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Kabul in spring: the air is cool and crisp, the fruit trees are in blossom and the surrounding hills, usually a dull, dusty brown, are covered with a pleasant verdure. It is a time of hope and renewal. It was so in 2002 when I reached Kabul to take up my assignment as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan. The Taliban had been ousted, two decades of terrible civil conflict seemed over, a new leadership was in position and the world was ready to help rebuild the Afghan state. The road ahead was difficult and many contradictions needed resolution, but the popular mood was sanguine. A decade later, during a recent visit to Kabul, I found a pall of uncertainty hanging over Kabul though the bazaars were full and the physical infrastructure much improved. Nothing could illustrate the contrast between then and now as the security arrangements of foreign embassies. They were light then. Now, all embassies, including our own, are fortresses. The coordinated terrorist attacks which occurred a day after my return will only exacerbate prevailing doubts.
The US decision to draw down its troop levels by 2014 and change the nature of its mission from actively combating the Taliban and its associates to training local forces (and as yet unspecified activities) will have far-reaching security, political and economic consequences. While the Taliban’s capacity to gain and hold territory has been substantially eroded, its capability, and that of its associates such as the Haqqanis, to conduct lethal terrorist attacks and thereby destabilise the fledgling and fragile Afghan state is most potent. The Taliban influence in Pashtoon populations all across Afghanistan, including in provinces close to Kabul, is also strong.
The Americans insist they will not abandon Afghanistan as they did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. That they will remain in some measure is clear, but a lack of clarity on the shape and form of their future presence is in itself a major cause of anxiety. Commitments of financial and equipment assistance for the Afghan security forces are expected to be made by the NATO countries at their summit next month in Chicago. However, the issue of American bases and questions relating to the rules of engagement of their forces post-2014 are unlikely to be settled till the US presidential election is over. Even if all this is achieved, there will be a question mark as to whether a reduced American presence after 2014 will be effective in preventing Afghanistan from again sliding into a period of violent turbulence and conflagration which will undo the current processes, howsoever imperfect they may be. Indeed, after the latest attacks in Kabul, popular confidence will inevitably ebb.
Hamid Karzai has been president of Afghanistan for over a decade. He has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. He has proved to be a master at political manipulation and manoeuvre, which has enabled him to always remain a step ahead of his opponents. An old mujahideen commander who was a one-time ally of Karzai acknowledged to me that the president was a good politician but added that “Karzai does not play good politics”. Karzai will complete his second term in 2014. The constitution does permit a third term. Such is the lack of trust within the political class that no one takes his assertion that he will go in 2014 at face value. Last week, Karzai said publicly that he was considering bringing the elections forward to 2013 so that they are not held at a time when the American forces’ drawdown is taking place. Many political leaders I met in Kabul dismissed it as a trial balloon; some saw it as a clear indication of Karzai’s desire to stay on in office.
The political opposition to Karzai is forming around two broad fronts. Both are led by leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and are largely non-Pashtoon but they are reaching out to the Pashtoons and there are indications they may succeed in some measure. Karzai had succeeded in splitting the non-Pashtoons in the past, but the possibility that the Taliban may come back after 2014 is bringing the two fronts together. Notwithstanding the performance of the Afghan security forces in handling the recent attacks in Kabul, non-Pashtoons harbour doubts on their effectiveness and even unity.
Like his courageous ancestor Ahmad Shah Abdali, will Karzai create a new Afghanistan? Or will his years in office be seen as the lost years?
Above all else looms the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban. The Americans concluded many years ago that they could not finish off the Taliban militarily as long as it had safe sanctuaries in Pakistan and the support of the Pakistani intelligence. The only alternative was to engage it and also erode its military capabilities. The American surge in Afghanistan has diminished Taliban ability to gain and hold territory in the major population centres of the country. Drone attacks have also hurt them, but their capacity to launch terrorist attacks remains strong and will continue. Karzai and the Americans wish to engage and reconcile with a critical mass of the Taliban and thereby isolate its hard core. Will they succeed? The optimists in Kabul respond in the affirmative while the pessimists naturally think otherwise. More importantly, no one has firm answers about whether the ultimate purpose of the exercise is to provide a place for the Taliban in state structures as a recognised group. It is difficult to visualise Mullah Omar either retiring quietly to a madrassa or becoming a functionary of the Afghan state. Some Pakistanis feel that he could be acknowledged as a rahbar, or spiritual guide, on the Iranian model and that could be the way out. This is unrealistic, for the non-Pashtoons will not accept it. Reconciliation efforts will continue under the titular leadership of Rabbani’s son as head of the Reconciliation Council but the process will be tightly controlled by Karzai.
The economic impact of the American drawdown will be severe. It would drastically reduce the flow of funds on account of lower American troop levels. Donor funding will also be affected. As it is, a flight of capital is taking place. Economic distress will increase reliance on the production of narcotics. Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of illegal opium. This is a principal problem vitiating all aspects of Afghan national life, but it is also an issue which is avoided by all actors, domestic and foreign.
If in 2002 Pakistan’s policy was in tatters and its positioned compromised, it is today back at the centrestage of the Afghan issue. It is not liked in Kabul but feared. It has constantly signalled to all that real stability cannot return to Afghanistan unless its interests are addressed. The Americans cannot extricate themselves from Afghanistan without Pakistani help, because Pakistan sustains the Taliban and ruthlessly keeps it on a tight leash.
India is perceived as a trusted friend which has responded to Afghan needs in the areas of infrastructure development and capacity building according to the Afghan agenda. The Zarang-Dilaram road, Pul-i-Khumri power transmission line, the supply of buses, assistance to schools and hospitals and the training of Afghans has all been deeply appreciated. India’s democracy inspires many; hence the request that India should construct the Afghan Parliament building. Its construction is under way. Significantly, India is the first country with which Afghanistan has signed a strategic partnership agreement and there are expectations that India will play an active role in the security sector.
There has been a remarkable degree of consistency in our policy towards Afghanistan. Successive governments have recognised its strategic importance and acted well to promote them. As the American drawdown takes place, our policy-makers will need to focus on the transition and the post-2014 period. New challenges are emerging; some old ones remain. Pakistan wishes to continue to deny India a meaningful role in Afghanistan, while the Americans do not want India-Pakistan rivalry to destabilise the country post-2014. Karzai, too, is careful not to offend Pakistan over the Indian presence in the country.
Dr Manmohan Singh dreams of an economically integrated India and its western neighbourhood with unimpeded peoples, trade and energy flows. Inshaallah, this will be the future. Meanwhile, the India-Afghanistan bilateral relationship should be the priority with additional attention given to its security and defence aspects. India’s Afghanistan policy should not be decided by present trends in India-Pakistan relations or US sensitivities.
Karzai’s Popalzai ancestor Ahmad Shah Abdali is revered in Afghanistan. He is credited with laying the foundations of present-day Afghanistan. Karzai still has a small and rapidly closing window of opportunity to create a new, modern and inclusive Afghan state. Can he display the courage and wisdom of his ancestor? Or will his presidency be looked upon as the lost years?
(The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan.)