India still has the ability to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected after 2014.
The U.S., with eyes set on a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, is attempting to engage the Taliban in peace talks in Doha, Qatar. The talks are being brokered by the military establishment in Pakistan, much to the chagrin of Hamid Karzai. Indeed, two of the most recent attempts to engage with the Taliban were scuttled because Mr. Karzai took offense to the Taliban claiming it represented the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Mr. Karzai apparently read the riot act to folks in DC, which was enough to call off talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, albeit temporarily.
If a preview was needed on what a post-NATO environment might look like in Afghanistan, the world got one on Monday. The Taliban launched a suicide attack near the presidential palace and the offices of the CIA in Kabul. But the U.S., for its part, now says it is unsure as to whether it even considers the Taliban to be a terrorist organization.
The irony should not be lost on us that it was the U.S. that was in no mood for negotiation (“Bring ‘em on,” he said) when it launched a massive assault on Afghanistan in 2001; twelve years on, it is the Taliban that appears disinterested in working out compromises while the U.S. is engaged in nimble pussyfooting.
With the U.S. and NATO forces leaving in 2014, Hamid Karzai’s regime will be losing its security guarantor. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is ill-trained and faces attrition and ethnic disunity. It will be incapable of completely taking over security operations from NATO after 2014. Therefore, deal or no deal with the U.S., when Mullah Omar and his faithful followers return to Afghanistan, the country will be plunged into yet another bloody and protracted civil war that will most likely leave the Taliban in a position of advantage. Pakistan’s perfidy is bearing fruit.
For India, instability in Afghanistan will affect not only its infrastructure and exploration projects in that country, but could also have an impact on India’s domestic security. Few in India have forgotten the Pakistan-engineered hijacking of IC-814 in 1999 to Kandahar that compelled India to release Maulana Masood Azhar (who later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed) and Omar Sheikh (now sentenced to death for his role in the killing of Daniel Pearl) in exchange for Indian hostages.
Pakistan has continued to exploit the instability in Afghanistan to engineer attacks against Indian interests in Kabul; the 2008 and 2009 Indian embassy bombings come to mind. It is very possible, therefore, that there will be a qualitative and quantitative escalation in attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan once the U.S. and its allies leave.
It is to the backdrop of these developments that the newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a tour of India and the Middle East. In India apparently, he was given a frosty reception. Mr. Kerry is said to have addressed a largely empty India Habitat Center on Sunday. We are told many in New Delhi are upset at the U.S. “abandoning Afghanistan” and negotiating compromises with the Taliban. New Delhi is “livid” at John Kerry the “opportunist,” one report said.
But surely, the U.S.’s attempts to extricate itself from a messy situation in Afghanistan are the rational actions of a country that deems its exit from the region to be in line with its national interests. How does one justify India’s apparent anger at the U.S.? For over a decade, the U.S. has been the dominant guarantor of security in Afghanistan. Chinese and Indian investment projects in Afghanistan have benefited greatly by the security provided by NATO. Yet, neither India nor China has contributed significantly to providing security in Afghanistan.
Calls have been made in the past for India to deploy its troops and assist in the effort to secure Afghanistan. In a 2010 article in Pragati, I made the case for India to provide training and equipment to the ANA in a more meaningful manner. But apart from training a few army and police officers and supplying helicopters to the ANA, we have largely avoided accepting security-related responsibilities in Afghanistan for fear of exacerbating Pakistan’s pathological insecurities.
Indeed, even Mr. Karzai’s apparent last-ditch attempt to request Indian assistance in securing Afghanistan was dealt with great hesitance in New Delhi. The free ride is now at an end; the U.S. and its allies are pursuing courses of action that they believe are in line with their national interests; India must do likewise too.
The generals in Rawalpindi are free to believe that they have played the great game with a superpower and that victory now is at hand. But to draw parallels between the emerging regional environment and that of the 1990s, when Pakistan exerted unchallenged influence over Afghanistan, would be to misread the situation. First, the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan will not necessarily translate into Pakistan getting a free hand to do as it pleases in Afghanistan. The U.S. will still continue to maintain a small, but effective military presence in the region, including a contingent of armed drones.
Second, Pakistan as the source of a potential terror threat to the U.S. homeland will not diminish post 2014. The U.S. will undoubtedly be aware of this, and as such, is unlikely to wind down capabilities needed to neutralize threats based in Pakistan. Indeed, recent hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security (coupled with similar hearings in the Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2010) on Lashkar-e-Taiba — a Pakistan-supported terrorist group traditionally thought of as being India-focused, but posing no potential threat to the U.S. — points to a recalculation of assumptions on the LeT in the U.S.
Third, Pakistan’s generals have filled their coffers with money provided as economic aid by the U.S. for over ten years. But this source of funds will dry up with the U.S.’s departure. In fact, it is likely that the U.S.’s first-hand experience with Pakistan’s duplicity on terror and nuclear proliferation will invite fresh U.S. sanctions similar to the Pressler Amendment. Fresh sanctions directed at a country already on economic life-support can be an effective tool in curtailing bad behavior.
And fourth, Pakistan’s towns and cities are facing the consequences of the army’s poor choice of using militants as instruments of foreign policy. Many have turned their guns on the state and its citizens, while insurgencies rage on in FATA, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. This doesn’t mean, however, that Pakistan won’t continue to arm terrorist groups focused on India and Afghanistan; but the consequences of a spillover of the conflict from Afghanistan into Pakistan on an overstretched army will not be lost on Rawalpindi either.
Thus, even at this juncture and for all its inaction, India can still ensure that its interests — both in Afghanistan and in India — remain protected. Old alliances can be renewed and new ones established; covert capabilities and information sharing with the Afghan intelligence apparatus and regional powers can be enhanced. Closer cooperation with the U.S. amidst a convergence of perceptions on Pakistan could give India new levers with which to manage its relations with its difficult neighbor to the west. Contrary to popular perception, this game is far from over.