Saturday, 15 April 2017

Security Situation in Afghanistan

By Lt General Chandra Shekhar (Retd), Indian Army

  1. In Oct 2001, the USA, declared war on Taliban and Al Qaeda and ordered military action in Afghanistan. The Taliban were overthrown, but the movement, the clandestine warfare driven by the religious ideology and terror supported by Islamic leadership of few neighbouring states continues till today. We need to review the present situation, as the US led international security forces have wound down their combat participation, leaving behind only the military assets, and a minimum combat presence of 9800 personnel, which would also pullout in the near future. A minimum of 1000 of combatants are likely to be retained , as part of the Resolute Support Mission. The operational responsibility has been handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who have not proved their operational effectiveness so far. Although, some improvement has taken place in the security situation through the sustained operations of the US-NATO forces, the Taliban and the Haqqani Net work have not been defeated effectively. The attack on the Afghan Parliament at Kabul on the 22 June 2015, clearly demonstrates the reach of the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The Taliban are still a powerful force in the South and have extended their reach further northwards, as also in the Helmond province, besides the thrust towards Ghor and Herat. The recent Taliban offensive in the Northern provinces of Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Faryab have already resulted in the capture of few districts. The writ of the government is also thin in the rural hinterland and the ongoing unrest is a cause of concern not only for the internal stability and the economic development of Afghanistan, but also for the stability of the entire Cenrtral Asian region due to the danger of spill-over to the bordering countries.

  1. The fighting presently has been bloodiest since 2001; civilian casualties have shot up by 38% to 8700, including 3400 killed by the Taliban and the ANSF has had large casualties (20,000) besides sizeable defections of the militia. Politically, there has been a democratic transition of power from President Hamid Karzai to the new President, Mohammed Ashraf Ghani, by the bformation of a National Unity Government (NUG) with Mr Abdulla Abdulla as the CEO. However, there are structural flaws in the power sharing arrangement and governance. The inability to conduct the scheduled parliamentary elections in April 2015 and to appoint the Governors in most of the Provinces, has put the state institutions into jeopardy. President Ghani has been able to conclude the Bilateral Security Pact with the USA and has been more pro-active in the peace process by seeking the involvement of the USA, China, and Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban, both at the official and the informal levels. The talks held at Qatar and Doha have not been successful, due to the hard stand of the Taliban, who insist on total withdrawal of the US military and dismantling of base facilities in Afghanistan. They have even demanded a Sharia based new constitution and become more assertive. The Taliban are also using the media to propagate their radical ideology and even engineering defections in the government cadres. Attempts by other influential neighbouring nations such as,Russia, Iran , Pakistan and China to break the dead-lock have, so far, achieved little, although the recent talks, held with the efforts of China and Pakistan do provide hope for the future.


3. The US withdrawal, from Afghanistan is not total and it retains some strike forces. It also has the required air cover, logistics assets and bases, besides training and advisor staff presence. A total force level of 9800, supporting the Afghan troops (ANSF) till 2017, to perform the security role and the US fleet of Drones, is expected to prevent the Taliban and the Haqqani Network from regrouping. To achieve this the USA will need a continued capability even beyond 2017 and the ANSF will need considerable assistance in additional equipment, training and the logistics support . The command and control of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda based in Pakistan has been badly disrupted, but not eliminated. The US led intervention in Afghanistani, unlike the earlier interventions of the UK, and the Soviets has not been against the Afghan society and the tribal social framework, but against the fundamentalist elements of the Taliban, notwithstanding occassional collateral damages. The Afghan people have supported the US intervention to a large extent and welcomed the stability, economic development and restoration of the basic facilities. Restoration of their elected government has given them the pride and confidence in their nation, however, they need to be given support and help by other major powers and important donor countries. Perhaps a consortium of the donor countries coordinated under a UN Mission is the answer for better synergy.

4. Afghanistan, with its vast mountainous terrain has fertile valleys in most of its 34 provinces. The country abounds in dry fruits, grapes, wheat and minerals, but has poor connectivity and infrastructure. The sectarian strife, extremism, fundamentalism, narco-trade, along with tribal affinities spilling across the borders and the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, have made the security environment fluid and unstable. However, there are new expectations in the country, and ordinary Afghans aspire today to live in peace, harmony and in a politically stable and secure society; make economic progress; reap benefits from their mineral and energy resources, and not slip back into conditions that prevailed during the war and the Taliban regime. They seek and look up to international aid from the friendly countries to invest in Afghanistan and participate in trade, economic reconstruction and development. They want their hard earned politico, social and economic gains to continue. They generally appreciate the US-NATO operations being conducted against the fundamentalist forces in their country and the economic assistance from the various donor countries.

