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By Syed Nazakat

Wars consume presidencies and the war in Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. At the risk of failure, he has set out plans to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year. The US exit strategy has caused discomfort in Delhi which is now weighing its options how to secure its strategic interests in the war-ravaged country. There are some long unanswered questions: how should India help Afghan government to secure the country? Should it remain focused on providing non-military assistance? Or should it offer military assistance to Kabul?

As the shadow of uncertainty hover above Kabul there are no simple answers to these questions. India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad briefed the government last week about the emerging situation in Afghanistan. His assessment was grim. Without the US led foreign troops, he has reportedly told the foreign office, the Afghan government can’t survive a week. His discomfort was shared by a top army officer who recently had a series of meeting with the Afghan Army and NATO officers in Kabul. He has informed the defence establishment that the security situation is more serious in Afghanistan than he anticipated. “Taliban knows it is just a matter of some more time when the foreign troops will leave the country,” the officer told The Week. He said the President Obama’s announcement of a timeline for troops pull-out from Afghanistan was a strategic mistake. “The message that has gone to Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan is that they have defeated the superpower and forced it to leave the country. It will encourage extremism in the region,” said the army chief.

The notion that Taliban is all there to recapture Kabul may have gained more traction after the last week’s deadly attack in the heart of Kabul. It was not the toll but the audacity of the attack which exposed how little the US led coalition has gained on the ground in Afghanistan in the last eight years. Although within the Indian military establishment many argue that India should have provided more help to Afghan army after the fall of Taliban. “We had provided couple of options to the government how we could help Afghan government against Taliban,” said a serving officer. “But the government refused to get militarily involved in Afghanistan.”

According to sources close to the debate India has strongly voiced its opposition to the US’s continued dependence on Pakistan and the belief that reconciliation with less radical members of the Taliban has to be part of the plan. But amidst shadows of concern and uncertainty, the good news for India is that the Obama administration is sensitive to its concerns as it is one of the countries most worried about Taliban resurgence. It was in this context that the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke visited India last week. His visit, in his own words, was as a “consultative trip and not a negotiating trip”, unlike his stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I’ve come from Afghanistan and Pakistan and I was reporting on my trip and soliciting views and opinions of India,” Holbrooke told journalists in Delhi after his meeting with external affairs minister S M Krishna.

Before Holbrooke, UK special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Sherard Cowper-Coles flew down to New Delhi to seek India’s views and advice on the exit strategy in Afghanistan ahead of the world summit on Afghanistan on January 28 in London. The summit, where representatives from more than 60 countries including India and Pakistan, is aimed to identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and set a timetable for transfer starting in 2010. Things are also moving behind the scene as a high level dialogue between Indian think tanks and NATO officials about the prospects of the US exit strategy in Afghanistan is being held in Delhi next month. According to the sources the NATO team visiting Delhi will include Dr.Karl A Lamers, vice president of the NATO parliamentary assembly, Michael Ruhle, senior Policy Advisor of NATO and Diego A Ruiz Palmer, head of planning section of Operations Division at NATO Headquarters.

“India is seen an important player in the security, stability and development of Afghanistan,” says Prof Amitabh Mattoo who is a director of the India-Afghanistan Foundation. “That is a good omen”. He, however, argues that India should not play a military role in Afghanistan as it would increase tension with Pakistan.

Viewed through the prism of Islamabad’s, the India’s involvement in Afghanistan represents encirclement by India and it would prefer to change that equation on the ground. “As long as Pakistan remains locked in strategic competition with India, it will seek influence in Afghanistan an objective that arguably narrow space for India,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military and political analyst. “Pakistan will give as much on Afghanistan as India gives on Kashmir.”

But India has managed to scuttle the notion that Kashmir should be part of the mandate of Richard Holbrooke. Many defence experts argue that the formula for success in Afghanistan was to enable the Afghan army to safeguard their own country. Today the Afghan army comprises some 94,000 troops, mostly undermanned, undertrained and has yet to be equipped with heavy weapons and an air force.

Though India has been a top aid supplier to Afghanistan with nearly $1.5 billion in developmental and infrastructure works, but its military involvement in Afghanistan at present, according to the army chief General Deepak Kapoor, is limited to providing training to Afghan army officers. In his annual press conference last week, he responded with a mixture of optimism and fresh signs of India’s multi-dimensional approach in Afghanistan. He said India is helping the government in the development work and that the Indian army is training the Afghan Army officers. “[So that] they can deal with the situation as the US works on its exit strategy,” General Kapoor said.

But to build a full professional army takes time which Afghanistan doesn’t have. One thing is quite clear that despite the US assurances that it will not leave the country in hurry and in mess, Afghanistan is heading towards greater instability and uncertainty. “Our best bet is that the US will not leave Afghanistan in hurry,” said a senior serving officer. “But if they leave the country [for Taliban] then the war is coming closer to us”. ====THE END.

BOX

The Exit Strategy

US planning to start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan by July 2011.

British PM Gordon Brown hosting a world summit in London on 28 January. Leaders of 43 countries including foreign ministers of India and Pakistan meeting to prepare future road map for Afghanistan.

Pakistan ready to support initiative but seeks the West’s help in solving Kashmir dispute with India.

India’s sees exit strategy will increase the US’s dependence on the Pakistani military, something Delhi sees as inherently wrong-headed policy.

(THE WEEK, 2010)

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