The Afghanistan conundrum

Few challenges to India’s national security loom as large as those presented by the recent deterioration of Afghanistan. While the political implications of failure for the current US-backed government will naturally be severe for the West, last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai suggest that it is India that may be much more directly affected from a purely security standpoint. But despite the grave dangers posed to Indian interests by a fragile Afghanistan, New Delhi has very little room to effect changes in its favour. There is added irony in the fact that the entity most capable of shaping the outcome in Afghanistan—the United States—broadly shares most of India’s objectives. One would have to considerably amend Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s publicly stated vision of the region’s future to get it right: the road from India to Kabul lies not through Lahore, but rather through Washington. The vigorous debates underway on the subject in the United States are therefore of some significance for India.

While public discussion of the situation in Afghanistan has been rife with uninformed analysis regarding American calculations, misperceptions run both ways. India’s role is variously portrayed in the United States as that of an ambitious regional power mercilessly attempting to extend its sphere of influence (to Pakistan’s detriment) or that of irrelevant non-player. Last month, The Wall Street Journal misinterpreted a comment made by foreign minister SM Krishna as a suggestion that the United States negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban leadership, something no right-minded Indian official would publicly endorse. Evidently, the Indian government has a sizeable task ahead of it, if its intention is to convey its vision of an ideal end-state in Afghanistan to an American audience.

The American debate

The current US government inherited a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan from the George W Bush presidency. The number of violent incidents had risen over 35 percent in Kabul, and over 75 percent in southern Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008, while civilian casualties resulting from fighting more than doubled in the two years after 2006. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly framed the Afghanistan war as the “good” war, contrasting it to the unpopular war in Iraq, which was widely perceived in the United States as an avoidable conflict. His political base, though, had little appetite for increasing the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama’s election victory spurred a vigorous debate on the path forward, an evolved form of which continues today. The battle lines have been unusual, not adhering to traditional ideological, partisan or sectoral differences. A diverse group of individuals advocated decreasing the American footprint in Afghanistan, although for varying, and sometimes conflicting, reasons. British diplomat-turned-writer Rory Stewart, conservative newspaper columnist George Will, Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin and military scholar Andrew Bacevich, all influential but coming from very different backgrounds, argued in favour of a limited counter-terrorism mission, which scrapped the more involved and expensive aspects of “nation-building”. Their rationales were equally varied, and included the belief that a fiercely tribal and increasingly resentful Afghan society was beyond salvation, a view that fostering democracy in Afghanistan was a fruitless, expensive and unnecessary enterprise, and a calculation that the means being used to attain the United States’ narrow objectives were counterproductive and damaging. Vice-President Joseph Biden became the leading voice favouring limited American objectives within Mr Obama’s inner circle.

On the other side of the debate was an equally motley crew. Ex-CIA and National Security Council official Bruce Riedel, staunch neo-conservatives including many former Bush administration officials, and a large number of counter-insurgency practitioners and experts argued in favour of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy, as did individuals like Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio and grassroots organiser based in Kandahar. The mistakes of the Bush administration, all of them felt, involved treating Afghanistan strictly as a limited counter-terrorism mission.

The initial differences within the Obama administration on the exact goals of the Afghanistan war led to a two-month-long review led by Mr Riedel. The resulting white paper reminded Americans of the casus belli and provided a clear diagnosis of the problems the United States faced. The “core goal” according to the review was “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” This specific end-state, in the minds of the review committee, logically necessitated a set of broader objectives. In its final form, however, the white paper was interpreted differently by different constituents. Counter-terrorism advocates saw in it a justification of their views: if the ultimate objective was to defeat al-Qaeda and affiliate groups, the prescriptions should naturally be limited in scope and investment. In fact, they could conceivably be based on a strategy involving drone attacks, special forces, and some form of ideological containment. Not so, argued others. The goal of comprehensively defeating al-Qaeda could not be accomplished properly without a concerted effort to ensure that the Taliban could not re-establish its presence in Afghanistan or Pakistan, which would in turn involve securing local populations while building up infrastructure and governing institutions.

Yet another strategy?

