The London Conference on Afghanistan held recently has evoked differing reactions in the Indian media. At one extreme it has been welcomed as providing an effective solution to the Afghan problem, even though it may entail the return of Mullah Omar to power in Afghanistan, and at the other extreme it has been criticised not only for paving the way for the return of the Taliban but also for enhancing Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan at India's cost.
An objective and meaningful conclusion in the matter demands, at the very outset, a careful analysis of the communiqué issued at the end of the London Conference.
The major commitments made, and understandings arrived at, in the London Conference, as reflected in the communiqué, may be listed as follows:
1. The international community pledged its long-term commitment to Afghanistan and support for the government of Afghanistan and its security, development and governance.
2. Transition to an Afghanisation process variously termed as full Afghan ownership, greater Afghan leadership and comprehensive, Afghan-led approach in all areas of national activity particularly security, reintegration and development.
3. The participants agreed to supporting the phased growth and expansion of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to levels of 171,600 and 134,000 respectively, from existing levels of 86,000 and 80,000 respectively, by October 2011. It was further agreed that the Afghan forces would progressively assume the leading role in all stages of operations.
4. The Afghan government would offer an honourable place in society to those willing to renounce violence, participate in the free and open society and respect the principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution, cut ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and pursue their political goals peacefully. This reintegration effort would be reinvigorated by an effective, inclusive, transparent and sustainable national Peace and Reintegration Programme. The international community would in turn establish a Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance this exercise.
5. A host of measures designed to upgrade development and governance such as:
a. Development aid channeled through the government would be increased to 50 percent over the next two years conditional on the latter's improvement of financial management and reduction in corruption. Government's capacities in this regard would be improved through technical assistance.
b. Establishment and strengthening of anti corruption institutions such as Independent High Office of Oversight for investigating and punishing corrupt officials, a Major Crimes Task Force, Anti Corruption Tribunal etc which would be provided assistance by the international community.
c. Provision of $1.6 billion in debt relief by major creditors taking total debt relief provided to over $11 billion.
d. Training by the international community of over 12,000 sub national civil servants in core administrative functions in support of provincial and district governors by end 2011.
e. Need for critical reforms for attaining financial sustainability.
f. Need for curbing poppy cultivation and the drug trade.
6. The Afghan government would host a conference in Kabul, later in the year, where it would present its programme with concrete plans for delivery for the Afghan people. These would be based on democratic accountability, equality, human rights, gender equality, good governance, and more effective provision of government services, economic growth, as well as a common desire to live in peace under the Afghan Constitution.
At the conference the Afghan government would, inter alia, present its National Security Policy which would outline the security infrastructure and roles and responsibilities of the different security agencies.
7. The Kabul conference would be preceded by a grand peace jirga (gathering of elders). Presumably, this would be to facilitate the national peace and reintegration programme.
8. The participants welcomed the various recent regional initiatives pertaining to Afghanistan and, in this context, noted the recently held Istanbul summit which, inter alia, called for working actively for Afghan-led peace, reintegration, and reconciliation efforts.
The emphasis in the communiqué on speedy Afghanisation in all areas most notably security, reintegration, and development, is an unmistakable indicator that the US and its NATO allies wish to cut and run from Afghanistan and no longer have the stomach for retaining a heavy footprint in the country.
In this context, it is relevant to recall that President Obama in his address at West Point on December 1, 2009 had justified the 30,000 US troop surge in Afghanistan scheduled for the first half of 2010 on the grounds that it would allow the US to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.
Similarly, in the same speech the President dwelt upon the importance of capacity building in the country so that there can be 'a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan'. The US desire to disengage in Afghanistan from 2011, or thereabouts, is dictated partly by the recognition that a prolonged stay will be too costly both in military and economic terms, partly by the fact that it cannot afford the luxury of such distractions at a time when it is grappling with a grave economic crisis and many other more critical regional and international issues, and partly by the political imperative of the 2012 Presidential election.
In these circumstances, the pledge of the international community in the communiqué of a long term commitment to Afghanistan should be taken with a pinch of salt and, at best, means a willingness to provide some developmental assistance over the long haul as given to many other countries. All that can be expected of the US and the international community is that, until their pull out in 2011-2012, they will do their best to upgrade the all round capacities of the Afghan government in order to help it secure the best possible power sharing arrangement with the Taliban.
Reintegration, or the incorporation of elements of the Taliban into the Afghan government, explains itself by the imperative of the US and NATO wishing to leave Afghanistan. This has had to be accepted as the US and NATO have come to realise that the Taliban cannot be defeated in the 2011-2012 timeframe with the force levels and financial commitments that they are prepared to make.
Indeed, President Obama in his West Point speech quite openly stated that the US will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.
