Narendra Modi in Washington: How to perceive Indo-US ties through an Afghan prism

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to leave for his first meeting with US president Donald Trump, one of the key topics that is likely to come up for discussion is the stability of Afghanistan, and India's role in this objective. Trump's Afghanistan strategy is yet to be formally declared, but the recent release of three reports — one by the Department of Defence, the second from the United Nations, and the third by the Congressional Research Service — provides some insights into the future of US' policy and India's assistance to Kabul.

All three reports deal with issues vital to determining Indian interests in Afghanistan. The Defence Department report details US missions and threat assessment, as well as areas where American training and funding for the Afghan security forces and institutions have made a difference and where it has not. The Congressional Report lists the issues that US Congress should and would most likely to take up on Afghan policy, while the UN Mission deals with some aspects of interest with regards to political and security developments. Of the various points raised in these three documents, there are some that are of direct interest to New Delhi.

The first is the extent of additional US troop commitments to Afghanistan. Media in Washington has been hinting at an increase of about 3,000-5,000, though this would likely include troop contributions from allies as well. These reports are backed by testimony from General Nicholson, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, at the Senate Armed Forces Committee, that the Pentagon would need a a "few thousand" more troops for at least one part of this mission.

 Narendra Modi in Washington: How to perceive Indo-US ties through an Afghan prism

American troops' presence in Afghanistan is likely to be a hot topic of discussion. AP file image

Essentially, US troops in Afghanistan have two missions. Of these, the first is the counter-terrorism (CT) role aimed at degrading the capabilities of the Al-Qaeda and groups "associated" with it. The second is part of the 39 nation effort aimed at stabilising Afghanistan through what is called the "Resolute Support" mission by assisting in the development of the Afghan National Security Forces and specific departments. This, the 'Train, Advise and Assist' role, replaced the combat role of the NATO contingent in 2014.

The CT mission appears to involve about 1,500 troops, which Nicholson said is adequate for its role. This in itself is surprising, since at the height of US involvement, its forces numbered 100,000 in total and were still unable to defeat the Taliban. Moreover, the counter-terrorism mission has been shifting and changing since 2001, with the latest addition to the list of targeted groups being the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan. The original mandate — or the Authorisation to Use Force — came from the US Congress through Public Law 107-40 post the 9/11 attacks. This order does not mention the Taliban, the Islamic State or anyone else. Al-Qaeda was tacked on later as part of a mission statement that pinpointed the group as being responsible for 9/11.

Presidential authority went on to use this law to embrace even US action against Syria, on the basis of the argument that Islamic State was once part of Al-Qaeda and that was therefore an "associated" group. Under the US Constitution (Article II), the President of the United States, as Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces, has certain foreign affairs powers. It has been a matter of serious debate as to to what extent this authorises the president to unilaterally use military force, especially given Congress' Article I war powers, including the power to declare war.

In the Trump presidency, there have been continuing demands for a new authorisation of force by Congress, particularly in the light of the use of the MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) in Afghanistan and air strikes against Syria. The issue is likely to be on the list of subjects on priority for Congress, if there is agreement that its legislative branch should work though recess in August. While Trump and his generals may justly favour a stronger presence in Afghanistan, a partisan Congress may have other ideas. As the CRS report notes, Congress should know the break up of troop allocation, and to what objective the Pentagon intends to use them. It will expect a clear formulation of strategy from the president, and one that will not involve an indefinite stay of US troops in a war that has already been tagged the country's longest.

The US forces' second mission in Afghanistan, which it carries out in conjunction with NATO ( North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and other supporting countries, appears to have had some significant successes. The DoD report provides a glowing reference to the growth of the Afghan special forces, and to an extent the Afghan Army and Air Force as well. That the latter has little by way of air assets is glossed over, though the report makes it plain that there will not be any more Russian aircraft induction. It puts paid to any tangential security role India might have considered in terms of additional Mi-35s or other Russian equipment. Meanwhile, the report is all praise for the generous development aid that India has provided.

Experts however hint that India — unlike at the beginning of the war 16 years ago — has deeper pockets. New Delhi will have to reach into them to satisfy a US president convinced that freebies are no longer in US interests. Ideally, Indian assistance could be to beef up Afghan intelligence directorate, including the directorate of police intelligence and NASRAT , the National Threat Intelligence Centre. But the US is unlikely to look favourably at such involvement. A via media could be that India could offer to train young officers in collection of technical intelligence. In addition, India could also consider a fund for Afghan enabled and controlled groups, like the National Uprising Forces who perform some security duties on the ground. The fund could build in some clauses on respect for justice and individual liberty.

