Thursday, November 27, 2014

Afghanistan’s Turbulent Past Could Once Again Become Its Future

Lt General R K Sawhney, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Sushant Sareen, Senior Fellow, VIF

More than a decade after the US and its allies ousted the monstrous Taliban regime and gave the people of Afghanistan a level of stability and progress that they had not known in decades, it seems that things could well be coming a full circle. Ironically, someone who is perceived to be a prodigy of the Americans who has been fostered on Afghanistan through an election that was marred by ‘industrial scale fraud’ is likely to be person who is going to push Afghanistan towards instability and conflict, undermining the achievements for which a very heavy price in men and money was paid not just by Afghanistan but also by the international community. Worse, the new President of Afghanistan is not just seeking security from, but also appears to be mortgaging Afghanistan’s future to, the very country – Pakistan – that has been responsible for sabotaging the efforts of the international community to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Although the political transition from the former President Hamid Karzai to his successor was botched by the horribly rigged electoral process that catapulted a political light weight like Ashraf Ghani to the Presidency, there was some hope that the formation of the National Unity Government would help in getting over the bitter taste left by the stolen election. But it increasingly seems as though Ashraf Ghani is not going to live up to his side of the bargain, especially in terms of sharing power with other stakeholders and building a consensus on critical political, security and foreign policy issues.

By all accounts, even though Dr Abdullah Abdullah has been made the Chief Executive (a post that enjoys no constitutional sanctity) and had been promised a fair share in distribution of cabinet berths, Ghani appears to be manoeuvring to reduce Abdullah and his supporters into mere embellishments with no real power and no say in anything. This power grab by a man whose own legitimacy is in question is already causing a lot of heart burn and is likely to make cohabitation very difficult. Some Afghan analysts are of the view that the unilateral shifts affected by Ghani in foreign and security policy by literally agreeing to become a vassal of the GHQ in Rawalpindi – his ‘calling on’ the Pakistan Army Chief during his recent visit to Pakistan left no doubt about which way he is swinging – has only added to the sense of disquiet inside Afghanistan.

Already under strain, if the fragile political arrangement breaks down, political stability will become the first casualty, something that will work to the advantage of the Taliban and their backers across the Durand Line. Ashraf Ghani’s detractors believe that he is going all-out in trying to appease Pakistan in the fond hope that with a ‘friendly’, even compliant, government in Kabul, Pakistan will not only assist in a rapprochement with the Taliban but also stop all overt and covert hostile action inside Afghanistan by its proxies. In other words, Ghani’s play is to give the Pakistanis everything they want in return for them ensuring his own survival in Kabul.

In the quest to buy his insurance in Rawalpindi, Ashraf Ghani is engaged in striking closer relations with Pakistan’s allies, namely China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He apparently has come to believe that financial support from these countries will compensate for any loss of assistance from countries like India and even some Western countries and therefore pave the way for an economic transition from an aid dependent to a self-sustaining economic model. Clearly, for Ghani, getting Pakistan on board is the key to successfully making not just the political but also the economic and security transition.

On the face of it, Ashraf Ghani’s kowtowing to Pakistan may appear to be making the best of a bad bargain. But this policy shift is likely to crumble when pitted against the reality of the Taliban. By casting his lot with Pakistan, Ghani will end up playing the Pakistani game in which he will either become a puppet or worse become redundant and therefore expendable. The Pakistani insistence on giving the Taliban a stake in power is quite simply unworkable because any power sharing agreement with the Taliban will not be worth the paper it is written on. Given that the Taliban leader claims to be Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful), he just cannot and will not accept such an arrangement and will sooner rather than later make a grab for total power.

Even if Pakistan is able to somehow bulldoze Mullah Omar into some kind of power sharing agreement with the Ashraf Ghani regime, it isn’t clear how this will wash down in the rank and file of not just the Taliban but also the anti-Taliban forces. Chances are that a large section of the Taliban fighters will repudiate Mullah Omar if he shows any flexibility, which in any case he doesn’t need to because he is pretty much sure he is on the winning path. The real question will, however, be what the Pakistanis will do if Mullah Omar refuses to any deal with Ghani. Will Pakistan declare war on the Afghan Taliban? Highly unlikely. And even if they do, it will in all likelihood mean prolonged instability in the entire swathe of territory straddling the Durand Line and even beyond. This means that the economic dividend being dreamed by Ghani and also by the Pakistanis – pipelines, trade and transit, energy corridor, minerals and what have you – will go up in smoke.

For their part, the anti-Taliban forces, which comprise the bulk of the army and other security agencies are also not going to take kindly to any major concession to the Taliban which leaves them marginalised and irrelevant in the scheme of power. Given that Ashraf Ghani has very little purchase with the Army, there is a strong possibility that he may not be able to bring the military to accept any Faustian bargain with the Taliban. There is also bound to be unease in the Afghan Army over Ghani agreeing to use Pakistani military training facilities for the Afghan officers and soldiers. This effectively means asking the Afghan military to take training from the very people who are responsible for supporting, supplying and providing sanctuary to the terrorists against whom the Afghan Army is fighting. Even if he is given the benefit of doubt and his intentions are not questioned, it is difficult to disregard that Ashraf Ghani is sending completely fuzzy signals to the security forces about who the enemy is, who they have to fight and how they have to fight. The more uncharitable assessment of Ghani’s plans for the Army would be that he is bartering the interests of the Afghan people and state for his own political survival, which too is doubtful.

