Former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi
Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib reportedly used a visit to New Delhi to privately press on a request for at least a brigade — perhaps even a division — of Indian troops to be deployed in a peacekeeping role, ahead of a peace deal with the Taliban which is expected to lead to the final withdrawal of United States forces,” a CNBC TV18 report said on January 27.
The present situation in Afghanistan can be described as a strategic stalemate. Forces of the Afghan National Army (ANA), supported by the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), are not losing, but the resurgent Taliban now controls about one-third to half of Afghanistan. Even in the rest of the country, while the ANA controls the towns, the writ of the Taliban runs in large areas of the countryside, especially at night. The devastating conflict has taken a heavy toll over two decades. According to an estimate, direct war-related casualties comprise over 1,11,000 dead and 1,16,000 wounded.
The US President, Donald Trump, had announced his administration’s policy for the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan in August 2017 as part of his strategy for South Asia. Contrary to his campaign promise to pull out, he has pledged continuing US support for diplomatic, military and financial commitment to peace and stability and political reconciliation. He has also reiterated that US efforts for the elimination of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan would continue. Trump left the decision on the number of troops to be maintained in Afghanistan to the then Defence Secretary, General James Mattis. Consequently, about 4,000 additional troops were sent to reinforce the 9,800 American troops who were then stationed in Afghanistan.
In a major departure from the policies of the Obama administration, Trump had invited India to join the US as a partner to work towards conflict resolution in Afghanistan. He had called India a ‘key security and economic partner of the United States’ and said that developing a strategic partnership with India was a ‘critical part of the South Asia strategy for America.’
The new strategy was welcomed in the region, except by Pakistan. As had been widely anticipated, Trump put Pakistan on notice for encouraging terrorist organisations to destabilise neighbouring countries and warned the country that ‘it has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists.’ Despite immense American pressure, Pakistan’s ISI still supports several factions of the Afghan Taliban and provides them a safe haven.
Efforts made towards political reconciliation to find a negotiated end to the protracted conflict have borne no tangible results. The reconciliation talks between former US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives from its office in Qatar had stalled after some progress. A parallel Russian initiative, called the ‘Moscow format’, succeeded in bringing together the Taliban and Afghan representatives, but the Afghans were from the High Peace Council, a ‘national but non-government institution’.
According to a communique issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, ‘The main topic of discussion was the question of the speedy launch of a direct inter-Afghan dialogue on peace in order to stabilise the situation in this country.’ Though there is a general agreement that reconciliation negotiations should be ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’, the Taliban have consistently refused to meet representatives of the Afghan government.
The Taliban continue to haunt government forces. Ambushes, suicide bombers, car bombs and IED explosions are commonplace. Sporadic strikes by the terrorists belonging to the ISIS Khorasan — the local branch of the ultra-extremist Islamic State that follows the Sunni-Wahhabi and Salafi school of Islam — to stoke sectarian conflict by attacking the Shias continue unabated. Governance is weak, crime is rampant and corruption and tax evasion are widespread. The presidential election that was scheduled for April 2019 was postponed to July that year.
The troops’ drawdown ordered by President Trump has further emboldened the Taliban and weakened the Afghan government. One of the Taliban leaders gloated that they had ‘defeated the world’s lone super power.’ They will now demand the withdrawal of all foreign forces before they agree to continue further negotiations without themselves making any concessions.
Given its geographical location on the strategic crossroads to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and West Asia, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is in vital national interest for India. By definition, vital national interests are required to be furthered or defended by using military force, if necessary. India has not been invited to join the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), nor is there any support for military intervention in India’s policy community. However, after being kept away from the high table for decision-making for conflict resolution by the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations in deference to Pakistan’s sensibilities, India is now being urged by the Trump administration to do more to help resolve the conflict.
India has invested over $3 billion in projects for reconstruction in Afghanistan, donated four Mi-25 attack helicopters, provided training to Afghan military personnel, civilian pilots and administrators and has been regularly providing humanitarian aid and medical supplies. The Indian embassy in Kabul and Indian consulates as well as road construction protection parties of the ITBP have been attacked by the Taliban and have suffered a large number of casualties.
With the US drawdown likely to begin soon and others sure to follow, the clichéd Taliban taunt, ‘You have the watches, but we have the time’, has begun to ring true. The worst case scenario for India would be the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul, because Pakistan’s ISI would be sure to divert many of the hardcore fighters — of the factions over which it has control — to Kashmir.
India’s national interest lies in formulating a strategy jointly with the Afghan government that ensures that a Taliban takeover can be prevented. If invited, India must put boots on the ground. A brigade group can be logistically sustained and would make a good contribution to peace and stability.
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