A moderate and balanced Afghanistan is not only an absolute necessity for regional security but is equally imperative for rest of the world. A radicalised and unstable Afghanistan, imbued with an intolerant jehadi fervour, has implications for US or Europe as much as for South Asia. Any resurgence of violent Islamic terrorism will have a cascading effect that will define the future trajectory and intensity of global terrorism, endangering the people here as much as in the region. Al-Qaeda is down but not out. Its structures and cadres have been degraded but in its new incarnation as an ideological hub driving and uniting violent form of political Islam poses a threat that is real, more complex and extensive. We are seeing some early trailers in the Gulf, North Africa and Western Eurasia etc.
The debate is not about agreeing upon the end objectives but examining emerging ground realities, re-validating assumptions on which our policies rest, and evaluating new initiatives to see to what extent they enhance or reduce the possibility of achieving the end objectives. Are the critical players and stake holders involved in this complex imbroglio pursuing the policies that will lead to a stable and moderate Afghanistan? Are there gaps and anomalies in their stated positions and real intentions? Good intentions are important but not sufficient to achieve intended objectives.
US and other members of ISAF have invested heavily in last 12 years to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan. US alone has suffered over 2,000 military casualties and spent over $600 billion in this fight. The results though commendable, have not been proportionate to the cost. The outcome might have been different if assumptions about Pakistan, the non-NATO ally with front line responsibilities, had proven to be correct. Moral of the story- When assumptions are wrong, the strategies fail to deliver.
The security environment in Afghanistan is far from optimal for smooth transition to a stable and moderate Afghanistan post 2014. The Taliban and their allies are better organised and resourced, have deepened their coercive influence in new areas and exude a sense of triumphalism. Islamist hardliners world over are looking at them with awe and respect. Within Afghanistan, their political engagement on the asking, if not cajoling, by their erstwhile adversaries has given them a sense of legitimacy as victors on one hand and generated a fear of uncertainty and insecurity among those who stood on the side of religious moderation, human rights and democracy.
The recent developments indicate that there is lack of synergy and coherence among major stakeholders responsible for a stable post 2014 Afghanistan. The ruckus over Afghan President Hamid Karzai objecting to blatant display of the Taliban flag and a plaque with the inscription ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ at its Doha office and US talking about a zero option in post 2014 Afghanistan underlines that the two players critical for stability in Afghanistan are not on the same page. The left over elements of Al-Qaeda and undented Haqqani group being allowed by Pakistan to consolidate their positions along the Af-Pak border are ominous. Pakistan ISI’s duplicitous deals with various factions of Taliban and other armed groups in Afghanistan in furtherance of its unknown post 2014 agenda has compounded the situation further. Pakistan’s advocacies of including sections of Taliban close to it but known to be soft on Al Qaeda in the peace process have serious long term implications. The cost of promised co-operation in future by Pakistan may prove more costly for the world than estimated.
The problems of governance, internal security and weak economics both in Pakistan and Afghanistan may only give a fillip to further radicalisation in these two countries. While the world is closing in to the 2014 drawdown, the insurgency and law and order situation, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is under serious drift. In the first six months of this year, over 800 Afghan army and police personnel, 365 civilians and 63 ISAF soldiers have lost their lives. The situation in Pakistan where Islamic terrorists are in control of large tracts in tribal regions is no better. In the last six years alone, more than 2000 Pakistanis including 400 security personnel have been killed in terrorist related violence in the country. All these straws in the wind raise serious doubts about emergence of a moderate and stable Afghanistan after draw down unless basic correctives are applied at this stage.
I have great respect for the optimists, not because they are always right but because they keep the hopes alive, at least till the things go wrong. On Afghanistan, the hopes of optimists are premised on following assumptions:
- Taliban will change. They will severe their links with the Al-Qaeda and its affiliates with Pan-Islamic global agenda. People in last twelve years have developed vested interest in democracy, development, and respect for human rights. Taliban will not get their support if they revert to their old ways. Democracy will stay and ethnic rivalries will be subsumed by a resurgent Afghan nationalism.
- The nearly 3,35,000 strong Afghan National Army and police will remain a cohesive force, will be adequately resourced and remain committed to its fight against terror; irrespective of political complexion of the people who assume power.
- Most importantly, Pakistan will change and will not pursue its three decade old policy of furthering its strategic and political objectives by using Jihadi terror as an instrument to keep Afghanistan under its control to the exclusion of others. It will no more follow a duplicitous policy in dealing with terrorism and terrorist groups.
If these assumptions hold good, even to a reasonable degree, we can hope for a moderate and stable Afghanistan. I am not a scientist but a great admirer of Einstein. He defined insanity; as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting that the results will be different next time. Pakistan will change is a possibility but not a probability.
