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India in Afghanistan Sustained Commitment and Working with Partners Way Ahead

Published Dec 22, 2018
Updated Jun 05, 2020

Portends of a United States pull out from Afghanistan were evident for some months now. The reports that U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to cut back the forces of the country by half highlighted by multiple media sources quoting officials of the Administration in Washington should therefore not be surprising.

While announcing the US South Asia Strategy in August last year, President Trump admitted that the decision was against his own instinct.

Thus the question then was not if the US would continue in Afghanistan but when it would pull out. Lack of substantial military success and pressures at home may have played upon the non-interventionist instinct of Mr Trump to decide on reduction of force as the first step which may be followed by a complete pull out, thus ironically also fulfilling the demand of the Taliban that foreign forces must leave the country.

There are concerns over the impact of the pull out on countries as India who have based their commitment in Afghanistan on the security cover provided by the US and NATO forces presence in Kabul given stiff resistance by Pakistan to Indian role.

Yet Post 2019 Afghanistan need not be a redux of 1989 when the Soviet Union pulled out of the country which led to occupation of Kabul by the Taliban seven years later in 1996 after a bloody civil war.

The situation is favourable for stability with sustained support of the Afghanistan government by the international community in which India continues to be a key player.

A post 1989 scenario when the Mujahideen factions hurtled into a bloody civil war which saw the rise of the Taliban need not be repeated in 2019 even though the top Afghan leadership remains at loggerheads and the rebel group sees itself in a strong position for now as it sees the Americans haste to pull out an opportunity for return to Kabul.

Yet it need not be so if two factors play out – Afghan leadership remains resolute in resisting a violent return of the Taliban and the international community continues to support the government in Kabul.

In the early 1990’s as the shaky Afghan government led by then President Burhanuddin Rabbani with the Lion of Panjshir Ahmad Shah Massoud as the defense minister sought international support there were no takers.

In fact Massoud visited European capitals calling for assistance to stabilise the country and put pressure on Pakistan to deny support to the Taliban, but his pleas fell on deaf years.

Today there is far greater understanding of the consequences of return of the Taliban to the mainstream without abandoning their extremist ideology and structured commitment through a series of multilateral initiatives such as the Geneva Process to support the government in Kabul.

More over the role of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) is limited to training and advisory support. Reduction in numbers may impact this but the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF)  should be able to adapt given effective political and military leadership.

The ANDSF have the capability to hold the major populated centres. As the most recent report by the US Departhment of Defense on, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” of December 2018 (Report) highlights, “The ANDSF have continued to excel in offensive operations; the bulk of their casualties have come in defense  of  isolated  checkpoints,  command posts, and bases. The ANDSF, with U.S. and coalition support, have limited new Taliban territorial gains and quickly regained control of population centers when attacked. The intensity of the fighting and level of bloodshed on both sides has risen as both sides vie for leverage at the negotiating table”.

The Report assesses that as of November 2018, “Afghan government maintained control or influence over approximately 63 percent of the population, while insurgents had control or influence over approximately 11 percent of the population, with the remainder contested”. Quite clearly despite the daily mayhem of attacks Kabul continues to hold the edge.

Coming to number of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Report highlights that there are approximately 14,000 military personnel in the country as part of NATO’s Resolute Support (RS) mission and  Operation Freedom Sentinel (OFS). The OFS is targeting al-Qa’ida, ISIS-K, and their associates to prevent their resurgence and ability to conduct external attacks. The RS mission on the other hand is essentially to train, advise and assist the ANDSF.

The RS mission has 16,910 troops from 41 nations (27 NATO allies and 14 operational partner nations). The United States contribution is  8475 troops with approximately 5500 for the OFS mission.

ANDSF is authorized 352,000 ANA and ANP personnel18 plus 30,000 Afghan Local Police (ALP) as per the Report but the total has remained low at around 316,000.

The reduction of US troops by half is likely for both the missions RS and OFS. Correspondingly other contributors to the RS mission may also announce reductions which may see the overall strength of support go down to about 10,000 or so. This will have an impact on performance of the ANDSF but not necessarily lead to its collapse.

Support through external training and capacity development provided by countries as India could make up for some of the slack. For instance at present an ANDSF women’s cadet contingent is undergoing training in Officers Training Academy Chennai this could be expanded.

Greater coordination with strategic partners such as the United States, European partners Russia, Iran and even China would provide comfort to New Delhi.

The recent statement by Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mohammad Qureshi that India has a role in Afghanistan also is a positive sign at least overtly.

Quite evidently India cannot afford a post 1989 redux after 2019 which would evidently also be the goal of other regional countries as well as the United States and European partners which indicates scope for a compact to prevent Afghanistan from falling prey to forces of instability in the future.