In an interview on February 26, 2014, the American secretary of state, John Kerry, argued that his nation was entering a phase of “new isolationism”. “We,” he asserted, “are beginning to behave like a poor nation.” Kerry was referring to what he felt was the United State of America’s growing political intolerance for continued engagement in world politics. His observations could not have been better timed. It coincided with the insistence of the Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai, that his administration will not enter into what is widely known as the bilateral security agreement or BSA. This is, according to most American interlocutors, an essential legal instrument designed to allow at least some US troops to remain in Afghanistan following the planned (and, in fact, ongoing) withdrawal of a majority of Western forces. As the US secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, put it, if left unsigned, the Pentagon will have to exercise a “zero option” or a complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
So far, Karzai has refused to sign the BSA. Insiders argue that his outright rejection of the BSA has to do with factors shaped by both domestic compulsions — matters to do with perception and the upcoming elections — and self-preservation. There is no doubt that Karzai is looking to secure a set of assurances to remain politically active in Kabul. Constitutionally, he is supposed to step down. That he will probably do so following the elections in the first week of April is in little doubt. Equally, that he will continue to remain an unofficial but central figure in Afghan politics in the immediate future is also in little doubt.
The fact that he is to be given a palatial property once occupied by the monarchy and till recently the United Nations across from the current presidential palace is perhaps the clearest signal that the president — in his late 50s — intends to serve as a non-executive elder shaping politics and policy. Yet, and his personal and political rationales aside, Karzai’s non-committal approach to the BSA and his somewhat flirtatious attitude towards the future security of Afghanistan have immediate repercussions. It strengthens the hands of those in Washington who advocate isolationism, pushing the US president, Barack Obama, to focus even more on economic growth, employment and pay greater attention to fortifying the US against future recessionary trends.
Further, it is likely to encourage insurgent factions committed to fighting rather than talking to either silence or towards marginalizing their comrades attracted to the idea of peace. Either way, for India, there are no optimum options. Afghanistan without US troops will almost certainly move to civil war. Given a raging insurgency determined to squash prospects of peace, India’s ability to even lightly shape the future of Afghanistan and cement its presence within it will remain a key challenge for the government following the general elections. In the immediate future, that is between now and the general elections within India, it might well be worth considering the following two points of argument.
First, it is in India’s interests to persuade Karzai to sign the BSA. From the outset, some might argue that New Delhi simply does not have the adequate leverage or the need to do so. Indeed, maintaining a degree of distance from what has already become a public and deeply entrenched political fight between Obama and Karzai might be thought to better serve Indian interests. This is a short-sighted view. Karzai may not be dependent on India — as he is on Iran and Pakistan, for altogether different reasons — but he is pre-disposed to what might be considered the politics of counter-vulnerability, or simply put: diplomatic balance. It is in Karzai’s interest to demonstrate to Pakistan that Kabul has diplomatic and economic options available in India’s willingness to continue to remain economically and politically engaged in Afghanistan. To be sure, such alternative realities have done well to further embed a degree of paranoia amongst Pakistan’s security elites, many of whom are at least partially convinced that India seeks nothing less than political control of Afghanistan. That such ideas are completely disconnected from reality or capability is another matter altogether. What matters is that the perceptions of India’s reach that serve to check Pakistani over-reach in Kabul, providing Karzai with a mirage of influence that Pakistan’s military tsars simply cannot ignore.
Of course, and apart from the value of making the best of diplomatic psychology, Karzai is acutely aware of the relatively modest but still imperative economic assistance India provides — details of which are widely understood. To be sure, a reduction in the numbers of American-led troops in Afghanistan has a direct causal impact on India’s ability to continue to exert influence within the state. This is of course not to say that India is wholly dependent on the security cover provided by the Western alliance. Many in India would argue that Iranian intelligence assets and cooperation as well as India’s more traditional connections with Tajik and Uzbek elites do well to at least provide New Delhi with minimal security guarantees. However, the US military’s ability to operationally function across most of the country only helps to serve Indian interests. It, at least in part, places checks on Taliban factions determined to politically and militarily control larger parts of Afghanistan than they already do. Hence, gently pushing Karzai to sign the BSA (or a politically more acceptable formulation) before the Afghan elections is squarely in India’s interests.
Second, most insiders suggest that the security situation within Afghanistan is likely to worsen. The Taliban — a ubiquitous term used to label a number of groups often fighting for competing interests — is said to be highly diffused. Indeed, the politically moderate elements — once led by Mullah Omar — based out of Quetta, or the so-called Quetta Shura, are said to lack respect amongst those fighting on the frontlines. Rather, the military faction of the Afghan Taliban is said to function out of Peshawar with little or no concern for a political solution. Most of these leaders appear convinced that all-out victory is not only possible but within their reach.
An Afghan army of 2,00,000 or more hardly restrains those who are only kept in check by drones, sophisticated surveillance assets run by the US and the physical existence of troops and equipment along the treacherous border areas with Pakistan. Withdrawal of such assets will, according to well placed Afghan watchers, have a direct impact on the Afghan Taliban’s military committee’s ability to exert further control over much of eastern and southern Afghanistan. This will also marginalize the select supporters of reconciliation within the movement. Karzai’s acceptance of the BSA will help temper the kinetic enthusiasm of those fighting a war out of Peshawar. The longer he dithers, the deadlier the risks to countries like India. In fact, New Delhi ought to read the impending crisis between Karzai and Obama as a matter of a “zero option” for itself. The math is simple: the scale of reduction in the number of American troops equals the relative reduction in India’s ability to wield continued political influence.