Sunday, 7 June 2020

Afghanistan: An Emerging Threat To India?

Updated: June 20, 2015 3:15 pm

The threat is real and in this jigsaw puzzle with a Pakistan-Taliban combination threatening India’s security scenario for a long time and the Islamic State appearing in the horizon, New Delhi has made a desperate attempt to stay the course. During the Afghan President’s latest visit to New Delhi last month the Indian side went out of its way by asking the Afghan delegation that the latter should let their defence requirements be known.

India has reasons to be worried about developments in Afghanistan. Situation has passed when a good number of surveys during the time of the last Afghan President Hamid Karzai had described India as “the most friendly nation”. Ashraf Ghani, the new Afghan President, has already exhibited a desire to break free from Karzai’s legacy and tilt towards Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China. Ghani has every right to do so as he has to choose the right path to secure his country’s security interests and other needs. But doubts are being raised about the end results of his statecraft. The Afghan President is afraid about the Islamic State (IS) spreading its wings in his country and squarely blamed the IS fighters for the recent attack in Jalalabad , capital of Eastern Nangarhar province, which resulted in death of 35 people. “In the horrific incident in Nangarhar who took responsibility? The Taliban didn’t claim responsibility. Daesh (the Islamic State) claimed responsibility for it.” Ashraf Ghani said after the incident.

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But some Mujahedeen warlords who had left indelible marks in recent Afghan history by their dour fights against first the Soviet army and later on against the Pashtun dominated Taliban, think otherwise. Ismail Khan, a prominent former warlord who still wields considerable hold over Heart and parts of northern Afghanistan, holds Ashraf Ghani responsible for the schism in the central government with Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive officer, moving in a completely different way. Khan thinks that Ashraf Ghani’s factional attitude is paving the way for the Islamic State which has already established its bases in Afghan soil.

The threat is real and in this jigsaw puzzle with a Pakistan-Taliban combination threatening India’s security scenario for a long time and the Islamic State appearing in the horizon, New Delhi has made a desperate attempt to stay the course. During the Afghan President’s latest visit to New Delhi last month the Indian side went out of its way by asking the Afghan delegation that the latter should let their defence requirements be known.

This may be a sign of panic as India had earlier refused to honour a request from the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for supply of light mountain artilleries, air support system, bridge laying equipments, and medium trucks capable to transport 2.5 -7 ton cargoes. Later on realizing the need to protect her own interests New Delhi decided to revisit the request. But in February last Ashraf Ghani decided to suspend the request and the Afghan government left clear hints that the country may procure the same ammunitions from other sources. Significantly Ghani started warming up to Pakistan during the same time and left clear public hints of it. Six of the perpetrators of last December’s horrific attack against a school in Peshawar were apprehended on Afghan soil. They were initially questioned in Afghanistan but the Afghan authorities maintained closed liaison with the Pakistan government. It is significannot that sometimes later Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national security adviser, recommended a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan for external actors and also warned against any attempt to wage proxy war there.

But the former Mujahedeen warlords are now chafing under the Ashraf Ghani dispensation and demanding restoration of their previous status. They consider themselves as the best bet against any future IS incursion. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first Vice President of Afghanistan, has openly held Ghani responsible for his (Dostum’s) gradual marginalisation while Ismail Khan has publicly announced his disapproval of the Interior Minister Nur-ul-Huq Ulumi who is viewed in some quarters as a supporter of the former Soviet backed government.

12-15 Neighbours Watch+AD_Layout 1 Obviously the new Afghan President needs to do a careful balancing as his relation with his chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah is also strained. Not just Dostum or Ismail Khan, Ghani is being publicly opposed by two other very powerful persons like Atta Mohammed Noor, the Governor of the Balkh province and Mohammed Mohaqiq, a former minister in the previous Karzai government. On his part Ghani has also contributed behind such a development. After assuming office he effected a widespread reshuffling of Governors and commanders of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) by removing many and brining in a good number of his own persons. In doing so he has also disturbed the ethnic balance previously prevalent in the security apparatus.

