Notes from an expert level seminar
It is widely known that USA-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops will wind up combat duties and exit Afghanistan before 2014 ends.
What is not known too widely is the fact that this retreat will coincide with the 25th anniversary of another retreat by another superpower from that very country, as it was on February 15, 1989, that the last trooper from the 40th Red Army crossed the Friendship Bridge, out of Afghanistan.
Since the collapse of the USSR, followed by that of the Najibullah regime it propped in Kabul, history has seen Soviet Union’s inheritor state Russia and India largely on the same page over Afghanistan.
If the two were together for stability and an end to the civil war, they also opposed the Taliban movement and supported Northern Alliance, the resistance movement. No surprises then that when Taliban ruled Afghanistan, both faced challenges to their security.
Divergence came post-9/11 when the United States led an international, military effort to stamp out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While India welcomed the move, Russia wasn’t too happy about the presence of its erstwhile foe in a traditional area of its influence.
Over the last thirteen years India has deepened its relationship with the people of Afghanistan, Russia too has come around to a more realistic position.
Now that Afghanistan is looking at an independent existence, with Presidential elections due in under two months followed by those for the parliament, experts on the Indian and Russian side met to understand each others views about the road ahead. Surprisingly, both see the country’s future in complete contrarian terms.
While the Indian side is willing to bet on the Afghan forces repulsing the Taliban, Russians seem keen to fortify their hands against a possible Afghan collapse and a spillover. This emerged during a video conference organized between experts in New Delhi and Moscow by RIA NOVOSTI, titled ‘Afghanistan Without NATO troops – View From Moscow & New Delhi’.
Speaking from Moscow, Azhdar Kurtov, Chief Editor, ‘Problems of National Strategy’ – a Moscow-based magazine, expressed little confidence in the ability of the Afghans. “Guerillas today occupy nearly 1/4th of the Afghan territory and things are only going to worsen. Civil war and a resurgence of radical elements will challenge peace and whatever investments have been made there. Islamic extremism may even move north, though my hunch is it will exert more pressure on the Durand line,” he said. Discounting the impact of the unsigned Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between US & Afghanistan, Kurtov said, “When a much larger force for a much longer duration couldn’t achieve much, what will the BSA achieve? This is a mess that the US has created thousands of miles away from its borders, for all of us in this region.”
Kurtov was countered by Lt. Gen (retd) RK Sawhney,Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi. “Russians seem too pessimistic. Afghanistan of today is markedly different from that of 1989. The Afghan National Army (ANA), in the one year that it has taken over the border guarding role, has not given an inch to the enemy. My concern is that the Americans, even though are promising air cover, began the task of raising ANA too late.Even now, the ANA is only a constabulary, devoid of artillery pieces, armoured and mechanized forces,” he said. He further added, “Need to invest in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and since they largely use Russian equipment may be Russians should look at helping them. If the Presidential elections take place properly and if the money keeps coming into Afghanistan, I am sure the tide will turn in its favour.”
He was backed by Vishal Chandra, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), who said, “There will be chaos in Afghanistan after NATO pulls out. But the need right now is to manage it better. Plus, unlike in the past, the government is Kabul is a more inclusive one.
In an attempt to justify its pessimism over Afghanistan, there was an immediate response by the Russian experts. “US has drastically reduced its financial and military support to Kabul and the casualty count has shot up whereas Soviet Union had waived off Afghanistan’s debt of $11 billion,” Kurtov said.
Andrei Kazantsev, Director, Analytical Centre, Institute of International Studies in Moscow chipped in, “In the recent past, many senior Afghan officers have, while on training tours abroad, simply deserted their force. What does that show about their morale? We remain pessimistic as our concern is over the destabilization there. Many fragile, central Asian states are on Afghanistan’s periphery, for example Uzbekistan. Uzbeks are also the largest migrant group in Russia and any infiltration of terrorists through has consequences for us.” Questions were also raised by the Russians regarding the duration for which nations should continue aiding Afghanistan. “It was the American Cold War strategy which saw the creation of Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. Why should Russia pay for the mistakes made by the Americans,” asked Kurtov.
Responding to this, Lt. Gen Sawhney said, “We can not perpetually prop up the Afghans but India, Russia and China, apart from NATO, need to hand hold Afghanistan for the next 10-15 years. When the world walked out on this country, it was the support of Russia, India and Iran which helped Afghanistan. The Afghans have suffered a lot. If today, we give up then Afghanistan will disintegrate and all of us will suffer as well.”
Summing up the discussion, Chandra pointed out, “Among all the neighbours, we also need to better understand the impact of Iran. In my understanding, Iran is a much bigger cultural force in Afghanistan than Pakistan. Would like to request my fellow panelists that as far as Afghanistan is concerned, we need to take a long term view and then determine our strategy.”