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Tag Archives | taliban

The “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai

When the solid matter hits the air circulating equipment, everyone looks out for their own interests. Are we?

“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself…

Seneca the Younger, On The Happy Life

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. And while they may disagree about everything else under the sun, Washington-types have unanimously directed their ire at Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  An apparent quote from an unattributable source about Mr. Karzai threatening to join the Taliban, if international pressure on him did not cease, made the rounds in international media.  Ex-UN envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith questioned Mr. Karzai’s mental condition and suggested that the president may have a drug use problem.

Steve Coll’s blogpost followed suit, with a detailed account of the pervasive corruption that the Karzai administration had fostered.  Fred Kaplan on The Slate asked whether a successful COIN operation could in fact be carried out in Afghanistan, given the manner in which Mr. Karzai is running things in Afghanistan.  Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Bing West, rather plainly called Mr. Karzai an “obstacle to progress” in his op-ed in The New York Times.

Washington’s foremost thinkers and analysts, singing together in perfect harmony. Mr. Kaplan sums up the groupthink perfectly — the US is of the opinion that Mr. Karzai believes he (and by extension, Afghanistan) is too big to fail, and with the stakes being as high as they are, the US is left with no option but to continue to pour resources — monetary and military, to sustain the Karzai government.

But a closer inspection at events unfolding in the region presents a clearer picture of Mr. Karzai’s intentions and US angst. Hamid Karzai began his second  term in office by stepping up engagement with China.  Mr. Karzai then invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who proceeded to chastise the Americans in the presence of his host.

Therein lies the US’s angst — Hamid Karzai appears eager to consolidate power and dilute US influence in Afghanistan.  To accomplish this, he needs the assistance of other regional powers — hence, the dialog with China, the invitation to Iran and the visit to Islamabad. He sees the benefits in ensuring an extended US stay in Afghanistan (the Americans are, after all, his primary financiers), but no longer desires to see the US as  the absolute dominant power in the country.

This is effectively the source of frustration in Washington.

As China, Pakistan and Iran prepare to step up engagement with Afghanistan, there are question marks about where the recent developments leave India.  While the Karzai government has in the past pressed New Delhi to play a larger role in the country, India has restricted its involvement in Afghanistan to providing humanitarian and  economic assistance. Frustrated, the Karzai regime now looks to hedge its bets elsewhere.

This puts India in a precarious position.  The prospects of a reemergence of a Russia-India-Iran order in Afghanistan aren’t great, given that Indo-Iranian relations are at a low.  But we’re still very far away from throwing in the towel.  There are significant caveats and complications in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran relationship for it to become an order.

Both India and Iran share mutual interests in Afghanistan, and it is therefore imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government make amends for its folly at the IAEA. India’s attempts at revitalizing its relationship with Russia is a positive step — it is important that this relationship extend itself to securing both nations’ mutual interests in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, it is in India’s best interests that no one order — be it the US and its Western allies, or the Pakistan-Saudi-China triumvirate — dominate Afghanistan’s landscape.  This landscape will include the “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai, and increasingly, warlords (affiliated as well as adversarial) and Taliban remnants.  India must therefore work with regional powers and political players to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected, at a time when power equations in the war-torn nation are rapidly changing.

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The Kabul Park Residence attacks

India’s short term option — don’t flinch.

Today, six Indians died in suicide attacks perpetrated by the Taliban at the Park Residence and other guesthouses in Kabul, Afghanistan.  This included Indian consulate staff, an ITBP constable and two Indian army officers.  At least five other individuals were injured in the attack, including five Indian army officers.

This blog, along with others, has in the past articulated what India must do in Afghanistan to protect its national interests.  In the August 2008 edition of Pragati, Sushant K Singh argued in favor of a larger Indian military presence in Afghanistan and warned of the long term consequences were India to rely exclusively on “soft power.”  In January 2010’s Pragati, I put forth a case for India to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), thereby assisting in raising a credible unit to act as a bulwark against the Taliban and Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex.  Commentators like Harsh Pant have opined that India must stop hedging its bets on the US and must work with other actors like Russia and Iran to engage all sections of Afghan society.

However, despite repeated attacks against Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan, Manmohan Singh’s government appears disinclined to readjust its Afghanistan strategy.  Today’s attack will not likely force a rethink on how to engage with Afghanistan either.  Given India’s self-imposed shackles and the likelihood of continued attacks against Indian soft targets in the war ravaged nation, India has but one option at its disposal in the short term, and that is to not flinch.

Attacks such as these may lead to calls for India’s level of engagement in Afghanistan to be reconsidered.  However, downgrading Indian presence in Afghanistan is the surest way to convey to the military jihadi complex (MJC) that it can force Indian action through terror.  The MJC feels that it is at an advantageous position:  it has outlasted the Americans,  reinserted itself (and the Taliban) into Afghanistan’s political space and the top leadership of the Quetta Shura — despite the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mohammed Younis — remains mostly intact. The MJC will enjoy a tremendous psychological boost from the notion that it forced the Americans and the Indians to withdraw from Afghanistan.  It will seek to replicate the model by imposing severe costs on India in Kashmir and the mainland.

