The situation in Afghanistan can be described as a stalemate at both the strategic and tactical levels. The security environment is precarious, socio-economic development is stagnating and the reconciliation process has reached an impasse. The NATO–ISAF (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation– International Security Assistance Force) strategy to clear-hold-build-transfer-exit has succeeded only partially as the Taliban and the Al Qaeda have not been eliminated and terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) are growing in number.
The fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are not yet capable of managing security after the premature withdrawal of the US-led NATO-ISAF intervention force. The Afghanistan National Security Forces’ (ANSF, ANA plus ANP) numbers are small (3,52,000). The ANA lacks heavy weapons, artillery, air support and helicopters for logistics support.
The standards of junior leadership are low and the troops are inadequately trained and equipped. They do not have the level of motivation necessary to undertake complex counter-insurgency operations on a sustained basis. Cases of fratricide and desertions with weapons are commonplace. While the ANSF and the remnants of the Nato-ISAF forces control most of the large towns and the airports, the Taliban — together with the al-Qaeda — control large swathes of the countryside. Governance is virtually non-existent outside Kabul. The approximately 13,000 Nato-ISAF troops now remaining in Afghanistan are on a train-advise-assist mission. Unless Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, the Central Asian Republics (CARs), China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia join hands with the international community to supplement the ANSF’s efforts to eliminate the insurgents, the security environment is likely to deteriorate further and may degenerate into a civil war. Kabul and New Delhi have had a historically friendly relationship. Afghanistan’s location at the strategic cross-roads between South Asia and Central Asia and South Asia and West Asia makes it an important geo-political partner. Afghanistan has vast mineral deposits. When the Chabahar port in Iran becomes operational, India will gain access to the CARs through Afghanistan. Hence, peace and stability in Afghanistan are vital national interests for India.
India supports the installation of a broad-based and stable representative government in consonance with Afghan customs and traditions. The imposition of the Western model of democracy will not be appropriate. India would prefer a government that adopts a stance of neutrality between India and Pakistan, but should be willing to work closely with any government that is truly representative of the Afghan people. India’s efforts to provide greater assistance are being hampered by the lack of geographical contiguity. India has only limited access to Afghanistan as Pakistan has not given India transit rights.
India’s attempts to allay Pakistan’s misapprehensions about New Delhi’s intentions have not been successful as Pakistan has steadfastly refused to discuss this issue. Afghanistan’s problems can’t be resolved unless the trans-Durand Line challenges that it faces from Pakistan and the Haqqani network are addressed simultaneously.
The India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership agreement was signed in October 2011. It calls for close political cooperation with a mechanism for regular consultations and joint initiatives on regional and international issues. It stipulates a strategic dialogue to provide a framework for cooperation in the field of national security. Security cooperation is intended to enhance mutual efforts against international terrorism, organised crime, illegal trafficking in narcotics and money laundering. The agreement specifies that India will assist in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes of the ANSF. It commits the two sides to “strengthening trade, economic, scientific and technological cooperation, as well as cooperation between other bodies of business and industry representatives…” India has committed itself to continue to provide assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development programmes and capacity building.
India’s policy objectives in Afghanistan are in consonance with the strategic partnership agreement. Besides a stable and preferably neutral government, India’s political objectives include the following: ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a base and safe haven for terrorists and radical extremists; counter Pakistan’s quest for strategic depth, acquire access to Afghanistan and through it to the CARs; establish broad-based engagement with all political groups; support Afghan-led reconciliation efforts, as visualised by the Afghan High Peace Council; assist Afghanistan to train its administrative and judicial staff to improve governance and delivery of justice; and, further enhance people-to-people contacts.
India’s national security objectives comprise: supporting the capacity building efforts of ANSF by ensuring implementation of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, including the supply of war-like stores; ensuring the safety and protection of Indian assets and infrastructure in Afghanistan; and, cooperating to share intelligence.
India’s economic policy objectives are to increase trade with Afghanistan and through it with the CARs; enhance Indian business investment in Afghanistan; assist Afghanistan to develop its natural resources; further increase India’s reconstruction and capacity building programme; enhance India’s energy security; for example, through the commissioning of the TAPI (Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan– India) pipeline; assist Afghanistan to replace narcotics-based agriculture with regular agriculture; and, work towards the implementation of SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area). Finally, unless the security environment improves substantially, governance and development will continue to take a back seat. The P-5 (UN permanent members: China, France, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, and the United States) need to be persuaded to supplement the ANSF with a United Nations or a regional peacekeeping force to eliminate the Taliban. Though there is no support in India for sending troops to Afghanistan, there is realisation that the fight against the Taliban and the al Qaeda has long-term security implications for the country as peace and stability in Afghanistan are vital national interests. Along with other neighbours, New Delhi should be willing to deploy up to one division (15,000 troops) to join such a force provided Pakistan’s sensibilities about Indian military presence in Afghanistan can be assuaged.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. At present he is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi and Adjunct Fellow, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.. This article was first published in Deccan Herald, Apr 8, 2017.