India Is On Track In Afghanistan, But There Are No Miracles Waiting To Happen
New Delhi must continue to strengthening Kabul in every possible way but it should not expect any miracles to happen.
The inauguration of the new Afghan parliament building by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a hopeful thing. It symbolises the way India sees Afghanistan: a friendly country, with great economic and cultural potential, as well as inherent characteristics including tenacity, ability to overcome circumstances and a fiercely independent population.
It also is a recognition of the promise of democracy which, if sustained, can have a deeply positive impact on the future of a country that has a range of sectarian, ethnic and tribal differences. Left to themselves, and perhaps with a little benign guidance, the people of Afghanistan will be able to find a way to live together.
For the foreseeable future though, there is close to zero possibility that Afghans will be left to themselves. The reported Taliban takeover of Sangin in Helmand province (and the government fight-back) is just an example. Here is a brief recount of what has been happening in Afghanistan for just the last couple of months (by no means exhaustive).
The old nemesis of stability in the country, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has been sending out feelers, saying he wants a “real and fair” peace, withdrawal of foreign troops and elections in 2016. Hekmatyar is nothing if not a survivor, and if he’s come out of the shadows there’s a reason – most likely that he has a powerful patron. Who it is is anyone’s guess. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban’s new leader and regarded as Pakistan’s man, has been killed or seriously wounded – according to various reports. Again, no one knows for certain (remember his predecessor Mullah Omar was “alive” until 2015 though he was dead two years prior).
On the strategic level, indications are that the Taliban are gearing up for a fight with the Islamic State (IS), now infiltrating and gaining pockets of control in Afghanistan. Simultaneously they are fighting against foreign occupation, i.e. Western and allied forces. The IS has accused the Taliban of being a tool of Pakistan and declared war on it. Yet some Taliban leaders are inclined to look favourably upon IS, it seems, and this has generated a vicious bit of infighting as well. Mullah Mansur Dadullah – who revolted against Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s appointment as Taliban chief earlier this year – was supposed to be a key liaison with IS. Dadullah was apparently lured into a trap and killed in November; again no one knows how true all this is. However, it may explain the subsequent assassination (or attempt) on Mullah Akhtar Mansour.
Pakistan is supporting the “mainstream” Taliban of (the late?) Mullah Akhtar but also maintaining links with at least two other factions, as usual. Islamabad’s job is easy as it only has to ensure that Afghanistan remains unstable and under its thrall. It has been stringing along President Ashraf Ghani to that end. Almost certainly under American pressure, Ghani is doing his best to maintain lines of communication despite repeated and clear indications of Islamabad’s ill intent. He may have difficulty maintaining that line. At the Heart of Asia conference in early December, Ghani reiterated his desire for intelligence cooperation with Pakistan. The next day his intelligence chief, the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Rahmatullah Nabil, resigned over “policy differences”.
It is into this morass that Prime Minister Modi steps to inaugurate the new parliament, in what is admittedly a highly symbolic and necessary gesture of support for democracy in Afghanistan. It is also evident that a large body of Afghans appreciate Indian support in this and other economic and social infrastructure measures taken by New Delhi to support the country. There is a great deal of support for India among Afghans.
What does all this mean for India, though? If one is to be realistic, it does not mean a whole lot that is positive. It is almost certain that we will be more intensely engaged with the Afghan government, and there are overt signs of a nascent military relationship as well. The Modi government, cautiously moving forward in an organic way from a policy perspective, will do what it can and what it must, but no more. There will be some boldness, perhaps with military supplies (exceeding the few helicopters already promised). All are necessary, and all represent a gradual, incremental growth and consolidation of engagement with Afghanistan and its people.
As a country, however, we must be realistic that there will be no dramatic change. Afghanistan is not about to transform internally, and Pakistan is not likely to permit that to happen even if the Afghan factions were inclined to set down their arms and go for a representative form of governance. So long as that approach continues from Islamabad, the situation in Afghanistan will not evolve in a positive direction – unless Pakistan itself changes, or is changed. Given how the regional situation is playing out, the latter is more likely but not imminent.
Meanwhile, India can do nothing better than more of the same. Help Afghanistan in any way we can, economically, politically and militarily. But New Delhi must not expect any quick fixes. To be fair, it does not look like the policy managers do. Successive governments have been conducting a sane and broadly considered policy towards Kabul. The strategic bureaucracy seems to be well aware that there will be no miracles in Afghanistan.
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