5. Afghanistan borders Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, China and Pakistan and is a gateway to Central Asia. The dominant tribe of “Pashtoons'' are spread on either side of the “Durrand line” into Pakistan, whereas the other major tribes of Hazaras, Tajiks and the Uzbekis are in the North Eastern province. The tribal loyalties, though strong, are subject to the dominating tribe at a given time. Any change in the tribal domination does impact the leadership change in Afghanistan. The developments in Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian Republic States (CARS) have a bearing on the security and stability of Afghanistan. Similarly, the role of major powers i.e., USA, Russia, China, and the important countries in the region i.e., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India, besides the major 'donor' countries, i.e., Japan, EU, Australia and New Zealand need to be factored in. A review of the developing ssituation in Afghanistan and future prospects of collaboration is outlined below.


6. USA. The USA, undoubtedly, remains the most important player in Afghanistan. Its cooperation is essential for the stability and successful transition of Afghanistan into a well-knit nation, as also for the conflict resolution of the ongoing insurgency in the Af-Pak region. During the last decade, the USA along with its NATO allies, has primarily focussed on military operations against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, to bring about normalcy in Afghanistan. This has met with partial success. However, the equally important aspect of regional engagement for a lasting solution, with India, Russia, China and Iran, for cooperation and dialogue has been somewhat relegated. The USA, despite strong evidence of Pakistan’s duplicity, of giving sanctuary and support to the Afghan Taliban and sheltering Osama-bin-Laden and the other leadership of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, has been soft in condemning Pakistan. This was primarily because Pakistan acts as a conduit for the logistics support for operations into Afghanistan. The USA, however, has been carrying out drone attacks on terrorist targets in Pakistan, based on hard intelligence. The exclusive US focus on military operations,ii resulted in inadequate attention to the economic development and reconciliation.

8. . Taliban continues to remain a potent force and would need to be defeated, before any total withdrawal of the US-led international force is contemplated—if we were not to repeat the mistake the Soviets made in their pullout in 1989. The US military strength and assets remaining in Afghanistan after the draw-down, must have sufficient deterrence capability to remain effective and credible, which does not appear to be so at the moment. The presence of the US forces, though opposed by the Taliban and the other Jehadi forces, is sought by the Afghan Government, and in fact, is welcomed by most of the countries in the region. Even the USA, despite its domestic compulsions, has geo-strategic interests in retaining the bases for possible future options in the Central Asia or Ukraine. The recent resurgence in the insurgency operations by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in West Asia is forcing a rethink on the US strategy in the region, and would warrant a review and enhancement of the US combat mission in Afghanistan.

9. The USA realises that the Taliban forces have varying degree of domination in twenty out of the thirty-four Afghan Provinces and it cannot impose a peace deal on its terms. The US administration has, therefore, decided to open talks with the Afghan Taliban, and has sought cooperation from China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who have considerable influence with Pakistan. The USA, despite its significant leverage with Pakistan—having provided her 27 billion dollars in civil and military aid over the last decade as compensation for the logistics and base facilities for operations in Afghanistan—has not succeeded in her efforts to dismantle the Haqqani Network and eliminate Pakistan's support and encouragement to the Taliban. The annual US Report released on terrorism for 2014, once again called out Pakistan's two-timing on terrorism, detailing the country's patronage of some Afghan terror groups including the LeT, who freely operate in Pakistan. Operations against the Taliban undertaken by Pakistan are only limited to the Waziristan province, that too reluctantly. It is well known that LeT operates against India in the J&K, while the Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network concentrate on Afghanistan; yet the USA is soft on Pakistan.

10. Although, the Bilateral Security Pact (BSA) has recently been concluded, by the USA with the new Afghan regime, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are not fully equipped to take over the military operations, and would need more time to train appropriately. A new strategy needs to be formulated by the USiii military-training teams to train and advise the ANSF field units, just as such a practice is being revived in Iraq for operations against ISIS. Countries like India and Russia, who have had long association with the ANSF, should be gainfully incorporated in such an effort, with the US being in the lead. Finally, peace efforts in Afghanistan should be made more comprehensive by associating countries like Russia, India, Iran, China and Pakistan. In the ultimate analysis, it is winning the ‘hearts and minds' that would become the game changer. Greater efforts need to be made by the USA and its allies for more economic assistance programmes as part of a UN mission, or by larger coordinated participation by donor countries.

