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Stepping up on Afghanistan

India must use its good offices to ensure that the U.S. and Afghanistan sign a bilateral security agreement.

If the world was in need of a preview of things to come in a post-2014 Afghanistan, it got one on Friday.  A Taliban attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul claimed 21 lives. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s chief for Afghanistan, a senior political official at the UN and a British candidate in the upcoming elections for the European parliament.

The insurgency in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of many of its citizens as well as those of NATO’s security forces.  But as the New York Times notes, attacks against foreign soft targets have been relatively less frequent.  The Kabul Hotel Inter-Continental was attacked in 2011; U.S. and Indian embassies have been hit in Kabul and in other parts of Afghanistan.  The more recent attacks have involved operations with the use of suicide bombers to breach perimeter security followed by commando-style assaults with the use of RPGs and assault rifles.

The Taliban have historically relied on suicide attacks against Western military targets, but the use of commando-style assaults in and around Kabul may point to a collaboration with Pakistan-sponsored groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, loosely referred to as the “Kabul Attack Network.”

The goal, ultimately, is to weaken the will of the West to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.  The U.S. and NATO winding down operations in Afghanistan will undoubtedly create a perilous security situation in that country.  Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to enter into a status of forces agreement with the U.S., even as the Afghan National Army remains ill-equipped to deal with a raging insurgency coupled with terrorist assaults on the capital.

Mr. Karzai is throwing caution to the wind by tying the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to the U.S. facilitating “peace talks” with the Taliban.  He may get neither.  The U.S.’s ability to facilitate a negotiation with the Taliban remains in question, particularly when the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan have been working towards the goal of ensuring a total exit of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan all along.  Mr. Karzai, whose presidency ends in April 2014, may have little to lose, but the burdens of his action or inaction will be borne by Afghanistan’s future governments.

Meanwhile, anyone in New Delhi still under the delusion that events in Afghanistan have no bearing on the security of India would do well to reach for their history books.  It is precisely the sort of Pakistan-supported, Taliban-operated environment that could prevail in a post-2014 Afghanistan that allowed for India’s surrender of Maulana Masood Azhar (who was languishing in an Indian jail) in Kandahar in exchange for passengers hijacked onboard IC-814 in 1999.

As a result of our capitulation, Azhar returned to Pakistan to regroup members of the terrorist group Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in 2000.  A year later, JeM attacked the Indian parliament, killing 12 civilians.  Our members of parliament, rather miraculously, escaped unharmed.

A similar situation may present itself when the U.S. departs Afghanistan.  Although many of us have called for India to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, or at least play a more active role in training and supplying weapons to Afghan security forces, New Delhi has chosen to only limit its involvement to economy and institution-building.  Laudable endeavors undoubtedly, but insufficient to ensure the security of India and her interests in that country.

India has already rebuffed Mr. Karzai’s request for weaponry during his December 2013 visit.  But if India is disinclined to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, it must, at the very least, ensure that a U.S. security presence remains in the country to prevent it from being engulfed in yet another civil war that could render twelve years of development and progress to naught.

Indeed, India is most uniquely positioned — as a friend to both the U.S. and Afghanistan — to use its good offices to ensure that a version of the BSA agreeable to both Afghanistan and the U.S. is signed.  Almost every other country is viewed with suspicion by either DC or Kabul.  Last week, U.S. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan visited India to discuss the furture of Afghanistan.  U.S. intelligence officials also met an Indian delegation led by Joint Intelligence Chief Ajit Lal to urge India’s influence with Mr. Karzai to conclude the BSA.

There is no doubt that India is in the midst of domestic political upheaval.  The economy is sagging and political stewardship is found wanting in almost every aspect of governance.  However, facilitating a status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. must become a national security priority for India.

A U.S.-Afghanistan BSA cannot prevent attacks such as the one this past Friday, but it may stave off a total collapse of the state to the Taliban.  Ultimately, it is simply not in India’s interests to see Afghanistan relapse into the laboratory of terrorism that it once was under Pakistan’s influence. (And on a separate note, New Delhi’s assistance in facilitating a BSA could also demonstrate that both India and the U.S. are committed to putting the very unseemly squabble over Devyani Khobragade behind them).

