By B. Raman
The situation in Kabul should pose increasing concerns not only to the US and Afghanistan, but also India. The steady weakening of the security situation in the Afghan capital a year before the US Presidential elections is reminiscent of the weakening of the security situation in Saigon, the Vietnamese capital, in 1974, which inexorably led to the capture of Saigon by the Vietcong and the hasty withdrawal under humiliating conditions of the US forces in 1975.
The steadily deteriorating situation in Kabul was once again highlighted by a suicide attack against a bus carrying International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel on October 29, 2011, in which five US soldiers, eight American civilians, three Afghan civilians and one Canadian were killed. The attack, for which responsibility has been claimed by the Taliban, was carried out by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber. The incident has been described by local observers as one of the worst ground attacks against foreign troops in Kabul since 2001.
There were two other incidents the same day — but away from Kabul. In the first reported from the South, three ISAF soldiers were reportedly killed by a man in Afghan army uniform. The gunman was ultimately killed.
In the second incident outside Kabul, a teenage girl carried out a suicide attack on a building of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, in the eastern province of Kunar, killing herself and wounding several NDS personnel.
In September, there was a commando style attack on the US Embassy and the ISAF headquarters in Kabul which lasted 20 hours, causing many casualties in the area around—but not in the US Embassy itself. The US blamed the Haqqani network for these attacks and started a PSYWAR campaign against the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for allegedly using the Haqqani network for promoting Pakistan’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan.
The war of words between the US and Pakistan and US threats of an aid cut-off if Pakistan did not sincerely act against the network have had no impact on the ground situation in Afghanistan as seen from the incidents of October 29 in Kabul and outside.
The latest incidents illustrate that while the US may be making headway in its counter-terrorism operations against Al Qaeda and its terrorism affiliates, it is badly stuck up in its counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The US pressure on Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network has come too late — long after the Taliban and the Haqqani network succeeded in infiltrating into Afghan territory, and in establishing a wide network of sleeper cells, which are no longer dependent on the sanctuaries in the Pakistani territory for their sustenance and motivation.
Even in the unlikely event of Pakistan acting against the sanctuaries of the Haqqani network in Pakistani territory, the presence of many well-motivated and well-trained sleeper cells inside Afghanistan would continue to come in the way of US attempts to reverse the ground situation.
The Pakistan Army already visualises tactical advantages and a likely strategic turning-point in the ground situation in Afghanistan. The tactical advantages arise from the success of the Taliban and the Haqqani network in establishing a network of sleeper cells inside Afghan territory. The strategic turning-point visualised by Pakistan would, in its calculation, arise from an increasing pressure in the months before the Presidential elections on President Barack Obama to find a way out for extricating the US out of Afghanistan without humiliation or a loss of face for the US.
The Pakistan Army feels that only it will be in a position to prevent a humiliating situation for the US for which Washington will have to pay a price in the form of coming to terms with the ground reality of a Pakistani presence and control in Afghanistan and a dilution of the Indian presence and influence. Easing of the US pressure on Pakistan to act against the anti-India jihadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) could be part of this price.
It would be unwise of India to view Pakistan as a cornered nation without any exits unless it acts against terrorism emanating from its territory. It is presently a cornered nation all right, but the deteriorating ground situation in Afghanistan and the ultimate US dependence on Pakistan to avoid a humiliating withdrawal could provide Pakistan with a feasible exit option.
India should undertake an exercise as to how much of its presence and influence in Afghanistan would be sustainable in the event of a weakening of the US position and how to sustain it. We should not extend and expand our direct and open presence and influence beyond realistic limits. A greater injection of realism into our Afghan policy is called for.