11. Russia and the CARS. There are indications of active Russian involvement in the Afghan peace process with talks with the Taliban, the Russians would also like a peaceful and moderate regime in Afghanistan post-US withdrawal. The CARS are moderate Islamic states with past linkages with the Russians and fear the radical ideology of the ISISand Taliban. They have considerable energy and mineral resources which they aspire to develop for their economic progress by retaining friendly relations with Russia and China.iv Russia and the countries of the Central Asia will be wary of a radical regime in Afghanistan that would harm the interests in the CARS, or support the Islamist terrorists in the CARS and in the Russian federations like in Chechnyan province. The Russians have been making the largest contribution to the security of Tajikistan, where they have stationed a rifle Division and accept the continued US presence in Afghanistan—till the Taliban forces are fully defeated—but they would want the US to dismantle bases from Afghanistan and the CARS. Russia is likely to provide assistance to the CSTO and possibly SCO to fight the ISIS/ Taliban influence in the CARS. Russia has had earlier association with the Afghan military and could provide military training and equipment to Afghanistan. The SCO can play an important role in Afghanistan post US withdrawal.

12. China. China has been pragmatic in pursuing its policies with Afghanistan and securing its national interests. It has signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan in 2012 and undertaken economic engagement in the mining and energy sectors. It also shares a border in Xinjiang province and thus, has security interests in the region. It has very cordial relations with Pakistan and is apparently tolerant of Pakistan's support to the Taliban as a strategic compulsion beyond her control, and because of its special relations with her. It shares common goals with the USA and Russia of maintaining stability and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan. The tri-lateral dialogue between China-Afghanistan-Pakistan has tremendous potential for brokering peace with the Taliban. It is learnt that the Taliban have welcomed China's involvement and have sent a delegation to China immediately after President Ghani's recent China (Oct 2014), visit to discuss Afghan related issues. The talks were attended by the Afghan Government Officials , the Taliban and the officials of Pakistan's ISI. However there are elements both in the Afghan Government and the Taliban leadership who are opposed to the talks.

13. China with her economic resources, military potential, diplomatic influence, special relations with Pakistan and a shared border with Afghanistan has significant potential influence and can emerge as a decisive player. However, it needs to shoulder greater responsibility by more active participation in defeating the Taliban, both by military means and political influence. Will it also cooperate with the USA, Iran and India in the economic development of Afghanistan in an integrated effort, is a relevant question? There are other important donor countries, including Japan and India, involved in the economic reconstruction, who need protection and security for their investments and personnel. Will the Chinese assist in ensuring security against the Taliban by joint operations or a UN supported mission? These are pertinent issues to be addressed. A dialogue between China-Afghanistan-USA in the future has tremendous scope to get the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal.

14. Pakistan. Pakistan is the most important neighbour, with a common border, similar cultural and religious affinities, controls access to the sea ports to the land locked Afghanistan. Pakistan considers Afghanistan as her strategic backyard and is part of the Afghan problem by giving sanctuary to the Afghan terrorists on her territory. There are many challenges to Pakistan’s engagement with Afghanistan, especially in how it confronts the Taliban sanctury on its soil and how it deals with the Taliban, LET and the Haqqani Net work. The biggest challenge to Pakistan is the internal insurgency in Waziristan and FATA. This situation has come about by Pakistan indiscriminately arming and supporting the Taliban cadres and the Afghan refugees for terror attacks in Afghanistan. These elements have become heavily indoctrinated, and a restive powerful force. Pakistan Army has belatedly undertaken counter-insurgency operations in her own territory to subdue these forces.

15. Pakistan has also deftly played its cards, both, as an ally of the US operating against the extremists and extracting financial compensation from the US in return, as also clandestinely supporting the Taliban, to secure its future long term prospects of an amenable government in Afghanistan. It sees India's growing presence in Afghanistan and its friendly relations with the Afghans adversely—as an attempt by India to surround it from the rear. There is strong evidence that Pakistan has been actively sponsoring Taliban attacks on Indian aided projects and on Indian facilities. Afghanistan, despite her protests to the Pakistan authorities has found no response, except denials from them.

16. Pakistan does not allow connectivity between India and Afghanistan through its territory. It wants to limit India's influence and make Afghanistan entirely dependent on her, rather than realize the direct economic gains that would accrue to her by trade and transit facilities, being a natural land bridge. A large population of Afghanistan views Pakistan as an impediment to Afghanistan's economic progress since it provides support and sanctury to the Afghan Taliban involved in violence and terror attacks in their country.

