Status Report on Afghanistan: Raghav Sharma
As Afghanistan prepares for its presidential elections in August, it is plagued with many internal challenges. The foremost issue of concern is the spread of the Taliban to at least 72 percent of Afghanistan including areas beyond their southern stronghold into the east and significant parts of Kabul. The Taliban have stepped up their attacks, mostly directed against the security forces but also increasingly against the civilians. Of the 2118 civilian casualties recorded last year (a 40 per cent increase since 2007), at least 55 per cent is reported to have been caused by the Taliban. Two-third of the violence is concentrated in nine provinces bordering Pakistan, caused due to spread of Taliban into Pakistan, that has further strained relations between the two neighbors. Drug cultivation remains rampant with at least 14 million Afghans dependant on poppy cultivation in the absence of better alternatives. Its role in financing the Taliban insurgency is evident in the glaring disparity between the salary of a soldier in the Afghan National Army (75 USD) and that of a Taliban soldier (200-300 USD). The good news in this regard however is that poppy free provinces increased from 13 to 18 last year, primarily due to a slump in poppy prices caused by overproduction and non-availability of water for irrigation. Governance crisis remains another area of concern with Afghanistan ranked 176 out of 180 in the Global Corruption Perception Index.
Given the failure of the Afghan government to effectively address any of these challenges, there is a palpable sense of voter disillusionment in Afghanistan that together with the mammoth logistical, financial and security challenges in holding elections can lead to a low voter turn out. Furthermore, the fact that the Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran will not be registered to vote may result in a sense of disempowerment among the Pashtuns vis-à-vis other ethnic groups. Ensuring a successful election is critical therefore, for the Karzai government to regain its legitimacy, and the international community will do well to support the Karzai government and avoid interference.
Evolving US Interests and Strategies: Lt Gen Raghavan
The prevailing complexities in Afghanistan are further compounded by contradictory assessments of the situation on the ground, both among the establishment in Afghanistan and the US, and among the soldiers and aid workers on the ground. Lack of consensus on the developments in Afghanistan is further impeding attempts by the US to project some victory on the ground.
Pakistan remains pivotal in the strategy but how the US administration deals with its disappointment with Pakistan will be critical. Pakistan on the one hand will come under tremendous pressure to review its policy of supporting the Taliban as a strategic instrument of retaining influence in Afghanistan. But on the other hand, continuing with military operations will not be easy for Pakistan in light of the growing social ethnic tensions in society. Building a regional alliance is another key focus of the strategy but the administration is likely to have a tough time balancing the competing national interests of players like China, Iran, India and Russia. Then there is the problem of unwilling allies including UK, France and Germany that face tremendous domestic pressure to justify their presence in Afghanistan though trans-Atlantic loyalty should trump other factors for the time being.
The strategy of focusing on building governance capacity is similar to the one used in Vietnam where at least 20,000 advisors were deployed. But the experience in Vietnam has only too clearly established the limitations of state-building efforts imported from abroad. The aspect of negotiating with the moderate Taliban, mirrors the strategy used in Iraq in terms of raising sunni militias. However, this created its own internal security dynamics within Iraq, forcing the Americans to withdraw into fortified compounds. In trying to replicate this tactic in Afghanistan, the Americans must bear in mind the cost in terms of civilian casualties and danger to coalition forces that runs the risk of de-legitimizing American involvement in the region.
While the strategy does not contain any element that can be perceived as negative for India’s national interests, Pakistan will certainly try to link its own actions with India’s efforts at addressing its threat perception, particularly in Kashmir. The increasing opinion within Pakistan in favour of demilitarization in Kashmir as a sign of its non-hegemonic intentions is designed to portray India as a bully in the region. To this extent, Indian foreign policy will need to offer confidence to the US about its commitment to state-building in Afghanistan and its role as a supportive and stabilizing power in the region.
Having an exit strategy is important for Obama as this distinguishes his administration’s policy from that of President Bush’s. But any strategy that does not enjoy the cushion of time is likely to falter. Finally, Obama’s administration is striving to straddle the middle path between military-focused counterinsurgency and more ambitious nation-building strategy. Given the internal drivers and the pressure on the US to maintain a credible global leadership, the US efforts need to be appreciated for attempting to enforce order.
Pakistan Challenges and Response: Ajay Darshan Behera
In responding to Obama administration’s Af-Pak strategy, Pakistan is severely constrained by its numerous domestic challenges including weak state institutions, absence of a clear centre of authority (except the military to some extent), crippling economy, a looming refugee crisis with over 2 million internally displaced people fleeing the Swat valley and Buner, and tense social relations in light of growing extremism. Coupled with the above challenges is the much-exaggerated fear of an extremist take-over of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Despite these domestic challenges, and the geo-political shifts in the region, Pakistan’s threat perception vis-à-vis India remains unchanged. It continues to push for retaining strategic influence over Afghanistan, explaining in turn its reluctance to fight the Taliban despite mounting pressure from the international community. The moot question in this regard is who is deciding this strategy for Pakistan, the fractured political establishment or the military?
