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April 1, 2010

India should extend its role in Afghanistan

After the third major attack against Indian nationals in Afghanistan by terrorists on February 26th, 2010, India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon visited Kabul to review the security environment for Indians in Afghanistan. His security assessment considered various options, which included beefing-up security for the 4000 Indian nationals working on development projects, in the Indian Embassy and the four consulates.

On March 3rd, Sayed Ansari, spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) revealed that investigations have found the Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the February 26th suicide attack that killed 16, including six Indians. He said that the attackers, speaking Urdu, were searching for Indian nationals among other foreigners. Clearly, the attack was particularly aimed at Indians. LeT terrorists used to be trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet resistance and later during the Taliban rule in  the1990s. There are many Taliban-trained LeT commanders and fighters who are familiar with Afghanistan’s geography. However, without the logistics and intelligence support from the Taliban’s Haqqani network, LeT is incapable of carrying such attacks in Kabul. Prior to this, there have been two major attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul where diplomats and security guards have been killed. Obviously, terrorists and their sponsors want to put a stop to the much-felicitated Indian contribution towards reconstruction and development of a war-torn Afghanistan.

Kabul has seen a rush of foreign visits after the London Conference looking to decide the end-course of the war in Afghanistan. Dutch troops will leave Afghanistan in 2010 with Canada following suit in 2011. There is increasing public pressure on other NATO-member governments to move their troops out of Afghanistan. NATO has no plans to replace the Canadian and Dutch troops, although these contingents hold the very important insurgency-hit provinces of Kandahar and Uruzgan respectively.

Many analysts have suggested that President Obama wants the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to start by the time he bids for a second term in the White House. For the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan ‘victoriously’, it must engineer something to make the situation look favourable for that withdrawal. The military offensive in the Helmand province of Afghanistan will be followed by another similar operation in Kandahar to weaken the Taliban and force them on to the negotiating table.

Mr Obama is actually following Pakistani military establishment’s policy towards Taliban which labels those fighting against Pakistani forces as “terrorists” while the ones fighting in Afghanistan as “strategic assets”. The Obama administration is also beating the drums of negotiations and reconciliation with the so-called moderate Taliban and supporting amnesty for top Taliban leaders. This is the same Taliban leadership had not only provided safe havens to the al-Qaeda masterminds of 9/11, but also committed genocidal war crimes in Afghanistan during their rule. It seems that Washington is going to set aside human rights violations and war crimes of the Taliban leadership in its quest for an honourable exit. Even so, where is the  guarantee that the Taliban will not provide safe havens to global terrorists once again?

It is this scenario of an unstable post-American Afghanistan that New Delhi, as Washington’s strategic partner, should use all its influence to prevent the United States, United Kingdom and other NATO states from withdrawing before ensuring the stability of the region. The bloody insurgency in the frontline of the war on terror — Afghanistan — may have secured the western countries, but it has destabilised South Asia and the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state, had postulated that the United States made a serious mistake by forgetting Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal. A premature withdrawal now—before Afghan national security forces acquire sufficient capacity — would be similarly disastrous for Afghanistan and its neighbours like India. The jihadi terrorists involved against America and NATO troops in Afghanistan would take a “strategic turn” against India once the western troops exit Afghanistan. The ideological jihadis, the suicide bombers and the lower, middle and higher-level leadership of Taliban are highly motivated and committed ideologically. The “reconciliation programme” does not focus on an ideological solution to terrorism in Afghanistan.

Although New Delhi has raised its concerns over the proposed reconciliation with the Taliban, India appears to have come around to the view that the United States has no option to get out of the mess in Afghanistan other than through the reconciliation programme. This being so, it is extremely important for India to define a role for itself in this new process. New Delhi has shown an interest in training Afghan National Army and Police, a proposal fiercely opposed by Pakistan.

During his visit to Islamabad on March 10th, President Hamid Karzai offered to buy weapons and ammunition from Pakistan and didn’t reject the Pakistani offer to train Afghan security forces. It would have been far better for Mr Karzai to tell Pakistan that if it wishes to train Afghan security forces, it should not have any “deep concerns” on Afghanistan’s strategic partner, India also doing the same.

Pakistan must realise that it has been hit hard by the terrorism that flows from Afghanistan. Though Pakistani intelligence agencies still have huge influence on the jihadi groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they are not in full control of  these jihadi groups. Terrorists like Ilyas Kashmiri, who once fought Indian forces with the support of ISI, are now training suicide bombers being used against the Pakistani armed forces. It is in the best interests of Pakistan now to cooperate and collaborate with others for greater stability and prosperity of the region.

There have been suggestions that New Delhi must send troops to fight insurgents in Afghanistan, but that it fears that such a move would further turn the attention of global terrorists and their host — the Taliban — towards India. In contrast, there have been reports in the Indian media that New Delhi might prune the strength of its Kabul embassy and its consulate staff. If so, it would be an easy victory for terrorists. New Delhi should instead bolster the security of Indian nationals rather than reducing the pace and extend of its development projects.

With a track record of successful counter-insurgency operations in various parts of India, New Delhi should further offer Kabul training for the Afghan security forces. Besides the economic and development support worth $1.2 billion, India should extend its assistance to strengthen democratic institutions in an incipient democracy like Afghanistan. In addition, India should also extend its involvement in Afghanistan beyond economic and development projects to reaching out to all communities and power centres, particularly the important minority ethnic groups in that country.

Ordinary Afghans are grateful for the Indian contribution towards rebuilding their country. India is the most-visited country by Afghans in the last eight years and most Afghan TV channels run Indian serials throughout the day. A recent poll by BBC, ABC and ARD confirmed that the foreign country for which the highest percentage of Afghans hold a favourable view was indeed India.

The enormous economic and development contribution of India has earned the country goodwill of millions of Afghans. If New Delhi reduces its significant role in Afghanistan, it would be a victory for  the terrorists — one that the world, and India in particular, can ill-afford.


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