Indo-US Joint Approach Toward Afghanistan

Sub Title : Strategy that would help the war torn nation gain some normalcy

Issues Details : Vol.12 Issue Jan/ Feb 2019

Author : Brig Arvind Thakur (Retd)&Col Michael Padgett (Retd), US Army

Page No. : 44

Category : Geostrategy

: April 22, 2019

Brig Arvind Thakur (Retd) an Indian Cavalry officer and Col Michael Padgett (Retd) of the US Army give a succinct history of the turmoil in Afghanistan and then go on to discuss the present day influences and suggest a joint Indo US strategy that would help the war torn nation gradually move towards a semblance of normalcy

Afghanistan has been in a state of perpetual conflict from within and from without for almost half a century now. Internal conditions are still like the medieval times of the 14th century when it was fairly common to be in almost unending wars, for example the 100 Years War between England and France and the 30 Years War in Europe over religious interpretations between Catholics and Protestants. Afghanistan has been in strife for 40 years now, resulting in a rating at the bottom of the world’s economic and HDI indicators.

There are far too many external players and too many political contradictions within Afghanistan preventing a more stable climate. Many countries like India and the USA have political, security and economic interests in Afghanistan. These interests are threatened by the instability in Afghanistan and burgeoning alliances taking shape in the region. India would be happy to have traditional cultural and economic relations with Afghanistan and revive the age old Kabuliwalla bonhomie. Many confabulations and dialogues by groups of countries led by the USA, Russia, China and UN are taking place desiring an Afghanistan that serves their own long term interests. The Great Game is still being played out in Afghanistan, only the players are different.

From Monarchy to Anarchy

Was Afghanistan ever peaceful? It sure has had a turbulent history ever since the founding of the Afghan Empire by Ahmed Shah Durrani (also called Abdalli) in 1747 when he managed to unify all Afghan tribes and laid down the foundations of the present shape of Afghanistan. The Durrani dynasty was replaced by the Barakzais in 1826. The Barakzais system continued well into the 20th century until King Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973. In a period of about 255 years, of a total of 35 monarchs and a few Presidents led Afghanistan, 20 rulers were deposed, assassinated or exiled. The instability indicates a high level of disharmony and internal power struggles amongst the tribal chieftains and a perceptible lack of civilized or democratic culture in the polity. Truly, Afghanistan is a Graveyard of Empires, even its own.

The Soviets also could not fully subjugate the Afghans and administer the country throughout the 1980s, nor could the Taliban in the 1990s. Modern democracy was introduced in Afghanistan in 2002 when Ahmed Karzai was elected President (some accused Karzai of being selected by western powers) and handed over power to Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Ghani serves as a President of a country over which he controls only approximately 40% of Afghanistan. Barring the rule of King Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973 when some modicum of governance was visible, Afghanistan has been in a state of anarchy as a result of the internal disunity and external interference.

Present Balance and Imbalance in Afghanistan

Control of Afghanistan from within is quite a paradox. Parts of Afghanistan is controlled by the Afghan government and other parts by the Taliban. Taliban controlled areas are based on the ethnicities and concentration of various tribes like the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turki. (Refer Fig 1 below). The Pashtun dominated areas are in the SW, NE and southern borders adjoining Pakistan. The democratically elected Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan would be hard pressed to survive if it was not for the international community’s economic and military support. According to a World Bank report of 2011, 97% of Afghan economy is related to international military spending (Pakistan on Brink – Abdul Rashid). Afghanistan generates no significant domestic economic revenue. Its annual income of $ 3 bn is half of its military spending of $ 6 bn (Ibid). If the aid flow stops and the government collapses, Afghanistan would surely descend into civil war with no single political entity, or Shura, able to exercise control over the country. Diverse Taliban Shuras are fiercely independent and are presently somewhat united due to the common goals of throwing out foreign powers and ushering in a stricter form of Islamic rule in the country.

According to the Norwegian based think tank LANDINFO report of August 2017, the umbrella Taliban organization, called the Quetta Shura, is composed of many regional warlords, particularly the factions of:

  • MashadShura based in Mashad, Iran, and which controls most of western Afghanistan.
  • The Haqqani network, based at Miran Shah within Pakistan, is a perennial favourite of the Pakistan Army has influence over areas adjoining FATAs (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and areas adjoining FATAs in Afghanistan near to Kabul.
  • Peshawar Shura has considerable influence and operates in Eastern Afghanistan.
  • Shura, in the North, controls NE Afghanistan.
  • Rasool Shura, based in Farah, operates in all parts but mainly in western and southern areas of the country.

