The Afghan Churn

Afghanistan: Uncertainty, Cynicism And Hope

Following his surprise resignation as Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Shaida Abdali is expected to depart for home within days. He hinted at his domestic political ambitions through a tweet which said: “I felt the need to return and serve my country from within.” While it’s too late for Abdali to join the fray for the parliamentary and provincial elections due on October 20, other indications suggest he is positioning himself for some role in the 2019 presidential polls.

But sources in Kabul said Abdali had spent far too much time in Delhi, all of six years. They told SNI he may have seen the writing on the wall given that President Ashraf Ghani had been seeking to replace him for the last three years.

It is considered unusual for an ambassador to quit his station when his own president is visiting. While Abdali is reported to have personally informed President Ghani of his decision, he resigned while the latter was still in Delhi.

Abdali is known to have the blessings of Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai. Both presidents and the former ambassador are Pashtuns, Ghani was born in eastern Logar province while Karzai and Abdali are from Kandahar in the south. Incidentally, the current President and his predecessor chose to visit India at the same time though to different places. Karzai was in Chandigarh on Wednesday to attend a ‘Kisan Mela’ in Ludhiana organised by the Punjab Agricultural University on Thursday.

Abdali’s return takes place at a time when violence levels in Afghanistan have risen to all-time highs. According to a United Nations report, 1,692 civilians have been killed till June 30 this year. This is the highest number of civilian deaths recorded in a six-month period since the UN began systematic documentation in 2009.

More than 400 policemen and troops of the Afghan National Army have been killed in the last two weeks alone. Taliban attacks have created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity with minorities like the Shias being targeted in their mosques and public places.

But Indian diplomats who have served in Afghanistan recall often higher levels of violence with indiscriminate shelling and bombing. They do not believe defeat for the Afghan army is on the cards although they acknowledge it has suffered heavy casualties.

As one of them noted, “At various times different groups have had an advantage only to see their fortunes ebb. It could be the same this time too.”

There is also the sense that the Americans would not want the Afghan army to fail. That said, the Americans are talking to the Taliban with the approval and support of President Ghani (the Russians and Chinese are also involved separately and in multilateral meetings).

But, could the U.S. be looking for an easy way out of this swamp? Reports suggest they are ready to accept a political role for the Taliban in return for continued American control of and presence in Bagram Airbase, and the intelligence station they operate on the border with Iran.

The Taliban has reportedly rejected the demand, insisting that the Americans pull out lock, stock and barrel. Their Pakistani backers may have even advised them that the U.S. administration may soften its approach to the Taliban closer to November 2020 when Donald Trump’s re-election is due.

Pressure is reportedly mounting on India from Washington to step up its role in Afghanistan. This could include a military one, which India has until now steered clear of. Military training, capacity building and supply of some hardware will continue but there are no illusions in Delhi about a role beyond that.

However, India handed over four Mi-25 attack helicopters to the Afghans three years ago. SNI learns that four more helicopters are being procured from Belarus to aid Kabul’s fight against the Taliban and other groups.

The Indian view is that whichever government comes to power in Kabul sees advantage in leveraging the Delhi connection to balance off neighbours and rivals. India’s role in that country since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 by the U.S. is seen to enjoy wide public acceptance.

This belief also sustains a view that if the Taliban were to ever end up sharing some power in Kabul, it would find the need to reach out to India. But the fact also remains the Taliban ideology, and its allies like Pakistan and the Haqqani Network, mark it out as a deadly and dangerous foe for India.

Image Courtesy: @ashrafghani

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