By Sudarshan V.
July 23, 2018
Less than a year after U.S. President
Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan policy, last August, it lies in
tatters. It is fraught with implications for New Delhi, none of them
heart-warming. Mr. Trump had made New Delhi happy when he had summed it up
succinctly; he had studied the situation for eight months “from all angles” and
had come up with the solution. His Afghan policy was going to be robust. As he
put it, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” He
blamed Pakistan for giving safe haven to “agents of chaos” and later cut off
security assistance to Taliban’s greatest benefactors and backers.
Even six months ago, at the end of January,
Mr. Trump said, “We are going to finish what we have to finish in Afghanistan.”
The implication was that he was going to stay the course. He had declared: “We
don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time, but it’s going to be
a long time.” Now the next thing we know, about 17 years after invading
Afghanistan to rid it of the Taliban, the white flags are out, and the U.S. is
setting the stage for direct talks with the very enemy it vowed to vanquish.
True, we have to weigh this against previous attempts at dialogue with the
Taliban which ended in failure. The problem is that this time the U.S. may want
the talks to succeed, which means handing Afghanistan over to the Taliban and
their chief backers, the Pakistanis, beribboned and gift-wrapped.
Taliban on the Rebound
Even so, the new American move comes at a
time when the Taliban ranks have swelled since the North Atlantic Treaty
Organisation pulled out in 2014 and they seem to be surging ahead in many parts
of the country. It comes after the U.S. stopped releasing figures for the
territories or populations under Taliban control, or the numbers of their
fighters. It comes at a time where the data and assessments on the strength and
the combat capabilities of the Afghan military and police are no longer readily
available, amidst reports of severe erosion of their fighting capabilities. It
comes when the UN grimly noted — late last year — rising opium production.
Citing the latest Afghanistan Opium Survey figures (released by the
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime) it said that opium production in Afghanistan had increased by
87% to a record level of 9,000 metric tons in 2017 compared with 2016 levels.
The area under opium poppy cultivation had also increased to a record 328,000
hectares in 2017, up 63% from 201,000 hectares in 2016. It comes at a time when
a strategy that relies mostly on counter-terrorism operations — the vastly
reduced number of troops (less than 15,000) are mainly on security assistance
and training and other hand-holding assignments — is not paying sufficient
dividends. It comes after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani literally sued for
peace, saying that he was prepared to recognise the Taliban — previously
referred to as terrorists — as a legitimate political group, offered to release
Taliban prisoners. and proposed dialogue, a suggestion that was quickly and
contemptuously spurned. The intervention in Afghanistan has never looked quite
Pakistan’s Game and India
It has not resulted in many critical
primary military and strategic objectives being realised, the denial of safe
havens (mostly in Pakistan) to the Taliban, the reduction of their fighting
capability, and to effectively dis-incentivise Pakistan’s zeal and ability to
nurture the Taliban. The opposite has happened. Rawalpindi correctly surmised
that the longer it was able to play the game of running with the hare and
hunting with the hounds, the less stomach the endlessly gullible Americans
would have to continue sinking troops, money and shrinking political capital
into another quagmire. It has also helped Pakistan that the American President,
no stranger to U-turns, has turned spectacularly fickle so far as Afghanistan
is concerned. He has more than half his term left, which leaves plenty scope
for him to change his mind again.
All the same, if the talks with the Taliban
proceed apace, it does not matter so much where the talks will be held or how
much control the Pakistanis are able to exert over their wards during the
talks. What matters is this: what the Taliban, and thus more importantly,
Pakistan, are able to wrest from the negotiating table. Withdrawal of the
remaining international troops will be the main aim. At the end of it, the
Taliban and other Pakistani proxies, who have orchestrated a string of deadly
attacks on Indian interests with a view to deter New Delhi, will have the run
of what passes for a country; a nation that has not yet been built. Where would
that leave New Delhi?
The American move comes when there is
pressure to limit any kind of engagement with Iran, which would have been a
logistical pivot for further inroads into Afghanistan. Already, with the exit
of Hamid Karzai, the strategic comfort that New Delhi had in Kabul stands
diminished, and by extension, the kind of intelligence operations New Delhi may
have had the option to conduct with deniability. Pakistan’s aim will be to
reverse all the gains India has made at great cost over the years in Afghanistan.
With strategic depth in Afghanistan that Pakistan has dreamt of becoming a
reality, Islamabad will have more room to incubate and move around the various
anti-India groupings, including those active in Kashmir, as was the case
earlier, especially in Lōya Paktiā. With the prospect of the Taliban slouching
towards Kabul to be born again, most of New Delhi’s bets may be off.