The Taliban has not had a strong central leader since Mullah Omar (died 2013). The present head of the umbrella organization, Haibatullah Akhund, has no mass base of his own but is supported by the Iranians and the Russians. Even though Taliban Shuras like the Haqani Network, Peshawar Shura and the MashadShura are part of the umbrella Quetta Shura, they are fairly independent in their areas of influence. In addition, the Shura of the North and the MashadShura, based in Iran, controls areas in western Afghanistan. Taliban leadership under Haibatullah Akhund, is dominated by its deputy who is the leader of the Pakistani dominated Haqqani network, Serajjudin Haqqani.

Overall, the Taliban still remains a potent force capable of uniting and launching attacks at will on the ANA (Afghan National Army) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. As per the estimates of ISAF and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (ANDS), the Taliban has a cadre strength of 150,000 fighters with an active force of about 60,000 fighters (the rest being militias on call) and an active strength of 40,000 during peak periods of operation which is April to November. The large majority of Taliban is Pashtun, though Tajiks, Hazaras, Baluchis and Uzbeks are also numerous.

The Taliban of today is not the same as the 1990s; it is mellowed, fragmented and relatively weaker but negotiating a peace deal is still difficult. Since many Taliban factions favour continued armed conflict since they perceive the conflict is gradually working, peace is even more difficult to achieve.

Pakistan’s Centrality and Destabilising Role

Pakistan due to its geographic proximity, religious affinity, ethnic similarities, economic and security interests, plays a central role in Afghanistan. The Pakistani/Afghan border is 2430 kms and is called the Durand Line. The Durand Line is disputed by Afghanistan in the Baloch and Pashtun areas. Historically united Taliban factions that share ethnic cultures for centuries are now divided by the border.

Pakistan’s desires a friendly, if not pliable, regime in Kabul. That way Pakistan’s western border is secure and Pakistan can focus on its perceived eternal enemy, India, to its east. The Pakistan leadership, particularly the Army, is obsessed with the strategic depth that a friendly Afghanistan will provide. Pakistan has strongly opposed India’s involvement in Afghanistan. Any Indian influence in Kabul would be detrimental to Pakistan’s security interests. Pakistan also fears that India might encourage Baluch and Pashtun insurgency inside Pakistan.

The United States has provided significant security assistance for decades to Pakistan in part under the assumption that Pakistan advocated peace in Afghanistan and was assisting in creating a more moderate, constructive position by the Taliban. Recent U.S. Presidential Administrations began to realize Pakistan has been disingenuous by supporting continued Taliban attacks within Afghanistan. The Trump administration has wisely ended most of the decades long volume of aid payments to Pakistan.

US and Multinational Peace Efforts in Afghanistan

Since the bombing of the twin towers in NYC on September 11, 2001, known as 9/11, the U.S. implemented three strategic phases toward Afghanistan:

  • Phase 1: Topple Taliban regime.
  • Phase II, 2002-2008: Defeat Taliban and rebuild core institutions in Afghanistan.
  • Phase III, 2008-December 2018: Counterinsurgency war.

In 2014, the Obama administration had as per its previously decided policy, begun to withdraw its troops and in December 2018, the Trump administration has decided to cut their troops strength to half, without giving a time schedule. As of February 2018, the U.S. had around 16,000 troops in Afghanistan, with an annual bill to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan of $45 billion. The cost to the U.S. has been enormous in terms of human lives lost and money spent estimated at $2 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001. As of July 27, 2018, there have been 2,372 U.S. military deaths in the War in Afghanistan. 1,856 of these deaths have been the result of hostile action. 20,320 American service members have also been wounded in action during the war. In addition, there were 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities. The Trump administration’s decision of December 2018 to reduce its military’s strength in Afghanistan to half (7,000 from the earlier strength of 14,000 plus troops) would be consistent with his America First policy. But it would have serious security ramifications for the stability of Ashraf Ghani regime that was propped up by the multinational forces mainly the Americans. It would also leave Taliban in a position to increase the frequency and lethality of their attacks and push towards Kabul. Though no other nation has followed suit, but it may not be long before they too announce their withdrawal from Afghanistan particularly as their vulnerability is exposed by Taliban attacks.

