April 08, 2012

Problems mount in Afghanistan: India needs to be proactive


by Harsh V. Pant

FOR the West, the ground realities in Afghanistan are turning from bad to worse and there seems to be no easy resolution in sight. After an American soldier shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, the West is struggling to respond to an ever worsening situation. A series of events — the recent killings, the Quran burnings and the emergence in January of an Internet video showing three Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters — have inflamed Afghans to an unprecedented degree.

Recently the British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Washington to underline with the US President that Afghan forces should take over a “lead combat role” in the country by mid-2013, earlier than planned. British and US combat troops are expected to leave Afghanistan completely by the end of 2014. The two leaders acknowledged that Afghanistan would not have a "perfect democracy" by 2014. But they envisaged "leaving Afghanistan looking after its own security, not being a haven for terror, without the involvement of foreign troops." Cameron himself has made it clear that he thinks that the public “wants an endgame” to the war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama says the United States, Britain and their NATO allies are committed to shifting to a support role in Afghanistan in 2013 and that next phase in the transition will be an important step in turning security control over to the Afghans by the end of 2014.

Under public pressure, important changes are taking place in the Western strategy towards Afghanistan. The most significant of which is the moment at which Afghan troops are expected to take what's called the "lead combat role" is being gradually speeded up — something that will speed up the return of British and American troops. Till last year, Washington was insisting that all of Afghanistan will have begun the process of transition by the end of 2012. And then in February this year US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said the process would, he hoped, be complete by mid-to-late 2013, bringing forward the moment that Afghan troops will take the lead combat role. What this means is that from the very beginning of 2013, there will have to be a steady withdrawal of British and American troops.

Speaking to US and Afghan troops at Camp Leatherneck recently, Panetta sought to tamp down worries about the course of the US war effort following the killing on Sunday by a US staff sergeant of as many as 16 Afghan civilians as well as nationwide riots in the aftermath of an inadvertent burning of copies of the Quran last month by US troops. He also touted some figures to showcase that the US strategy is indeed working in Afghanistan. Attacks against US and Afghan troops are down 24 per cent over the last 12 weeks compared to a similar period a year ago, the figures show. Even in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, attacks have started to drop after holding steady or rising most of last year.

Attacks in the east on US and Afghan troops fell by 36 per cent over the same period, according to the latest US military figures. Pentagon officials tout the statistics as proof that the current approach is working, though some of the drop in violence can be attributed to an unusually harsh winter. Meanwhile, the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, wants a smaller, more restricted US presence right away, but he doesn’t favour a wholesale American departure, according to diplomats in Kabul, because US troops and US financial assistance are essential to propping up his government. The Obama administration is keen to negotiate a long-term security partnership with Afghanistan — which would permit US forces to remain for training and counterterrorism purposes — before a NATO summit this May. Washington’s ties with the Karzai government has sunk to new lows with Karzai accusing the US of being a “demon” on a par with the Taliban.

America’s special representative for the region, Marc Grossman, has been holding secret talks with the Taliban for more than a year now. Grossman has also been talking with neighboring countries about building a structure to keep a future Afghanistan from disintegrating. But all the evidence so far shows that Washington has singularly failed in being able to stop Pakistan’s government from maintaining sanctuaries for Taliban militants. And no guerrilla movement that has had a set of sanctuaries — let alone the active help of a powerful military like Pakistan’s — has ever been eliminated.

As events move rapidly in Afghanistan, New Delhi remains preoccupied with the shenanigans of its political class. It is not clear at all if India remains committed for the long haul in Afghanistan and prepared to make some hard choices. India cannot continue with its ultra-cautious approach for much longer given the faster-than-expected reduction of the military footprint by the Western powers. Last year India had signed the strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan as it was forced for reassessing its options in its neighbourhood. Since then, however, the domestic political turmoil has precluded the evolution of a sustained approach vis-à-vis Kabul. The problem with India is that it has failed to emerge as a reliable strategic partner for its allies in Afghanistan. It was interesting to hear Afghan scholars visiting India a few days back asking New Delhi to shed “Gandhigiri” and to play a more assertive role in their country. New Delhi has partners in Kabul who want a more proactive role for India. It is India’s own defensiveness that is holding it back.

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