The Summer of 2014

The much anticipated endgame in Afghanistan has formally begun. The American President has laid out his plan to extricate US troops while preserving and building on the fragile gains made in the past few months. The fog of uncertainty that hung around American strategy is beginning to lift. That does not mean that the road out of Afghanistan is absolutely clear.

As Helmuth von Moltke once observed, no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. Much will depend on how the US’ adversaries as well as putative allies like Pakistan respond to these moves. India is reasonably well poised to deal with the unfolding situation. The challenge, as always in Afghanistan, is to keep our ears close to the ground but also maintain adequate flexibility of posture.
The killing of Osama bin Laden has, as anticipated, provided the requisite political context for the American drawdown. From the outset, the Obama administration had been divided between those who called for a protracted counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan and those who preferred a narrower counter-terrorism posture. Since entering the White House, US President Barack Obama has committed an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number to around 100,000. The figure of 33,000 was lower than what the advocates of counter-insurgency strategy wanted, and much higher than what the counter-terrorism were willing to contemplate. Mr Obama, after much deliberation, chose the middle ground. But his political instincts were always against a troop-heavy strategy. At a time when domestic challenges loomed large, a prolonged and bulky military presence in Afghanistan seemed untenable. Yet a quick exit with little results to show risked a conservative backlash at home. The elimination of Bin Laden has shored up Mr Obama’s domestic position and paved the way for a sharp drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.
According to the plan announced by Mr Obama last week, 10,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the summer of 2012. The military surge will effectively end by middle of next year. In the following two years, US forces will transition from combat to support role by handing over responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). By 2014 this transition will be completed. But US forces will stay on in smaller numbers as advisers and trainers. Besides, there will be a small but strong counter-terrorism presence comprising mainly of special forces and intelligence operatives. Mr Obama also made it clear that drone attacks and targeted operations will continue against Al Qaeda in Pakistan. On the political and diplomatic front, the US has openly acknowledged contacts with the Taliban — even if it is only “very preliminary outreach” in US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s formulation. A “core group” comprising the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan has been created to coordinate the efforts towards reconciliation with the insurgents. The Americans have also orchestrated the splitting of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on Al Qaeda and the Taliban into two lists: one of individuals connected with Al Qaeda and the other of Taliban members who are focused on Afghanistan alone. This is intended to facilitate the reconciliation process.
The strategic and the political dimensions of the exit plan are not unproblematic. For a start, the claim that the “momentum” of insurgency has been broken reflects a serious misunderstanding of the nature of counter-insurgency. The idea of momentum may be useful in prosecuting conventional operations, but it is not useful in analysing the progress of insurgencies. Control of territory, not momentum of operations, is the key factor in counter-insurgency campaigns — especially when the insurgency has an external base. The American performance on this score has so far been mixed and it is too soon to predict whether the gains of the recent operations will hold. A related problem is the assumption of a smooth transition to operations led by Afghan forces. The US claims that in the past year an additional 100,000 ANSF personnel have been inducted and trained. The operational performance of the ANSF has yet to be tested seriously. But given the persistent problems over the availability of Western trainers — problems that have only recently begun to be addressed — it would be prudent not to set too much store by the capacity of the ANSF.
It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Mr Obama is following the advice offered by Senator George Aiken at the height of the Vietnam War: declare victory and get out. From a political standpoint, the Obama administration’s stance is entirely understandable. Just that Kabul and its friends should not swallow these claims wholly.
The efforts to reach out to the Taliban are likely to be even more problematic. The Afghan President has already constituted 27 provincial peace councils as well as a High Peace Council. This arrangement reflects the fact that the Taliban is increasingly functioning as a collection of myriad factions and splinter groups. The best outcome possible may be a patchwork of agreements that holds long enough for the Afghan state to bolster its enforcement capacities. Reaching out to the more powerful groups like the Haqqanis will require cooperation from Pakistan. In the current state of US-Pakistan relations, this will call for more sweeteners for the Pakistan Army but without any assurance that a deal will be struck.
Washington has reiterated its redlines for reconciliation with the Taliban: sever ties with Al Qaeda, forsake violence, abide by the Afghan Constitution. These redlines as well as Mr Obama’s call for an Afghan-led process are in sync with India’s position as articulated by the Prime Minister during his recent visit to Afghanistan. Despite its reservations about making too fine a distinction between the Taliban and the other groups, India voted in the UNSC in favour of splitting the sanctions list. From this point, New Delhi will have to closely watch both the reconciliation process and the balance of forces on the ground. India’s interests in Afghanistan are limited, but preserving them will require an adroit combination of strategic clarity and tactical agility.

The author is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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