T his Tuesday’s expected announcement at the West Point Military Academy of a decision by President Barack Obama on the question of a surge of troops in Afghanistan is going to be keenly examined in Indian strategic circles, especially after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged the US President to stay the course in Afghanistan during his visit to the US last week.
But Indian observers will be waiting for more than just an announcement expected to send more US troops to Afghanistan, in numbers widely speculated to fall short of the 40,000 that the US and ISAF Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal had requested to bolster operations.
There is little question the Indian government shares the concerns of the General when he said recently in a leaked report to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted. Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating,” adding, “The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
While the outcome of a decision on sending troops and their numbers will be seen as reflective of US commitment to Afghanistan, what will be measured more keenly by India will be indicators from the announcement that could help gauge the meaning President Obama applies to ‘finish the job’ from his earlier statement, “After eight years – some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done – it is my intention to finish the job.”
The question in the minds of observers and security officials in India will be whether there will be equivalence of meaning and intention between President Obama’s ‘finish the job’ statement and staying the course, as urged by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he told the Council on Foreign Relations, “The road to peace on Afghanistan will be long and hard. But given the high stakes involved, the commitment of the international community must be sustained by firm resolve and unity of purpose.”
Officials in New Delhi’s power centers, North and South Block, feel that Afghanistan’s condition is such as to require the sort of long-term commitment that may be greater than what even one US president could be able to completely provide in two terms of office. The feeling here is that bringing Afghanistan to a state where it is able to have a semblance of a civil society and a competent enough armed force to ensure the independence of the government, while at the same time being able to handle an insurgency could possibly take a decade, if not more.
These officials wonder, “Will finishing the job mean merely getting the Afghan security forces up to a grade to secure Kabul and its surroundings for a time, buying off insurgents and buying off Pakistan in an effort to keep Al Qaeda and groups associated with it from exporting terrorism outside Afghanistan and Pakistan?”
One senior official asks, “Afghanistan is not Iraq. A surge may have helped matters there, but will it have any long-term impact in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are ready to wait for the US to completely wear out? How long is the US ready to commit its troops?”
But there are also those who predict that US will be compelled to maintain a presence there because of Pakistan. “It looks like it’ll be a long-term presence for the US and ISAF because the Pakistan Army will keep calibrating the levels of conflict in the region. Keeping the US engaged in the area is in Pakistan’s interests. It keeps open the taps of aid, with over $7.5 billion expected to flow in the next five years,” says Brigadier SK Chatterji, recently retired from the Indian Army and one of its long-time psy warriors.
“There has been the idea that Pakistan would like Afghanistan vacated completely to re-establish and consolidate its influence there, install a friendly government and gain its much-vaunted strategic depth against India. However, as of now the greater issue remains US, World Bank, Pak AID Consortium and EU aid. Hence, the continued presence of the ISAF and US forces, perhaps, needs to be ensured. Calibrating the levels of violence in Afghanistan through a Pak-based Afghan Taliban is a very relevant tool of the strategy!” says the Brigadier.
And while the Kashmir issue may be re-conflagrated time and again by the Pakistan Army to, at best, embarrass India, the Brigadier thinks, India needs to debate a status quo solution. “Looking back, I don’t think our Kashmir distraction has helped either us or Pakistan. Our distraction with the issue, and more importantly with Pakistan as a whole, has forced us to be land-centric. We should have started looking towards the oceans a few decades back. Not that the Indian Ocean is our own pond, but our geographical location endows on us the responsibility of ensuring stability in its zone. We’ve lost time there and the Chinese have started making ripples that, with time, could make waves in the Indian Ocean,” he says, adding, “Our distraction with Pakistan has benefited China the most.”
While Indian interest lies with the US actually staying the course and finishing the job as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would hope, there are also creeping apprehensions of Afghanistan reverting to a pre-9/11 state, if the US were to up and leave before time. “Say if they leave one day, what would happen? There would be a vacuum there. There is no question of either us or the Russian and their Central Asian allies or the Iranians moving in to do anything about it. That leaves the insurgents – the Taliban. This also has security implications for us. Terrorist groups in the region would again get a free pass in the region. And would Taliban and their allies look towards expanding their operations in Pakistan? All of this, when the Pakistani political situation is so unpredictable,” says one senior serving military officer.
With specifically anti-India groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba rivaling Al Qaeda in terms of operational ability and reach, and certainly surpassing it in terms of the impunity with which they operate in Pakistan, this is a matter of some concern to observers in India. The 26/11 attacks on Mumbai and their farcical prosecution in Pakistan, as well as the recent Headley conspiracy revelations have convinced security officials in India of the need to keep the pressure up on Pakistan and resolve the situation in Afghanistan to some reasonable degree of satisfaction. This is why India would like to know whether finishing the job amounts to staying the course.