The year 2013 will be a decisive year for Afghanistan. It marks the beginning of the end of a chapter in Afghan history — one that opened with the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. Future historians may well see this period as a mere interregnum. For it is now clear that the Taliban will return to the governing structures of the country sooner than later. This is hardly a surprise. It has been clear for some time now that the United States’ exit strategy would entail a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The only questions were on what terms such a settlement would be struck and how long it could reasonably be expected to last. Recent events indicate that the prognosis on both counts is dim.
Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in a suburb of Paris three weeks ago. Details of their talks are still emerging, but the starting points of both sides are clear. Kabul has prepared a roadmap which aims at bringing on board the Taliban and other armed groups by 2015. This five-stage plan specifically mentions that the Taliban will be incorporated into the “power structures of the state”. Apart from reintegrating Taliban cadre in the security forces, this could imply granting key positions in Central and provincial governments to the Taliban. The Taliban, for its part, has demanded the abrogation of the current Constitution.
So far, both Kabul and Washington had held that the Taliban would have to adhere to “red lines” for any negotiated solution to evolve. These included forsaking violence, cutting ties with Al Qaeda and abiding by the Afghan Constitution. Now these positions are at best seen as the end-points of a settlement. It seems almost certain these will be considerably diluted in the attempt to bring in the Taliban. This is owing to two transitions that will simultaneously play out starting later this year.
First, the coalition forces will begin handing over operational tasks to the Afghan security forces as part of the timeline for a drawdown by 2014. The operational capabilities of the Afghan forces are yet to be tested in an independent context. More importantly, the coalition forces provide an entire array of support and logistics functions — ranging from fire support to casualty evacuation — which will gradually be withdrawn. This will sharply curtail the reach and effectiveness of the Afghan forces.
It is not surprising that President Hamid Karzai is currently in Washington DC seeking to nail down the levels of support from the US after 2014. His wish-list apparently includes the raising of an Afghan Air Force. He is unlikely to draw much comfort. Given the continued economic downturn the US is unlikely to have much appetite for providing sustained and significant support to the Afghan forces. To be sure, the US will have a residual military presence in Afghanistan. Current discussions suggest that the numbers might be as low as 2,500 troops and that their operational role will be carefully limited.
The second transition will take place in Kabul. Over the course of this year, President Karzai will have to prepare for the election of his successor. The problem is not just ensuring a peaceful and transparent transfer of power. There is the prior challenge of identifying a Pashtun candidate of some standing, who will be acceptable to the Taliban. Then there is the question of how the other ethnic groups respond to these changes. In the short run, the transition may be pulled off. But thereafter, the attempt to induct the Taliban will give rise to considerable strains.
It would, however, be incorrect for India to conclude that the Taliban or Pakistan have “won” in Afghanistan. Unlike the 1990s, the Taliban or its Pakistani patrons are unlikely to attempt a direct overthrow of the elected government. Rather they will try to work within the government and undermine it. This insidious strategy will, in many ways, make it more difficult for friends of Kabul to respond to the evolving situation. Even so, India remains well placed to contribute to the stability of the elected government in Afghanistan. The strategic partnership agreement provides the requisite framework for such cooperation. New Delhi needs to be clear about how it wants to operationalise the framework.
It is worth recalling that this is not the first time that India has found itself in such a position. Back in 1988, when the Geneva accords were signed, a key strategic partner of India, the Soviet Union, sought to make common cause with Pakistan and the Mujahideen in order to exit an unwinnable conflict. Rajiv Gandhi had urged Mikhail Gorbachev not to sign the accord without building in certain conditions to limit the capability of the Mujahideen. After the accord was signed, though, Rajiv Gandhi told the President of Mongolia that India would help Mohammad Najibullah’s government if Pakistan and the Mujahideen tried to use force to topple it. The Mongolian President was so surprised to hear this that he asked Rajiv Gandhi to repeat himself! In the event, Gandhi was out of office by the time Najibullah was overthrown. Besides, the collapse of the Soviet Union had dramatically transformed the situation.
Yet the “lesson” of the late 1980s is clear. As the US dilutes its red lines for a settlement with the Taliban, India should begin to draw its own red lines for Afghanistan.