It is wrong to suppose that India’s involvement in Afghanistan is merely about power projection and easy access to energy rich Central Asia.  India is facing an existential battle and denying the MJC “strategic depth” in Afghanistan is a critical component to India’s own internal security. Therefore, if India insists in not altering its ill-conceived stance vis-a-vis hard power in Afghanistan, it must at the very least maintain its investment profile in the country, while fully expecting to be targeted repeatedly and frequently by the MJC.  Only the Indian government can explain how this is a better alternative to the introduction of Indian hard power in Afghanistan.

It is significant that India’s reconstruction efforts have earned it tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan.  An opinion poll () conducted in Afghanistan in January 2010 by BBC/ABC/ARD indicated a 71% favorable view of India, as opposed to 15% favorable view of Pakistan.  In the meduim- to long run, India must work with the US, regional actors and Afghans across the political gamut and ensure that an effective and credible counterweight to the MJC and the Taliban is sustained in Afghanistan.

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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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What McChrystal said about India

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of US & ISAF forces in Afghanistan painted a grim picture of the situation in Afghanistan in his “leaked” assessment to Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.  Among other things, he indicated that the overall situation is deteriorating and a “crisis of confidence” existed among the Afghans that undermines US and ISAF credibility.  McChrystal called for a short-term deployment of additional US troops in Afghanistan.

In addition, in a section entitled “External Influences”, McChrystal wrote about India’s role in Afghanistan — something that has had our media in coils the past couple of days:

Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. [I]ncreasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.

Ever ready to jump the gun, members of our media took umbrage with the assessment.  In an article titled “US sees rising Indian influence in Afghanistan as problem“, Siddharth Varadarajan opines:

In the clearest statement to date of Washington’s reservations about the rising Indian economic and political profile in Afghanistan, the top American general… said India’s increasing influence… “is likely to exacerbate regional tensions”. Though the McChrystal report falls short of prescribing that India scale back its presence in Afghanistan, the implication is clear:…India should realise its assistance to Afghanistan might provoke Islamabad into taking “countermeasures”.

Varadarajan’s arguments are lethargic and draw conclusions based on misinterpretations of McChrystal’s assessment. First, nothing in the report or in public domain indicates that Washington is unhappy with India’s role in Afghanistan.  India’s current involvement includes funding and construction of large infrastructural projects (such as the “Nimroz-Chabahar” highway and the “Salma Dam” power project), aid, rural development and training the Afghan police force.  If McChrystal means what he says, then he should have no problem with India’s role in bringing development and stability to Afghanistan.

Second, Pakistani “countermeasures” to India’s involvement in Afghanistan is a pretty strange threat.  Unconventional warfare against India is Pakistan’s modus operandi.  It began as early as 1947 when Kashmir was flooded with armed Afridi tribesmen, as a precursor to the 1947 war and has only grown in size, mandate and state involvement over the years.  So Pakistan threatening to use something that it uses against India anyway, just because it dislikes India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is meaningless.

Third, even as McChrystal submitted his assessment to Sec Gates, a major rethink is under way in the Obama administration on Af-Pak, with many in the civilian administration against the idea of deploying additional troops.  They instead favor a combination of “negotiating” with the Taliban and increasing Drone assaults in Pakistan to disrupt al-Qaeda and Taliban elements.  As The Filter Coffee previously pointed out, the apparatus for such a strategy has been slowing taking shape in Pakistan over the past few months.

The Obama administration wants to craft a way forward in Afghanistan based on an approach that will incorporate “soft power” along with cold, hard military strategy. Upon learning of the leak, the Pentagon clarified that McChrystal’s assessment was only one of the many inputs that make up this reassessment.  Therefore, McChrystal’s assessment, even in its misinterpreted state, is hardly Holy Writ.

Fourth, India cannot afford to be in Afghanistan due to, or despite American disposition towards its involvement.  As a regional power, India must continue to engage with Afghanistan on social, economic and political development.  India’s calculations on the extent of its involvement in Afghanistan must be based on its strategic and national interests and not on the whims of other nations or veiled threats from its adversaries.

When the US leaves the region in the not-too-distant future, the cross of Afghanistan must be borne by regional powers like India and Iran, both of which share largely convergent views on the nation.  Insofar as India’s involvement in Afghanistan is concerned, its efforts have contributed positively to the development of the nation.  If America wants to leave Afghanistan as a (relatively) stable and functioning nation, India’s assistance is imperative and further Indian engagement must be encouraged.  The US can fight the war in Afghanistan, but is going to find it impossible to withdraw from Afghanistan on its own terms without India.

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