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The Afghanistan endgame

Time for India to get its act together.

The United States Institute for Peace (USIP), along with the Jinnah Institute (JI), recently co-convened a project to study the perceptions of Pakistan’s “foreign policy elite” towards the Afghanistan endgame.  A summary of the discussions is available on USIP’s website (PDF), while detailed findings will be published soon.  A cursory review of the document tells us nothing new about Pakistan’s perceptions with regard to endgame scenarios in Afghanistan.  The document highlights three outcomes sought by Pakistan in Afghanistan — a “degree of” stability in Afghanistan, an inclusive government in Kabul, and limiting Indian presence to development activities.

Pakistan’s foreign policy elites perceived U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to be inconsistent and counterproductive to Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and the region.  Hardly surprising, since Pakistan’s interests never converged with those of the U.S. in Afghanistan, a fact that has only recently become apparent to some in D.C.  It should also be clear that regardless of outcomes, Pakistan will continue to seek “strategic depth” — a euphemism for territory Pakistan hopes to use against Indian interests — in Afghanistan.  But what does mean for the U.S. and India?

Some home truths, first.  Since May 2, 2011 and the events that have followed, it is now clear that Pakistan’s ability to negotiate a favorable outcome in Afghanistan is significantly diminished.  Pakistan is more marginalized today than it has ever been since 2001 in influencing outcomes in Afghanistan.  Contrast this against the sense of being on the doorsteps of victory that prevailed in Rawalpindi 16 months ago.

The discovery of bin Laden “hiding in plain sight” in Abbottabad has left Pakistan with very few fans in D.C.  While the U.S. has always sought to lessen its reliance on Pakistan, these plans have gained significant momentum.  The so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) now accounts for about 65% of traffic to Afghanistan (contrast this to 2010, when 70% of the traffic was routed through Pakistan).  In addition, the U.S. is now in direct negotiations with the Taliban (“direct,” because they bypass Pakistani negotiators).

How fruitful these negotiations will be remains to be seen.  There are conflicting reports in the Pakistani press that indicate that negotiations have collapsed, while reports in the U.S. indicate otherwise.  Indeed, news reports now suggest that Afghan officials, fearful that direct U.S.-Taliban negotiations would undermine President Karzai, scuttled the talks.

But the realities in Afghanistan are that President Karzai is largely isolated and running out of allies.  Apart from the fact that relations with the U.S. are chilly, Mr. Karzai is also not a popular personality in Pakistan, and is increasingly isolated from his own people.  The security vacuum, particularly in southern Afghanistan, has claimed the lives of thousands of Afghan citizens and officials, including President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and mayor of Khandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi over the past many months.  This security vacuum can only be addressed by helping Afghanistan protect itself and its citizens.  This means providing Afghanistan the necessary security assistance and training to allow the much-maligned ANA and local law enforcement units to play a larger role in defending the country.

It is also true that Pakistan, as a neighbor to Afghanistan, cannot be excluded from influencing  the endgame in Afghanistan.  And contrary to Pakistan’s protestations, neither the U.S. nor India would want Pakistan not to play a constructive role in shaping the future of its neighbor.  But given Pakistan’s historic involvement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, its continuing support to Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network, and its quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s credentials are at best tainted, and are a cause for concern in India.

Further, Pakistan crying “Wolf!” over every real or imagined instance of Indian engagement in Afghanistan is a red herring.  Many of us have argued for an Indian military presence in Afghanistan and for India to train ANA personnel.  While India has trained some ANA officers, deploying a contingent of the Indian army appears remote now, given India’s preoccupation with  domestic political issues.  India has assisted Afghanistan in reconstruction and development efforts, even constructing the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which links Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar.  Of course, Pakistan’s Taliban proxies now control the highway.  It should be pretty apparent then that there is no way that New Delhi can accept Pakistan’s terms for Indian engagement in Afghanistan.

Whether Pakistan likes it or not, India must continue to engage with Afghanistan and transform its ties from merely the donor-benefactor relationship that currently exists.  New Delhi’s hesitance in forging deeper ties with Afghanistan haven’t hurt India as badly as it could have, because many of us have consistently underestimated Pakistan’s propensity and willingness to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot.