Where does India stand in this complex scenario? Neither the US nor Pakistan and China would like to see India gaining a strategic depth in future Afghanistan. Nearly two years back General McChrystal, the then US army chief in Kabul, had expressed concerns about growing Indian political and economic influence in Afghanistan and had opined that this would only increase regional tensions.

Now the Indian policy has been getting flaks from almost all quarters. Even an influential section of Indian strategic thinkers has come round to the conclusion that Indian investments so far made in Afghanistan more than $ 2 billion has gone down the drains as New Delhi shied away from entering into the military scenario. On the other hand Ashraf Ghani has alluded to India’s role in Afghanistan as that of a contending party in a proxy war. But the truth lies in the fact that India really wanted to see the war ravaged Afghanistan stand on its own feet and with this end in view it extended financial grants for education, agriculture, power, roads and institution building sectors. Although not known to be a donor country internationally, India is the fifth largest donor in Afghanistan after the US, UK, Japan and Germany. It has extended numerous scholarships to Afghan students and training grants for civil servants. An Indian public-private consortium has made heavy investments for the development of the Hajigak iron ore mine and a hydropower dam is coming up at western Afghanistan with an Indian investment of $200 million.

However the future of Afghanistan will depend on the performance of the Afghan National Security Force(ANSF) which has been trained by India to a great extent. Till now Ashraf Ghani has failed to open up any peace negotiation with the Taliban although he tried to reach the latter through his Pashtun connections. On the contrary the Taliban has been pressing hard on the northern Afghanistan province of Kunduz and virtually encircled it sometimes back where the fundamentalist outfit is being helped by fighters belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Till now the ANSF has not been able to give a very good account of itself and it is doubtful whether the battle devastated Afghan administration will be able to bear its cost for any length of time.

Still the ANSF holds the key to the building up of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan in future. It is a three layered security set up- the Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP). The US has spent a huge amount for its creation and upkeep and India has also extended its helping hands towards training of its personnel. Of late there has been an improvement in ANSF’s performance but still it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that it is still far away from acquiring a capacity to confront the Taliban.

Hopefully, after the dwindling down of the number of the NATO led international forces, the ANSF has been carrying out 95 percent of conventional operations and 98 percent of special operations. Still casualty, attrition and desertion have come out as its bane. Since 2013, the ANSF has suffered 9000 casualties while the NATO led International Security Forces’ casualty figure was only 2346 since the beginning of the previous decade. Some top NATO commanders have described the ANSF casualty figure as ‘unsustainable’. They also gave out that 50 to 100 Afghan soldiers were killed every month last year and the fatality rate easily compares with that of the US forces during the Vietnam War. Alarmingly, the current strength of the Afghan National Army is now only 1,69,203 and it has experienced an 8.5 per cent numerical decline since February, 2014. Taliban is smart enough to exploit this soft underbelly of the ANSF. By laying a siege to the Kunduz it served a notice about what may come in its customary April to October offensive. It is true that the ANSF has been able to drive back the Taliban fighters from some vantage points. Still many areas in Kunduz are now in Taliban hands. It has to be kept in mind that the ANSF suffers from various factors. First its leadership is somewhat tilted towards the ethnic minorities particularly the Tajiks who still constitute around 40 percent of the Commanders while the overwhelming majority of the bottom line force comprises of the Pashtuns. Secondly the majority of the ANSF soldiers are uneducated. They have very little motivation and this is resulting in desertion.

Ashraf Ghani is perhaps realising that with this state of affairs in the ANSF he cannot take the fight to the Talibanâs doorstep and that is the reason behind his reorientation of Afghan foreign policy in favour of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. It is interesting to note that in a statement released from Qatar the Taliban has also expressed its intention to reach a negotiated peaceful settlement. Obviously it is playing a double game. The Afghan denouement is still not in sight. But India is not favourably placed in this great strategic game of South Asia.

By Amitava Mukherjee

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