Actually much of what Ghani is trying to do has been tried by his predecessor with very little to show for it. But while Hamid Karzai could afford to see his outreach to Pakistan fail because he had the benefit of US-led International forces propping up his government militarily and monetarily, much of this support will not be there for Ghani. In other words, he doesn’t have too much slack to play around with. A few wrong moves, some of which he has already made, and before he knows it, the entire edifice could start to crumble. His expectations of the Chinese, Saudis and Turks bailing him out are unrealistic. Worse, the Americans and other Western countries are losing interest in Afghanistan. Even though the Americans are assuring their watered down presence until at least 2016, there is a good chance they may leave much sooner. And the day they leave, the gravy train that had been propping up the Afghan state could stop abruptly. As far as the Americans are concerned, it seems they have no real problem with the prospect of the Chinese calling the shots through the Pakistanis in Afghanistan. Whether this tack will work and the Chinese will play ball in the way the Americans would like them to is another matter.

As far as India is concerned, Ashraf Ghani has made it quite clear that he has no use for India and has relegated it to the fourth circle of his priority countries. Frankly, part of the blame for this sort of relegation must be borne by India, especially the previous government which rooted for Ghani over Dr Abdullah partly because they were taken in by his smooth words professing eternal friendship, partly because they bought into the nonsense of backing a Pashtun, and partly because they somehow believed that Abdullah was getting too close to the Pakistanis. It is of course another matter that who India rooted was hardly important because things were going to be decided not by India but by the Americans and others who had decided to back Ashraf Ghani over Abdullah. But to the extent that India’s stance rubbed its friends the wrong way, it has been a bit of a setback. The worst mistake that was made by the UPA government was its extreme reluctance to provide the weapons and equipment that the Karzai government wanted to bolster its defence against overt and covert aggression from Pakistan. Ostensibly this was done because Manmohan Singh and his advisors were more mindful of Pakistani sensitivities than Afghan requirements. This disastrous policy not only created an impression that India was an unreliable partner, but worse, convinced some Afghans that if India too is giving more credence to Pakistan than to Afghanistan, then perhaps the Afghans are better off by dealing with Pakistan rather than relying upon India. Already India has a terrible reputation of not standing by its friends and this impression has only got strengthened in the backdrop of developments in Afghanistan.

All this is not to suggest that India has no cards to play. But before India plays any cards, it must understand that it was always a bit of a marginal player in Afghanistan. Partly for reasons of geography, military and economic strength - simply put, India isn’t quite America – and partly for reasons emanating from the way India conducted its Afghan policy – riding piggy back on the Americans and even giving in to them on its principled objection against delinking of Taliban from Al Qaeda – it was going to play at best a marginal role in determining the course of events in Afghanistan. To be sure, India’s development effort and its soft power earned it tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan. But this was never going to be worth much in the face of use of hard power by the enemies of Afghanistan. There was a time, in the early years after the ouster of the Taliban that India could have played a more pro-active role and tied the Afghans closely with Indian interests. But back then, the Americans wanted to keep India’s role limited to keep the Pakistanis happy. By the time the Americans realised that the Pakistanis had outplayed them with their treachery, and they wanted India to commit itself to Afghanistan, it would have been foolish for India to clean up the mess that the Americans were leaving behind.

While India did share a close relationship with the Afghan security establishment and there was cooperation on intelligence matters relating to the terrorist threat that both countries faced from the same source, this was a normal state to state relationship between two friendly countries and wasn’t directed against any third country. And yet, Pakistan created a bogey out of this which it then used to justify its sponsorship and support for the Taliban. What was most galling was the manner in which the specious narrative of Pakistan found subscribers in the West who spoke about an India-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan. These people never bothered to ask as to how come if a proxy war was being fought, then diplomats and citizens of only one country were on the receiving end of terror attacks while those of the other country strutted about as though they owned Afghanistan. If India had actually been involved in a proxy war, surely there would have been some retaliation against Pakistanis in Afghanistan, but this never happened.

The fact, however, is that India has a vital interest in Afghanistan. This interest is essentially limited to seeing Afghanistan become a stable and secure country. Historically, instability in Afghanistan has destabilised India. For stability in Afghanistan it is important that it doesn’t become a base for international or regional terrorists. This is an interest that India needs to protect, something it can do despite limitations of geography. India has enough friends in Afghanistan who share the same interest and regardless of what Ashraf Ghani does, India can continue to play a role in Afghanistan, directly or indirectly. The simple logic of Afghanistan is that there will always be people who will reach out to India for help and assistance. When this happens, India should be ready to play the role that it needs to for stabilising Afghanistan. In the meantime, India needs to build its economic strength and its military muscle. Most of all, India needs to pay attention to border security and beefing up its security grid not just along its western borders but also its other land and sea borders.

Published Date: 24th November 2014, Imagesource:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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