Regionalization and Afghanisation are two arms of the strategy adopted by international forces in Afghanistan. While there is some progress on Afghanisation, regionalization has not been as successful due to endemic antagonism between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. On India's part New Delhi has planned to provide fresh assistance to Afghanistan to the tune of $450 million for reconstruction. This takes India's total commitment to Afghanistan to $ 1.2 billion. The announcement came during the visit of President Karzai to New Delhi after the SAARC Summit in Colombo. "India has an abiding commitment to Afghanistan's efforts to build a democratic, stable, prosperous and pluralistic polity. We will fulfill all our commitments to Afghanistan," said India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The two heads of government also determined to fight terror in the country together. Singh referred to the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul thus, "It was an attack on the friendship between India and Afghanistan. We will fight it unitedly and with determination."
But beyond this regionalization is mired in what could best be termed as strategic dissonance within the region. This discord is extended by a feeling of mutual hostility of Pakistan with both India and Afghanistan. The strategic freeze between Iran and the US thus does not allow Tehran a positive role in the regional dynamics.
Pakistan is following what many accuse it of double speak with Kabul. Overtly unlike New Delhi and Islamabad, the governments as well as the armies talk to each other. Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani visited Kabul on 19 Aug for a meeting with officials of the tripartite commission between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO. This was a significant visit given that Pakistan has launched offensive operations against the Taliban in Swat and Bajaur two strongholds in the country. The impact of these operations on the Taliban in Afghanistan remains unclear. But a joint strategy for combating the Taliban is welcome. Yet it has some strong caveats.
This cooperation has to be under written by the ISI which is adopting a dual policy of supporting the militants on one hand and providing information to NATO and their own forces on the other. Ending duplicity of the ISI would remain one of the key control measures for NATO.
President Karzai was quite vocal in castigating Pakistan in the SAARC summit in Colombo held at the beginning of August but he also knows the importance of assistance of Pakistan both in denial of sanctuaries to the Taliban and logistic support. While Karzai's attendance and his body language in greeting the Zardari-Bhutto family appeared positive, the comparatively cold response of Pakistan's military brass as was evident from live television visuals of the event appears ominous.
On the Afghanisation front, the most encouraging news is of progress of the Afghanistan National Army. A report in the influential London weekly, the Economist brought out an increase in trust in the people in the Afghanistan National Army thus, "There is zero trust in the government, but the Afghan National Army is our only hope. They behave well with the people and are stronger than the Taliban." The Afghan National Army or ANA is said to be emerging as a credible fighting force with $ 4.7 billion spent on it in 2007.
With Kabul area now formally under the ANA, the level of trust seems to be rapidly rising. Desertion is reported to be down from 30 percent three years back to 7 percent. A key problem remains that of managing ethnic divisions which is attained through measures as placing the battalion commander and the executive from two different communities. The image of the force supporting the Western armies is also a dampener to civilian enthusiasm in certain areas in the South as per the Economist.
Nevertheless, the ANA is an important facet of the Afghanisation strategy. Thus US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is reported to have approved the proposal to increase size of the army by more than 50,000 troops. The plan is likely to cost more than $10 billion and would increase the numbers to roughly 122,000 soldiers, from a planned 80,000, plus 13,000 support staff.
The strategy of building the Afghan Army and the police to take up the responsibility of security in the area provides enough options for localization of security and thereby allowing foreign forces which are not seen by many in Afghanistan as a solution to leave attaining their primary objective of stability in the country.
The Afghan National Army is no doubt making very good strides towards emerging as a modern force. A decision whether numbers should be increased or quality improved needs to be taken, which will be a difficult one as there is a shortage of troops in Afghanistan while poorly trained troops may not be the way out to combat highly motivated forces as the Taliban.
The key issue which is impacting Afghanisation is an extremely weak, 'hearts and minds' strategy of the NATO forces. This is evident with the large number of civilian deaths in operations. United Nations data on civilian deaths indicated that there has been a 62 percent increase in non-combatant deaths recorded from January to May 2008 from that during the same period in 2007. Between January and May 2008, 698 civilian deaths were recorded by UNAMA as against 431 in the previous year. Insurgent attacks were responsible for 60 per cent of those deaths, compared to 37 per cent being caused by pro-government forces. Of the total estimated 1,500 civilian casualties in 2007, 46 per cent were caused by insurgents and other anti-government forces, 41 per cent were inflicted by coalition and pro-government forces, while 13 per cent were "un-attributable".
The issue of civilian deaths in NATO air strikes assumed serious proportions when 90 civilians were reported to have been killed in Azizabad, leading to a major crisis for the Afghan government. President Karzai was quick to remove two Afghan Army officers and a joint investigation of UN, US and Afghan officers has now been proposed. A statement from President Karzai's office said he had ordered "the immediate removal" of General Jalandar Shah Behnam, head of the army in western Afghanistan, and Major Abdul Jabar, for "neglecting their duties and concealing the facts".
The possibility of the Taliban luring the US and Afghan forces cannot be ruled out for this has generally been the norm in many cases in the past. As civilian casualties are a major issue the Taliban has been exploiting it from time to time by baiting government forces to strike on villages and populated areas.
But the poor Afghan villager knows nothing of these power games as he loses sometimes his wife, brother, son or daughter in the air strikes by NATO or suicide attacks by the Taliban. It is time to devise alternatives for else the losing war as Mike Mullen indicated would soon be a lost one.