Amid an unending spiral of rebellion, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, a heartbroken 14th century Delhi ruler of Turkic origin, lamented: “My kingdom is diseased and no treatment cures it. If I suppress revolt in one place they break out in another.” Contemporary Afghanistan is in a situation identical to what Tughlaq endured six centuries ago.
Once a cradle of Hindu-Buddhist civilisation where religion, culture and commerce grew in parallel, Afghanistan is now the exact opposite of its ancient past. The name “Afghan” comes from the Sanskrit root of ashv meaning “horse”, which becomes asp in ancient Persian. The generic term for horsemen was ashvaka in Sanskrit and aspagan in Persian, which became Aspaganistan in Persian and thence Afghanistan.
The Afghans until the early 17th century used to speak of their country as Wilayat and less commonly as Khurassan. Since days immemorial, the country has been divided into four or five power centres around Herat, Balkh (Mazar-e-Sharif), Kabul, Kandahar and to some extent Badakshan. This is true even in 2015. It is also characterised by an absence of centralised government.
In 1747, Ahmed Shah, the founder of modern Afghanistan, brought the five power centres under one rule but local tribal heads were allowed to rule the provinces. Although there was only one sovereign king, there were many powerful governors, generals and tribal chiefs—a situation indistinguishable from the present time.
The country is a complex admixture of tribes and races where tribal ethics, ethnic distinctions, religious divide and linguistic differences have all played a role in fragmenting the society. Ethnically, the Tajiks (30 per cent), Hazaras (15 per cent), and Uzbeks (eight per cent) are pitted against the Pashtuns (40 per cent), while others make up the remaining seven per cent. Within the Pashtuns there is rivalry between the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns.
Then there is the Shia-Sunni conflict and tribal divisions add their bit to this confusing picture. Even today, many Afghans attach enormous importance to clan connections. In contrast, cities like Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif hosted modern French-speaking Afghan women competing with Parisian women in style and fashion until the pre-Taliban era.
The Afghans are warlike, undisciplined, resort to pillage and plunder and are lovers of freedom and liberty. The country’s topography and ecology have made its inhabitants sturdy and tough. The absence of means for life made them wanderers or warriors. With only 10 per cent of the country cultivable, its rulers in the old days invaded neighbouring nations for survival and upkeep. Today, the Afghan economy is dependent on foreign grants and its population still faces hardship in making a livelihood.
Indeed, the economy is virtually non-existent. Just seven per cent of the population holds a bank account, one-fourth of the nation’s capital has fled or is fleeing abroad and 97 per cent of its gross domestic product comes from spending related to the international military and donor community presence (Committee on Foreign Relations 2011). Naturally, Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014.
Most of all, however, its location makes it peculiarly vulnerable to great power interference. Being in the midst of land routes connecting the west to central Asia, south Asia and southeast Asia and China, Afghanistan’s neighbours and great powers have always tried to exercise control over the country. Landlocked, desolate and barren, the nation has been in constant turmoil for centuries.
In 2001, the US entered the Afghan theatre, where two other modern great powers, Britain and erstwhile Soviet Russia, had tasted failure. The “war on terror” had explicit aims: to destroy al-Qaeda and take revenge for 9/11; to defeat the Taliban, establish democracy; and to secure US from future terror attacks. Thirteen years later, these aims are still elusive or have been defeated.
Meanwhile, December 31, 2014 was the official pullout date for the 87,000 International Security and Assistance Force (also known as Nato troops) fighting the Taliban and other insurgents. Following a mission spanning nearly 13 years, the US and ISAF on December 8, 2014, formally ended their combat command in Afghanistan.
From January 1, 2015, the ISAF will be replaced by a Nato-led Resolute Support (RS) mission comprised of 12,500 personnel. The RS mission will focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan Security Institutions and Afghan National Security Force at the ministerial, institutional, and operational levels. If everything works well by the end of 2015 the US troop total will shrink to 5,500, and to near zero by the end of 2016.
