Eighteen years after the US launched the first global war on terrorism in Afghanistan, the end state desired at its commencement by the US and its Afghan supporters for this impoverished and acutely fratricidal violence-ridden land, remains a chimera. To a large number of Americans themselves now, termination of its involvement in Afghanistan appears a sane and the preferred option.
Despite the US having been committed in the longest war in its history, expending nearly a trillion of dollars, they and the NATO sponsored International Security Assistance Force has incurred thousands of fatalities, Afghanistan continues to be bedevilled by an unending cycle of violence perpetrated by a resurgent Afghan Taliban. This extremist group, after a gap of nearly 18 years out of power, appears to be getting into the driver’s seat for regaining political power in the land of the Hindu Kush. That the Abdul Ghani led Afghanistan government in Kabul has its writ now only effective in approximately 40 percent of the nation’s territory portends ominous tidings for foreign supported democratic Afghan governments in the future.
The current speculation fueled by reports emanating from Washington that President Trump is seriously considering pulling out 7000 troops, amounting to nearly half of the US contingent now deployed in Afghanistan, has sent shivers down the spines of the current Afghan government as it precariously holds on to its dwindling power in Kabul. Though Russia and Iran may not be on the same page with US policies for war-ravaged Afghanistan currently, they and other regional players including India too will not be in favour of a speedy precipitous drawdown of US troops. That any premature US troops withdrawal will lead to major political chaos and a further upsurge in violence attributable to the Afghan Taliban redoubling their attacks to recapture power in Kabul is a foregone conclusion.
Since last one year and the past few months, in particular, the two major perpetrators of the Afghan crisis, the Taliban and Pakistan respectively, have been given legitimacy by the very powers who were combating them! Thus, even the US has eagerly opened channels of communication with the Taliban in Doha and elsewhere while encouraging the new Pakistani regime under PM Imran Khan to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The Taliban is also wooed by Russia, Iran and to some extent, behind the scenes by the Chinese, will likely harden their anti-Afghan government, and equally, their anti-US stand. The Taliban has been consistently demanding the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil before they come to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, most strategic analysts do opine that a total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is fraught with grave danger to the politico-security environment of this nation and by extension to the entire region. Pakistan is the only nation in the region which will applaud a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
In an unexpected turn-around, the past week witnessed US President Donald Trump diluting his earlier strong proclamations against the Taliban and Pakistan. The US volte-face in its policy for Afghanistan could be attributed to it being financially weary, militarily fatigued and with the next US presidential elections due in 2020 to assuage American public opinion which is predominantly against continuing US deployments in Afghanistan. Somewhere the US will have to decide whether it still aspires to remain the self-styled global policeman or keep aloof from local geo-political earthquakes. Time anyway appears to be running out for it to establish a modicum of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Coming back nearer home, it has been amply clear that India, notwithstanding being the major South Asian player, a major donor for Afghanistan and widely respected by the Afghan people, has been kept out of even deliberations concerning the future of Afghanistan. That traditionally Pakistan, has endeavoured zealously to marginalize India from Afghanistan, since decades, is a well-established fact. Pakistan has not changed course in its consistent policy to determinedly work for an Islamabad pliant regime in Kabul. Thus, being wooed these days by the US to bring its proteges, the recalcitrant Taliban to the negotiating table, has given Pakistan fresh hopes to intensify its mischief in Afghanistan.
Media reports also suggest that US President Trump has suggested to India to deploy its army troops to augment foreign forces in Afghanistan. However, it is a matter of satisfaction that India has refused placement of ‘boots on the ground.’ India which has already granted 2 billion US dollars and promised another billion dollars for civilian development projects— must stay the course. It must continue to support the democratically elected Ashraf Ghani government and aid Afghanistan in various infrastructural and people-welfare projects as hitherto fore. In addition, India must train and support the Afghan Security Forces with both non-lethal and also now lethal military equipment. AT-72 regiment worth of tanks, two BMP mechanised battalion’s worth of ICVs, two regiments worth of light howitzers and a few additional attack helicopters can be given to the Afghan Army from our stocks.
In the recent weeks, some analysts including some high-placed officials in India have suggested that in the changing geopolitical situation, India must open up channels of communication with the extremist Taliban. This step would be neither prudent nor in keeping with India’s consistent stand of not talking with the extremist/terrorist groups. Further, the Taliban is vehemently against the Ashraf Ghani led government with whom India has very cordial relations. Till the Taliban changes tack and is amenable to talks with democratically led Kabul governments and also the Americans, India must stick to its earlier policies for Afghanistan.
The parliamentary elections scheduled in Afghanistan have been since postponed to July 2019. Thus, the coming few months will be crucial for the future of hapless Afghanistan. Apart from India, the US must stay the course, not dilute its military presence whatsoever for the Afghan Security Forces are not yet ready to independently take on the Taliban. The US must use its financial aid stratagem to discourage Pakistan from fishing in troubled waters and endeavour to get Russia on board to stabilize the situation. India must enhance its developmental and military aid to the Kabul government without putting any ‘boots on the ground.’
Overall, the situation in Afghanistan remains grim. All regional stake-holders will have to curb their own petty regional ambitions to bring a semblance of peace and stability to this unfortunate land. Importantly, the US will have to ensure no financial largesse to its erstwhile protege, Pakistan, for the latter is not going to discard its myriad machinations in Afghanistan till its adequately pressurised to do so and curbing financial doles to it from foreign sources is the only guarantee. As responsible powers, US, Russia, Iran, China and India have to be on a common page to bring in peace and stability to this war-ravaged land. The long-suffering people of Afghanistan do deserve this transformation after decades of violence, misery and deprivation. As a friend of Afghanistan, why cannot India take the initiative to get all regional stakeholders on a common platform for Afghanistan’s sake. Worth a try anyway!