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TIME OF TRANSITIONS

- The poll in Afghanistan raises cautious hopes for the future

The first round of the presidential election in Afghanistan raises cautious hopes for the country’s future, with impressive voter participation at around 60 per cent, including that of women at around 35 per cent, and the Taliban’s failure to disrupt the elections to the extent feared, given that just a little over 200 out of 6000 polling booths were affected. Many were forewarning that even more dangerous than the Taliban threat would be the dire consequences for internal peace if the elections were not free and fair. Rigged elections also risked alienating external powers whose political and financial support the new Afghan government needed for survival. In the event, such fears have been belied as the election process has been fairly credible.

If, as expected, no candidate obtains 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the second round is slated for later. The next Afghan president will be either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani, with the odds in favour of the latter. While the peaceful democratic transition in turbulent circumstances from the president, Hamid Karzai, in power since December 2001, to his successor is a considerable achievement in itself, it should also help in improving the political dialogue between Washington and Kabul that has been considerably perturbed by the thorny personal relations between Karzai and Barack Obama. So far so good. The presidential election in Afghanistan is, however, only the first of the three transitions that the country must undergo before it can begin to function on its own.

The second transition — the security one — is being effected for some time already with the steady drawdown of foreign troops in Afghanistan (52,000 at present) and the progressive transfer of security duties to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces whose number stands today at around 332,000, but is planned to be reduced to 280,000 because of resource constraints. The United States of America and Afghanistan have agreed in November 2013 on the text of a bilateral security and defence agreement, but President Karzai has baulked at signing it, leaving it to his successor to do so. Possibly he does want to to take the historic responsibility for permitting foreign military bases on Afghan soil. His view that this agreement does not protect Afghanistan against Pakistan — the primary source of the threat to its peace and stability — is not without substance. If the US, he well understands, will not fight Pakistan on Afghanistan’s behalf, would US bases then serve US geo-political interests more than those of Afghanistan?

All the contending presidential candidates have, however, voiced their support for this agreement, which means that about 10,000 US and allied forces should remain in Afghanistan in several bases until the end of 2024 with the declared intention to advise, train and equip the ANDSF in developing intelligence sharing capabilities, strengthening those of the Afghan air force in countering IEDs and upgrading logistics. The agreement does not rule out the possibility of the US conducting combat operations if both sides agree. The US will decide whether or not it will support the ANDSF in meeting the threats to the country’s security. It has created room for itself to conduct operations against al-Qaida and its affiliates as part of its counter-terrorism operations, though in close coordination with Afghan government and not unilaterally.

The third transition, the economic one, is, of course, crucial for Afghanistan’s future stability. Here, too, the prospects are uncertain unless the internal and external situation of the country improves decisively. Funded substantially by the presence of foreign forces until now, the economy will need other revenue sources as military withdrawals progress. Even though in July 2012, donors in Tokyo committed themselves to provide $16 billion as aid to Afghanistan between 2012 and 2016, it is not improbable that as foreign forces leave, political interest in Afghanistan will decline, which, in turn, will erode financial pledges, especially given the West’s own economic difficulties.

Agriculture, the mainstay of the Afghan economy, has to be revived, which cannot be done in insecure conditions. Poppy cultivation and opium production have to be controlled and the drug smuggling networks that are causing social havoc in Russia and Iran, in particular, have to be broken. That the Afghan economy grew only by 3.1 per cent in 2013 is not a hopeful sign. The resource gap in Afghanistan, which was 40 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2012, will, according to studies, remain as high as 20 per cent till 2025. Although Afghanistan is rich in mineral resources, including hydrocarbons, exploiting them will need huge investments, for which, again, peace and security are a necessity. India’s plans to invest huge amounts in developing the iron ore sector and those of the Chinese in developing copper mining will fructify only in conditions of peace. Regional integration can no doubt open up economic opportunities for Afghanistan by way of, for example, transit fees for projects like Casa-1000 and TAPI, but this prospect, too, is contingent on the establishment of peaceful conditions in and around Afghanistan.

India’s role in these three transitions is inherently limited. Because India enjoys enormous goodwill in Afghanistan, with all the Afghan presidential candidates valuing India’s friendship and support, India does not have to play favourites and promote its ‘own’ candidate. On the subject of ‘national reconciliation’, which essentially means reaching out to the Taliban forces, India has taken a supportive position so long as the process is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. While we have aligned ourselves to Karzai’s political strategy towards the Taliban, we have serious concerns about independent US/United Kingdom efforts to deal directly with the Taliban for accomplishing their withdrawal from Afghanistan in an orderly enough manner. Because the Taliban, with sanctuaries in Pakistan, cannot be dealt with if Pakistan is excluded from the equation, the switch in US withdrawal strategy from treating Pakistan as the core of the Afghan problem to a partner of sorts in maintaining some level of stability after the US drawdown hurts India’s interests. Pakistan’s current posture of ‘reasonableness’ towards Afghanistan is tactical, given its core belief that Afghanistan lies in its sphere of influence and its cardinal objective of limiting India’s influence in that country.

India remains reticent about extending any sizeable military assistance to Afghanistan by way of combat equipment, in spite of our strategic partnership and Afghan entreaties. Realistically speaking, our role in the security transition will remain limited, though useful, in any scenario. We have sent some additional security personnel to guard our assets in Afghanistan, which points to concerns about the security situation as US forces withdraw and uncertainties about the ability of ANDSF to assume the security burden fully because of equipment deficiencies, lack of air assets and financial constraints.

On the economic side, lack of direct access to land-locked Afghanistan prevents India from playing a role commensurate with Afghanistan’s needs in terms of investment and trade. Transit rights overland through Pakistan to Afghanistan will be denied us in the foreseeable future, which makes access through Chabahar in Iran to Afghanistan strategically critical. Here, the pace at which the project will be implemented will be determined essentially by Iran.

Beyond the three transitions in Afghanistan looms the larger question of durable peace and stability there on which the future well-being of the region depends. The answer has to come mainly from Pakistan.