Iraq in the Dock, Afghanistan stands in Line

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As Iraq simmers with the threat of sectarian violence looming large and the threat of civil war real and at the door step, the global community is still quivering in its response. As the dilly dallying goes on ISIS is consolidating its positions. The rate of the advance of the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham (ISIS) is bewildering and frightening. For the sake of Iraqis, for the sake of the world and for the sake of humanity let’s pray the US makes as much haste in intervening in Iraq as it once did in attacking it. How the world with all the technology and capabilities failed to notice the advance of ISIS is surprising. Beyond the present, the success of ISIS can become case studies for many such groups across the globe. One place that can feel the strongest reverberations of this is Afghanistan.

On 27 May while announcing the withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan President Obama has said, "We have now been in Afghanistan longer than many Americans expected but make no mistake: thanks to the skill and sacrifice of our troops, diplomats and intelligence professionals we have struck significant blows against al Qaeda's leadership, we have eliminated Osama bin Laden and we've prevented Afghanistan from being used to launch attacks against our homeland". These statements now look premature and raise serious questions on the extent to which Al Qaeda and Taliban have been decimated. They are also reminiscent of the similar statements made during the US withdrawal from Iraq. The US completely withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 and three years since it is in a worse situation than before.

True, even the Al-Qaeda might have abandoned the ISIS but that doesn’t stop them and the Taliban and other similar groups from learning a few lessons. Ultimately all these groups want is to establish an Islamic Caliphate and impose Sharia law. Afghanistan is in a transitionary phase and faces a similar future if not acted in earnest. With recent elections it stands at the precipice of change. At such a critical juncture only 9,800 US troops will be left in Afghanistan by end of 2014, half that number in 2015 and completely withdraw by 2016. This leaves it in a precarious situation from Taliban who want to impose Islamic Sharia in the country. The recent spate of attacks and increasing violence indicate a strengthening Taliban. The attack on a NATO post in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar or attacks on fuel supply lines and the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat to name a few show the boldness in attacks.

A recent UN report stated that sanctions are not working and the Taliban are hefty with cash from illegal businesses ranging from opium to siphoning of natural resources. There are also sectarian differences like in Iraq providing fertile ground for exploitation. While the global community debates on how to respond in Iraq, it’s equally important to be proactive in Afghanistan to preserve what has been achieved in the last 13 years to ensure it does not descend into chaos. Afghanistan cannot be allowed to go the Iraq way.

The only force that can keep the country together and preserve the freedom and progress made over the last decade is the Afghan National Army (ANA). As agreed in the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), at the May 2012 Chicago summit NATO has agreed to provide assistance to Afghanistan in building its army till 2024. The Chicago communiqué envisages a force size of 228,500 with an annual budget of $ 4.1 billion. Today it stands at 352,000 in strength and is largely an infantry force with hardly any artillery and no Air Force. Both these components are going to be crucial in countering the Taliban for quick response in an emergency both to insert troops or for casualty evacuation. Afghanistan has repeatedly sought help from the international community in bolstering its fledgling, largely infantry, army. They need an Air Force to support the Infantry for operations in the mountainous regions. Ironically the US is repatriating the equipment and even considering giving to Pakistan but not leave it for the Afghans.

In this context regional players are going to be crucial and particularly Iran, India and Russia along with China can play a stabilizing role. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has on several occasions requested India for offensive weapons like T-72 tanks, field artillery and attack helicopters. But India wary of antagonizing Pakistan has limited its assistance to training and non-combat items. As a result a middle way was worked out with a trilateral arrangement in which India will pay for Russian equipment to be delivered to Afghanistan. The list includes artillery, helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles. An agreement has also been reached to restore a Soviet era armament factory to service Soviet equipment left in Afghanistan. This is a significant and welcome beginning but more needs to be done. Given the strategic location Afghanistan sits in, all nations around have their own strategic interests at stake. But no one nation can sort out the situation and regional cooperation holds the key to stabilizing Afghanistan. Interestingly one country crucial in stabilizing both the situations is Iran. India and Russia need to further deepen the cooperation with Iran and the international community would do itself a favor by following suit.

What needs to be done? One, there is need for a rethink on the timeframe and modalities of the withdrawal on the part of the US. Second and more importantly, alongside the political dialogues happening, the Afghan National Army has to be properly trained and equipped to take on challenges independently. The finances that have been committed by global community have to be delivered to build a professional army which alone can secure the nation. Any instability in Afghanistan will also spread to Pakistan and that can eventually engulf the whole region. It will be akin to having a black hole in the middle of Milky Way, our galaxy.

From past experiences one must bear in mind that the repercussions in Afghanistan will reverberate far from home. So if not for humanity and greater good, it is just wise to contain it at the source.

 

Dinakar Peri is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), the autonomous think tank of the Indian Army based in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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Author: Dinakar Peri