The year 2014 culminated in Afghanistan leaving the country in two important transitions. First is the political transition where a new government has been installed, though after a laborious and lengthy election process. Second is the end of the Isaf’s 13-year-long ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ ergo transferring of primary responsibility for security to the Afghan National Army and Afghan police force. Neither of these has been smooth despite the fact that the timelines for both transitions were known for the last many years. This raises, questions about the stability of Afghanistan in the wake of these transitions and the interests and role of key external actors.
The Political Transition
The first phase of the Presidential election was held on April 5, 2014 whereby Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani emerged as the top candidates. Since neither of them could cross the 50 per cent mark, a run-off was held on June 14 the preliminary results of which indicated that Dr Ghani is going to be the president. However, Abdullah Abdullah rejected the outcome alleging electoral fraud. After a long diplomatic flurry, election results were set aside and a National Unity Government was sworn in on September 29 with Ashraf Ghani as President and Abdullah Abdullah assuming charge as CEO of the country, a new position of a coequal but with distribution of powers yet to be defined. But, the process of formation of the cabinet has again hit the snags as a list of 27 names (25 Ministers, Central Bank Governor and an Intelligence Chief) was submitted to the Wolesi Jirga, which, reportedly, has rejected many names. Dr Abdullah’s camp is not too happy with the current, ambiguous power-sharing arrangement which is supposed to be formally settled in a two-year timeframe by constitutionally creating the position of a Prime Minister. But, two years is a long time in Afghan politics!
The Security Transition
In 2009, the US president, Barack H. Obama, announced the “surge” while simultaneously laying out the schedule of the drawdown and withdrawal of US forces from combat operations in Afghanistan. The timeline of the security transition was laid out with this announcement. However, many analysts still opine that the decision was not the one dictated by the ground realities in Afghanistan, rather it was a consequence of domestic political considerations of the United States. The Obama administration scaled down the objectives so that the illusion of “success” could be maintained. The original objective of the American invasion of Afghanistan was to “build a stable, strong, effectively governed Afghanistan which will not degenerate into chaos”; however, following the Iraq distraction, this was perceived as too ambitious during George W. Bush’s second term, and now Obama has also settled for the more modest goal of “preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for global terrorism.”
During the ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ the foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan exceeded 150,000 in 2011. These soldiers were contributed by 50 countries, though the US share was nearly two-thirds in terms of troops and higher in terms of air support, air and satellite surveillance and intelligence gathering. Approximately 2,300 American soldiers were among nearly 3,500 total foreign troop casualties. In terms of “treasure,” while the Congressional Research Service has estimated the US cost of the Afghan war at $686 billion, an independent study undertaken by Harvard University pegs the cost at over $2 trillion. The Harvard study cautions that the major part of this cost is yet to be paid in terms of long-term medical care and disability compensations to serving soldiers, about two million veterans and families, military replenishments and social and economic costs. Civilian Afghan casualties exceeded 20,000 during this period.
Afghan security forces (both Police and Army) today stand at 352,000 and are expected to be reduced to 228,000 by 2017. Meanwhile, their casualty rate has risen sharply in recent years surpassing 15,000, leading to de-motivation and resulting in large-scale desertions; $4.1 billion of international assistance is needed annually to sustain these force levels, with the US providing more than half this amount. Yet, it is far cheaper than maintaining a foreign presence. An Afghan soldier’s annual salary is approximately $2,000 and his training and equipment costs $200,000, compared to $2 million that it takes to keep an American soldier there for a year.
India’s Growing Problems
The new ground realities after the end of Nato and US’ combat roles in Afghanistan pose daunting challenges to India. At a time when Modi government is striving to consolidate its position domestically and is trying to revive the economy, attention to Afghanistan has slipped below the horizon. Moreover, President Ashraf Ghani has also deliberately sought greater Chinese involvement — a nightmare for Indians — in ending the war in his country. He followed this up with a visit to Pakistan, where in an unprecedented move he called on chief of the Pakistani army Gen Raheel Sharif at Pak Army’s GHQ before meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Subsequently, the Americans handed over to Pakistan Latif Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader who had crossed over to Afghanistan. Further, Gen Raheel Sharif flew to Kabul within hours of the horrendous attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School and demanded of President Ghani action against Pakistani Taliban who, he said, were operating out of Afghanistan.
In all these important developments president Ghani has kept India at arm’s length. While back-channel contacts continue, he has chosen not to visit New Delhi, and in October 2014 he suspended an outstanding request for helicopters and other military equipment India had been late in delivering.
In this whole narrative, India seems missing in action. This is understandable since there can be no doubt that the Pakistani army is the key to peace in Afghanistan, and only the Chinese have leverage over them. There is no doubt that in this equation India has no role. It shares no physical borders with Afghanistan, has desisted from supplying arms to the government security forces, is not involved with any armed groups and has no favourites among the local political groups and individuals.
President Ghani, during his Pakistan visit, expressed his desire to further strengthen bilateral relations with Pakistan in all areas of mutual interest by saying, “We must overcome the past…we will not permit the past to destroy the future.” Keeping in view this growing bonhomie, Indian desperation in Afghanistan is increasing. India is using every opportunity to affect improving relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
New Delhi has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan. It also signed a wide-ranging strategic agreement with Afghanistan on October 5, 2011 aimed at seeking Indian help in training Afghan security forces, while also assisting Kabul in diversified projects.
Indian presence in Afghanistan is much more than economic activities. Due to Af-Pak thawing, India is up to its usual tirade to foment an environment by conducting terrorist attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to prove that Pakistan is creating trouble for Afghanistan.
On the other side, India through its consulates and other facilities in Afghanistan is equipping and infiltrating Baloch Sub-nationalists and other terrorists in Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, and had tasked Afghan intelligence, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), their cohorts to create mayhem in Pakistan.
In fact, India wants instability in Afghanistan, which favours its secret designs against Pakistan. But, Pakistan seeks stability in Afghanistan, which is not possible owing to Indian presence in that country. Therefore, Pakistan has legitimate concerns in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s new regime realizes that Afghanistan’s prosperity and stability depend upon a formula to address Pakistan’s security concerns, as both the countries have been facing common challenges.
India’s Premier Narendra Modi is looking at a regional situation where opportunities for India are aplenty. But, in order to take advantage of these opportunities, he must treat an Indian role in Afghanistan as a building block towards the success of his larger strategy to secure a more prominent role for India in Asia and in the world. And, for this purpose he has to seek better relationship with Pakistan because it is of critical importance if India wants to preserve its strategic interests in Afghanistan. The game of interests among various actors jockeying for power can also create problems for India. If India wants to remain in Afghanistan, it must change its policy towards Pakistan. India needs to recalibrate its strategy to deal with a range of options from these unfolding scenarios.