Meanwhile, China, also in a via media policy, has offered $85 million for a Mountain Brigade in Badakshan. The DoD report notes that this unit in unlikely to be operationalised this year due to political, logistical and other reasons. China's interest in keeping a eye on Badakshan, which controls the only land entry into its Xinjiang province is clear enough. India has the option of offering to fund an army unit or even an entire division in areas of interest. A division operating in Helmand — where narcotic traffickers, Taliban, and Pakistani interests intersect — could be one. This is also one way of dodging any demand for Indian troops on the ground.

All of this — troop commitments or assistance, as well as financial aid from India, revolves around the question of how the US intends to deal with Pakistan. The defence department reports uses typical 'Pentagonese' in allusions to Pakistan. Nicholson is quoted as saying that the biggest external threat to the mission is the "exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries" outside Afghanistan by terrorists and insurgents. In layman's language, the Pentagon, though accepting that terrorists are sojourning in Pakistan, is also buying into the Pakistan argument (also pushed by the UK) that these areas are outside Pakistan's active control. The CRS report is even more diplomatic. It mentions Pakistan once, and then simply to underline that scholars feel that there is a need to "deal" with it, who is "generally believed to conduct activities that undermines US and Afghan advances". The UN report merely chronicles Pakistan-Afghan bilateral relations. In the face of this exaggerated care, one may be pardoned for assuming that Pakistan is a popular tourist spot for the Taliban, instead of being the single most venomous source for the killers of the Afghan people.

Indian security assistance will also depend on just who is going to be the boss in Kabul in the coming years. The UN report outlines that what little political stability that exists is already on the wane due to approaching elections in early 2019. The Jamaat-e-Islami is factitious and threatening to undercut its own ministers in government. Vice-president Abdul Dostum has been shunted out to Turkey, but his party remains a contender with this son Batur in charge, and the party baying for more posts. The redoubtable Hekmatyar who shed copious tears after the bombing of Kabul, is negotiating with his over-ground faction, the Hezb-e-Islami (Arghandiwal). A successful union could lead to the Hezb becoming the largest political party in Afghanistan. Clearly, more bloodletting is in sight.

Meanwhile the United Nations is not so sanguine as the Department of Defence in assessing the security situation. It unambiguously states that 5,687 incidents of violence were recorded between January and March 2017, the highest ever for that period. The DoD report, however, points out that high profile attacks have gone down by 20 percent in Kabul and 11 percent elsewhere. However, it does note that while Afghan security forces have been able to hold their own, the Taliban remains an "externally enabled and resilient insurgency". It also adds that Afghanistan remains home to some 20 terrorist groups of various persuasions, which add to the complexity of any attempt at forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Hopefully, the US will not buy into the specious (and underlying) argument that a Taliban in power will give short shrift to the rest of the terrorist groups and stabilise the country. Nothing could be further than the reality.

The key of course — as the CRS report points out — is the final objective of an increased US force. The reigning expert opinion is that the US needs to coerce the Taliban to the negotiating table, and in tandem, negotiate with Pakistan to ensure that this happens. This strategy has been tried earlier using a far greater number of troops without success. The elephant in the room is that despite acknowledging the "externally enabled" aspect of Taliban resilience, no attempt has been made to seriously coerce Islamabad to change its policies of Taliban sustenance. Americans would do well to draw upon their own recent history.

It was an unambiguous threat from president Bush that forced General Pervez Musharraf to end Pakistan's support to the Taliban, and simultaneously take action against other terrorist groups in 2002. Chinese interests are not misaligned with the US in reining in the Taliban and any other terrorist groups, while recent Russian support to the Taliban is born out of its resurgent foreign policy rather than any perception of the Taliban as a strategic asset. A Taliban that is denied sanctuaries is one that will want to come on board on American and Afghan terms.

These three reports bring out critical points for Indian consideration regarding not only US policy but also issues that will impact Indian action in Afghanistan. It is worth pointing out that India's primary objective in Afghanistan is the establishment of a reasonably friendly government, one that will ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a base for terrorists to attack India. That is precisely the same objective of the US as well. Common ground may not always yield similar strategies. At most, it provides an entry point for India to back a Trump strategy in Afghanistan that ends external meddling. At the least, it ensures a cup of tea and crumpets, and a pretty joint Statement at the end of it.

Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 16:47:42 IST