Tomorrow’s Afghanistan: Indian Stakes

The mixed bag likely to emerge from Afghan Presidential elections with the international community having to bear the brunt of a fractured mandate and the much awaited security review by Lt General McChrystal, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force having reached the Pentagon, the intensity of debate on the country has increased. For India Afghanistan remains a friend in the neighborhood. India is a key regional player, with the Pakistan factor determining New Delhi’s level of engagement, a factor which many in the Indian strategic community resent. But till the two K’s – Kabul and Kashmir determine Pakistan’s policies a change of heart in Islamabad is unlikely.

No doubt the ground situation is worsening which ICOS or the erstwhile Senlis Council having rightly or wrongly indicated Taliban presence in 80 percent of the country providing grist to the mill of nay sayers in the US as George Will and others who have influenced policy makers with growing apprehensions over another increase in troop numbers by the United States. The Brookings Institutions held a debate on Presidential Elections in the country with Kim Kagan, Antony Cordesman and Bruce Reidel participating which gave a mixed picture.

Increasing casualties, what may be a flawed Presidential elections and a depressing security situation has led to the “pacifists” as Will to recommend an, “off shoring approach”. “Militarists” as Max Boot on the other hand advocate continued military engagement for the alternative would be more dangerous, possibly surrendering a, “Caliphate” to the Al Qaeda and Taliban.

Thankfully President Obama has identified Afghanistan as a war of necessity and not choice, thus US commitment to Kabul will continue at least in the short term. The US casualty figure since 2001 remains at 730 plus at last count but rising. If the trend continues the President may review the obligation but this is not likely to happen in a year or may be two. Ironically some analyst’s claim that the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan just when they were about to win, US and its NATO allies would thus be wary of the same fate through any precipitate pull out. Obama may pay heed to what Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon once said, “Short term thinking drives out long term strategy, every time.”

The US military despite wide experience in Vietnam and now Iraq has failed to adopt a viable counter insurgency policy translated into effective rules of engagement for soldiers on the ground. Norman Schwarzkopf who had a wide exposure in Vietnam had suggested, “nativisation” and people centricity as the two main components for success. General McChrystal may be reaching similar conclusions and thus deserves a fair chance.

Looking beyond security, there is much to cheer in the country on all fronts, education, health care, infra structure, roads and power lines, mobile towers and so on. The UNODC has also indicated that there is a drop in poppy cultivation and drug production by over 20 percent this year. In the social sphere as well there is progress with breaking of the “burqa” barrier for women, a change in whose lives is always an important barometer.

The extensive debate on Afghanistan should hopefully strengthen US resolve to stay on till adequate capacity of Afghan security forces and civil administration is built up. This may take in terms of numbers half a decade and capability 10 years or more. Will the American public give this much time to their President will determine the outcome in the long term?

The present Indian engagement is primarily economic and development with low key security in terms of training. An opposing view seeks military presence. Most old hands know that combating militancy in an alien land is the toughest challenge as the Indian armed forces realized in Sri Lanka. The enormous good will that India has amongst the Afghan people is likely to evaporate due to natural antipathy that develops between counter militants and the populace subtly exploited by terrorists. A military “alliance” with forces following kinetic tactics as against the, “iron fist in velvet gloves” policy of the Indian Army will be hard to sustain at home.

Yet remaining engaged in Afghanistan is important for India, for the spread of Al Qaeda and the Taliban will destabilize an already unstable region. Given the current strategic configuration, aid and trade appears the key tools of engagement. Sharing our extensive counter militancy experience is another important facet. Our experience gives us an opportunity to speak and write more on Afghanistan contributing positively to the general debate. Three years, from 2006 when militancy commenced in earnest to date, is a short period in an insurgency where success is measured in terms of decades rather than years.

So the international community needs to invest in, “time” as much in military boots on the ground and development assistance, will do so remains a question which perhaps even President Obama may not be clear as much as others? 


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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