Can Afghanistan's Neighbors Stabilize the Country?
At the July 2012 Tokyo summit, donor nations pledged USD 16 billion up to 2015 for the socio-economic development of Afghanistan. The 70 nations that participated in the summit sent a strong message to the effect that Afghanistan will not be left to fend for itself after the withdrawal of NATO-ISAF forces. However, strong messages are not enough if these are not followed by strong measures in critical areas.
No plans have yet been made to put in place post-exit arrangements to supplement the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are unlikely to be in a position to assume independent responsibility for security by end-2014. The completion of the drawdown will create a security vacuum, particularly in the south-eastern and southern provinces, and the Taliban are likely to fill it. Unless Afghanistan's key regional neighbours, including India, Iran and Pakistan, contribute meaningfully to the efforts to stabilise the country, instead of pursuing narrow national agendas, Afghanistan may plunge into a civil war. This will reverse the gains made in socio-economic development over the last 11 years.
Capacity of ANSF
The Afghan National Army (ANA) now numbers 195,000 troops and the strength of the Afghan National Police (ANP) has gone up to 149,208. The ANSF (ANA plus ANP) are being increasingly called upon to assume responsibility for security in districts from which the NATO-ISAF troops are gradually withdrawing. While the number of ANSF personnel is growing steadily, they are not yet operationally and logistically ready to assume independent charge of security operations in areas vacated by NATO-ISAF troops.
Besides numbers, ANSF personnel lack the requisite weapons and equipment, and are inadequately trained and motivated - desertions and incidents of fratricide are fairly frequent. The standards of junior leadership - the bedrock of counter-insurgency operations - are far from satisfactory. Also, the ANA lacks critical logistics support such as helicopters and high-mobility vehicles and is completely dependent on the NATO-ISAF logistics and casualty evacuation system.
Though the May 2012 Chicago Summit reaffirmed the commitment of the international community towards a continuing partnership with the government of Afghanistan after 2014 and pledged to continue to provide developmental assistance, it did not address the issue of leaving behind a security vacuum and the role that key regional actors could play. This glaring omission will prove costly in the long term for regional peace and security.
The NATO-ISAF withdrawal without supplementing the fighting capabilities of the ANSF will lead to an unstable security situation. Some of Afghanistan's regional neighbours will promote their core national interests and compete for influence by supporting the warring factions. Western and regional players will need to accommodate Pakistan's core interests in seeking a lasting solution to the Afghan conflict. Instability will lead to a rise in Islamist fundamentalism and create conditions for the al Qaeda to make a comeback.
The NATO-ISAF strategy to "clear-hold-transfer-exit" has only partially succeeded in achieving its political and military goals. The foremost area of concern is the security deficit that is gradually emerging as the process of drawdown of forces is gathering momentum. The security deficit can be filled to a large extent by Afghanistan's neighbours if they can be persuaded to accept the responsibility, including by contributing troops to a UN-mandated peacekeeping force. However, the Central Asian Republics (CARs), China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia have divergent agendas. In particular, India, Iran and Pakistan need to work together to contribute to peace and stability as they are the key players in the region.
Divergent Agendas of the Regional Players
India has historically had friendly ties with Afghanistan and wishes to see a stable government installed in Kabul that does not lean excessively on any neighbour. India had supported the Northern Alliance during its operations against the oppressive Taliban regime. Despite its own economy facing sluggish growth, India has invested heavily in Afghan reconstruction and development. India has contributed USD 1.2 billion so far, and has pledged additional funds to take the total commitment to USD 2 billion. The funds have been spent on road construction and building projects approved by the Afghan government and the local communities. India is also providing training assistance to Afghan administrators, teachers, medical staff and officer cadets, but only within India. Though the Indian private sector has invested only USD 25 million so far, this is set to change as new investments worth USD 10-12 billion are in the pipeline.
India's sustained help and abiding commitment have not received due recognition. The Government of India does not support the idea of sending troops to Afghanistan at present. However, it would be in India's interest to do so if invited; an unstable security situation in Afghanistan is not in India's interest. Under the right conditions - UN flag, viable logistics support - it may be possible to persuade India to send up to one infantry division (15,000 troops) to supplement the ANSF. At the very least, due to the Indian Army's immense experience in counter-insurgency operations and cultural affinities that make it easier to train new recruits, India could be invited to train ANA personnel in Afghanistan itself. This will lead to larger numbers of ANA personnel being trained simultaneously than is the case at present.
Iran's wait-and-watch policy, which has been in place since December 2001, is continuing unchanged. Iran is concerned about the flow of fundamentalist terrorism and narcotics from Afghanistan. It also fears the exodus of a large number of refugees if the security situation deteriorates rapidly after the exit of NATO-ISAF troops, even though Iran would be happy to see their backs.
Iran is also under pressure due to US sanctions over its quest to acquire nuclear weapons and fears a joint US-Israel attack on its nuclear installations. Under the circumstances, Iran would not like instability in Afghanistan to add to its strategic challenges and is more likely to cooperate rather than confront the international community in Afghanistan. However, Iran is unlikely to join a UN peacekeeping force and for its part the international community would much rather do without Iranian troops in such a force. Iran could contribute by allowing the use of the road from Chahbahar port to Zaranj to open up a new route for logistics supplies. Such a move will substantially reduce the present dependence on the two land routes that pass through Pakistan's Quetta and Peshawar. However, this can happen only if the United States mends its fences with Iran.
The Pakistan Army and the ISI are continuing to support militant groups like the Haqqani network that are fighting the NATO-ISAF forces by providing safe haven to them. This is so even as the Pakistan Army itself faces well coordinated attacks by Pakistani Taliban like the TTP and the TNSM from across the border. The continuing stand-off in US-Pakistan relations has led to hardened attitudes on both sides, with the United States continuing with its strategy of trans-border drone strikes to eliminate the al Qaeda leadership and Pakistan refusing to launch operations against the TTP in North Waziristan.
Pakistan still seeks ‘strategic depth' in Afghanistan and would prefer to have a pliable regime in Kabul when the NATO-ISAF mission ends in 2014. Pakistan does not support the Afghan reconciliation process - unless it is conducted on Pakistan's terms - since a successful outcome will reduce Pakistan's role in conflict resolution. Pakistan has failed to appreciate that continuing insurgency in Afghanistan, especially close to its border, will fuel instability in its own northwest and further destabilise a volatile part of the country when its economy is in ruins and the political situation is spiralling out of control. Pakistan seeks to limit India's influence in Afghanistan and opposes the induction of Indian troops as well as in-situ training. However, the recent improvement in relations with India may lead to Pakistan being willing to discuss the role that India might play in future in contributing to Afghanistan's socio-economic development.
Russia and the CARs remain key players and have a huge stake in Afghanistan's future stability. The agreement signed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with the NATO-ISAF forces in June 2012 to permit military hardware being transported out of Afghanistan as part of the draw-down is a major concession and signals their desire to make a meaningful contribution to conflict resolution. Russia signed a similar agreement in early-July 2012. However, Russia and the CARs are unlikely to go so far as to join the fight against the Taliban by contributing troops to a stabilisation force.
Good governance, including a transparent system for the delivery of justice; sustained socio-economic development; and, a secure environment for the first two to flourish, are the three pillars of a successful counter-insurgency campaign. In Afghanistan, the post-ISAF security environment is likely to spin out of control if supplementary security arrangements are not conceived soon and put in place quickly with the help of its neighbours.