Although US President Barack Obama has extended the combat role of troops until the end of 2015, the 2014 Nato drawdown deadline is making the return of the Taliban inevitable. This article considers four principal questions: the future of Afghanistan after 2014; how Pakistan conducts its Afghan policy; India’s response/reaction to the unfolding scenario; and finally, how Iran and the Central Asian petrocracies order their relations with Afghanistan.
here is one other question worth asking before we begin our examination even though the answer will always be controversial and that is, was the war on terror avoidable? The answer is perhaps yes, considering that the essential provocation for the attack on Afghanistan was its refusal to extradite Osama bin Laden, head of the terror network al-Qaeda after the destruction of the New York World Trade Centre’s twin towers on September 11, 2001.
There were several opportunities before 9/11 for Osama’s extradition by the Taliban government but the US missed them. Contrary to common belief, they were not Osama’s patron or defender. Initially he came to Afghanistan under the protection of Younis Khalis of Hizb-i-Islami.
In 1997-98, the US State Department engaged with the Taliban for an oil pipeline by the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal). The US wanted Taliban approval for Unocal over its Argentinean-British competitor Bridas in exchange for diplomatic recognition. But the deal was scrapped citing trivial reasons. If the deal had gone through, relations with the Taliban would have improved and al-Qaeda would not have got sanctuary in Afghanistan. Instead of recognition, the US sanctioned Afghanistan, which drove Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar into the arms of the wealthy Osama.
Matters were compounded in April 1998, when President Bill Clinton sent officials to Kabul to press for Osama’s extradition. The Taliban took the demands seriously but cited difficulty in abdicating their Pashtunwali moral code. It has three elements (Nanawatai, Melmastia and Badal), i.e. the right of asylum; the grant of hospitality, even to an enemy; and the answer to an insult with an insult. However, they offered two proposals. The US naïvely rejected both.
On August 20, 1998, when Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal landed in Afghanistan (after negotiation with Mullah Omar) to bring Osama back, the US started bombing, which derailed the process. This was the second missed chance to arrest Osama. A third was missed in Islamabad when US officials could not clinch a deal on the handing over of Osama.
he October 7, 2001, air strike on Afghanistan heralded American response to al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks, which caused 2,752 deaths in the worst terrorist outrage ever. The ensuing war on terror spread over a decade has cost the lives of 2,356 US and 1,128 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. Afghan deaths exceed 20,000.
Astonishingly, when the attacks began, 95 per cent of Afghans knew nothing either about 9/11 or why their country was under attack. The US targeted the Taliban regime to “end the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary for terrorism” but appallingly, because of the lack of a vision or anything resembling a Marshall Plan, it became a war without end. The country has been at war for 35 years (since 1979) and the question is will the country see even a minimal kind of peace after 2014.
The two rounds of presidential elections held amid the fierce ongoing insurgency on April 5 and June 14, 2014 produced no clear winner. The Afghan Constitution requires a candidate to secure 50 per cent of votes cast to become president. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a medical doctor, former Northern Alliance member and present leader of the National Coalition, had 45 per cent while Dr Ashraf Ghani, an independent candidate with a Ph.D, had 31 per cent in the first round.
The second round of elections ended in stalemate and on September 21, Ghani was declared winner with a 56 per cent vote but not before US Secretary of State John Kerry forced Abdullah to accept the result and sign a peace deal with Ghani. Abdullah alleged electoral fraud of “industrial scale” and the threat of another civil war loomed but he was pacified with the newly created Chief Executive Officer post in the “Unity Government”.
On September 29, 2014, Ghani took office but he presides over a mute and dysfunctional bureaucracy that cannot react to any situation either by word or action. All senior government care-taker appointees have been placed on a 90-day interim basis pending the formation of a new government. The cabinet expansion issue, it seems, will be the point on which the alliance will break once US forces leave. In November, roughly 230 ministries, provincial governorships awaited appointments.
In reality there is nothing like a unity government. The coalition is only at the top; therefore even a small push could derail it. Ghani’s working style, observers say, shows he’s a no-nonsense man, but it is unsuitable to the Afghan atmosphere. Once the façade of unity cracks, it will be over because Ghani is no mass leader and cannot manage the different power blocs.
