May 09, 2012

The Afghan options


Harsh V Pant, May 8 2012


Washington wants to send a signal that it will not abandon Kabul and will retain strategic presence in the region.

Washington and Kabul have finally managed to reach an agreement underscoring America's commitment to Afghanistan for a decade after its formal troop withdrawal in 2014. Though specific details are yet to be finalised, it provides some much needed clarity about America's intended footprint in Afghanistan over the next decade. There has been growing concern in sections of the policy community in Washington, in Kabul and in New Delhi about the seemingly abrupt end to American security commitment in Afghanistan. With the strategic partnership agreement signed by the US president Barack Obama, during his surprise visit to Kabul to mark Osama bin Laden's death a year back, with the Afghan president, Afghan security forces are expected to take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year and all American troops will be leaving by the end of 2014.

A series of events in recent months — an American soldier killing Afghan civilians in March 2012, the Koran burnings and the emergence in January 2012 of an Internet video showing three Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters — have inflamed Afghans to an unprecedented degree, forcing Washington on a back-foot. The Afghan President had also hardened his stance in the past few weeks as he refused to consider the agreement until American-led night raids were halted and the United States handed over its main military prison to Afghan officials. Only when these issues were resolved to Kabul's satisfaction, the strategic partnership agreement could be finalised.

Afghanistan's national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta has described the pact as "providing a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world, and is a document for the development of the region." He is of course, right in so far as this pact removes the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding America's post-2014 posture in Afghanistan, especially for New Delhi where there has been a growing concern about the serious implications for Indian security of American withdrawal. But the pact still lacks clarity as it is not readily evident how the vague reassurances that the US is providing will get translated into operational policy.

The US has made it clear that it seeks "an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates." It is towards that end that the latest pact underscores the ongoing American role in bolstering Afghan democracy and civil society and pledges American financial support to Afghanistan through 2024. Washington wants to send a signal that it will not abandon Afghanistan and will retain a presence in the evolving strategic realities in the region. It will now force the allies of the US to step up their commitments to Afghanistan. Most of them are eager to get out of Afghanistan as was in evidence just a few days back when Australia announced its intention to withdraw its troops over the next year.

Longterm policy

This is also a signal to the Taliban that waiting out American forces is not as credible an option as it may have seemed some time back. Most significantly, Pakistan will come under renewed pressure to articulate a long-term policy of renouncing its ties with the extremist groups. The hedging strategy that Rawalpindi has been relying on is no longer a potent one.

Shifting messages from Washington has been a source of great concern to New Delhi.

The US president has repeatedly suggested that the US and its 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. But then in February this year the 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.

Now that some clarity has restored to American posture, it is time for New Delhi to put its own house in order. New Delhi has not had a very consistent policy towards Afghanistan over the last decade. Part of it has been a function of the rapidly evolving ground realities in Afghanistan to which India has had to respond. But a large part of it has been India's own inability to articulate its vital interests in Afghanistan to its allies as well as its adversaries. There is an overarching lack of coherence in Indian response as New Delhi seems to be perpetually on the defensive, first making Washington the sole pivot of its outreach to Kabul and then petulantly complaining about American unreliability.

One the one hand, India has been signalling to the US that it views long-term American presence in Afghanistan as integral to regional security. On the other, it has been reaching out to the Iranians to make a common cause who want to see a full and complete US withdrawal from the region. Even as India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan promising to enhance its role in Afghan security sector, it has at the same time been reducing its economic footprint in Afghanistan. As a result, New Delhi has not only complicated its own future options but it has also lost allies who are having difficulty in viewing India as a credible partner in the emerging strategic realities in Afghanistan.

As Washington and Kabul turn a new page in the Afghanistan saga, New Delhi should now take this opportunity to make it a more credible actor in its neighbourhood. The recent attempt to beef up intelligence sharing between India and Afghanistan is the first step in the operationalisation of the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership but more such concrete steps are needed to ensure that New Delhi maintains a substantial presence Afghanistan

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