Implementing a strategy to achieve the goals outlined by the Obama administration has proven considerably more difficult than distilling American objectives. That task falls to a smaller set of senior civilian and military leaders, including Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, military commander General Stanley McChrystal, ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry, and commander of US Central Command General David Petraeus, among others.Problems of implementation are complicated considerably by the short timeframe. McChrystal believes he has one to two years to demonstrate progress, although political resistance in the United States and Europe points to that being a generous estimate.

For the political leadership in Washington, one eye is possibly on November 2010, when mid-term Congressional elections will serve as a barometer of public satisfaction with Obama’s performance as president. A strategic review conducted under General McChrystal and submitted to the White House in August was meant to outline his strategy for salvaging the Afghanistan enterprise.

General McChrystal’s report places considerable emphasis on government corruption, local governance, developing the Afghan army and police, cultural sensitivities and improved civil-military coordination. All of that sounds good, even, one might say, obvious. Yet there remain serious questions about whether the resources will be available for some of the more ambitious targets. One such example is raising 42,000 army recruits “by Fall 2010” (a date advanced, perhaps coincidentally, to precede US Congressional elections). It is precisely in cases such as this that India has the potential to play a constructive but non-intrusive role.

While the report avoids defining the exact strength of US forces required to implement the suggested strategy, General McChrystal repeatedly calls for more troops, and some of his informal advisors have stated their desire to see an infusion of as many as forty thousand. Deployment on that scale will naturally prove politically unpopular, as would the implications of General McChrystal’s suggestion that US troops take on higher risk by venturing outside safe areas, a policy which could likely lead to higher casualties.

Roadblocks to success

Mr Holbrooke has publicly outlined three factors that could lead to US failure in Afghanistan: terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, rising civilian casualties, and endemic government corruption. The first is being dealt with by a combination of pressure on Pakistani security forces and the much-maligned strategy of targeted killings east of the Durand Line using Predator or Reaper drones which, while not ideal, appears to be garnering some short-term successes. The second involves an extended counter-insurgency campaign, to be waged under General McChrystal. Unfortunately, as the recently-concluded Afghan elections demonstrated, there is far less attention being paid to the third. In part, this is because there is little that the United States or any other external actor can do to overcome the problems associated with corruption and questions of legitimacy in such a limited timeframe. Again, India—as a multi-ethnic, economically developing, parliamentary democracy with strong cultural ties to Afghanistan—has the potential to make sizeable contributions on matters of governance, in accordance with its own interests.

If not for the daunting timeframe dictated largely by political considerations, there would be room for cautious optimism on Afghanistan. The new US assessment of the major challenges in Afghanistan has clarified objectives considerably and, in theory, the United States has the resources to salvage the situation. Leading members of the Obama administration charged with crafting and implementing policy towards Afghanistan have made a compelling case in favour of a more ambitious counter-insurgency strategy. However, this strategy continues to be held hostage to increasingly vocal critics. Many of their arguments, while often logical and grounded in considerable local expertise, fall short in their appreciation of long-term political implications of failure and their faith in Afghan society. Unfortunately other, less informed, analyses can be more than a little patronising in their characterisations of Afghanistan and short-sighted in their assessments of history.

For example, one argument frequently forwarded is that of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires.” Its inhospitable terrain, tribal social structures and fierce militarism mean that it has never been conquered, and may in fact be unconquerable. That narrative is informed almost solely by the Soviet experience in the 1980s (when the Afghan mujahideen received considerable external support from the United States), and the campaigns of the British in the nineteenth century (whose purpose was not to conquer and rule so much as pacify in order to create a buffer zone). Yet prior to that, present-day Afghanistan was home to numerous empires, including those of the Bactrians, Kushans, Ghaznavids, Mughals, Sikhs and Durranis.

A second myth is that democracy or stable government is incompatible with tribal values. This line of reasoning is reminiscent of such notions of democracy being inconsistent with “Asian values”, a fiction that has only too recently been exposed as such. Finally, Afghanistan is often believed to be irredeemable due to its widespread illiteracy. But India, which admittedly benefited from stronger institutions inherited from decades of British rule, managed to forge a successful pluralistic democracy with a population that was just one-fifth literate in 1947.

The challenges to establishing some level of authoritative government and population security in Afghanistan are indeed daunting. Yet India, which has much to lose by the United States’ failures there, is well-positioned to do its bit, not least by the promise of its example.