Opening of a Taliban office in Qatar in 1999, facilitated by German intelligence, helped open a window whereby some form of contact could be established with the otherwise reclusive Taliban. The U.S. in October 2018 appointed ZalmayKhaliljad, an Afghan born U.S. diplomat, as its special representative to broker peace deal with the Taliban. Russia too has started showing its newly found international standing and organized the Moscow dialogue on November 9, 2018. Twelve nations participated in the dialogue. The dialogue achieved little but the participation of the countries that have direct strategic interests in the power structure and stability in Afghanistan was a shot in the arm for Russian diplomacy. The Taliban is difficult to negotiate with since their demands are for complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil, release of some of their prisoners and the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Ashraf Ghani government.

India’s Strategic Interests

India has invested much in Afghanistan (far more than a Library) with aid and projects over 3 billion dollars. Notable contributions are construction of Salma dam, Afghan Parliament, 116 High Impact Development projects in 31 provinces in areas such as education, health and agriculture. Afghanistan potentially provides a land route from India through Pakistan into central Asian republics, an option that Pakistan has denied India for long. With this in mind, India constructed a road connecting Zaranj to Delaram within Afghanistan. Zaranj also connects to Chabahar, a port in Iran. India has assisted in making Chabahar operational. Pakistan likely resents greatly India’s involvement in the port at Chabahar, making possible India’s land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia that will not only help India, but also the economic interests of Afghanistan and the Central Asian Regions

Militarily, India is limited in the role it can play in Afghanistan. India has a policy of not sending troops to any country that does not have a UN mandate. Training of the Afghan military and providing limited military hardware is all that India can do. Putting boots on the ground, which would likely be welcomed by countries except Pakistan, is not a possibility. Not only is military involvement by India in Afghanistan politically unviable, India’s security needs would become tenuous if it became involved militarily in Afghanistan. Dispatching troops to Afghanistan would no doubt demonstrate the Modi government’s solidarity with the Trump Administration but it would be difficult to spare a large force without jeopardizing its own security interests. Also, to support Indian troops in Afghanistan would create a monumental logistical burden which might not be sustainable.


Pakistan continues its dangerous policies in Kashmir, similar to its actions in Afghanistan. Any political instability in South Asia effects India. Both India and Afghanistan are threatened by Islamic extremism. Presence of politically powerful extremist elements in Afghanistan would raise India’s security concerns as militancy and terrorism would further raise its ugly head in Kashmir. The only way to find the common ground in Afghanistan is to either afford each side their most devout goals or continue the killing process until each side reforms their most devout goals. Pakistan and radical Taliban groups are not motivated to adopt a peaceful solution. Much more can and should be done to prove to Pakistan where a peaceful Afghanistan is in their interests.

Recent proposed U.S. troop reductions by the Trump Administration would likely serve exactly the opposite of what should be done. The extreme elements of the Taliban will receive a message that the US has finally had enough in Afghanistan. The strength of their negotiation position in any peace negotiations has been greatly enhanced by the perceived end of US involvement.

A relatively quiet interested party is also the world’s largest democracy, India. The U.S. and India share many common goals, such as a desire for peace within the region, a counter to potentially negative motivations of China in the region, the desire to expand economic trade between the US and India as well as other countries within the South Asia region, and last, but perhaps not least, a desire to motivate Pakistan away from support of terrorism and toward peaceful

co-existence. Any joint approach toward Afghanistan by the US and India is desirable and must be continuously hammered in even if it threatens the interests of China and Pakistan in Afghanistan.


  • The U.S. should reverse course on the announcement in U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Instead, the US should consider troop level increases in Afghanistan prior to any additional peace negotiations to gain a peace that meets at least some of the long-term US goals for Afghanistan. The U.S. must avoid emboldening radical Islamic groups within the region to repeat events like 9/11.
  • India and the U.S. should form a joint effort to improve Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
  • India should continue its assistance in the rebuild of Afghanistan’s National Defense Forces and consider expansion of similar efforts. India and the US should begin to form joint approaches towards the same efforts to stabilize Afghanistan’s military forces with the goal of creating a more effective Afghan Defense Force. India has experience in such efforts from involvement in Sri Lanka, Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, and Bhutan.
  • India has more historic experience in dealing with ethnic, religious differences between groups of people. The U.S. should find ways to include India in the peace process in a way that does not antagonize Pakistan. One way to accomplish inclusion of India in the peace process negotiations is to leverage India’s relationship with Iran. Iran has a constructive relationship at present with Pakistan, and may, with India’s encouragement, be willing to urge the Pakistanis toward a more constructive, peaceful solution in Afghanistan.