It is true policies and strategies cannot always be made on the basis of totally proven facts and crystal gazer’s ability to peep into the future. But it is necessary that we do not deny the existence of facts because they are unpalatable and do not deliberately work in a direction that negates the assumptions on which our policies rest. The right approach at this time should be to put in collective efforts to ensure that the above assumptions on which the end objectives are premised are reinforced, resourced and refined. There are plenty that we can do at this stage but the window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.
Affirmative and coercive actions in three important domains from now till 2014 will be necessary to ensure that the post-2014 Afghanistan is reasonably stable and minimizes security threat to the region and the world at large. First, no agreement or assurances to Taliban or other radical groups contravening the constitution, as it exists or is amended through due process, should be made. It is also important that no covert arrangement is arrived at by extraneous forces without taking into confidence the constitutionally elected government in Afghanistan. Whatever its shortcomings and failings may be, which indeed are plenty, undermining constitutional or moral authority of a democratically elected government will weaken constitutionalism and rule of law in Afghanistan that has been one of the major achievements of last 12 years. This is, however, still feeble and needs to carefully nurtured.
Second, the continuation of foreign financial assistance for maintaining the ANSF would be necessary. The security apparatus should also remain apolitical and selection of military commanders should not be influenced by ethnic considerations or political proximities. Large private armies and armed groups working under varying influences, ranging from drug syndicates to radical Islamic groups and to political parties, under a well calibrated plan of action should be de-legitimized, disarmed and demobilized. Any external force trying to control or influence them to sub-serve their agenda in post 2014 setting should be shunned.
Third, Pakistan’s role is going to be critical in defining the future. It has a past that is not very re-assuring. Measures have to be taken and compulsions created that makes it unaffordable for Pakistan to pursue a course that undermines stability in Afghanistan, boost terrorism in the region and most importantly endanger Pakistan’s own safety and long term security. Let us look at some expert views about Pakistan in the last few weeks:
- Barely two week back in Washington DC, Ambassador Robert Blackwill speaking at the Ambassador’s Round Table said, “there is no evidence that Pakistan military has changed its view- its primary role is to prevent the rise of India. It continues to look at Taliban as a strategic asset that can be leveraged to further its strategic objectives, particularly vis a vis India.”
- Brig AR Siddiqi writing in The News, Pakistan’s leading daily, on July 11 quoted Gen Pervez Musharraf when he was the President and Army Chief, as saying “Taliban are my strategic reserve and I can unleash them in tens of thousands against India when I want...” Gen Kayani was probably the ISI Chief at that time. He indicated that there was no shift in this mindset.
- On July 3, Afghan Army Chief Gen Sher Mohammed Karimi told the BBC that “The Taliban are under Pakistan’s control – The leadership is in Pakistan.”
- Bruce Riedel – on July 3, said “By 2004 under the leadership of its then spy chief and today top general, Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, was deeply engaged in helping the Taliban again. It still is. The senior Taliban leadership including Mullah Omar are protected by the ISI in Quetta and Karachi.”
All this and many more such inputs indicate that Pakistan continues to pursue a plan that may not be in consonance with what the world wants – a stable and moderate Afghanistan. It estimates that with American provocation gone and political space apportioned by its surrogates like Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, it will be able to play the Islamic card and regain lost ground with militant Islamic groups on both sides of the border. The recalcitrant few could be neutralised with their support. On one hand, it will help it to mount over its precarious internal security predicament and on the other make available “strategic assets” for pursuing its agenda in the region like India, Central Asia etc. Pakistan’s assumption may prove to be its nemesis but many others may have to pay a heavy price.
More than anyone else, it is the US which exercises the leverage and influence to make Pakistan follow the right course and force it to abandon its policy of using terrorists as instruments of its state policy. It should be unequivocally made clear to the new regime in Pakistan that support to any form of terrorism irrespective of its cause, target or ideological persuasion would be unacceptable and involve costs. All financial assistance and aid to Pakistan should be made conditional to its deliverance on the terrorist front.
An assumption which must be dumped is that the threat emanating from Afghanistan would only affect the region. It won’t. It will engulf the regions far beyond. From Al Qaeda down to the lone wolves, the developments are being seen by the Jihadists as their victory against the sole superpower and rest of the world that stood by it in their fight against terror. They also are hopeful that the new dispensation in Afghanistan will provide them a foothold for pursuing their global agenda. The challenge is what we can do to prove them wrong. And, if despite our best efforts, desired results do not come forth, start preparing for the worst- an unstable Af Pak region - right from today, jointly and more resolutely. You often don’t have to fight the wars you had prepared for in advance.
(Based on the talk delivered on July 23, 2013 at Cannon Hall, Capitol Hill in a function organised by US-India Political Action Committee, American Foreign Policy Council and Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies)