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Sunday, July 19, 2009

#2662, 27 August 2008
Afghanistan: Appraising the Future Firdaus AhmedFreelancere-mail: firdyahmed@yahoo.com
Following the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, suggestions for deploying Indian troops in Afghanistan has been doing rounds among the strategic circle in New Delhi. Far fetched as it may appear at this juncture, it could acquire momentum in the seminar circuit and before long, appear as an 'inescapable' national security option. The conclusion in a seminar (25 August) held at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), a military-funded think-tank in New Delhi, has articulated it thus: "There is a need for a force that is trained to provide area defence by seeking out the Taliban. This can only be done by the regular army. It may be prudent to send up to a brigade group with a company of Special Forces." A survey of the present situation in Afghanistan is necessary before challenging this idea.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is facing a mounting challenge from the resurgent 'neo' Taliban. So much so that Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has deemed Afghanistan as the 'central front' in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). With the US not having achieved any of its objectives other than putting an end to the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, the war is set to escalate.
The main areas of concern lie on the Pakistan side of the border in which the Taliban and al Qaeda elements are known to have taken sanctuary. The Pakistan Army is undertaking military operations in the North West Frontier Province and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in which over 80,000 troops are deployed. Despite this, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is believed to have maintained its linkages with the Taliban so as to preserve the Pakistani strategic interests in Afghanistan.
The new government in Pakistan is under the threat of a unilateral trans-border action by the US. The US had resorted to military action across the border under an unacknowledged arrangement with the Musharraf regime. However, such action has drawn an adverse popular reaction in Pakistan; public opinion there being largely anti-American. The Gilani government, therefore, has given preference for dialogue by negotiating peace agreements with moderate elements in the Taliban.
However, with the likely ascent of Asif Zardari to the presidency in Pakistan, the original scenario envisioned by the US in backing Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan may come to partial fruition. Zardari is seen as being more amenable to firm action against Pakistani militants than Nawaz Sharif who is more responsive to the prevailing anti-American sentiment in the Punjab constituency.
The Pakistani government would be required to ensure sanitisation of its side of the border of the Taliban and its al Qaeda supporters. This the government is doing through the strategy, continuing since 2006, of decreasing the space available to such groups through negotiations with the various tribes; even while the army, reverted to its professional task of militarily engaging the more difficult areas.
In turn, the US has plans to increase current troop levels from about 34,000 to 50,000 by year end. The planned pullout from Iraq, under negotiation with the Nuri al Maliki regime presently, will enable more troops to operate in Afghanistan by next year. Increasing Taliban control of the intervening space and time where there are no 'boots on the ground' has been the trend. Increased troop levels by the US are to beget an outcome that a similar 'surge' in Iraq brought about. Pakistani Army poised on the Durand Line would act as anvil.
Taliban backlash into Pakistani Punjab in the form of suicide bombers is already underway. The hope is that these would convert sceptical public opinion into one favouring the offensives underway and envisaged. However, dissonance in Pakistan and its Army on the advisability of taking on its ethnic brethren on behalf of the GWOT coalition could result in a Musharraf-style 'pulling of punches.' It is understandable if Pakistan decided not to flirt with a possible civil war for ends not its own.
Alternatives cannot be initiated realistically at the current juncture since the escalatory game plan is already unfolding. These can only come into the reckoning in case of momentous developments such as an anti-war coup in Pakistan; elimination of Osama bin Laden and the resulting departure of the US; or a Tet equivalent Taliban offensive in Afghanistan. There is a case for out-of-the-box plotlines - substitution of NATO with South Asian blue helmets for sparing a fellow SAARC nation and a South Asian ethnic group from continuing violence.
Placing Indian troops in Afghanistan would only bring to fore Afghanistan as another Indo-Pak proxy war theatre, even if - as the bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul suggests - this is indeed one. The knock-on complications as consequence in Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere make any strategic ends achieved by this deployment pale into insignificance.

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