If there's one thing India can learn from the United States military, it is the ability to achieve absolute clarity when writing a report. The Pentagon's new report to Congress, titled Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan " which to remind those who missed earlier bulletins, is based on a broader South Asian perspective than just one from Afghanistan " is clear in its objective, its strategy, and what it expects from countries involved in language that is only mildly diplomatic.
It's also a good report to read for those analysts who've been complaining that India has been left out of everything in deciding Afghanistan's future, and is supposedly sitting sulking on the sidelines.
The report is a continuation of the broad strategy laid down by President Donald Trump in 2017, that apart from calling out Pakistan as a haven for terrorists and a spoiler, also did the sensible thing in basing the whole thing on how conditions evolved on the ground. That meant it was not time-bound and was dynamic in terms of how it was to be fought. That meant that decisions were left largely in the hands of the generals on the ground, even though the mission was not as resourced as many thought it should have been.
In mid-2018 too, the head of the mission General John Nicholson was pulled out at a sensitive time, to be replaced by Lieutenant-General Scott Miller, who headed the Joint Special Operations Command, which in itself should have been a marker in terms of how the war was going to be fought.
The Pentagon report is an assessment of just how the mission is working three years down the line. For obvious reasons, it is not one that will cross the T's and dot the I's in terms of detail. But here are the broad brushstrokes. First, there has been progress in the first objective (Train and Assist) of strengthening the Afghan forces, fraught as the task was with insider attacks, corruption and abuse. There are still glaring gaps in terms of intelligence and surveillance capabilities in particular.
As the past months indicate, Afghan security forces have been the focus of Taliban attack, but the report does say that for the first time, the attrition rate is lower than the replacement rate (and retention, since many run away), which is something. Overall, Afghan security forces are learning. And don't forget, many are learning their skills in India through a programme, that should ideally be expanded hugely.
Second is the 'Reconcile' mission, which meant that the US was focussing on a solution acceptable to all. That has meant harrying the Taliban on the ground on the one hand, and forcing it to negotiate on the other. US forces have certainly done the first by relying heavily on Special Forces Operations " both American and a very efficient Afghan segment. It's the second that is the crux of the problem. Certainly the Taliban has come to several rounds of talks, where it has stressed on the exit of foreign troops, a refusal to recognise the Kabul government and a total negative on a ceasefire.
The only agreement that seemed to emerge was that it would commit to a promise that Afghan soil would never harbour foreign terrorists. How it could deliver on this is a mystery, but it at least meant some progress. But thereafter it was confusion worse confounded. A meeting hosted by Qatar and Germany between the Taliban and some Afghan government representatives in an 'unofficial' capacity wound up with four versions of a final statement, in English, Dari, Pashto and in Urdu. Those differences as analysed by MEMRI are disquieting.
No prizes for guessing that commitments to women's rights are left out altogether in the Pashto version. Also unlike what is being touted by mostly western sources, the Taliban doesn't even see that the peace process has begun. And finally, it seems even more committed to a Shari'a-run State with its brand of Islamic law.
It's the third 'Regional' aspect of the Pentagon strategy that has many in India up in arms. There is no doubt at all that the Afghan fight is a sum of many parts, including Iran, Russia, China and just about every intelligence agency worth its salt. Pakistan is the prime mover in this mess, but here the Pentagon documents records a perceptible difference. The strategy now says that "the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region remains a sanctuary for various groups, including the Taliban and its component Haqqani Network (HQN), Al-Qaeda core (AQ), Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State-K, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Terrorist sanctuaries on both sides of the border present security challenges for Afghanistan and Pakistan and pose a threat to regional security and stability".
That's quite a shift from the 2017 strategy that squarely put the onus on Pakistan to deal with this alphabet soup of terrorist groups. Apparently it is now a joint venture. Additionally, there is some limited praise for Pakistan's 'constructive' role. That was enough to annoy Indian commentators. But worse was to follow. On 12 July, a joint statement after a meeting in Beijing between Russia, China and the US, this time also included Pakistan. Twitter went to town on how India was left out, forgetting that India is not part of the problem. Pakistan is. This was not an honour. It was a four power command " with undoubtedly sufficient inflections to allow Rawalpindi some room to divide and conquer. But it's a command no less.
The India factor is squarely, if carefully, addressed in the Pentagon report. It appreciates India as the largest regional air provider, but also noting that Indian armed aid was limited by Pakistani 'sensitivities'. In other words, it acknowledges New Delhi's position that there will be no boots on the ground and no overt military role. The report thereafter predicts, "In the event of a US drawdown in Afghanistan, India likely will attempt to continue its support to Afghanistan and try to limit Taliban, Pakistani, and Chinese influence". 'Good luck with that!' is an unstated aside.
Further, in a rather Cassandra-like fashion, it states in the likelihood of a "significant deterioration of security" after a US pullout, India may not be able to provide anything at all. 'Significant deterioration' would probably be the understatement of the year. In sum, the message is, either step up or get ready to step out. India must and should step up its military training programme and provide the diverse aid that has been promised " and quickly.
On the flip side is the fact that India will continue to have a large aid presence if the promised Afghan election is held soon, and a government comes into being with some Taliban representation. It's as well to reiterate that it's not the Taliban per se that is dangerous. It's the Pakistan-influenced and controlled elements that are the problem. Those elected in reasonably fair elections would then be Afghans first, and Taliban second.
Previous experiences with the former Taliban show this to be the case. Moreover, governance is a tricky exercise requiring a lot of give and take. But it appears that the election is to be delayed. That means giving the Taliban more time to control more districts, and thereby accrue more power. Meanwhile of course, it's primarily the Afghans who die, particularly the children. US soldiers of exceptional bravery will also perish, while the Taliban and its supporters make up their minds. Hopefully, there's a strategy to hurry up that process.