeks to undermine international efforts in building a safe and stable Afghanistan. India has demonstrated capabilities that have made a great contribution to the rebuilding and reconstruction of Afghanistan. With its historic, civilisational ties and cultural affinity to the country, India has already invested heavily in rebuilding Afghanistan through its civilian assistance programmes. It is the fifth-largest bilateral donor and the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan. And unlike much of the “funds” coming from other “donors”, India’s spending goes entirely into genuine civilian projects: its $1.2 billion contribution has supported projects in power, medicine, agriculture, transport, food reserves, infrastructure development, and education. India has also trained Afghan civil servants, demonstrating an Indian comparative advantage on the ground in terms of genuine “peace building”. Indian engineers managed to build an alternate port-access 218 km long road in violent southern Afghanistan. By comparison, unfamiliarity with the culture and the prohibitive costs of development work (and workers) in harsh conditions have constrained delivery of similar Western contributions on the ground. American and western NGOs have been unable to function outside major population centers in Afghanistan. Neither Pakistan nor NATO have been willing or able to help fill the gap and provide security to the aid workers – something India has achieved with no or minimal security forces on the ground. This points to a clear difference in the “hearts and minds” of Afghans between how they perceive India and how they perceive the Taliban-Pakistan-America nexus. India’s exit from the region will not likely see other payers fill in the vacuum. All too quickly, with the so-called “Good Taliban” back in business, Afghanistan is bound to slip rapidly back into its feudal, medieval ways.

Unfortunately, a stable Afghanistan appears to clash with Pakistani interests (which see this as India threatening Pakistan's security by "encirclement"). Further a strong and stable Afghanistan will raise the issue of the Durand Line, which successive governments including even the Taliban have refused to recognise. Pakistan desires a weak and dependent Afghanistan. It is highly imprudent to hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban/Pakistan. What the West is failing to realise is that while allowing Pakistan to treat Afghanistan as its vassal state post-withdrawal may help American interests at home in the short term, it will prove disastrous for Islamabad as well as for Washington in the not too distant future. While growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a front-line concern for India, it is no guarantor of peace for the West. New Delhi and Washington should view the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan in concert: they must agree on a common approach to the most pressing security challenges which they both face – fallout from the insurgency and the spread of terrorism. It is not certain if the US wants to see a Taliban-led government, assisted by Pakistan, returning to power in Kabul. Perhaps it has no better alternative than to have a so-called ally in control. US calculation in backing Pakistani designs for controlling Afghanistan will bring even greater dangers to its own doorsteps. It is just a matter of reading a few chapters of Afghan history to understand that no primarily foreign-aided government has ever succeeded in this region (not at least in the last few hundred years or so). One can only hope the United States comes to realise this in time.