Afghanistan's Post-NATO Future

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President Barack Obama's dramatic arrival in Kabul aboard Air Force One under the cover of darkness was fitting finale to the cloak-and-dagger operation that eliminated Osama bin Laden a year earlier. The trip also marked a symbolic beginning of the end of American intervention in Afghanistan that was occasioned by bin Laden's daring 2001 assault on the US. Obama offered clarification of the US aim in coming years as troops withdraw, opening the door to regional powers playing a role.

During the brief visit the US and Afghanistan signed the much awaited strategic partnership agreement which stipulates that the Afghan security forces take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year and US troops withdraw by the end of 2014. The pact underscores America's commitment to Afghanistan for a decade as American trainers would continue to assist Afghan forces. A contingent of troops tasked with combating Al Qaeda through counterterrorism operations, too, will remain. Though specific details are yet to be finalized, the agreement provides needed clarity about America's intended footprint in Afghanistan over the next decade. There's been growing concern in sections of the policy communities in Washington, Kabul and New Delhi about an abrupt end to American security commitment in Afghanistan.

Before the agreement, Washington had been on wrong foot in Afghanistan after a series of events including the Koran burnings, emergence of an internet video in January 2012 showing three Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, and an American soldier killing Afghan civilians in March 2012 - all inflaming Afghan public opinion to an unprecedented degree. Responding to popular anger, the Afghan president had hardened his stance, refusing to consider the agreement until American-led night raids were halted and the main military prison was handed over to Afghan officials. Only after these issues were resolved to Kabul's satisfaction was the strategic partnership agreement finalized.

The US has made it clear that it seeks "an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates." It's towards that end that the latest pact underscores the ongoing American role in bolstering Afghan democracy and civil society and pledges US financial support to Afghanistan through 2024. Though it's not evident how vague US reassurances will get translated into operational policy, Washington has sent a clear signal that it won't abandon Afghanistan and will retain a presence in the region's evolving strategic realities.

Afghanistan's national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta described the pact as "providing a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world, and is a document for the development of the region." Of course, he's right in so far as this pact removes the ambiguity surrounding America's post-2014 posture in Afghanistan, not only for Kabul but also for New Delhi where there's been growing concern about implications for regional stability after American withdrawal.

This is also a signal to the Taliban and other extremist groups that waiting out American forces might no longer be as credible an option as it may have once seemed. Washington's new message will have particular resonance in India and Pakistan as ties between the two South Asian neighbours remain the most important fault line in shaping Afghanistan's future. Pakistan will come under renewed pressure to articulate a long-term policy of renouncing ties with extremist groups. Islamabad's hedging strategy is no longer workable. Amidst the growing challenge of the Taliban to Pakistan, the country faces a dilemma about collusion between Afghan and Pakistan Taliban. Pakistan is recognizing the difficulty of managing post-America neighborhood with more than 40 million Pashtuns living in the mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan asserting their profile. Moreover the larger reality is that Pakistan is today weaker than anytime in its history. The economy is in shambles, the sectarian divide is growing, the extremist groups it nurtured are turning against the state, and it has no real friends left. Even China prefers to maintain a respectful distance.

It's not surprising that even the Pakistani army chief speaks of the need for "peaceful coexistence" with India. Fearing its own marginalization in post-2014 Afghanistan, Pakistan has signaled that it's ready to end the blockade of NATO ground-supply routes to Afghanistan.

New Delhi, for its part, has been at a loss trying to respond to rapidly changing realities in its immediate neighbourhood. Now that some clarity has been restored to the American posture, New Delhi must put its own house in order. India has not had a very consistent policy towards Afghanistan over the last decade. Part of this has been a function of the rapidly evolving ground realities in Afghanistan, but large part has also been due to India's inability to articulate its vital interests in Afghanistan to allies or adversaries. There is an overarching lack of coherence in Indian response as New Delhi seems to be perpetually on the defensive, first making Washington the sole pivot of its outreach to Kabul and then petulantly complaining about American unreliability. On the one hand, India has been signaling to the US that it views long-term American presence in Afghanistan as integral to regional security. On the other, it's been reaching out to make common cause with the Iranians, who want to see complete US withdrawal from the region.

Iran has been putting pressure on Afghanistan not to proceed with ratification of the US-Afghan strategic partnership pact. Even as India has signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan promising to enhance its role in Afghan security, it has at the same time reduced its economic footprint. In the absence of governmental support, the Indian private sector, despite its keenness to invest in Afghanistan, has been gradually withdrawing from the country for fear of becoming a target of the Taliban.

As a result, New Delhi has not only complicated its own future options, but also confused allies about whether India can be a credible partner in Afghanistan. Indian interests converge with those of the US in Afghanistan to a remarkable degree in ensuring that the Taliban does not get a foothold in Kabul and Afghanistan does not once again emerge as a launching pad to carry out attacks against India. The Washington-Kabul strategic partnership agreement provides India with some crucial space for diplomatic maneuvering so as to regain the lost ground and expand its footprint in a neighboring state where it remains hugely popular despite its inconsistent policy approach. The recent attempt to beef up intelligence sharing between India and Afghanistan is the first step in the operationalization of the Indo-Afghan strategic partnership, but more concrete steps are needed to ensure that New Delhi maintains a substantial presence and acts as a reliable partner of the US.

India and Pakistan have already started talking after a long lull, and this could be a precursor to some sort of a joint engagement on Afghanistan, dampening the rivalry between the two neighbors. At the same time, India should underscore its continuing role in ensuring sustainable economic development and capacity building in Afghanistan. Those who want New Delhi to step up its role in Afghanistan in consonance with its growing global weight must be reassured about India's reliability as a partner.

As Washington and Kabul turn a new page in the Afghanistan saga, New Delhi should be keen to take this opportunity to become a more credible actor in its neighborhood. Washington has played its hand. It's up to New Delhi to respond adequately.

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