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Afghanistan: In painful transition

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Human beings cannot be God. Human has limited power of creation; but has unlimited power for destruction. This applies to US as well. US went to Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq and destroyed them all in the name of peace and creation. US intervention in Afghanistan proved productive for peace of yesterdays but has made many futures tense; uncertainty seems to be the only certainty. The glimpses of uncertainty were seen when in a shocking incident, the Taliban overran the Afghan National Army base in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar province, near the eastern border with Pakistan, and killed 21 soldiers. This incident forced President Karzai to call off the Sri Lankan trip. In the meantime, the Taliban suspended talks, via the mediation of Qatar, with the Americans aiming at a prisoner exchange: the release of five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp in exchange for the lone American prisoner of war held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said that the talks are not possible amidst the "complicated political situation" in Afghanistan. To me, such incidents are the beginning of another round of insurgency and regional instability. afghan 4.eps

According to a UN report, the number of civilians killed and wounded in Afghanistan rose by 14 per cent in 2013. The 2013 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, produced by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), recorded a total of 8,615 civilian casualties with 2,959 civilian deaths and 5,656 injured during 2013. The figures mark a 7 per cent increase in deaths and a 17 per cent increase in injuries as compared to 2012.  US has admitted that stability in Afghanistan will require tens of thousands more troops costing billions of more dollars than NATO envisioned at a 2012 summit. A force of 373,400 Afghan soldiers and police will likely cost between $5bn and $6bn annually to sustain, despite NATO's projections at the 2012 summit that member nations would spend $4.1bn each year on the nascent force. This requirement is beyond the capacity of USA. This is the limitation of a human being. In January 2014, the US Congress had slashed planned development and military aid to Afghanistan by roughly half, to $1.1bn.  Undoubtedly, the withdrawal could leave a political, security and economic vacuum, putting Afghanistan at risk of becoming a banana state and exposing it to highest form of vulnerability.

afghanistan 3.epsThe scope of uncertainty has increased manifold because Karzai has refused to sign the bilateral security pact. The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is a necessary precondition to shape the future course of action. The Obama administration has been building pressure on Karzai to sign a security pact that would authorize thousands of American troops to remain beyond the 2014 withdrawal deadline. Under the bilateral security agreement, some 10,000 to 12,000 American troops will stay in Afghanistan till 2024. The Afghan president has grown increasingly hostile towards the US government over the security agreement. Karzai has the opinion that the Afghan nation cannot approve the agreement without guarantees that the US will halt its deadly airstrikes on residential areas. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen opined that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will not sign the security pact because he believes that the new President elected after April 2014 elections would be in a position to take decisions in this regard. I think Karzai knows that when more than 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has failed to ensure peace and tranquility in the country, then 10,000 soldiers cannot be enough to protect Afghanistan either. Therefore, he did not show any interest in the BSA. US has also warned that a "zero option" could have adverse consequences for Afghanistan's security post-2014. US and other western countries sought to use the International Contact Group on Afghanistan and Pakistan or ICGAF, which is a bloc of 53 countries, meeting to step up pressure on Afghan Government to sign the BSA expeditiously. Amid a standoff between the US and the embattled Afghan President, India has saluted Hamid Karzai's "extraordinary and brave" leadership in nurturing democracy and peace in the war-torn country. India has extended full support to the Afghan government's efforts to establish a genuine "Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled reconciliation process". At the same time, India has strongly rejected an "exit strategy" for Afghanistan and called for "closest international support" to prevent decade-long achievements from going to "waste" in the war-torn landlocked country, ahead of withdrawal of US-led international troops by the end of the year. India has called for a cautious approach to bring peace to Afghanistan, saying execution of any initiative with "inadequate preparation" could be "dangerous" for the war-ravaged country.US-Bases-Afghanistan.eps
If the security pact is never signed, the US's biggest challenge will be closing large military facilities, including the Bagram and Kandahar air bases, needed to control the activities of Al Qaeda. US is considering four possible options for its post-disengagement military policy for Afghanistan after 2014. The options range from leaving behind 3,000 to over 10,000 US troops at various key locations such as Kabul, Bagram, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

Under the 10,000-troop option, U.S. forces will continue security responsibilities for Kabul, Kandahar, Bagram and Jalalabad until end-2015. NATO's Resolute Support mission will also provide 5,000 NATO and other international troops for the northern and western parts of Afghanistan.

A second option somewhat restricts the deployment size of U.S. troops and deployment cities to Kabul and Bagram only, but increases the duration by one year to 2016, with authorization to travel across the country to train and advise Afghan forces as needed. The first option could merge into the second, which would culminate in complete US withdrawal by the end of Obama's term in office.
The 3,000 troop option further restricts deployment numbers in Kabul and Bagram and troops will not be permitted to travel across Afghanistan. Drone operations from Bagram airbase will be the focus. Complete withdrawal date is uncertain in this option.

