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#4699, 20 October 2014

South Asian Dialectic

Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: Implications for Asian Security
PR Chari
Visiting Professor, IPCS

Months of deadlock followed a hard fought election in Afghanistan after which both principal contenders - Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah - claimed victory, and a uniquely Afghan solution was found. Ghani will be President with Abdullah being the de facto Prime Minister. This solution is designed to reconcile the conflicting interests of several warring ethnicities and tribes in an essentially pre-Westphalian state. Ashraf Ghani, a former Finance Minister and World Bank official, is a Pashtun. Abdullah Abdullah is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik extraction, and is closer to the Tajiks. But the Pashtun-Central Asian divide subsumes deeper tribal loyalties in Afghanistan that have excoriated this country over the past decades.

Ghani and Abdullah have pledged to work together to address the multitude of problems plaguing Afghanistan which, notably, includes fighting the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda factions operating in    the country that find support and refuge in Pakistan. The duo also faces an immediate financial crisis with the October salaries of government servants remaining to be paid. Already heavily indebted to foreign donors, especially the US, Kabul has needed to plead again with the Obama administration to provide further accommodation. 

Both Ghani and Abdullah were agreed, however, that Afghanistan should sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) sought by the Obama Administration to enable continuance of the American military presence in Afghanistan. This has been promptly done. Their predecessor, President Karzai, had delayed signing the BSA for personal reasons. With the BSA signed the US plans to thin out its troops in Afghanistan from some  24,000 at present to around 9,800 by the end of 2014, with all US troops moving out by 2017. Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi are distressed with this American decision for different reasons. Their angst arises from the course of recent events that are still unfolding in Iraq following the ill-advised American entry into Iraq, and, now, its hasty withdrawal from that country. A similar tragedy is likely to unfold in Afghanistan should US troops effect a precipitate withdrawal.

This contention derives from the inadequacy of the US forces being left behind to defend the Afghan state. They would be located in Kabul and the Bagram Airbase to function as trainers and advisers to the Afghan Army by conducting air and drone attacks against the insurgents. It is apparent, however, that although these airstrikes might deplete the insurgent ranks and leadership, they cannot gain or hold territory. After US troops withdraw, moreover, these Afghan forces will be on their own in the battlefield. The Afghan Army currently suffers from the lack of relevant weapon systems, especially armour and attack helicopters. Consequently, it has suffered heavy casualties in its counter-militancy and counter-terrorism operations, estimated between 7,000 and 9,000 soldiers killed or wounded this year alone. The likelihood of mass scale desertions is a distinct possibility, especially if the Afghan Army splits along ethnic lines. It should be added that the Afghan Army is a young force without any compelling history or military traditions. Hence, the possibility of a geo-political partition of Afghanistan along Pashtun-non-Pashtun lines, predicted by Selig Harrison, could become an ugly reality.

The security imperative apart, are the US and its Western allies likely to continue funding Afghanistan after 2014? And, despite their strategic priorities shifting to address the Islamic resurgence in the Middle East, the imbroglio in Ukraine, and the US pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region? But, if Kabul’s economic lifeline is cut, the collapse of the Afghan state is certain. Could a consortium of Asian powers like Iran, India, China and, perhaps, Russia, bail out Kabul and the Afghan economy? If this, too, does not appear feasible, the climate would be propitious for the Taliban-e-Pakistan and al Qaeda to contest the domination of Afghanistan with the local Taliban and other militant groups. They have already accelerated their disruptive strikes against American, ISAF and Afghan forces to highlight their own strength, and the lack of political will and military capacity in their adversaries. Moreover, the proximity of the Pak Taliban and al Qaeda leadership to the Islamic forces in the Middle East - the Pak Taliban has recently announced its allegiance to them - has serious implications for the rest of South Asia.

Clearly, a civil war and instability in Afghanistan and the prospects of Islamic extremism radiating out into Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics, besides India, Saudi Arabia, and China, has grave implications for Asian security. The question of the moment is what India could do to ensure its national interests. Continuance of its economic and developmental assistance to Afghanistan, which is an investment in the country’s stability, should be enhanced. India could also enhance its training of the Afghan armed forces for which it has the capacity. How to address the security threat from the Pak Taliban and al Qaeda to Afghanistan remains the critical question. Ruling out boots-on-the-ground the other option available is close consultations to derive a common approach with other countries affected.

Is it unthinkable that India should coordinate its efforts with Pakistan by reviving its interrupted dialogue with Islamabad?

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