US' Af-Pak policy and India's concerns

India should seek a regional solution to the Afghan conflict with the help of China, Iran and Russia.

After the ongoing review of the war strategy in Afghanistan and its efficacy, President Barack Obama will decide whether the planned exit of US and Nato troops will commence in July 2011.

The broad goal of the US-Nato-ISAF war strategy in Afghanistan is to ensure that Afghanistan acquires the stability that is necessary to be able to control its territory so as to prevent the Taliban-al-Qaeda (Taliqaeda) combine from operating successfully from its soil against the US and its allies and to reduce the risk of a return to civil war.

According to a Council for Foreign Relations task force the US objective in Pakistan is, “To degrade and defeat terrorist groups that threaten American interests from its territory and to prevent turmoil that would imperil the Pakistan state and risk the security of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.” The US also seeks to prevail on Pakistan to stop providing support to the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani terrorist organisations.

Modified strategy

Time is running out for the achievement of the political and military objectives laid down by the coalition forces. Hence, the war strategy has been modified by General Petraeus from ‘clear-hold-build’ during the command of General McChrystal to ‘clear-hold-transfer’, although Petraeus shares McChrystal’s ideas on rebuilding and reconstruction and had supported them as the C-in-C central command.

The emphasis in Afghanistan is now on training the Afghan national army and police forces as quickly as possible and gradually transferring the responsibility for security to them while simultaneously conducting intensive counter-insurgency operations with the troops reinforced by the surge of 2010 to break the back of the Taliqaeda insurrection in areas like Helmand, Marja and Kandahar.

The US seeks to transfer all combat responsibilities to the Afghan security forces by 2014. President Obama has made winning in Afghanistan his primary national security priority and is fully committed to the present US-NATO strategy. Contrary to earlier apprehensions, it has now clearly emerged that the US will not cut and run in July 2011. 

The exit strategy will be based on a phased drawdown with not more than 10,000 troops being withdrawn each year till an “equilibrium that is manageable” is achieved. Afghanistan lies on the strategic crossroads to Iran, West Asia, the Caucasus and the Central Asian Republics and India has important geo-political and energy security interests in the area.

One of India’s key objectives is to prevent the re-emergence of safe havens for anti-India terrorist groups in Afghanistan. India’s diplomatic aim has always been to work towards a stable Afghan state, which is governed by a dispensation that is neutral between India and Pakistan even if the regime is not friendly towards India. The Indian approach is not tactical but long-term.

India has invested over $1 billion and immense time and effort in the post-2001 reconstruction of Afghanistan, but has been completely marginalised in discussions for the resolution of the ongoing conflict due to Pakistan’s sensibilities, indeed paranoia. India’s foremost concern is that the US-NATO-ISAF forces will begin their deadline-mandated exit before putting in place a strong international force to continue their work. 

India’s apprehension is that the Taliban will defeat the weak and poorly trained Afghan national army, take over Kabul, extend their reach to the countryside in due course and once again begin to practice their peculiar brand of jihad and cultural bigotry. Even Iran and China are wary of the return of Wahabi Islam to Afghanistan.

With Kabul back under Taliban control, Pakistan will divert a large number of mercenary terrorists to Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of India, as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-89. It is in India’s long-term interest to seek a regional solution to the Afghan conflict with the help of the CARs, China, Iran and Russia. This would involve putting together a regional force, preferably under a UN flag, to provide a stable environment for governance and development till the Afghan national army can take over.

In the short-term, it is in the regional interest to support the continued operational commitment of US-NATO-ISAF forces beyond July 2011 till the situation comes under control and security can be handed over to the Afghan national army. India must seek to further enhance its role in the reconstruction effort and the training of the Afghan national army, including in situ in Afghanistan, so as to hasten the process and pass on its special expertise in counter-insurgency operations to bring up the professional standards of the fledgling force.