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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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No withdrawal syndrome

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.

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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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Pakistan’s Mojo

Counting your chickens before they hatch

Pakistan is awash with renewed optimism in being able to favorably influence political and structural rearrangements in Afghanistan.  Along with “brother countries” Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan was able to both craft a proposition at the Istanbul Summit that called for negotiations and eventual reintegration of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political foray, and also successfully lobbied to keep India out of the summit itself.  The icing on the cake for Islamabad was the broad endorsement of Pakistan’s plan at the London Conference, the following week.

Pakistan’s self-belief in its own indispensability and leverage over a resolution to the Afghanistan quagmire is mirrored in both official pronouncements from leaders of its armed forces and in its press corps.  At the NATO Commanders’ Conference, COAS Kayani enunciated his country’s need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, while raising concerns about India’s influence in Afghanistan.  Indeed, a Jang editorial one day before the London Conference called for all preparations to be made for dialog with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s army has also candidly put forth its position to the Obama Administration that India’s role in Afghanistan cannot go beyond development and infrastructural work.  Pakistan has also volunteered to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) to counter what many believe is a role best suited for the Indian Army.  In short, Pakistan apparently successfully executed a prima facie diplomatic coup-de-etat, while India played the proverbial “deer caught in the headlights” on the world stage.

Without a doubt, India’s position on the Taliban has always been untenable.  A blanket rejection of an ambiguous collection of disparate groups seemed convenient and excused our leadership from having to go through the exercise of evaluating the various equations at play in Afghanistan.  Over the course of the years, this stance by India has seen it wholeheartedly back the Karzai regime while not wanting to have anything to do with any Pashtun elements that it suspected of being engaged (at whatever level) with the ISI.  Rightly, India’s over-simplistic, “with us or against us” approach was rejected by the international community at large.

But Pakistan’s own influence in matters relating to Afghanistan has been overstated.  Indeed, going by recent pronouncements, Pakistan is counting its chickens before they are hatched and the mirage of indispensability will unravel sooner than later.  Not being able to dictate the modularities of counter-insurgency operations within its own sovereign territory, it is unlikely that it can wield the magnitude of power it believes it enjoys in relation to India in Afghanistan.

So what must India do? The London Conference has already invalidated India’s over-simplistic approach to the Taliban, so the first course of action is apparent.  India must begin to engage with those Pashtun elements who seek reintegration into the existing political foray in Afghanistan.  In actuality, there isn’t a significant divergence of opinion between the United States and India on the issue.

India’s real apprehensions are centered around the possible reintegration of  Mullah Omar’s group — the so-called Quetta Shurah.  This is entirely consistent with the US’s own position.  India’s apprehensions on al-Qaeda elements and Haqqani network are also shared by the US.  This essentially leaves a rag-tag group of warlords who are all too small anyway to individually impact power dynamics in Afghanistan. India can begin by opening up communication channels with these groups.

India must also work with other important regional powers who share similar apprehensions versus the core Taliban group.  Indeed, the alliance of yore between Iran and India, who share common concerns of the spread of wahabbism in the region, and Russia must be resurrected.  Russia has articulated its clearest position to date on its willingness to “help rebuild” Afghanistan and Iran has shared India’s concerns about the spread of radical Sunni Islam in the wider region.

Over the last nine years, India has very naively bought into the argument that the dramatically altered equation post US’s invasion of Afghanistan was permanent, and that its reliance on “soft power” alone could very safely ensure maximized gains in Afghanistan without having to actually assume an overt presence in Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan today, with Western forces working towards a withdrawal deadline, and Pakistan growing increasingly assertive, demands that India adopt a more proactive role, working in concert with the US and regional powers to ensure that the power equations that eventually shape up are largely in India’s favor. The question is, what is Manmohan Sigh’s government planning to do about it?

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