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The fall of Kunduz: Should India help Afghanistan militarily?

Over the past few weeks, Kunduz, a province in northern Afghanistan, has broken through the global news cycles as Taliban fighters overran the region and took control in certain crucial sectors. This was the first time in more than a decade the terror outfit had managed to break through into a provincial capital with such impunity.

Afghanistan’s security dilemma has been watered down significantly in the international community due to other more pressing events in the extended region, such as the rise of ISIS, the Syrian civil war and the West’s breakthrough with Tehran over the nuclear deal. Kunduz has been a restive region for a long time, and Afghan forces have been at loggerheads with the Taliban for months over control of the province. All this while the country’s new President Ashraf Ghani has tried, without much success, to bring peace using both chimerical diplomacy and often-quixotic approach to using force. In April, he had delayed his maiden visit to India at the last minute as fighting in Kunduz intensified.

Ghani has tried to use every move from his pack of cards in order to bring some order in Afghanistan. Just over a year old in his office, a result of a government formed after a bitterly fought election with his colleague and now holder of the unconventional post of the country’s CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s popularity and support seems to be on a slippery slope.

Even though the Afghan forces have claimed stake over Kunduz for a long period of time, the adjoining regions of the city within the province have been under control of the Taliban, which gave the terror group strategic advantage of controlling supply routes in and out. This upper-hand against played a crucial role in the Taliban offensive which not only drove out the Afghan military but, if reports are to be believed, some government fighters also gave up their posts and joined the Taliban. Whether this was a calculated move to save there own lives or a genuine defection is still unclear. The September onslaught on Kunduz by the Taliban came off as a victory for the terror group in more than one sense. After finally confirming that their leader Mullah Omar had died in 2013 in Pakistan, Taliban and its fighters under the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour had to prove their legitimacy to not only the Afghans and the US, but to others within the Taliban itself.

The Kunduz operation was a success for Mansour in every sense, specifically after a US aircraft, reportedly an AC-130 ‘Spectre’, called in to back the Afghan forces bombed a Médecins Sans Frontière (also called Doctors Without Borders) hospital in the province killing more than 22 people, including doctors, staff and patients. Doctors Without Borders publicly condemned the bombing and blamed the US for the deaths adding that the exact GPS location of the hospital was provided to all warring parties.

Nonetheless, Kunduz is just the latest of various examples over the past year on the struggles of both the Afghan government and the Afghan National Army to tackle the spurt in operations and the influence of the Taliban. Some analysts believe Ghani has spent too much time to try and bring in the Taliban into the country’s political processes in attempts to give them official representation, in effect hoping they will put down their arms.

For the above to be successful, Ghani was aware that without Pakistan on board, which discreetly continues to support the Taliban, peace in the country was impossible. Despite constant ceasefire violations and attacks in Kabul by the Taliban, Ghani remained persistent. Afghan officials met Taliban negotiators around the world in places such as China and Norway in hope for a breakthrough but without much success. A last ditch, but ill-advised, effort was then orchestrated which saw Pakistan’s ISI and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on counter-terrorism. This misstep and the backlash that followed both within Kabul’s political circles and internationally, perhaps was the point when Ghani started to backtrack with his diplomatic efforts with Islamabad (the former NDS chief Amrullah Saleh suggested Ghani works closely with the British and all of them had decided to try out “something new”).

In late July, news of the death of Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, started to appear and was attributed to unnamed Taliban sources. As this information remains unconfirmed till date, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice visited Islamabad to deliver a warning over the escalating violence in Afghanistan by terrorists based in Pakistan. Rice notified that militants based in Pakistan threatened the entire region’s security. At the same time, quotes attributed to unnamed US officials by Reuters directly named the Haqqani Network as the group thought to be behind some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” one US official was quoted as saying.

On September 1, Ghani’s office released a press statement calling out Pakistan’s NSA Sartaj Aziz’s statements claiming that his government had disrupted the terror infrastructure of the Haqqani Network. The statement said that such claims were “mere repetitions by Pakistani authorities for over a decade now”. It further highlighted that the “international community has also realized that the sanctuaries of terrorist groups, including the Haqqani Network are located inside Pakistan”. The outcome of Ghani’s initial Pakistan outreach also affected India-Afghanistan ties, albeit only to a certain degree. India made its displeasure known, but perhaps wanted Ghani to learn from his own mistakes.

Now, questions have started to rise once again on how secure Afghanistan really is as the US prepares to complete its military pullout from the country by end of 2016. NATO ally Germany has already hinted to Washington that a complete withdrawal as per current plans may not be feasible. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has said that the US may be flexible to alter the current plans and has asked his NATO allies to be ready for such an outcome.

This is good news for India, which has been for long stuck between the debate as whether to supply Kabul with weapons it has requested Delhi for or not. Afghan Defence Minister Mohammed Masoon Stanekazi recently said, while confirming that Kabul has “no doubts” the Taliban leadership resides in Pakistan, that the country requires weapons on an immediate basis and that where they come from is not the question, but who can provide them the fastest. India usually comes up as a practical answer to these problems for Kabul, however Delhi even under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen to remain non-committal.

India perhaps can validly argue that it has good reasons for not arming Afghanistan. The last thing Delhi would want is ‘Made in India’ military hardware to fall in the wrong hands in Afghanistan. Second, it could damage the country’s reputation as a donor and aid provider amongst the Afghan people. However, despite such concerns, Delhi should find itself capable and confident enough to provide Afghanistan with non-lethal military aid much more proactively. A failed Afghanistan could be a huge headache for India as far as its national security is concerned, and such a failure should be seen as an unacceptable outcome irrespective of who is in power, both in Kabul and New Delhi. (DNA India)

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