However, the U.S.’s plans to withdraw forces from Afghanistan beginning in 2014, and Pakistan’s waning influence in D.C. on Afghanistan-related issues present new opportunities to India that it must act on.  As the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan changes, so must too India’s.  India should be looking to expand ties with Afghanistan and transform the donor-benefactor relationship to one between trading partners.  Given the common threats India and Afghanistan face, deepening military and intelligence cooperation is equally important.  The question that needs to be asked is if New Delhi will take cognizance of these opportunities and act on them, or will it fritter them away, as it unfortunately has with so many countries in its immediate neighborhood.

 

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Responding to Michael Scheuer

Let us not rationalize irrationality.

The Diplomat carried an article by Michael Scheuer entitled “Coming Nuclear Flashpoint” on the India-Pakistan equation as it relates to Afghanistan.  Mr. Scheuer is a foreign policy critic and former CIA Station Chief of Bin Laden Issue Station (aka Alec Station).  He is noted to have strong views on U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and on the “Israeli lobby” in D.C.

The gist of Mr. Scheuer’s article is essentially this — that India has unwisely chosen to involve itself in Afghanistan.  This has caused uneasiness in Pakistan, which may in turn result in a nuclear confrontation between the two neighbors.  Mr. Scheuer attempts to substantiate his “bells of doom” theory for India by making several arguments that have no sound basis.

The first has to do with the concept of Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.  This term is a particular favorite of folks in Rawalpindi and employed to sell gullible visiting U.S. and NATO generals on why Pakistan’s influence must be unchallenged in Afghanistan.  Let’s be clear about what this “strategic depth” really is.  It isn’t meant to be, as some might imagine, a last refuge for a retreating Pakistani army in the face of an invading Indian army.

The term “strategic depth” is a euphemism for territory that Pakistan wants to use to attack India and Indian interests. This has precedence:  while many in the West might have forgotten, the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in December 1999, executed by Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, is still fresh in the minds of many in India.  The idea therefore, that India ought to somehow be sympathetic towards such nefarious designs is ridiculous.

Second, Mr. Scheuer attacks India’s investments in infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, suggesting that there is more than meets the eye as far as India’s intentions go.  Specifically, he draws attention to India’s work on the Zaranj-Delaram project, which he feels can be used by Afghanistan to trade with Central Asia by bypassing Pakistan; Mr. Scheuer feels that this was deliberately designed to hurt the Pakistani economy.  Here, it would not be imprudent to ask, “what Pakistani economy?”

At the very least, this argument presupposes that India gains from an economically battered Pakistan — if this were the case, India’s contribution to such a situation would matter little;  successive Pakistani governments have themselves been single-minded in their pursuit to loot their country and destroy its economy.

Third, on Afghanistan, Mr. Scheuer suggests that the mujahideen have not forgotten India’s support for Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the repercussions for this support will be apparent once U.S. and NATO forces leave.  Certainly, the mujahideen have been anti-India (supported as they are by Pakistan’s ISI) but it is wrong to think that they are representative of the people of Afghanistan.

A 2009 poll ( PDF) conducted by BBC/ABC/ARD indicates that 71 percent of the Afghans polled had a favorable opinion of  India — the highest for any foreign nation — as against unfavorable opinions of Pakistan (81 percent), the Taliban (89 percent) and Osama bin Laden (91 percent).  The same poll also showed that 56 percent of Afghans in 2009 indicated that they had access to improved road infrastructure, while 50 percent believed they had access to better medical care — two areas of significant Indian contribution.

Next, an area where I agree (if only in part) with Mr. Scheuer is on India’s exclusive reliance on soft power in Afghanistan.  Many of us at INI and other platforms have argued that over reliance on  soft power will be detrimental to India’s interests in Afghanistan.  Over at Pragati, many have made the case for India to match its soft power in Afghanistan with hard power, viz. deploying troops. Some of us have even argued that the very least India ought to do is commit to train the Afghan National Army at a time when Western forces are seeking to wind down their own commitments.