17. Recent overtures of President Ashraf Ghani to facilitate, reconciliation and mutual cooperation with Pakistan including joint military operations against the terrorists, with a nudge from the USA, have not resulted in meaningful military cooperation. The recent Pakistani facilitation of the peace talks with the Afghan Taliban at Murree is a good step and need to be followed up.China with her very cordial relations and influence with Pakistan can help to bring about a change in the attitudes and mindset of Pakistan. China can prevail over Pakistan to bring about moderation in the security environment in the region. Pakistan herself is attempting to quell the internal insurgency, as they are causing terror attacks inside Pakistan. Pakistan is also attempting to normalise relations with Afghanistan and re-energise its policy towards the CARS for trade and energy. However, Pakistan is also using the US withdrawal of the combat troops and its fallout, to penetrate Afghan institutions and regain its influence to obtain its aspirations of strategic depth in Afghanistan. A large section of the Afghan population, do not trust the Pakistani leadership, as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network continue to retain safe havens in the Pakistani territory and launch terror attacks in Afghanistan, including the recent attack on the Parliament Building at Kabul on the 22 Jun2015.

18. Iran. Iran is the other important neighbour of Afghanistan and an alternative trade and transit hub. It shares a long border and has cultural, religious, and linguistic affinity. It provides pragmatic support and stands for a multi-ethnic Afghanistan. Like Pakistan, it has more than million Afghan refugees to be repatriated, besides a long standing bilateral dispute (pertaining to the Helmund River) to settle. The Iranian government has been engaging with the international community to bring about a political solution to the long drawn conflict in Afghanistan. Iran has friendly relations with India, Pakistan and China, which if harnessed jointly with the USA, can bring about a substantial transformation in the situation in Afghanistan.

19. It has made significant investments in development of Afghanistan, in areas of Herat and along the western border. It also provides an alternative trade and transit route to Afghanistan, through its road, rail system and access to Sea through its Chabahar port, which is being jointly developed with Indian assistance. The Afghanistan-Iran Strategic Cooperation Agreement of August 2013 is a comprehensive instrument for military cooperation, intelligence sharing and counter terrorism. Iran,with its strategic location, traditional goodwill, economic and cultural linkages with Afghanistan, can help broker a peace agreement in Afghanistan. It should also take greater responsibility for the security of the western Afghanistan and the border areas it shares, against the Taliban attacks, as part of the Strategic Cooperation Agreement with Afghanistan.

The Indian Perspective

20. India has historical, geo-political and strategic interests in Afghanistan and the CARS. The region forms part of its strategic neighbourhood. The rise of terrorism in the region egged on by Pakistan was almost exclusively targeted at India in the initial few years. In the period between 1989-2002, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan launched many Jehadi attacks in India at the behest of their Pakistani masters. The possibility of such a scenario recurring post US withdrawal, will not be in the Indian interest, or in the interest of Afghanistan and the region as a whole. This should not be allowed to happen, for the regional stability and the unhindered development of Afghanistan. As things stand today, the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse and the Islamic Jehadis and the Taliban are steadily increasing their influence. India needs not only to voice its concern, but also to evolve its own strategy to deal with the Afghan fallout, both to protect its investments and personnel deployed in Afghanistan, as well as to prevent escalation of the hostile activities of the LeT in the J&K.v

21. Indian focus in Afghanistan has been on continuing to provide the wherewithal to assist them in their reconstruction and to support the Afghan people in their efforts for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. Four land mark projects that have been completed in the infra structure development include the Delaram–Zeranj Highway connecting Kabul, Kandhar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif to the Iranian port city of Chabahar. The transmission lines have been built by India, to transmit the Ujbek electricity to Afghanistan, besides, the new hydro electric Salma Dam, and the Parliament building in Kabul. India today is the 4th largest donor towards rebuilding of Afghanistan. India is also building hospitals and Steel and Power plants, besides providing them teachers and training the Afghan Security Forces in the Indian institutions.

22. India, firmly believes, that the reconstruction and the economic development should be Afghan led and Afghan owned. Perhaps, for effective coordination and development of infrastructure, there may be a need for a UN mission in Afghanistan. It is further felt that the ANSF be assisted in training, equipment, and operational planning by the USA, and by other important friendly donor nations. The assets being created and the task forces of the countries involved in the reconstruction should be provided security, against the Taliban attacks jointly by the donor countries and the ANSF. There have been instances where the Indian missions and personnel engaged in reconstruction of the infrastructure projects have been targeted, by the radical elements operating from Pakistan. Such acts must not only be condemned, but suitable steps be taken to ensure security of the aid missions under UN cover. India should consider deploying its own security elements for the protection of its assets, if the other efforts do not succeed.

