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India’s Afghan Policy Requires Rethinking

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 19, 2009

    The mounting casualties in the Afghan battlefield are forcing US military leaders to raise the specter of a quagmire. The debate about rethinking the Afghan war strategy comes as the top US military commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose views are also endorsed by Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, has made an open issue that without a substantial troop surge it would be difficult to turn the tide and that the Afghan mission could fail miserably. US Commanders have put President Obama in a bind by asking for an additional 40,000 troops to give them a decisive military edge against the rising influence of the Taliban. The military is clearly seeking insurance as it knows by now what may go wrong – unwilling to risk, taking a cue from what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war, when bowing to the White House’s demands led to devastating consequences.

    As the UN Security Council voted unanimously on the Japanese-drafted text to extend ISAF’s (NATO's International Security Assistance Force) mandate, which ended on 13 October, for a period another year, the US top brass is pressing for reframing of the counter-insurgency doctrine in favor of adopting an Indian-type “manpower-intensive strategy” for both winning the war as well as the hearts of the local population.

    But US lawmakers appear divided over “either doubling or leaving Afghanistan,” as a section led by Vice President Joe Biden are advocating a “Pak-First” policy to segregate the Taliban from al Qaeda. The new framework suggests that the Taliban are ingrained in Afghanistan and pose no direct threat to the US. Instead, focus should remain on al Qaeda cells in Pakistan. The argument emerging now is that whether the Taliban wins or loses is not a priority but uncertainty in Pakistan is of paramount importance. The other side in the debate led by the Secretaries of State and Defence warns that separating the two is fraught with danger as the Taliban cannot be trusted and would only prepare a new haven for al Qaeda.

    The debate over “Pak-First” approach – stabilizing Pakistan to create a safety ring – is based on the belief and shared optimism about the ability of Islamabad to meet the multiple crises. Washington would soon discover that the sparkle of optimism would soon peter out and despite its earnest desire anti-Americanism in Pakistan will swell many times.

    What the US Commanders want from Pakistan is a repeat of its success in flushing out Taliban insurgents from the Swat Valley in other parts of Pakistan where the Taliban and al Qaeda elements have entrenched positions. But Pakistani leaders are bargaining for more aid and equipment, including the supply of drones. That is why the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill conditioning US $1.5 billion a year in non-military assistance to Pakistan for fighting “terrorists” evoked outrage in Pakistan “as humiliating violation of sovereignty” or some sort of a plot for an American takeover. What Pakistanis actually meant is ‘give us more’. In fact, Pakistan’s Ambassador in the United States Husain Haqqani is seeking a World War II type lend-lease package of at least $20 billion for Pakistan. Given the past US record, the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill would soon turn out to be a ploy to facilitate Pakistan with another "lend lease" type package or program (similar to the one recently applied in the case of Colombia to help that country fight the drug war) that will allow the delivery of military wherewithal Pakistan wants.

    Meanwhile, the articulation for “talking to the Taliban” and “preparing for an exist strategy” is gaining new currency in European capitals. This is clearly to avoid the wrenching domestic split over a strategic issue. The NATO allies seem fatigued about Afghanistan since it is getting harder to rally sufficient and sustained commitment, say for another decade, only to lose the ground again.

    Washington’s idea for a change of course evidently reflects the stark reality and scepticism setting in about the US commitment in Afghanistan. Doubts are being raised whether the US could hold off on a troop surge until the Afghan Army is trained, since there is now little faith in the Karzai government tainted as it is by allegations of rampant electoral fraud. But any decision to stand down or opt out would ultimately prove a victory for the Taliban, with catastrophic impact especially on regional countries including India.

    In a recent article Henry Kissinger makes the point that the US role in Afghanistan should remain confined to achieving interests directly relevant to American security. A new realization is seeping in that transforming the medieval Afghan society would be a long drawn process and the hope for creating an ideal structure in Kabul appears tenuous. The new flavor, thus, is to shift the fulcrum towards regional efforts and regional militia. Kissinger makes the point that the “special aspect of Afghanistan is that it has powerful neighbors or near neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran. Each is threatened in one way or another and, in many respects, more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism.”

    The impact of this sudden US strategic reversal and consequent spiraling of violence and Islamic extremism out of the Af-Pak region will be felt mostly in India as it would impart greater impetus to the jihadi groups, instill in them a sense of invincibility and embolden them to unleash more potent terrorist attacks against India. What is then the option? India will be gradually sucked into the Afghan imbroglio and forced to contemplate contributing troops for the US manpower-intensive strategy for its own safety.

    India’s current Afghan policy is highly flawed and is hardly adept for dealing with a wide range of hard security matters. Building hospitals, roads and bridges may be a benevolent and self-satisfying goal, but they may not necessarily provide enduring results. Its focus on “soft power” tools of aid and diplomacy has neither changed the ground reality nor will the pumping in of a billion-plus dollars likely to get transformed into strategic assets. This happened in the past as well. For example, when it came to the critical stage, India could not save its friend Najibullah when the Taliban hanged him from a Kabul lamppost.

    Stability in Afghanistan is vital and the stakes for India are high, but the time is now over for sitting on the fence. India requires a larger strategic vision, not a blueprint for town and country planning for Afghanistan. Otherwise, it is not India but China which is likely to reap the fruit of its development efforts in Afghanistan.