Events in Afghanistan had gathering momentum in March and quite apparently preparations for end 2014 were now looking serious and urgent.
Closely following the visit of Defence Secretary Chuck Hegel to Kabul earlier in March, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul on an unannounced private visit to repair the damage.
This was after the fiasco when the plan to hand over Baghram Prison to Afghan authorities was postponed during Hegel's visit.
Separately, Hamid Karzai was planning to go to Qatar to talk to the Taliban representatives there which he subsequently did.
Interestingly, on his way to Afghanistan, on March 24, Kerry met Pakistan Army Chief General Kayani, who happened to be on a visit to Jordan and the two discussed peace prospects in Afghanistan.
There was another setback after the Afghans cancelled the visit of 11 Afghan officers to Quetta in response to Pakistan army shelling in Kunar in March.
There are quite a few certainties amidst all the prevailing uncertainties in Afghanistan. Despite the vague statements emanating from Washington and allies, the local perception is that US/NATO drawdown is an inevitable retreat without achieving many of the earlier announced objectives.
Meanwhile, there will be continued uncertainty in Afghanistan; the state of internal turmoil and the country's role in Pakistan will remain important and inimical to Indian interests.
On the other hand, the former U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, asserted that there was no question of a "zero option" in Afghanistan, adding that the U.S. and allied forces intended to remain there for the long term.
This is probably nearer the truth and the U.S. is expected to retain a presence in Afghanistan. A complex of military and civilian advisers would remain along with mobile forces.
What is sometimes forgotten is the sheer logistics of vacating Afghanistan. It is not simply a question of loading troops and their weapons before flying out. There are about 30000 combat vehicles all over the country and along with other war material will be loaded into more than 100000 containers and shipped across Pakistan for the next one year and more. This could cost the US exchequer around US $ 6 billion.
Afghan national security services - the ANA, the ANP and the ALP, its judiciary, bureaucracy, legislature, financial institutions and the economy are unable to function in the manner that they should. Poor law and order conditions, lack of funds and trained manpower are some of the obstacles.
There is no magic with interested/involved powers to overcome some of these obstacles and make these institutions functional in the short time available between now and December 31, 2014.
The U.S. policy of trying to achieve its aims with inadequate means, an extremely dubious ally who was willing to hide the main US enemy, Osama bin Laden, has left Obama with very few options. Essentially it means withdrawing from an unwinnable war by trying to declare some sort of victory. This may sell at home but the perception in the region is that the US retreated in the face of an onslaught by forces armed by the faith.
Already, the discourse in the West had changed. Analysts are now saying more frequently that there is very little reason for the US to be in Afghanistan, there are no strategic interests involved and American soldiers were dying needlessly while the US exchequer was pouring in US taxpayers' money into a futile war.
The lofty ideals of nation building, creating functioning democracies, ensuring government reform, and ensuring Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for anti-US terror, have largely been downgraded. Lieven, for instance, recommends that US should dump Afghanistan and try to save Pakistan, a far more strategic country for the US and the rest of the world. He recommends that the US should concentrate on strengthening Punjabis and the Pakistan Army rather than the illiterate Pukhtun or the wild and numerically inconsequential Baloch. Save Punjab and the Pakistan Army to save Pakistan, the nuclear armed country, is the Lieven Doctrine.
There are many who now argue that there have been successes and Afghan forces have shown an ability to operate against the Taliban independently and were able to lead in more and more operations. Others doubt this. Optimists in the West also say that Pakistan was behaving much better than in the past and cite some recent statements by Gen Kayani as a declaration of honest intent for the future. U.S.-Pakistan history is replete with examples where perceptions about various political generals of Pakistan from Ayub down to Kayani have conveniently oscillated between being Angels and Demons.
The Taliban also use force and terrorise to maintain order but they do not prey on the population like the police does through extortion and other violations. If the Taliban are now seen to be delivering kangaroo justice in Karachi, it is much more likely that this is happening in parts of Afghanistan which only erodes the writ of the Karzai government.
The U.S. may have been able to have taken a heavy toll of the Al Qaeda but the Taliban remains a problem. Pakistani assistance through succour and advice, along with US eagerness to negotiate with the 'good' Taliban has given the Taliban a high profile. This is partly because of US failure to understand that Pakistan selectively helped in the war against the AQ while protecting OBL, was an elaborate and intricate pantomime to keep the US interested in being the paymaster and military provider. Pakistani authorities did not help in the fight against the Taliban or the Haqqani faction. Hunting Al Qaeda was not a Pakistani interest beyond being a trump card against the US. Their real interest was always keeping the Taliban safe and under their control, as much as possible. But this is the short version of a long US-Pakistan story.
Events after December 2014 in Afghanistan will have a bearing on India's security. Whatever happens, India will remain peripheral to events in Afghanistan if we remain merely reactive to events. India needs to make a near accurate assessment of what might happen (not at all easy), after the Americans leave, and regardless of how others will behave, evolve a policy for the times ahead and have the stamina to abide by these policy options. There is not much time left. (ANI)
Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Vikram Sood, Former Secretary R and AW, Government of India. By Vikram Sood (ANI)