The last option entails complete U.S. withdrawal that has enticingly low political costs, and even benefits to some extent. A Gallup poll this month on the American public indicated that critics have reached parity with supporters of US involvement in Afghanistan for the first time since the conflict's origin in 2001.

While the military brass favours the 10,000 troop option, it has begun investigating the possibilities of conducting counter-terrorism and training operations with fewer resources available in the alternative options that are undoubtedly politically and financially more palatable for the White House. NATO will be duly informed of US strategy in a Brussels meeting attended by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week. Hagel had earlier stated in December 2013 that the US will not further pursue Afghan President Hamid Karzai for signing the bilateral security arrangement if an agreement is not reached by February 2014. It is banking on the support of the presidential candidates in favour of the BSA, who are contesting the April 2014 elections in Afghanistan. With Karzai stepping down post-elections, US hopes to sign the BSA and avert a full-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan, a sentiment echoed by Rear Admiral John F. Kirby, Pentagon spokesman.

The President Karzai has to face a number of challenges. It can be recollected that in 2009, Karzai won a slim majority with the support of his fellow Pashtuns in the south and the east. The non-Pashtuns - the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic groups in the north and west - had refused to accept the final results, claiming they had won, until US mediators intervened and the northern candidate Abdullah Abdullah willingly stepped down from contesting a second round of elections. Based on Afghanistan's constitution, Karzai is barred from running for a third term. Considering the complaints about rigging in both 2009 and 2010 election, ensuring a credible election and an effective change of power in 2014 will be crucial for Afghanistan's future stability, regardless of progress on reconciliation or on training of Afghan security forces. The frontrunners of the President's post, Prof. Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf (a Pashtun ex-warlord who fought the Soviet occupation, and one of the few hardline Islamist commanders to oppose the Taliban), Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (a Pashtun, former Finance Minister and among the strongest backers of the proposed security pact with the United States), Zalmay Rassoul (an ethnic Pashtun and former foreign minister), Abdullah Abdullah (base of support is in the ethnic Tajik community and fighter of Soviet forces in the 1980s, an adviser to the late guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood), Qayum Karzai (the Karzai's older brother and believer in a political solution to the insurgency), Abdul Rahim Wardak (an ethnic Pashtun, former guerrilla commander and a former defence minister). But the problems look beyond the pale of any president. The multi-ethnic hostile groups blended with extreme conservatism have posed insurmountable challenges before the governance and the entire system.

The people of Afghanistan considered corruption, together with insecurity and unemployment, to be one of the major challenges facing the country, ahead of poverty or the performance of government. Despite great efforts of India, Afghanistan did not experience economic transition. More than $100bn ($61.1bn, 72.4bn euros) was spent on social services in the country since 2001, but the western agencies failed to create an indigenous economic base to sustain the population of Afghanistan. Further, according to World Bank, the Afghani economy could fall by 10 percent after the pullout. Karzai's presidency is also marred by several corruption scandals, one of which included his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, suspected of trafficking large amounts of heroin through an intermediary.
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The opium trade is on the rise. Now it is 4 per cent of country's GDP. In 2013, the cultivation amounted to some 209,000 hectares, surpassing the earlier record in 2007 of 193,000 hectares, and a 36 percent increase over 2012. The growing trends indicate that the rise in opium trade means that insurgency is bound to rise. In an alarming development in 2013, 89 percent of Afghanistan's opium farming took place in regions that were classified as "high" or "extreme" security risks by the UN's Department of Safety and Security. Most of these regions are inaccessible to the UN, NATO forces and NGOs.

But the role of US was always limited. They never thought to rebuild Afghanistan. The main purpose remained their power equations with Al Qaeda. The moment their equations with Al Qaeda improved, they decided to go. In this process, the sovereignty and development of Afghanistan did not matter to them. In 2014, US is leaving but the problems of the region is far more complicated. When US came in 2001, there were two regional powers involved in Afghanistan and now Afghanistan is a game of three powers: Pakistan-China and India and two players: Taliban and the democratically elected Afghan government.

