Afghanistan: Withdrawal Symptoms

By Malladi Rama Rao*
To the dismay of his acolytes, President Obama’s honeymoon in and out of the US looks like ending sooner than was expected at the time of his inauguration a year ago. So, it is quite possible that he may revise many of his domestic and foreign policies to regain the lost domestic support. One of these policies relates to the Afghan theatre and his timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Kabul, which is the summer of 2011.

The ordinary Americans donot share the perception of the White House and Pentagon on the dangers from resurgent Taliban. In fact, if not all, considerable sections, refuse to see that leaving Afghanistan may expose them to a danger that had come when Afghanistan was under Taliban rule in the 1990s. The Americans only want to see that their youth are not sent to be killed in a distant and inhospitable zone.

While nobody can say with certainty at this stage, the year 2011 has to be treated as the final year of the presence of large number of US combat troops in Afghanistan, whether the Taliban and other fundamentalist-militia are subdued or not.  The US administration will have invented some justification to beat the retreat from that mountainous and rugged country.

Already some ground is prepared by projecting Yemen as the new danger zone, where the US is limiting its role to supplying some high-tech hardware and lets the Yemenis do the actual fighting. In Central Asia too, the United States is on a similar mission training Special Forces in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent the Taliban menace from spreading to former Soviet republics.  This fits in well with the new found Obama resolve.

Also, as the leaked ‘confidential’ cables from America’s ambassador in Kabul to Washington show, the emphasis will be against ‘reliance on simply military superiority’ and on a pat to Pakistan for what Gen David Petraeus, the US central command chief, terms as ‘causing considerable setback to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’. The buzzword today is ‘partnership’ and it is going to see ‘reintegration’ of Taliban fighters, 80 percent of whom, according to the State Department projections, are simple mercenaries, fighting for money,

This ‘partnership’ approach hasn’t been articulated by the Obama administration as a formal strategy thus far though Gen. Stanley McChrystal, US Commander in Afghanistan has outlined the new thinking. An influential Washington Post columnist has seconded the strategy as worth a careful look to ‘make clear to the world that the United States isn’t an anti-terrorist Robocop’.

It is too early to crystal gaze the Obama plans for Afghanistan, and the impact on Pakistan, which is the toughest theatre of global war on terrorism.

Right now the American focus is on holding a series of international conferences on the Afghan scene without formally linking the exercise with post-US strategies for Afghanistan. Pakistan is getting hyper active to see that India is kept out of these deliberations since it has very clear designs to install a puppet regime in Kabul once the Americans have gone.

One thing is clear though. The danger of Kabul takeover by Taliban and other anti-democratic forces remains grave. It will not vanish in the years to come. Firstly because Pakistan will not give up its dual policy of nurturing Taliban-type elements. Secondly because al Qaeda and its associates have regrouped and are armed to the teeth. The recent shooting down of an American drone in North Waziristan shows that they are ready for the ‘new times’.

From a purely Indian perspective, majority of Afghans are very well disposed towards Delhi because of the kind of useful and visible assistance it has rendered in the task of rebuilding their war-ravaged country. A large number of Afghans are also suspicious of Pakistan, which they think wants to push Afghanistan back in to Taliban’s medieval rule. Pakistan has ‘openly’ nurtured a section of the Taliban and other fundamentalists-militants to make India bleed and to make Afghanistan ‘behave’.  Its frantic efforts to keep India out of any post-US Afghanistan are not unexpected.  These fall into the known pattern.

New Delhi must work with utmost diligence on a post-US Afghanistan policy to checkmate Pakistan games and to prevent from proxies or puppets coming to power in Kabul. Sending troops to Afghanistan could be a strategy that India may have to consider, or rather reconsider. At one time the US was very keen to see India send its forces into Afghanistan. But the way in which the US has been submitting to Pakistani blackmail it can no longer be said that Washington will be still keen to see a few Indian divisions on Afghan duty. The US is always half inclined to listen to the Pakistani complaint of ‘security concerns’ over Indian ‘presence’ in Afghanistan.

A bench mark in this connection for decision makers is India’s peace keeping mission in Sri Lanka, which was a disaster. The India Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) ended up as a victim of Tamilnadu politics and Colombo’s games in equal measure. True, no two cases are similar and the situation in Sri Lanka in the Rajiv era and today’s Afghanistan are not comparable.  May be there is a case for India considering to send its paramilitary for active law and order duty in Kabul and other key centres.

There is no gainsaying that security concerns in Afghanistan can be addressed if the US troops are replaced by adequate and well-trained Afghan troops. The problem is that even nearly a decade after the ouster of the Taliban regime Afghanistan does not have a security force of its own which can fight the Taliban. India should accelerate its help for training Afghan troops for control of their security apparatus. Pakistan should have no objection since it is in position to handle the job what with its serving officers and cantonments under pressure to address domestic concerns on a priority.
It is possible that Islamabad will pitch for Chinese presence in a big way in a post-US arrangement. Already the Pakistan media has gone into overdrive to canvas for a role for China, in a command performance they are best known for.  On its part, China is going about its task quietly by steadily stepping up its ‘economic diplomacy’ in Afghanistan.

New Delhi can defeat Pakistan at its game by closely working with Central Asian countries and Iran, which are opposed to the Taliban and its terror export. They also believe that when it comes to Taliban there can be no distinction between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ among the tribe of terrorists. Pakistan makes such distinction because it uses the ‘good’ ones for its proxy war against India.

Whatever be the domestic compulsions of President Obama, Afghanistan will need foreign assistance for a long period to keep the menace of Taliban at bay. Having started the global war against terrorism with wrong allies, the United States cannot afford to leave Kabul in the hands of countries that have no commitment to continue the fight against Islamist terrorism and the mindset the Taliban have come to represent. In the larger interests of its own security interests. Also in the interests of India and other Afghan neighbours.

(*This article first appeared on the website of Policy Research Group, an independent think tank)