Withdrawal symptoms

Barack Obama’s speech to military cadets at West Point this December was intended to send a clear message to the American people, but to the Afghans and countries in the region, the message was mixed and ambivalent.

In justifying the need to send more troops and resources to an ‘under-resourced war’, President Obama conceded to his top military commander’s request for troop surge to turn the tide of the Taliban momentum in 12 months. However, setting an 18-month timeframe for a possible drawdown of forces and divorcing it from larger issues of long-term political reform and institution building is a self-defeating move for the present counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy.

Time is of the essence for any COIN campaign. India’s experience is one of engaging the insurgents though various provisions enshrined in the Constitution over an indefinite period of time. By doing so, most of the groups have either surrendered, have been politically assimilated or have simply degenerated into criminal groups. By announcing a fixed timeframe for drawdown of forces and without addressing the larger political question, the present strategy has turned the fundamental principle of COIN on its head.

The announcement of a fixed date for exit has not only worked to the advantage of the Taliban propaganda, but has also activated the regional powers to step up support for their proxies. The most worrisome remains the support of the Pakistani army to the Taliban leadership based in safe havens in Pakistani cities. In pursuit of ‘strategic depth’ and installing a pliant regime in Kabul, Pakistani support to these groups—that are still perceived to be strategic assets—is unlikely to wane. More importantly, with the increase in troop numbers the US dependence on the Pakistani army for logistics and supply routes is only set to increase. This could also lead to enhanced role for the army vis-à-vis a weak civilian government in Islamabad, a policy oft-repeated by the US policy makers and one which has been detrimental for democratic institution-building and stability in that country.

In the present scenario of increased dependence on Pakistan army and without addressing the issue of ‘sanctuary’, selected targeting of the Pakistani Taliban will not significantly dent the Afghan Taliban’s capabilities in the long term. At best, the present strategy of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas could neutralise the easily-replaceable mid-level leadership. Moreover, active and porous borders coupled with the presence of ‘ungoverned spaces’ will make the curbing of cross-border movement among the radicalised, Taliban-supporting tribal networks an arduous task. Thus, the proposed troop surge that can help contain the conflict in the South and East Afghanistan might not be able to address the causes of instability which have spread further north and west.

As the Afghan quagmire deepens, and if the political stalemate continues in the aftermath of the presidential polls that have been marred by fraud, it is entirely possible that the US in haste and in search of quick-fix solutions will look at ways of accommodating the Taliban.

In absence of a national reconciliation strategy and attempts to build a politically inclusive order that calls for political sector reform, the present strategy of passing on authority to a weak and discredited civilian government in Kabul will only boomerang. In the summer of 2011, if US forces were to begin drawing down without ensuring a stable and credible government in Kabul, it is likely that the Taliban will fill in the political vacuum.

Achieving any tangible change in Afghanistan within a limited timeframe of 18 month is nearly impossible. What is missing in the present strategy is a long-term commitment to stabilise the war-ravaged country. In the event the security situation deteriorates and conflict spills over, Indian policymakers will be confronted with critical policy choices as the United States begins to withdraw from the region. After 9/11, New Delhi’s policy was hinged on the US policy of decimating the Taliban and instituting a democratic regime in Kabul. Eight years later, the Taliban have been able to regroup and resurge while the democratic government in Kabul has been unable to extend its reach beyond Kabul.

India, the largest regional donor, has committed US$1.2 billion for long-term stabilisation, capacity-building, institution-building and reviving the economic and social base. India’s aid diplomacy was intended to support nascent democratic institutions of governance to usher in long-term stability. The economic rationale was to build Afghanistan as a land bridge connecting energy-rich Central Asia to India. The geopolitical considerations include depriving the Taliban the space to return. While India’s aid has generated tremendous goodwill among the Afghan people, according to western analysts it has raised concerns in Pakistan, “feeding into its insecurities.”

As Americans begin to look at ways and means to exit from an ‘overstretched war’ in Afghanistan, it is time India examined its policy options for 2011 and beyond. There is a line of thinking gaining credence among sections of New Delhi’s policymaking community about the need to downscale its presence in Afghanistan, given that eight years of financial assistance has not only seen little in return, but instead has led to systematic targeting on Indian personnel in that country. If New Delhi is not able to transfer authority and build capacity among the local Afghans to run its projects, it will have to downscale its role in giving aid and implementing development projects in the country.

Among Indian military circles, talks of exploring the military option gain credence whenever there are attacks on the Indian diplomatic mission and personnel. However, given domestic and regional concerns, the Indian political leadership will not engage militarily in Afghanistan. It will not, though, be averse to limited surgical strikes.

In the interim, India can play an active role in training and building the capacity of the Afghan national security forces. New Delhi must also widen its support base among the Pashtun tribes and invest in acquiring better human intelligence. But if in the next 18 months, New Delhi is unable to help the process of ‘Afghanisation’ to enable Afghans take a lead role, and the Americans quit without addressing the long-term stabilisation concerns in the region, the prospect of a complete Indian withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be entirely far fetched.