Saturday, June 12, 2010

Afghanistan: India's options

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The US has maintained its relentless Drone (pilotless plane) strikes on the suspected hide-outs and vehicular movements of the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan—TTP) in the North and South Waziristan areas of Pakistan. According to an estimate of the British Broadcasting Corporation mentioned in a report on its web site on June 11,2010, there have been about 70 Drone strikes since the beginning of this year resulting in more than 200 fatalities. The BBC estimate does not mention how many of these fatalities were of the leaders and other cadres of the two Talibans and how many were of civilians.

2. Reports from reliable sources in the area indicate that while there have been civilian fatalities they are not as large as made out to be by anti-US elements in the Af-Pak area. Many of the civilians killed would not come under the category of “innocents” in the sense that they had nothing to do with the Talibans. While many of them might not have been activists of the Talibans, they were providing them logistic help at the time they got killed. If one excludes their number, the number of innocent civilians killed due to poor intelligence or wrong targeting is quite small, the sources say.

3.US claims of having killed a number of senior and middle-level leaders of the Talibans and Al Qaeda are not exaggerated. Some of its claims have been subsequently corroborated by independent sources and even admitted by these organizations themselves. While the US has thus reason to be gratified by the success rate of its Drone strikes, it should be seriously worried by the failure of these strikes to have an impact on the ground situation, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

4. The loss of many leaders of the older vintage has not demoralized the Talibans. They have been able to find new leaders as motivated and as capable as the old. There has been no dent on the flow of new volunteers to join the ranks of the Talibans and there has been no weakening of capability and of the ability to take the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani security forces even in the non-tribal areas by surprise.

5. This became evident earlier this week when the Afghan Taliban managed to kill seven Americans, two Australians and one French soldier on June 7 followed by the deaths of three more NATO troops the next day. The deaths of 10 NATO soldiers made June 7 the deadliest day for foreign troops in Afghanistan since 14 Americans, including 11 US soldiers, died in two helicopter crashes on October 26, 2009. This has been further followed by the deaths of four more NATO troops on June 9 when their helicopter was brought down by suspected Taliban fire.

6.The same day ( June 9 ), upto 12 gunmen suspected to be from the Pakistani Taliban attacked a convoy of private trucks carrying logistic supplies for the NATO troops in Afghanistan from the Karachi port. The attack took place at Tarnol, 10 kms from Islamabad on the road to Peshawar. Seven persons believed to be drivers and cleaners of the private trucks in the convoy were killed and 70 lorries transporting fuel and other non-classified material were destroyed. The terrorists launched the attack when the trucks carrying the supplies had stopped for rest and refueling.

7.In January, the Pakistani Taliban had twice attacked trucks carrying supplies for the NATO near Karachi and now they have attacked a convoy at a place close to Islamabad without being prevented by the Pakistani security forces. Their ability to organize successful strikes----- though still sporadic---- in the non-tribal areas shows that the claimed successes of the Pakistan Army in re-establishing control over areas under the sway of the TTP in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan have not dented the capability of the TTP to divert its operations to the non-tribal areas. While the Afghan Taliban continues to seek territorial dominance, the Pakistani Taliban no longer does so. Instead, it has sought to maintain its tactical mobility and flexibility and ability to provide back-up support to the operations of the Afghan Taliban. The two Talibans are working in tandem effectively.

8. According to a spokesperson of the US Transportation Command in Washington DC, about 60 per cent of the supplies----food, fuel and some equipment--- is still moved from Karachi by road, 30 per cent by train across Russia and the Central Asian Republics and the remaining 20 per cent consisting of ammunition and other classified items is flown by air directly to Afghanistan. The spokesperson claimed that attacks such as the one near Islamabad----though serious---- have not had any significant impact on the NATO’s ability to replenish itself.

9. The revamped US strategy in the Ad-Pak area consisting essentially of attempts at ground dominance in the Afghan territory and stepped-up Drone strikes in the Pakistani territory is nowhere near bringing about a turning point in the US battle against the Afghan Taliban. The efforts of President Hamid Karzai to identify and wean away the inadequately motivated elements in the Afghan Taliban through offers of money, perks and a share of power under his continuing leadership are not making headway despite reported secret contacts with claimed Taliban elements in places such as the Maldives and the recent jirga, which was a spectacular event, but nothing more. There have been no substantive political results and there are unlikely to be any.

10 The ideological solidarity in the two Talibans remains strong. Their bases of support in the Pashtun communities on both sides are intact. Mr.Karzai has no significant support from the Pakistani Pashtun community except from the followers of the Awami National Party now in power in the province of Khyber Pakhtoonkwa ( the old North-West Frontier Province). His support in the Afghan Pashtun community is more, but not sufficient to slow down the flow of volunteers to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban, headed by Mulla Mohammad Omar, has been able to draw volunteers from the Pashtun communities in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. The recent successes of the two Talibans show that their ability to plan and carry out operations at a time and place of their choice remains strong.

11. The US is far from prevailing over the Afghan Taliban and being able to bring about a turning point on the ground which would facilitate a down-sizing of the US presence in time for it to make a favourable impact on Mr.Barack Obama’s bid for re-election in 2012. It looks as if the final outcome in the Af-Pak area will be determined by who has the better battle stamina and staying power. The stamina and staying power of the US-led NATO forces do not seem to be strong enough to bring about a turning point favourable to them.

12. The success of the Indian policy in Afghanistan would depend on the final success of the US-led NATO forces and the Afghan National Army on the ground. That success is not yet in sight. Is it time to have a second look at India’s policy? What should be India’s objective in the present circumstances? Continuing to expand India’s role in the hope that the NATO and the ANA would finally prevail? Consolidating its present role without further expanding it till the ground situation starts improving----if at all it does? Is there scope for a compatibility between the interests and roles of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan? Should India diversify its contacts in the Pashtun communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan? What role can the generally India-friendly ANP play in this regard? These are questions which need serious examination by our policy-makers.

13. India’s Afghan policy has passed through three phases. Between 1947 and September 1996, when the Taliban captured power in Kabul, it was Pashtun-centric. Between September 1996 and the defeat of the Taliban by the US in 2001-end, it became Tajik-centric with India, Russia and Iran jointly supporting the Northern Alliance. Since the assumption of power by Mr.Karzai in Kabul, India has been re-cultivating the Pashtuns of Afghanistan while seeking to keep intact the goodwill earned by it among the non-Pashtuns. The six years of rule by the National Democratic Alliance Government under Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee saw an erosion of the goodwill of the Pakistani Pashtun community loyal to the ANP towards India. The present Government of Dr.Manmohan Singh has not attempted to re-establish our traditional contacts with sections of the Pakistani Pashtun community. Our traditional friends in the Pashtun community have not played an adequate role in the evolution of our Afghan policy. Our policy is influenced more by strategic calculations than by historic affinities. It is time for a course correction.(12-6-10)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.