The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) represents a major force for stability but its future in an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)-free Afghanistan is uncertain. The ANSF has a total mandated strength of 3.52 lakh, composed of police, paramilitary forces, an air force and the Afghan National Army (ANA). But it is an untested quantity and its abilities, especially ANA and the Afghan national police will be tested in the cauldron of a rising insurgency.
he Taliban-led insurgency comprises a syndicate of semi-autonomous groups, including the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and some Pakistan-focused groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which provide support to the Taliban. These groups maintain symbiotic relationships in pursuit of overlapping interests. Al-Qaeda considers continued involvement in Afghanistan integral to its global image, strategic relevance, and operational viability.
The Haqqani Network—supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—controls large swathes of the Loya Paktia region in Afghanistan. Although the specific area of operations for each group varies, insurgent groups are most active along the border with Pakistan, with the exception of IMU which operates in north-central Afghanistan. Insurgents dominate the Pashtun-inhabited areas.
The Haqqani Network headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani is considered the most capable. Its transnational presence, operating simultaneously from Afghanistan and Pakistan, makes it difficult for US and Nato forces to locate and fight. The network has excellent relations with al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Despite differences with the Taliban, the alliance has worked without trouble. Together they fought the US and Nato forces but not from the same camp; the Taliban from Quetta and Haqqani from Miram Shah, both in Pakistan.
The other important mujahideen group is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami. One faction led by Khaled Faruqi registered as a political party in 2004 and dissociated itself from Hekmatyar’s leadership in October 2005. Its influence is still limited to small islands. The most important areas of influence are mountainous parts of Sabari, Bak and Terazai districts close to the Pakistan border. Backed by elements of the Pakistani authorities, Hizb fighters have easy access to Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan from where they cross the border on a daily basis. Despite’s Hekmatyar’s age, Hizb-i-Islami is a critical player in the Afghan conflict.
Above all these are, of course, the Taliban, the most dominant actor in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders act as the central processing unit and provide strategic guidance, weapons and cadres to various groups. Pakistan-based Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura exercises various degrees of control over militants. To recruit, influence, and intimidate the Afghan populace, insurgents use simple and effective messaging strategies that employ word of mouth, mosque sermons, and radio broadcasts to reach the mostly illiterate Pashtun and rural target. The message focuses on the Taliban as protectors of Afghanistan’s Islamic character, the illegitimacy of the US-backed government, and the betrayal and atrocities of foreign powers.
Nevertheless, the Taliban are not one entity. There are at least 10 factions operating in Afghanistan. It is not clear even whether Mullah Omar can deliver all of the Taliban that he nominally controls in southern Afghanistan, because they are often fissured into purely local groups.
Linguistically, Afghanistan is diverse but it is difficult to divide insurgents along these lines. Western Afghanistan, especially urban centres like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, is dominated by Dari, the Afghan-Persian dialect. The Hazaras of central Afghanistan and northern Tajiks also speak Dari. The Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkoman speak the Turkic languages of Central Asia. In the south and east of the country where Pashtun dominates, the lingua franca is Pashto—a mixture of Indo-Persian languages.
Tradition tells us of the earliest linguistic survey on
record, in which a Grand Wazir brought to his king specimens of all the
languages spoken on earth; Pashto consisted of the
rattling of a stone in a pot. According to a well-known proverb Arabic is science, Turki is accomplishment, Persian is sugar; Hindustani is salt; but Pashto is the braying of an ass! In spite of these remarks, though harsh sounding, it is a strong, virile language, capable of expressing any idea with neatness and accuracy. Both Pashto and Dari are official languages.
he ANSF has made steady progress since it was set up but the strength of the insurgency is enormous. The US has tried to introduce democracy, made efforts to rebuild the country and taken steps to augment ANSF capacity, all at a cost of roughly `31.6 lakh crore, apart from the expenditure on its own forces. But after 13 years, the Nato forces, the world’s best paid and most modern force and the ANSF could not defeat a mere 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban, who do not receive any pay but fight for a cause.
The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and now dominate territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangrahar. The Afghan defence and interior ministries stopped releasing casualty data after a shocking surge of military and police deaths in 2013. By September 2014, with more than 100 soldiers and police officers dying every week, questions about the country’s ability to keep the Taliban in check resurfaced.
Afghanistan’s army, the ANA, is divided into six regional corps, with the 201st in Kabul followed by the 203rd in Gardez, 205th in Kandahar, 207th in Herat, 209th in Mazar-e-Sharif and the 215th in Lashkar Gah. These corps are further sub-divided into 23 brigades but a US Department of Defense report says only one is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the US and Nato.
