The US Special Representative on Afghanistan-Pakistan, Marc Grossman, is currently in Delhi for briefings and discussions with his Indian counterparts on the present situation in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the future of Afghanistan will be part of these discussions. The visit takes place even as the news comes in, that an Afghan pilot has killed nine American military personnel in a shoot-out at the Kabul Airport.
Today, the US is far more isolated in the region than ever before. Its so-called regional allies, both Afghanistan and Pakistan, are engaging each other on their own terms and conditions. They are reportedly working towards a new roadmap for ‘stabilising’ the region as the West is set to begin the drawdown of its troops this year. The prospect of another superpower being defeated on Afghan soil or making a hasty retreat, regardless of its wider consequences, is real. In view of the increasingly wavering Western position, a whole new geo-politics could be shaping up around Afghanistan.
The US troop surge authorized by President Obama in 2009 is complete and the time for US troop reductions beginning from July 2011 has arrived. Most of the Western troops are likely to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, and the security responsibilities are expected to be transferred to the Afghan national army and police. The professionalization and strengthening of the Afghan security forces is one of the key elements of the disengagement plan. Whether the fledgling Afghan army and police would be able to meet the daunting task of fighting the Taliban is a huge question. The other crucial element is the political reconciliation with the Taliban on which the future of Afghanistan will hinge.
On both the security and political fronts there is little ground for optimism. The Taliban continue to harass the security forces and control a number of areas in Afghanistan, although they are not in a position to overthrow the government. Their sanctuaries in Pakistan remain functional and are a major headache for the US.
Realising that the US and NATO troops would be gone one day, President Karzai is diversifying his options. He is trying to talk to the Taliban, but his relationship with the US has become difficult. Pakistan, sensing an opportunity for a larger role, is trying to warm up to Karzai.
Iran has some influence in Afghanistan and would be an important player in the future settlement in Afghanistan. But Iran does not figure in the US scheme of things in so far as Afghanistan is concerned. The Central Asians have a limited role in Afghanistan’s settlement, although they bear the brunt of drug-trafficking and terrorism emanating from the Af-Pak region. The Russian role in Afghanistan at the moment is inconsequential as they are only helping NATO with logistics. China is a deliberate bystander looking only at the economic opportunities that Afghanistan presents. It does not want to enter the Afghan mess.
India has spent a lot of money and blood in Afghanistan and enjoys goodwill amongst its people. Despite the talk about India having key strategic interests in Afghanistan, the fact remains that India does not have either the necessary resources or the clout to influence developments in Afghanistan. It supports the Karzai government but has little political influence. The occasional talk of sending troops to Afghanistan to stabilize the situation there is dangerous and has no traction within India. Unfortunately, Pakistan and Western experts and officials are perpetuating the myth that India and Pakistan are locked in a deadly strategic rivalry in Afghanistan. This is not borne out by the facts including that of the Indian presence in Afghanistan, which is essentially for socio-economic reconstruction.
Of course, the situation in Afghanistan will not remain static in the next three years. But, at the moment, it seems that Afghanistan may become even more unstable as the foreign troops withdraw without pacifying the Taliban. Pakistan’s greater involvement in Afghanistan is bound to throw up a new regional dynamics. It remains to be seen how Pakistan will fare, as a superpower is yet again on the brink of defeat in Afghanistan.
The international community desperately needs fresh ideas on Afghanistan. The former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill’s radical idea of partitioning Afghanistan would breed further instability. The Indian idea of a regional solution and a neutral Afghanistan will not be acceptable to Pakistan. India ought to be doing serious thinking on the post-withdrawal scenarios that might unfold and how it should respond to them. At present there is little clarity on this even among the strategic community.
Essentially, it is time to wait-and-watch in Afghanistan and hope that the Taliban’s return to power this time around will not be as bad as it was earlier. India, at the moment, has limited options in Afghanistan, but it should not take its eyes off the country and remain engaged through economic reconstruction programmes.
Arvind Gupta holds the Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses; the views expressed are personal. Vishal Chandra is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.