It’s time for New Delhi to get real about its interest in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan features high on India’s national security radar, and has direct and indirect repercussions on Indian interests. India dreads an Afghan government not in control of its territory, allowing extremist militias to make up the supply side of the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir. Its secondary interest lies in undercutting Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan by virtue of the Taliban and Haqqani Network militant outfits, and thereby Pakistan’s ability to shape the end-state of the political organism in Afghanistan.
India’s only pathway to achieve its security goals has been reliant on its developmental and humanitarian assistance to cultivate goodwill within the masses and the political community. However this goodwill hasn’t necessarily translated into leverage or capacity to influence outcomes in the security sphere. This capacity is as much limited by lack of cost-effective direct access to Afghanistan territory as it is by choice. Within the strategic community in India the view that holds traction is that putting boots on the ground is neither possible nor advisable.
Its limited military assistance has involved transfer of four military helicopters and training imparted to Afghan Security Forces (ASF). India believes that given the current state of the conflict in Afghanistan, in which United States and other international actors have not been able to stabilize the security situation, pooling in resources is an exercise in futility. However the current policy is essentially a hands-off approach to a conflict that involves no risks and therefore no gains. India’s strategy for Afghanistan must change to hedge against emergence of alternative end-state possibilities, which could either involve lethal military assistance or directly engaging Taliban.
The Situation Today
Current trends do not provide any sense of confidence as far as the state of the conflict in Afghanistan goes. U.S. strategy has largely relied on air power to convey a sense of semblance in a war theater where clashes are reported on a daily basis. Air power was to act as deterrent in preventing Taliban from launching daring large-scale assaults and to provide support for operations by Afghan Security Forces when facing militants on the ground. None of these objectives was met and the Taliban have continued to take the initiative in launching attacks on Afghan Security Force bases, checkpoints, and posts by amassing in significant numbers. The order of casualties suffered by Afghan Security Forces in 2016 was approximately an average 21 per day (according to data until November 12, 2016). By 2018 this number has reached approximately 30-40 killed per day. Simultaneously the shift toward more suicide and complex attacks, use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Vehicle borne-IED (VBIED) attacks has caused almost 45 percent of the civilian casualties in the first six months of 2018. Militant tactics of increasing the psychological threat of attack at the spatial level ties in with their overall objective of spreading the ASF thin and, in the process, exposes the incapacity of the administration to protect its people.
The regional security landscape crucial to stabilizing Afghanistan is also not favorable, with the United States embroiled in a discord-ridden relationship with most neighbors on Afghanistan’s periphery. General Scott Miller in written remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 19, 2018, categorically said that Pakistan, Russia, and Iran were supporting Taliban fighters. Russia’s support to the Taliban is ascribed to countering Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). The motivation for other two states to act in favor of the Taliban goes beyond their animosity ridden ties with the United States. Afghanistan’s Helmand River has Iran as its downstream riparian, and the drought conditions in the region have exacerbated the resource conflict between the two neighbors.
Similarly, Pakistan has a conflict with Afghanistan over the Durand Line, which divides the Pashtun tribes over both sides of the border. A stable Afghanistan in control of its territory and the ability to back its political claim with a credible military capability is not in Pakistan’s interest.
In view of the aforementioned factors, the balance of power is decidedly in Taliban’s favor. The overall consequence is that the Afghan government is under constant pressure to stabilize the security situation while Taliban can position itself in a position of strength to dictate the terms of any final political settlement.
The Taliban Smell Blood
A prolonged conflict in Afghanistan also tests U.S. political will to stay the course with its strategic and operational-level goals, which include funding and building a capable Afghan Air Force (AAF) and achieving political reconciliation on terms acceptable to Afghanistan’s government.
In what was supposed to be “an Afghan led and an Afghan owned” process, the Ashraf Ghani-led Kabul government wavered in an indication of the first signs of lack of political endurance by recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political group and without any preconditions. The United States engaged the Taliban directly for the first time in July 2018 in a dilution of its commitment to the “Afghan led and Afghan owned” process. This October, U.S. Special Advisor for Reconciliation in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad reportedly met the Taliban directly without looping in Ghani, who only learned about the meeting through media reports and Taliban statements. Taliban statements also mentioned a discussion on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, although this assertion which was categorically dismissed by the High Peace Council (HPC) Spokesman Mohammad Akram Khpalwak.
The progressive weakening of the U.S. stance in the hope of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table has conveyed the message that if the Taliban can simply stay on course with their attritional tactics, not only can they exact more concessions even before the negotiating process begins, but can also hope for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces altogether, accomplishing their foremost objective.
Possible End States for India
Three possible final scenarios may erupt from the developing situation. One is that the Taliban is inextricably wedded into the political structure and has a veto in the political, security, and foreign policy decision-making of Afghanistan, no matter what form of political setup comes up in Kabul. Russia, Iran, and Pakistan will prefer this option, which gives their ties with the Taliban legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The second is the possibility of the United States pulling troops out of Afghanistan after “successfully addressing all threats.” This is most likely to be a case of perception management when the appetite for expenditure of resources, both man and material, dwindles down. The third scenario is that the United States stays the course, the Taliban eventually accepts the constitution, and concedes on terms acceptable to both Washington and the Afghan government.
Of the three the first is perhaps the most probable, taking into account the state of the conflict and political interest of all parties. The second scenario is more likely than the last one. India, though monitoring the developments on the security front, hasn’t changed tack and its current policy essentially hinges on the emergence of the last and the least likely scenario, in which the power structure that will emerge in Kabul will have little to no influence from the Taliban. The absence of risk in this policy is palatable, but the safest option also implies little to no control over the process that will eventually shape the outcome in Afghanistan. India’s strategy has not taken into consideration alternative scenarios that are very likely.
Time for India to Engage the Taliban?
There are two choices that India can make in pursuit of its security interests. The first is to provide significant lethal material support to the ASF in a clear articulation and indication that it does not view the Taliban’s presence in the final political structure as stabilizing for the region. The second is to engage the Taliban or certain factions of the outfit in a break from the past, even as India continues its current developmental assistance. Given that the United States and the Ghani-led administration are themselves engaging the Taliban and their stance toward the outfit has progressively become more flexible, this will not necessarily be received negatively. The effects of such an outreach may inevitably be circumscribed by the fact that Pakistan has more leverage with the Taliban than India ever will, but given that the group is enjoying tremendous success on the battlefield and has other actors besides Pakistan for support, this is perhaps the most opportune time in the conflict to engage them, at a time when their dependence on one particular actor is overwhelmingly low.
Joy Mitra is a visiting fellow in the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.