New Delhi cannot remain sanguine. A priority of the Obama Administration will be to smoothly take out its military equipment from Afghanistan, through Pakistan. The Taliban will then be viewed more benignly
By G Parthasarathy
Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was cautioning Americans in New York against any precipitate withdrawal, Afghanistan was preparing for a momentous change in Kabul. Mr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was taking over as Afghanistan’s President from Mr Hamid Karzai, who had ruled Afghanistan for 12 turbulent years. Despite efforts to malign him and destabilise his Government by worthy Americans like Peter Galbraith and Richard Holbrooke and a vicious propaganda barrage from Pakistan, President Karzai succeeded in establishing a measure of effective governance in Afghanistan. He also skilfully brought together the country’s fractious ethnic groups, to deal with the challenge posed by the Pakistani-backed Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, together with their Islamist allies, including the Al Qaeda. The change of guard from Mr Karzai to Mr Ghani has been anything but smooth. The first round of elections in April produced no clear winner. The second round in June, which was expected to be close, produced a stunning result. It gave an unexpectedly large victory margin to Mr Ghani, over his rival, Mr Abdullah Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister and close aide of the legendary Ahmed Shah Masood. Mr Abdullah had a substantial lead in the first round of elections, securing 46 per cent of the votes, against 32 per cent for Mr Ghani. A Report by the European Union declared the second round of voting as “massively rigged”. A US report held that it was mathematically impossible for Mr Ghani to have secured the margin of victory that he did. With controversy over the electoral result spiralling out of control and assuming volatile ethnic dimensions, the Americans stepped in to broker and virtually impose an uneasy and tenuous compromise between Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah.
Following the agreement between the rival candidates, Mr Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as President and Mr Abdullah as ‘Chief Executive’, a post which has no constitutional sanctity. The roadmap for this transition includes the convening of a Loya Jirga to convert the post of ‘Chief Executive’ into that of an ‘Executive Prime Minister’. It remains to be seen whether the contemplated changes, with two separate centres of executive authority, can provide stable and effective governance, in a country beset with the ethnic rivalries and tensions, which have long characterised its politics. Within 24 hours of the assumption of power by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, Afghanistan and the US inked a security agreement, which will result in the US stationing 9,800 troops in a training and counter-insurgency role in Afghanistan, beyond 2014. A ‘status of forces agreement’, giving immunity to foreign forces against prosecution in Afghan courts, was also inked. The agreements will also allow the Americans to retain air bases across Afghanistan. Pakistan has welcomed these developments. Apart from formal statements by National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office, a meeting of the top brass of the Pakistan Army also welcomed this development as a “good move for peace in Afghanistan”. This is an astonishing turnaround for the Pakistani establishment, which has all along made its unease with the American presence in Afghanistan known. It comes at a time when an estimated 80,000 Pakistani troops and paramilitary, backed by air power, are pounding positions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban in North Waziristan – an operation resulting in an estimated one million tribal Pashtuns fleeing their homes. At the same time, the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban have been on the rampage this year across Afghanistan, prompting the soft-spoken President Ghani to say, “We ask the opponents of the Government, especially the Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islami, to enter political talks”. Pakistan’s massive military offensive in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan has been selectively undertaken. Long-term ISI assets including the Haqqani Network, the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban and even the Al Zawahiri-led Al Qaeda have been spared and obviously accommodated in ISI safe houses. They will be kept in readiness to move into Afghanistan at a time of Pakistan’s choosing. Afghanistan is going to remain dependent on Nato for military and economic funding, for the foreseeable future. Nato funding of Afghanistan’s military of $5.1 billion annually till 2017 has been agreed upon. A similar amount of external funding would be required for Afghanistan’s administrative and developmental needs. The Joint Declaration issued after the Obama-Modi Summit spoke of “dismantling of safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks, to disrupt all financial and tactical support for terrorist and criminal networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e- Mohammed, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis”. Significantly, there is no mention in the Joint Declaration of the Mullah Omarled Taliban, which has been primarily responsible for the killing of 2,229 American soldiers in Afghanistan, the training of terrorists for jihad in Jammu & Kashmir and for colluding with the hijackers of IC 814. It has been obvious for some time that the Americans are keen to do a deal with the Taliban. They may pay lip service to statements that any internal reconciliation process has to be ‘Afghan-led’. But, the reality is different, ever since the US encouraged Qatar to host a Taliban office in Doha. An enraged Mr Karzai had torpedoed that American effort (with obvious Pakistani support), to grant international legitimacy to the Taliban. President Ghani will, however, have to reluctantly accept Pakistan-brokered American-Taliban ‘contacts’, as a prelude to giving Taliban control in parts of southern Afghanistan. India cannot be sanguine about these developments. A priority of the Obama Administration will be to smoothly take out its military equipment from Afghanistan, through Pakistan. The Taliban will be looked at rather more benignly than in the past. Militarily, the ISI/Taliban effort will be to seize control of large swathes of territory in southern Afghanistan, compelling a reduction of India’s assistance in that part of the country. Differences in the priorities and compulsions of President Ghani and ‘Chief Executive Abdullah in Kabul appear inevitable. Our membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will have to be utilised to fashion a more coordinated approach with its members – Russia, China, Iran and the Central Asian Republics. A more intensive approach on developing the port in Chah Bahar in Iran and on meeting Afghan requirements of defence equipment will be imperative. The post-9/11 ‘end game’ for the Americans in Afghanistan is just beginning. The Americans will continue to predominantly and very significantly shape the course of developments in Afghanistan.