India seems to be the most worried of them all. India's development assistance programme for Afghanistan currently stands at USD 2 billion, making it the leading donor nation among regional countries. India has pledged to invest up to USD 8 million in the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANASTU), portions of which are ready while others are being built. India should continue to assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in whatever manner possible within its capacities. Karzai's visit to India was aimed at not only consolidating support but also at pleading for increased military assistance. In his previous visit to India in May 2013, he had handed over a wish list of lethal and non-lethal military aid from India that included artillery guns, helicopters and armored tanks. For India, a strong and economically independent Afghanistan was a strategic priority and a key element of the bilateral Strategic Partnership Agreement. India will continue to assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The ANSF will play an important role in "this year of political and security transition" and the world community must fulfill its pledges to rebuild the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Germany has also supported greater involvement of India in Afghanistan in its process of rebuilding their socio-economic future and said people of the war-torn country appreciate the solidarity shown by India. International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC).epsBut India needs to play a bigger role in the region. The construction and modernization of Afghanistan must go on or rather intensified. Only a powerful democracy and a modernized society is the solution for both India and Afghanistan. India must involve Iran in a bigger manner to neutralize the growing combination of China and Pakistan. It is widely anticipated that Indian installations in Afghanistan are likely to come under increased attacks from Pakistani proxy forces following withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2014. Unlike China, India does not have land contact with Central Asian countries. India must work out its smooth connectivity route to Central Asia through Iran to bolster its presence in the region. Geopolitically, Central Asia is going to play an instrumental role after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. In order to build land contact, India has correctly reactivated the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). INSTC is a multi-modal network which would connect India to Central Asia through Iran. India is conducting a dry run study in March on the route of Nhava Sheva (Mumbai)-Bandar Abbas (Iran)-Tehran-Bandar Anzali (Iran)-Astrakhan (Russia). The multi-modal transport corridor will pass through Astara in Azerbaijan.

India should further strengthen its Ayni airbase in Tajikistan. India has airlifted a military hospital, with doctors, paramedics and equipment, to Tajikistan as part of the deepening "strategic partnership" with the energy-rich central Asian country that shares borders with Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan shares a 1,400-km with Afghanistan. The Indian "military outpost" at the Ayni airbase, around 15 km from Tajik capital Dushanbe, could immensely assist India's economic and strategic interests in Central Asia and at the same time could keep an eye over any anti-Indian activity in the terrorism-infested Af-Pak region. Under the trilateral agreement, India, Russia and Tajikistan will have command and control of the Ayni Air Force Base, also known as Gissar Air Base by rotation. Undoubtedly, India's military presence in Tajikistan, be it in Ayni or in Farkhor, would foster India the much-needed depth and range in managing Pakistani threats to its interests in Afghanistan. On the strategic reach of IAF, the newly- acquired C-17 heavylift aircraft had delivered cargo in Tajikistan and would soon be flying to Rwanda to provide equipment to Indian Army's peacekeeping forces in the neighbouring Congo. Holding fort copy copy.tifDespite certain hiccups, India must try to build a strong strategic partnership with Iran. Chabahar port is strategically crucial as it gives an access route to Afghanistan. Chabahar port, which is surrounded by a free trade zone, is vital particularly since Pakistan does not allow transit facility from India to Afghanistan. India's interest in the Iranian port is not only to get direct access to Central Asia but also to facilitate import of minerals from Afghanistan. The project would also counterbalance Chinese designs at Gwadar. ayni airbase.epsChabahar port near the Iran-Pakistan border is just 76 km away from the Gwadar port in Pakistan operated by China. From the port, goods can move through the Milak bridge on the border of Iran and Afghanistan, onwards to the Delaram-Zaranj highway in Afghanistan, which connects to the Kandahar-Heart highway. India, Iran and Afghanistan have entered into agreements that ensure lower tariffs and smooth passage for Indian goods through Chabahar. India has committed $100 million to upgrading facilities at the port after spending $100 million on building a 220-km (140-mile) road in a dangerous stretch of western Afghanistan to link up with Chabahar. The visiting Indian Vice President has correctly remarked that India's strategic partnership with Afghanistan's neighbours such as Uzbekistan was of critical importance. India and Uzbekistan shared the view that any outside interference in internal affairs of Afghanistan could prove to be counter-productive. India is looking at importing about 2,000 tonnes of uranium by 2014 from Uzbekistan, which has 1,85,800 tonnes of proven uranium deposits. India already has a contract for uranium imports from another Central Asian nation - Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Apart from these countries, Kyrgyzstan also has rich uranium deposits. This deal would enhance India's reputation in the region with which better peace prospects could be achieved. Kyrgyzstan was also very supportive of India for a membership in the six-member SCO, which has China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as its members. Both sides have agreed to enhance bilateral defence cooperation in areas such as training and UN peacekeeping. One thing is very clear. A political compromise for long-term governance between Taliban and Afghanistan Government cannot be expected. Taliban leaders remain reluctant to hold direct talks with Kabul. Therefore, India has a very limited option within Afghanistan and has to control the insurgents only by neutralizing the influences of China and Pakistan. In this regard, Iran and major Central Asian countries have to play a big role. The thrust of Indian diplomacy should be shifted to Central Asia. India needs to play a more vibrant and active role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It can be said that Afghanistan is going to test Indian diplomacy at its best when India has to delicately balance the growth and development of Afghanistan against the aggression of Taliban and destructive and devastating approach of both China and Pakistan.



(Vivek S. Raj)