23. In 2011, India and Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement. India has given a Rs 2 billion economic assistance to Afghanistan and has set up medical missions at Kabul, Kandhar , Jalalabad, Herat And Mazar-e-Sharif, treating more than 400,000 Afghans annually. India has offered facilities for Afghan students at the Indian institutions, and sent experts in Communication Engineering, water treatment and for projects in education. The visit of the President Ashraf Ghani to India, in April 2015 has given a fresh opportunity to both the countries to further strengthen the bilateral partnership and to review their relations realistically, particularly, in view of Pakistan's persistent suspicions of India's contribution and role in India being a traditional friend and a major contributor of economic assistance to Afghanistan, enjoys respect in Afghan society. India's security concerns and protection of its assets in Afghanistan have to be given due consideration by the International powers.


24. The re-emergence of the radical forces and extremists in Afghanistan is certainly not in the interest of Afghanistan for its stability and the economic growth. The economy is showing a downward growth; there is increase in unemployment, slowdown in investments and flight of capital outside the country. These insurgents have to be defeated by support from the major powers jointly, with the Afghan Forces. A moderate, stable, and secure Afghanistan is in the interest of the entire region. Islamic radical forces in the past have been targeting India in particular. India would recommend that an international security guarantee be given to Afghanistan, backed by the ''Afghanistan-USA Bilateral Security Pact'', European Union, Russia, China and Iran. China and Iran, in particular, being Afghanistan's neighbours, with a shared border and important regional players need to share the security responsibilities, with the US. The challenge for all, is how to prevent conflict and establish peace in a durable manner, so that socio-economic and human resource development can take place at the desired rate.

25. The economic development, building of the infrastructure, institutions and a democratic polity is a major effort, to be undertaken over a period of time. The two essential pre-requisites for this are to ensure a secure and stable environment free from the external forces, and the other equally important factor of Afghanistan's internal dynamics, by balancing the tribal rivalry and preventing further radicalisation of the Afghan society. The other major essential ingredients are the resource availability, creation of economic assets and the transportation corridors which can only happen with an international effort, coordinated under the UN mission. If this is not done, then the whole effort of ushering a ''decade of transformation'' would remain an elusive goal.

26. Afghanistan also provides an opportunity for regional cooperation between South Asia, Central Asia, China and Iran. In this regard, the Indian model of partnering Afghanistan in the socio- economic development, keeping in mind the best interests of Afghanistan needs to be examined for adoption by other countries. The Chinese initiative of the “New Silk Route'' for creating a transportation corridor and the gas pipe line for energy utilization are other important steps for the regional integration, although,India has concerns with the proposed economic corridor to Pakistan as it passes throug the POK region of the Indian province of J&K. The tripartite agreement between India-Afghanistan and Iran to develop the Iranian port of Chahbahar to facilitate transportation of goods from Afghanistan, as an alternative to Pakistani ports, is another viable initiative for regional integration.

27. As of now, the Afghan government's attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban is unlikely to succeed as the Taliban is attempting hard to strengthen its control over the high ways,and the key cities in the South and the North -Eastern provinces. The Taliban will continue to maintain pressure on Kabul though it is unlikely to come to power. The, USA, and the allies must continue to support the Afghan government, militarily as well as , strengthen the state institutions and assist in the economic reconstruction, along with other donor countries, other wise all the efforts of the past 14 years will go waste.


i The Unfinished War in Afghanistan(2001-2015), Bishal Chandra, Pentagon Press , New Delhi,2015.

iiAfghanistan Beyond 2014, From ' Rhetoric to Reality', An Indian Perspective, Lt Gen PK Singh, USI Occasional Paper, 2014. New Delhi.

iii‘New Strategy Takes Shape’, Harsh V Pant, Deccan Herald, 13 June 2015, New Delhi.

ivAfghanistan Beyond 2014, From ' Rhetoric to Reality', An Indian Perspective, Lt Gen PK Singh, USI Occasional Paper, 2014. New Delhi.

vIndian Strategic Interest In Afghanistan, Wing Cmdr, A Gupta,USI Journal Vol CXL1, No 589 Sep 2012, New Delhi.

viAfghan Peace Talks Fail over Taliban Demands, Praveen Sami ,Indian Express, 06 June 2015 New Delhi.

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