An Indian pivot in Afghanistan after troop drawdown

July 1, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Notwithstanding Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s disinclination to participate in talks, the Taliban retain the ability to calibrate violence levels in large parts of the country. But even if an understanding is reached with the Taliban, it does not hold the promise of lasting peace. Breakaway factions will find support and funding to continue bloodletting.

It is necessary to take stock of Kabul’s problems and find strong regional partners as anchors in unison with the depleted NATO/American establishment after the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) drawdown. Kabul’s foremost problem is fielding well-trained forces. The ISAF has apparently reached the numbers it had set as its target but the forces fail to inspire confidence. Continued intensive training is required.

The inherent infirmities of the Afghan National Security Forces are also major hurdles. Desertion, drug abuse and literacy levels, even among the officer corps, inhibits trainability.

Over 90 percent of Afghanistan’s budget is funded by other nations. The government in Kabul can survive only if the flow of aid is ensured. The collapse of Mohammad Najibullah’s government in 1992 was a direct fallout of Russian aid dwindling. Connected issues include drugs and the rampant corruption that Karzai has not been able to stem, and Kabul may find it even more difficult tomorrow with local leaders trying to extract a price for continued support.

The Chinese have shunned local Afghan politics so far. Their concerns remain economic and extremist activities in its western Xinjiang region from bases in Afghanistan.

The Russians would not favour Taliban dominance with the possibility of extremism spreading to central Asia. Given their previous experience in Afghanistan, they are unlikely to go beyond training and equipping Afghan forces.

Iran has interests in the Shia population in Afghanistan, while the Afghans need the Iranian port of Chabahar. But to include Iran in the stabilization effort means delinking the issue from Iran’s nuclear standoff.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation can play a substantial role with some member countries having common borders with Afghanistan. Unfortunately, no tangible benefits can accrue till the possible roles of Iran, China or Russia find acceptance in the United States and NATO countries.

With the mood in the streets of Afghanistan being incredibly anti-Pakistan, no democratic regime in Kabul can forge close ties with Islamabad. But India enjoys considerable acceptance. Even in the limited sphere of training Afghan forces, the quality and numbers required can only be achieved if Indian training teams are based in Afghanistan from now on and the country ultimately becomes the major training provider. It would need to provide military advisers, fill up current equipment voids as also reinforce Afghan efforts for procurement from other countries.

Possible fractious tendencies in Kabul will require Indian attempts at mitigation based on its old relations with major Afghan players. Also, if India is to increase its role, Pakistan will need to be kept in check by the United States. Only then can the Indian pivot in Afghanistan expand exponentially.

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