The difference between our arguments and Mr. Scheuer’s is that while we argue that soft power alone cannot be the basis of India’s engagement in Afghanistan, Mr. Scheuer argues that no Indian influence — whether soft or hard — is acceptable in Afghanistan.  Given the obvious implications of a security vacuum in Afghanistan to India’s internal security, such a position is not only untenable but unacceptable.

Mr. Scheuer is right that Indian interests in Afghanistan will be increasingly targeted once U.S. and NATO forces leave.  However, the  solution to this is not for India to flee from the scene, with tail firmly between its legs.  India must counter Pakistani influence by working with like-minded countries, such as Russia and Iran and yes, even the U.S. to deny ground to the Wahhabi brigade that turned Afghanistan into a festering swamp of extremism in the ’90s.

Finally, perhaps the biggest mistake Mr. Scheuer commits in his article is trying to rationalize the Pakistani establishment’s deliberate irrationality.  While on the one hand articulating Pakistan’s hysteria with great clarity, he almost inexplicably accepts this institutional irrationality as valid, and appears irritated that India does not.

Let us be clear — India’s actions in Afghanistan have as much to do with its desire to help rebuild a war-ravaged nation as they do with mitigating national security risks.  India need not apologize — to anyone — nor back down from doing everything it can to protect its people and its interests.  Now Pakistan’s interests may be incompatible with this, but that’s unsurprising, given that the Pakistan military-jihadi complex’s position is antithetical to the existence of India.  Giving credence to such irrational positions is an exercise in appeasement that will come back to haunt the rest of the world and India.

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The War on Amrullah Saleh

How many journalists does it take to fix an Afghan light bulb?

Ever since Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) resigned after a Taliban attack on the Afghan Peace Jirga, the Pakistani establishment has gone to great lengths to malign the former intelligence official.  This insidious campaign aims to both target Mr. Saleh’s credibility and restore a Pakistan-favorable narrative in Kabul’s corridors of power.

The News was one of the first media outlets to attack Mr. Saleh:

Amrullah Saleh has taken up the full-time job to malign Pakistan on one end while providing all sorts of assistance to terrorists to step up activities on the soil of Pakistan on the other. He throughout had been in league with Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to destabilise Pakistan but has been recently ousted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai due to his dubious role in the affairs of the state. Amrullah has also assumed the task of creating difficulties for the Afghan administration.  [The News]

Rahimullah Yusufzai, editor of The News‘s sister publication, Jang, kept up the heat on Mr. Saleh:

Amrullah Saleh regards Pakistan and the ISI as Afghanistan’s enemy number one, but has no proof to support his claims.  If Mr. Saleh believes that the ISI is responsible for the ills in his nation, why hasn’t he produced any proof to the effect? Amrullah Saleh is a Tajik, whose alliances lay with Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani — both of whom were rabidly anti-ISI….[S]aleh is anti-Pashto, has tried to give voice to the Northern Alliance, and holds Pakistan responsible for all the problems Afghanistan faces.  [جنگ]

But no propaganda campaign is complete without input from former ISS Director, Dr. Shireen Mazari, who as editor of The Nation, opined thus:

It is in this connection that the story in Nawai Waqt regarding RAW hiring the ex-Afghan Chief Amrullah Saleh, who resigned recently and spouted venom against Pakistan’s ISI In the now infamous Sunday Times story, must be taken seriously by the concerned organisations in Pakistan. After all, as the Afghan intelligence chief Saleh would have had access to Pakistan-US information sharing of a sensitive nature, which could prove valuable to India in its ongoing covert operations in Pakistan. [The Nation]

That Amrullah Saleh is a Tajik is irrelevant.  When a country’s intelligence and military establishment acts as chief patron to a group that unleashed unspeakable horror in a neighboring country, it is only understandable that the citizens of that country harbor resentment towards the patron.

There is deep concern in Rawalpindi that Mr. Saleh, while not being constrained by official capacity, might take the war to Pakistan and reveal things that ‘Pindi wouldn’t care to have disclosed in public domain.  The attacks, therefore, should be considered as preemptive strikes against anything that Mr. Saleh will likely reveal against the Pakistani establishment. After all, when an aggrieved intelligence official speaks, solid matter is bound to hit the air circulating equipment.

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