By Dr. Dhananjay Tripathi
The Taliban and thei associates never let Washington relax in Afghanistan. With the death of Osama Bin Laden it was assumed that an era of terrorism was over and the success of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to capture international headlines.
On the contrary, it was just the opposite and with every passing day the difficulty for the ISAF has only multiplied. The killing of Khandhar’s Mayor and the death of 31 American soldiers in just couple of months after operation Geronimo speaks volumes about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. This is at the time when domestic pressure in the US and in countries contributing to the ISAF is on the rise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. In the case of Europe, the Netherlands already called its armed contingent back in the beginning of 2011, and according to number of surveys the support for the continuation of war in Afghanistan is depleted in other European countries.
Plagued by the worst ever-financial crisis, which has shown no sign of alteration, the US and Europe alike are not in a comfortable position to bear the burden of arm engagements in different parts of the world. According to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) the estimated cost for the US war engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan together could reach 2.4 $ trillions by 2017. This is at the same time when Standard and Poor’s has already reduced the credit ranking of the US and rate of unemployment has not shown any downward trends. With a critical financial condition anda fragile security situation in Afghanistan it will be difficult for the US government to garner domestic political support for its military involvement.
When the US declared the ceasing of combat operations in Iraq it was expected that the troop withdrawal would also began in Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. This deadline has elapsed and there are clear indications that the US strategic community is not very comfortable with the concept of withdrawal, particularly considering the growing unrest in Afghanistan. The dilemma is what will be the best solution for Afghanistan, which will suit the US’ interess,t as well as secure Afghanistan from falling into clutches of Taliban.
In the ISAF more than 90 percent of the troops come from the European countries where the majority of public is against the continuation of war in Afghanistan. According to one of the studies conducted by Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College in France the support for war has fallen to 34 % from 67%, in Germany it is 27%, and in the United Kingdom it is just above 30%. Although several counter claims can be put forth questioning the reliability of such studies and also on the methodology applied there is one surety that war does not inspire the Western European countries and the people of this side of the continent have not witnessed any major conflict after the end of Second World War. Death of their kith and kin in Afghanistan has not gone well and several stories are published where people and governments of western Europe even did not find it comfortable to receive the corpse of soldiers from Afghanistan. Interestingly, similar to the US strategic community, their counterparts in Europe are also not supporting the idea of sudden exit from Afghanistan.
It is worth noting that NATO in its 2010 Lisbon summit made a declaration on Afghanistan that emphasized that withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a ‘condition based not calendar driven and should not be equated as complete withdrawal of ISAF forces’.
From the above discussion two pertinent conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, military engagement in Afghanistan is becoming a difficult issue for the countries contributing to ISAF. In democratic countries it is not possible to evade public demand for a long time otherwise it will have negative impact on the ruling political party. Secondly, military strategists and security analysts of both America and Europe are concerned about the consequences of leaving Afghanistan at a time when things are not at all favourable.
The possibilities are high that the Taliban will recapture maximum landscape in Afghanistan and the country will again become the centre of anti-west terrorist activities. This is a catch twenty-two situation and there are few solutions to offer. Taking an overview of the entire situation from the last year, several analysts argued for a regional solution involving, India, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran. There are a few who are also of the view to include Central Asian countries and China in this regional grouping for ensuring a better balance of forces in this group.
In this India, Russia, Iran and Pakistan have played role in Afghanistan before the 9/11 to safeguard their national interests. For India, Russia and Iran, the Taliban is a threat due to international linkages of terrorist organizations. The Air India plane IC 814 was hijacked and taken to Kandahar in 1999 and India was compelled to accept the demand of hijackers. Hijackers negotiated from Afghanistan, then ruled by Taliban, revealing strong support for them in Kabul at that time. Similarly, some of the Chechen rebels had connections with the Taliban and the same is applicable in the case of Iran where a few disturbing outfits have ideological affinity with Taliban. This is a common thread and a material force for the three countries to work on some sort of alliance if the US and others decides to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Forming a regional group in Afghanistan, however, is a hard nut to crack. India and Pakistan have no history of strategic collaboration; the US has its own animosity for Teheran and vice-versa. In this case the best possibility is to channel things through the route of United Nations with an open call for regional players to step in for betterment of Afghanistan and for stability of the entire region. Thus, it is healthier not to focus on any particular country but to assume that all of countries, which may be affected by the instability in Afghanistan, will respond positively to any such call from the UN.
The spillover effect of an unstable Afghanistan can be a common point for the regional players to join in hand for a better future. It is also important that this regional group should only get involved at the level of assisting the Afghan forces as and when required and act in collaboration with the UN officials. Afghan forces should head the planning of strike operations and their execution. The regional force should be at the second tier of security operations and avoid taking direct call except in the case of self-defense.
Securing Development activities in Afghanistan can be the major mandate for the regional forces apart from assisting Afghan forces in peace and security matters. This is important to establish that security of Afghanistan rests with its own armed forces and not in any foreign hand. Nationalism does play a vital role in nation building and countries with colonial past have better idea of this.
Lastly, it is of paramount significance that development aid to Afghanistan should not be curtailed from any country even if it withdraws its armed contingent from Afghanistan. In this, regional trade such as trade with India and Afghanistan, through the new transit route given by Pakistan should be strengthened. India can access a transit route to trade with Central Asia if Pakistan and Afghanistan agree on this proposal. There are lots of possibilities that this regional solution will be helpful in providing a security arrangement to counter the threat of the Taliban and to also bring prosperity to the region. There is a need to think seriously on this solution with open minds, discarding the narrow realm of chauvinistic interpretations of national interest.
Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia and China are very much capable of providing workable solution; the point is to make a political commitment in this regard.
Dr. Dhananjay Tripathi,
Department of International Relations
South Asian University, New Delhi.
Email: [email protected]