Speculation on Afghanistan’s opaque future has slipped from the headlines, but the situation there remains the world’s worst security problem and a major cause of anxiety for India. It figured in the recent meeting between Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama, though the reference in the joint statement was anodyne and conceals the fact that some influential American policy-makers regard the prevailing poor relations between India and Pakistan as exacerbating the problem, and that Pakistan’s alleged security concerns about India’s presence in Afghanistan needed to be addressed. The idea that the normalization of India-Pakistan relations will dramatically change the attitude of extremists like the Taliban is false and dangerous, and New Delhi has apparently not been able to disabuse the Americans of this notion.
There will be huge benefits for South Asia if Afghanistan is stable, economically and politically. New Delhi clearly hopes that Washington will lose patience with Pakistan’s machinations and double dealing, but such expectations will end in frustration. With the withdrawal of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces from Afghanistan next year, in what is already the longest military operation in the history of the United States of America, there are doubts whether the West is prepared to sustain the Afghan government and army over the next five to 10 years. Since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, there have been advances with regard to gender equality and child welfare, health, education and civil society, but to sustain such achievements, funding and support from abroad will be essential for decades to come. As happened in the past, it would not be surprising if Afghanistan recedes from the memory of an exhausted international community.
Within Afghanistan, the ethnic Pashtun non-Pashtun divide continues to fester, with the latter not enthusiastic about talks with the Taliban. The economy remains agriculture-based, and the thousands now working with Nato troops,in spite of being the most modern element in society, will soon become jobless. The four million refugees in Pakistan and Iran will probably never return. The para-military units set up by the Americans could become criminal gangs if more money does not flow in, because there is no plan for their integration or rehabilitation. The Afghan army, that collapsed three times after the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics departed, was once officered by Pashtuns, but now mainly by Tajiks, and manpower recruitment is not taking place from the traditional Pashtun east and west but from elsewhere. Questions of loyalty to the State or democracy are theoretical because no such vision or motivation exists. A credible election and smooth change of president in 2014 will be essential for Afghanistan’s stability and support from the international community.
Because the insurgency by the Taliban and other extremists continues unabated, Afghanistan’s future depends on reconciliation with the Taliban. In early 2011 the US began to pursue a negotiated solution but its attempts have so far yielded no results. Both the US and Hamid Karzai rely on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table, while Obama’s administration has inter-agency divisions, and the Qatar experiment was a fiasco with each side blaming the others. There is no movement on the release of the American-held Taliban prisoners because the Pentagon is adamant that Guantanamo rules cannot be changed, and the US Congress is against any releases. There is no common ground between the four parties — the US, Pakistan, Karzai and the Taliban — and the Taliban claim that the US makes unreasonable demands and keeps moving the goalposts. But the insurgents are in several formations — Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the Haqqani group (Arab elements befriended by the Inter-Services Intelligence) and Pakistani Taliban, and even more extreme anti-talk, anti-democracy, anti-West, anti-Shia units like the Salafis and Hizb ut- Tahrir, heavily influenced by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Only the Quetta Shura has so far come forward as interlocutor.
Afghanistan cannot be considered without reference to Pakistan. Pakistan is in economic and social crisis and Pakistan-sponsored militants, used in Kashmir and Afghanistan along with the Taliban, have resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing the tribal areas. The newly minted policy of appeasing the militants undermines the already fragile fabric of the country, and is opposed by the army. Hafiz Saeed is a national hero, the activities of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and other extremists continue unchecked, and atrocities and line of control violations are likely to increase as the militants view the civil authority as weak and frightened. Pakistan has delivered nothing to anyone, not Osama bin Laden to the Americans or Dawood Ibrahim to India. When Karzai sought the release of Taliban held in Pakistan to facilitate the peace process, Islamabad freed some detainees including Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former foreign minister and number two to Omar, but Kabul derided it as a “small step” because these Taliban were released at large in Pakistan and not handed over to the Afghan authorities. Pakistan has to make clear how long it proposes to hold the Taliban by the hand, and whether the Taliban are to be considered permanent features in Pakistan. No country fully trusts the Pakistanis, not even their all-weather friend, China.
Globalization and hi-technology have bypassed Pakistan. With inflation rising, the rupee falling and industry threatened by terror or power cuts, 60 per cent of the exports are textiles, as they were in the 1950s. The US, Canada and the European Union have cut back on aid. Pakistan must raise taxes and introduce family planning for the population of 190 million. There is no inward investment even from the Arabs, let alone the West. The breach with the US on Osama bin Laden and drone strikes is very damaging. The army has learnt that its intervention is no solution — last time, 90 per cent supported the military coup against Nawaz Sharif, now at least 50 per cent will oppose it — but the army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is at odds with Sharif’s plan for unconditional approaches to the Taliban with a view to making them ‘stakeholders’. The immediate solution is closer ties with India which can provide an economic boost in trade and the energy sector, and be of advantage to both countries, but India is hamstrung by a lack of national consensus on ties with Pakistan, while Kayani’s military does not acquiesce in any Nawaz Sharif proposal for an improvement of relations with India.
There is no strategic understanding between Afghanistan and its neighbourhood. The ideal would be a regional arrangement including close neighbours like India, Saudi Arabia and Russia, but there is no diplomatic initiative from the US, its relations with Iran and Pakistan are mired in disputes, and Pakistan, although suffering from economic and social fatigue, has maintained sway over a wide set of groups and individuals within all the militant networks. Both the civil and military leaders in Pakistan want a government in Kabul dominated by friendly Pashtuns to act as their proxies, to provide strategic depth in any conflict with India, and access to Central Asian resources. Pakistan-sponsored militants are integral to its military/foreign policy, which is unacceptable to neighbours, the region and the world. Iran, having made significant financial and political investments in Afghanistan over the past three decades, seeks to maintain its influence with Shia Hazaras and Tajiks that share cultural and linguistic affinities, and would want its interests protected in any peace arrangement. Compared to Pakistan and Iran, India’s influence is limited, but it has expanded its economic activities and contributed to reconstruction projects. Its objective is the prevention of terrorism and Islamic extremism that threaten India’s security and the preservation of its economic investments. China, although making significant investments in copper and oil, keeps a low political profile, and may play a greater role post 2014. There is an obvious correlation of Indian interests with China’s to protect their various strategic and commercial priorities in Afghanistan, but the obvious in international politics is often not the feasible.
The worst-case scenario in Afghanistan is that the Taliban will return and embark on a vendetta to recapture total power. This will result in a civil war and the north is already re-arming against this possibility. The benign alternative would be that the Taliban and their affiliates, having exhausted themselves after decades of fighting, would be more realistic once back in power, open to compromise, and disassociate themselves from al-Qaida. Neither option would diminish the security and strategic threat to India. New Delhi will have to resort to the famous epithet of the 13th-century Afghan Sufi poet, Rumi: “Trust in God but tie the camel’s leg.”