Fear is the Key
Post-2014 Afghanistan: Will it be back to the future?
Ramesh Ramachandran Delhi
As Afghanistan prepares for life beyond 2014, its capital, Kabul, is seeing a steady stream of visitors from far and near, all seeking to reassure and to be reassured that peace and stability will return to the landlocked country torn apart by conflict for the last 33 years. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan on July 27; his country has about 1,500 troops there but the bulk will be pulled out by the end of this year. Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz of Pakistan and British premier David Cameron were there, too, as was the US’s Af-Pak envoy, James Dobbins.
An Indian delegation comprising officials from the ministries of external affairs and defencetravelled to Kabul in the second week of July to follow up on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to New Delhi in May with a wish list of items he would like the Indian government to share with the Afghan national army and allied security forces as the US completes pulling out its troops by the end of next year.
What should have been a moment of quiet satisfaction, reflective of the enormous goodwill India enjoys among the Afghan people and government alike for funding development projects worth billions of dollars, has turned into an embarrassment of sorts as Karzai’s wishlist has exposed the limits to what India can, and is willing to, do to shore up a post-2014 Afghanistan. It was quick to waitlist Karzai’s inventory of lethal material on the grounds that there are many moving parts to the Afghan conundrum, namely, Pakistan’s attitude towards Afghanistan and India, the Taliban’s own gameplan, the moves for a possible reconciliation with the Taliban (as evidenced by the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar) and the extent of Pakistan’s role in it, the ethnic configuration of Afghanistan in the immediate future and the eventual successor to Karzai following the elections.
Notwithstanding New Delhi’s contention, that while it is there for the long haul, it would not want to “become part of the problem”, Kabul maintains that the Afghan national security forces must be equipped with the necessary capabilities — including capacity for logistics and equipment maintenance as well as adequate ground and air firepower — to execute independent operations against conventional and unconventional enemies. India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in October 2011, which dwelled on security, trade, capacity-building and people-to-people contacts. Specifically, India agreed “to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity-building programmes for Afghan National Security Forces”. Therefore, Kabul’s desire to source hardware with Indian assistance should be viewed in that context.
However, if the Afghans were disappointed by New Delhi’s circumspection, they did not show it. As Afghan ambassador to India Shaida Abdali put it, “In the post- 2014 period, we look forward to working with India.... At the same time, we renew our call on the international community to stay the course in Afghanistan.”
So, can Afghanistan descend into chaos after 2014?
While the jury is still out on that, serving and former Afghan officials are of the considered view that the road to peace in Kabul goes through Islamabad. An Afghan diplomatic source insists that the Taliban leadership continues to receive protection from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments.
Afghan army chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi believes that Pakistan could end the Afghan war “in weeks” because “the Taliban are under their control”. A former Afghan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, in turn says that some of the Western powers are in such a hurry to cut and run from Afghanistan that they are eager to differentiate between the threats posed by the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and to downplay the dangers posed by a return of the Taliban (similar to how the chaos after the erstwhile USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan gave rise to the Taliban.)
Ironically, this view is in contrast to New Delhi’s which has of late adopted a nuanced position on the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban. At a recent Asean meeting in Brunei, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said India supported Kabul’s efforts to establish a dialogue with all armed opposition groups, “including the Taliban”.
For now, Abdali is confident that his country will not go the Iraq way. US troops withdrew from in December 2011, and it continues to be riven by civil strife. Neither will it resemble the days of the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001. “Let me reassure you against the 2014 myth of Afghanistan falling apart after the withdrawal of NATO forces from our country,” says Abdali. Watch this space!.