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Be ready for a long haul in Afghanistan

January 21, 2010 13:01 IST

Nitin Gokhale, defence and strategic affairs editor with NDTV, argues that India needs to take hard decisions if it wants to become a regional, and global, power

Can America pressurise Pakistan hard enough to act against the jihadists straddling the Afghan-Pak border?

A satisfactory answer to this question has become necessary against the backdrop of two events in the last one month and may as well determine the course of American policy in the Af-Pak theatre.

First, on December 30, a triple agent coolly walked into a highly-secure American base in Khost and blew himself up, killing seven American spies in the bargain.

The suicide attack was a major setback for American intelligence efforts to penetrate the shadowy world of Al Qaeda and Taliban network that drives insurgency in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Then, on January 18, suicide bombers stormed into the Afghanistan capital Kabul killing several people before they were eliminated by the security forces. Indeed, security officials proudly point out that a swift and clinical response by local Afghan forces prevented a major bloodbath in the capital.

That may be true but the increasing frequency with which Kabul is coming under attack, shows up the vulnerability of the Hamid Karzai government currently propped up by the presence of over 110,000 US and NATO troops.

Crucially, Monday's attacks came less than 10 days before an important conference on the future of Afghanistan begins in London.

What is perhaps more worrying for the Obama administration is the fact that both the recent high profile attacks most certainly originated from the lawless Waziristan-Afghanistan border region. The Jordanian triple agent by the name of Khalil Abu Malil al-Balawi has in fact left behind a video message extolling the virtues of jihad. And seated next to him is one of the most wanted Taliban commanders, Hakimullah Mehsud!

Mehsud had taken control of the Pakistani Taliban after another Mehsud – Baitullah -- was killed in a US drone attack last year and is currently believed to be based in North Waziristan. Mehsud and Jalaluddin Haqquani, a local warlord with influence on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border, are currently leading the anti-American jihad in the region.

These two big incidents combined with a spurt in smaller attacks in Afghanistan/North Waziristan are clear indications of a resurgent Taliban-Al Qaeda combine. Some 30,000 additional US troops will start arriving in Afghanistan this summer but the growing number of boots on the ground is no guarantee for a peaceful Afghanistan unless Washington is able to work on and with the Pakistani army to crack down harder against the Taliban strongholds in the Waziristan-Afghan border.

That is easier said than implemented, though.

In the past two years, the Pakistani army has moved decisively against insurgents, first in Swat and then in South Waziristan. Most of the top leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, including Hakimullah Mehsud, have now moved to the more remote areas where Haquanni and his ilk with previous known ties with the ISI are influential players.

Will the Pakistani army be willing to antagonise Haquanni at a time when he may once again prove to be useful once the Americans start withdrawing from Afghanistan? More importantly, does the Pakistani army have enough resources to commit itself to yet another counter-insurgency operation when tension on its eastern borders with India continues to remain high?

Going by experience Pakistan will try to play both sides and hedge its bets until the Americans tire out and leave.

So what can the Obama administration do to make Pakistan see reason and act against the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Nothing really. And that's the real problem for Washington. It cannot abandon Pakistan and yet it wants to engage India more and even increase the Indian involvement in Afghanistan. President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, on a visit to India earlier this week, in fact admitted, "India is a tremendously important participant in the search for peace not only in South Asia but throughout the vast region that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Pacific."  Pakistan of course does not like this at all but has very little choice except continuing to fuel and aid the jihad against India even as it professes to be a partner with the US in the global war on terror.

So what does the future hold for Afghanistan? What will be and should be India's role? If the Americans and their Western allies flee Afghanistan by end-2011, can India afford to allow the ISI-Taliban combine to simply walk back into Afghanistan and watch helplessly?

India has assisted Afghanistan in rebuilding its economy in many ways ever since the fall of the Taliban. It has built roads, hospitals, and even the parliament building; Indian trainers have enhanced the human resource capacity among local Afghans; Indian agriculture scientists and law enforcers have trained hundreds of Afghans in new skills. Indian Army trains many soldiers of the Afghan National Army in India but to remain relevant in Afghanistan, India will have to do much more and think of an out of the box approach.

New Delhi can for instance be prepared to be a major player in a UN Peacekeeping operation if -- and when -- the Americans and NATO forces leave Afghanistan. It should not be shy of acknowledging its interests in Afghanistan. New Delhi should be prepared to work with the Russians, Iranians and even the Chinese to keep Afghanistan, stable even if it means antagonising Islamabad in the post-US scenario.

India has had deep-rooted ties with the Afghans, especially the Northern Alliance. Those links should be kept alive and nurtured for a future role in Afghanistan, notwithstanding Pakistan's opposition to any Indian presence in that country. It's a tough ask but countries that have ambitions to become a regional power, if not a global one, have to take hard decisions in their national interest. Does India have the stomach for a long haul in Afghanistan? We should have the answer in a few years.

The author is NDTV's defence & strategic affairs editor. The views expressed here are personal

Nitin Gokhale