While these domestic challenges are seen by others as serious threats, it remains unclear whether Pakistan itself perceives them as such. It seems that apart from its strategic location, Pakistan is also using its internal weaknesses to garner more military and economic assistance from the West. This explains why it has done little to boost its own economy through restructuring of taxes, social spending and such, or to change the dominant perception within Pakistan of seeing the fight against the Taliban as not their war. Had Pakistan’s state institutions and economy been stronger, the strategy of the US might well have been different. But it is evidently clear that the US engagement with Pakistan will continue whether Obama implements an exit policy or not. The strategy however needs to clearly flesh out ways of strengthening Pakistan’s economy and invest in social development before the strategic relationship starts paying dividends to the US.
- In cooperating with the US on Afghanistan and Pakistan, India needs to tread carefully despite assertions of mutual interest between US and India from Washington. Given the salience of US interests in the region, India’s role in Afghanistan is unlikely to expand beyond its current engagement. Similarly, India is not going to be a player in Pakistan although it has tremendous stake in the stability of Pakistan. Moreover, recent efforts by the US to engage with the moderate Taliban should be a cause of concern for India because of its obvious benefits for Pakistan. However, it needs to be reiterated that New Delhi wants to the US to succeed and bring stability in the war-torn nation.
- India and Pakistan will not fight another war for a long time, war will be highly limited. Moreover, there is no nuclear threat from Pakistan despite reports that it has developed a second strike capability.
- Pakistan is unwilling to commit its troops on the western border citing reasons of a threat from India on its eastern border. India, therefore, should call Pakistan’s bluff by undertaking measures that will eliminate this perception of threat. Pakistan army can handle insurgency and Balochistan proves this; however, it is unwilling to fight insurgency in NWFP, which is of a different character.
- While the Pakistan government says that there is public support for the military operations in NWFP, it seems that the public in Pakistan still does not consider the Taliban a threat. Pakistan army till recently considered the Taliban to be a strategic asset.
- There is a viewpoint that the US policy in Afghanistan is to talk tough and develop a situation where it can legitimately withdraw. If so, it is important that India’s role is marginal in the US Afghan policy.
- The army is the real centre of power in Pakistan. It is a corporate entity and it will not liquidate its role peacefully. Therefore, there will be no change in its perception vis-à-vis India. This threat perception helps them retain their role in Pakistan.
- It is apparent that the Obama administration is keen on withdrawing from Afghanistan; however, the question is: can they do that and when? The US can withdraw only if someone else fills the vacuum. Again the question is: Who will fill the gap – the Afghan army or the Pakistan army? The Afghan army is in no condition to fill the gap and the Pakistan army is not sure if its wants to do that.
- In the long term, India faces an immense challenge from Afghanistan and Pakistan. India should be able to realistically assess the threat posed and increase its internal security.
- The US policy in Afghanistan reflects the goals and objectives of the Obama administration, which has redefined the metric of success. Accordingly, the US is seeking a stable Afghanistan and by stable it means, an Afghanistan that does not support or harbor al-Qaeda.
- Pakistan is the pivot around which the Af-Pak strategy revolves. In which case, if India is seeking a role in Afghanistan, it cannot avoid the India-Pakistan hyphenation. Instead, India can use this hyphenation to its advantage to stabilize Afghanistan.
- Karzai had almost been written off; however, he has struck deals with ethnic tribes and is likely to return to power. By doing so, he has found an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem. There is a limit to outside solutions for an internal problem. India, therefore, should assist Afghanistan to work out its own solution.
Devyani Srivastava and Rekha Chakravarthi
- One should understand the US dilemma. The fundamental premise on which the US had based its Afghan policy was credible political and military assistance from Pakistan. Therefore, there can be no resolution to Afghanistan without Pakistan. If we look at it from the US point of view, the pivotal player (Pakistan) has now become a doubtful player.
- Both the NDA and UPA governments had a policy of engaging with global players. The new External Affairs Minister points to the same direction. What is the specific role that India can play in Afghanistan? There are three obvious areas. First is the military role, assuming that India can play a greater role once the US withdraws. Second is enhancing training and third is economic assistance. Additionally, India can arrange in bringing the jirgas/tribal elders together to resolve issues. However, India cannot seek a dominant role in what is seen as Pakistan’s sphere of influence. India should push for a regional solution where Iran, Russia, China, Central Asian states all have a stake in Afghanistan and whose interests are affected.
- Nobody knows how the moderate Taliban would rule from Kabul or who would they comprise of. The Taliban role has spread in Afghanistan which has to be legitimized through a political dialogue. There is no guarantee that Afghanistan would be stabilized if the moderate Taliban comes to power. However, they can be used to work out a solution.
- Pakistan army does not have a good record in fighting insurgency. Balochistan is a bad example because the insurgency is not over yet and it is resurgent each decade. Moreover, the army will not employ the kind of force in NWFP as it did in Balochistan. As far as India is concerned, it will always be perceived as a threat by the Pakistan army.
Research Officers, IPCS