In an interview to Reuters on February 3, General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, went much further in suggesting that though it was too soon to hope for reconciliation with the likes of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, negotiations with senior Taliban leaders could not be ruled out. Clearly, therefore, India's arguments against differentiating between the good and the bad Taliban have been brushed aside.
The Afghan government had already been in dialogue with the Taliban with a view to persuading some of them to cross over to it. The communique blesses this exercise while, ofcourse, including face savers such as that the elements who are accommodated abide by the Afghan constitution, cut their ties with Al Qaeda etc. At the same time it puts in place a fund the proceeds of which are to be offered to the Taliban to come to the government. Whether or not the Taliban agree to power sharing and the precise terms on which they, and how many of them, agree to do so remains a question mark. It is, however, undeniable that Pakistan will play a key role in this process in view of their proximity to the Taliban leadership much of which has been afforded sanctuary in Quetta and in the FATA.
Indeed, General Petraeus is reported to have stated that talking to the senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani involvement in the process go hand in hand given that Islamabad is the one player that can facilitate such an engagement.
While the exit of the US and its NATO allies from Afghanistan in the 2011-2012 timeframe is a near certainty, coupled with efforts at accommodating the Taliban, the outcome is still somewhat uncertain as their are many imponderables.
For instance, it is not clear as to whether the Taliban will be ready to accept a power sharing arrangement with President Hamid Karzai under the Afghan Constitution and to cut its links with Al Qaeda.
Knowing that the US and its allies have virtually thrown in the towel they may well decide to wait it out in the belief that time is on their side. In this case there will be a virtual civil war in the country. Another possibility is that the Taliban may agree to an accommodation with the government and once within the system engineer a take over. The best case scenario is that substantial elements of the Taliban break away and opt to join Karzai. In this case though there will still be a civil war the Karzai government will have a reasonable chance of prevailing. However, this scenario will only become a reality if the Karzai government is able to rapidly ratchet up its capacities in military, developmental and administrative terms.
Since its ability to do so is suspect this scenario, already adversely affected, by the sense that the US is preparing to leave, is somewhat unlikely. In short, therefore, the dice is weighted in favour of the Taliban and it is probable that by 2012 it will either be in power or at very least be exercising considerable influence in the prevailing dispensation in Kabul.
Implications for India:
Many have lamented the disregard at the London conference of India's longstanding view that it would be a mistake to have any truck with the Taliban as an indicator of our diminishing clout in the international community on Afghanistan. This stems from an overly exaggerated view of our past influence in the matter. India's influence on the international community in regard to Afghanistan was, over the last decade or so marginal, and in any case only a fraction of that of Pakistan.
For instance, India was not consulted by the US when they devised their Af-Pak policy. Accordingly, it is not surprising that India is no more than a bit player at the London conference. More worrisome should be the fact that Turkey, in deference to Pakistan, did not invite India to the Istanbul regional summit on Afghanistan held just prior to the London conference. This is reflective of a broader failure of India's diplomacy.
There is, of course, no denying the fact that the London conference constitutes a setback for India as it opens up the possibility of a Taliban regime in Kabul. However, there was little that India could do about this given the US imperative to abandon Afghanistan and Karzai's own proclivity to engage the Taliban.
It may further be mentioned that India's apprehensions about a Taliban regime may well turn out to be exaggerated. It is quite possible that a Taliban dispensation in Kabul will not be pliant instrument of Pakistan as it has leverages in that country and as the Durand Line issue will keep the two sides apart. We can also count on Pakistani insensitivity to act as an irritant which will over time sour the relationship.
In any case, India has weathered one Taliban regime in Kabul and it will successfully weather another one.
India's options are relatively limited given that it has been a marginal player in Afghanistan. While carefully watching the emerging developments over the next couple of years it should:
1. Strengthen Karzai's hand to the extent possible with financial and technical support as in the past. India's economic cooperation programmes have been an unadulterated success story and have won us enormous goodwill. This will stand India in good stead over the long term irrespective of the dispensation in power.
2. Develop and deepen contacts with all sections in Afghanistan. Our standing among the Pushtuns is not as good as it should be and Pakistan has been plugging the line with some success that we are anti-Pushtun. We should rectify this and reach out to influential Pushtun elements.
3. Intensify coordination with the regional players like Russia and Iran on Afghanistan. This has diminished over the years. It needs to be revived because they, too, are uneasy over a Taliban dispensation in Kabul.
4. Develop contacts with the Taliban. Once in power their national interests will inevitably over time lead them to view us more favourably unless we treat them as untouchables. This has been true of most regimes in Afghanistan and may well be true of the Taliban if we play our cards right and do not gratuitously rub them the wrong way. In this context it may be recalled that India had, under Rajiv Gandhi, contacts had been established even with the Peshawar seven including the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Satish Chandra is former deputy national security advisor and at present distinguished fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.