The Trump Administration is dithering and the President has inexplicably blamed his military commander, General Nicholson, for not securing "victory" in Afghanistan. This is naturally promoting unease in Kabul about what US policies are going to be in a country, where the 9/11 masterminds plotted and planned the attacks, under Taliban rule. There are, however, indications that despite the President's dithering, the State Department, the Pentagon and even the White House staff are clear on how to proceed ahead. Trump is, therefore, expected to adopt the policies advocated by the US Congress and the professionals in his Administration, as he has done in relations with Russia, the Gulf Arab States and North Korea.
Led by the ailing head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and once pro-Pakistani Senator John McCain, the US Congress is now proposing closer oversight of how US funds are utilised by the Afghan Government. The US legislation, for the first time, proposes “imposing graduated diplomatic, military and economic costs on Pakistan as long as it continues to provide support and sanctuary to terrorist and insurgent groups, including the Taliban and the Haqqani network”. It links American assistance to “cessation by Pakistan of support for all terrorist and insurgent groups and playing a constructive role in bringing about a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan”. In diplomatic terms, it calls for "working through flexible frameworks for regional dialogue, together with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other nations." The proposed legislation also calls for strengthening the Afghan security forces and authorises the use of US forces to target militants of the Haqqani network, the Taliban and others. The US House of Representatives is moving in a parallel direction, reflecting a broad national consensus on Afghanistan.
In the meantime, the State Department’s “Country Report of Terrorism, 2016” has noted that Pakistan has failed to take action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which continue to operate from “Pakistan-based safe havens”. The Taliban and the Haqqani network are described jointly with India-centric terrorist groups like Lashkar e Taiba and Jaish e Mohammed as "groups located in Pakistan, but focused on attacks outside the country." The report avers that the Pakistan Government did not take any significant action against Lashkar and Jaish, “other than implementing a publicity ban on their activities”. This is the first time that the State Department, the Pentagon and the US Congress have come out so openly against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism across its borders. It now remains for President Trump to make up his mind on how to move ahead. Indications are that the US will not be averse to calibrated drone strikes on the Taliban and Haqqani safe havens within Pakistan. Trump takes a more cautious line on issues involving American lives than his advisers, though it remains to be seen how much isolationist advisers like Steve Bannon influence him.
I had an occasion to spend four days last week in Kabul and the picturesque Panjshir Valley, which was the home of national icon Ahmed Shah Masood. Panjshir is the heartland of anti-Taliban sentiments. It is clear that the domestic military and diplomatic situation is challenging and complex. The role of Daesh (ISIS) is deliberately exaggerated by Pakistan to divert attention from its own pernicious role in backing the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which enjoy sanctuary and support from the ISI, on Pakistani soil. During the course of my stay, the Iraqi Embassy, located in the heart of Kabul, was attacked by the ISIS, in revenge for the ISIS defeat in Mosul by the Iraqi Army. The next day the famous Shia Mosque in Herat close to the Iranian border was attacked and 32 worshipers were killed. The Taliban imposed a 24-hour blockade of the strategic southern highway linking Kandahar to Kabul, effectively shutting down movement between the capital and southern Afghanistan. An American convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber near Kandahar, resulting in the death of seven soldiers. The internal situation remains complex, with First Vice President Rashid Dostum being accused of rape and influential leaders calling for a “Loya Jirga”, which would inevitably undermine the influence of the present dispensation.
Afghanistan also faces significant external challenges. The most serious challenge comes from Pakistan, which is determined to make Afghanistan a client state, ruled by its proxies like the Taliban and the Haqqani network. There is recognition that Pakistan would like to promote a dialogue between the Taliban and the government, treating both as “equal participants.” China is lending formidable support to this Pakistani effort. The Russian effort to take the lead in Afghan "reconciliation" by joining China has not exactly been welcomed by the Afghans, especially as the Russians are known to have supplied weapons recently to the Taliban. While Iran joined India in backing the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” in the days preceding 9/11, Teheran has, in recent days, faced criticism because of its clandestine links with the Taliban, whose former supremo Mullah Mansour was killed in a US drone strike, while returning from Iran.
In these circumstances, Afghans openly and enthusiastically welcome India’s steadfast economic, military and diplomatic support. A major reason for this goodwill has been the economic assistance that India has provided, including building the Salma Dam to provide water and irrigation facilities for the Herat region, building a high voltage transmission line, bringing electricity across high mountains from Uzbekistan to Kabul, mid-day meals for school children, aiding dozens of micro-projects across the country and providing training facilities for thousands of Afghan students and professionals.
The diplomatic and security challenges that India faces in Afghanistan are formidable, primarily because of the brazenness of Pakistan support for the Taliban. The stakes are high. An ISI-backed Taliban triumph in Afghanistan will stimulate and encourage a surge of ISI-sponsored terrorist activity in India. Afghanistan and India need to carry out a relentless diplomatic campaign worldwide against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Afghanistan will have to be supported in facing machinations by China and others like Russia, to give the Taliban increasing recognition, as a legitimate stakeholder in Afghanistan, with status on a par with the constitutionally elected Afghan Government. Priority also needs to be given to drawing up a five-year plan for economic assistance, with initial emphasis being given to improving connectivity through Chah Bahar in Iran.
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