Its problems are deep-rooted. Accustomed to the militia mode, ANA is afflicted with 95 per cent functional illiteracy, 40 per cent drug addiction rate and a 30 per cent desertion rate. Considering the ethnic divisions, it is required to recruit 44 per cent Pashtuns, Tajik (25 per cent), Hazara (10), Uzbek (eight) and others (13). The present strength is Pashtun 44 per cent, Tajik (35), Hazara (nine), Uzbek (five) and others (seven). Apart from that, the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance’s greater say in previous governments gives Tajiks 40 per cent of the officers, which is a bone of contention.
After the withdrawal, Nato and other countries have promised to defray the entire cost of defence for the next five years at `26,000 crore per year. But even if the 50 nations involved in the war managed to provide `26,000 crore annual security aid for a peak of 3.52 lakh Afghan security and police force, the question of who would manage the money and men remains unanswered. The tenuous political arrangements at Kabul and fragile ANA will not be able to run Afghanistan on their own.
At the moment, the US-Nato presence is guaranteeing the survival of the unity government. Once the guarantor is gone, the unity government could soon disintegrate. Militarily, Afghanistan on its own will remain vulnerable, with civil war almost inevitable. Obama also fears that “the danger of Afghanistan sliding into civil war or Taliban control still exists”.
f the unity government falls, the ANA will be fragmented and soldiers will probably split on the basis of ethnic background. That would lead to various groups trying to dominate various provinces or cities in a repetition of the 1989 situation. But this is the worst case scenario.
In the best case scenario, power centres like Uzbek warlord and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, Tajik warlord and Balkh governor Atta Mohammed Noor and former Tajik warlord and Herat governor Ismail Khan will emerge to take over Ghani to control the ANA. If the ANA and the 12,500 US soldiers left in Afghanistan after 2014 support the takeover, the Taliban will be kept at bay for some time. In that event, the Taliban may decide to let Afghanistan slip sufficiently into the hands of the dreaded warlords so that when they return to Kabul they should again be treated as public saviours.
The US has assembled a colossal amount of military hardware in Afghanistan. It is not clear if it will take it all back or leave it for the fledgling Afghan army. But it is most likely to take back the sophisticated weaponry leaving low grade hardware behind. That will further weaken the ANA as Afghanistan’s defence ties with other countries are still at a nascent stage. If, as certainly seems possible, the ANA is reduced to a militia divided among various warlords, there will be a prolonged fight with the Taliban ranged against the rest (all other warlords from the Northern Alliance and outside).
As for the chances of an alliance of anti-Taliban warlords, like the former Northern Alliance, the key players will be Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Atta Noor. Abdullah Abdullah was connected with the Northern Alliance’s legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud so he has some experience on positioning himself in such a fight. But Ghani is an outsider and faces the real prospect of death or at best flight if he can’t find allies.
The symmetry of civil war depends on several components. The first is the government and ANA leadership. The second would be the military hardware and weapons to be left to the ANA. The third is any anti-Taliban alliance that is put together. The fourth would be the capacity of the Taliban and their support network. Of course, the attitude of the US (and Nato) will be a major factor.
The Obama administration has already extended the combat role of US troops and that should delay the civil war for some more time. In the previous Taliban struggle in 1994, there was an absence of sophisticated (and heavy) weapons on either side and there was no sign of US involvement.
There is a possibility of Afghanistan turning into another Iraq where government controls the capital while the Taliban hold the countryside and the US only provides air support. Like the Russian-backed Najibullah regime, the government would adopt the Fortress Kabul strategy with ANA controlling prominent cities and the main supply arteries to those cities. If outsiders including the US (and Nato) withdraw their hand from Afghanistan, the Taliban may occupy at least 75 per cent of the land as they did in their previous rule. But if Mullah Omar emerges in public and the US manages to kill him, the Taliban would face leadership issues. Therefore, he may remain underground and rule from there.
In these circumstances al-Qaeda would not only return to Afghanistan but also establish itself in eastern Afghanistan. Only time will tell if it comes into the open like Islamic State (IS) in Iraq or remains out of public view and an international terrorist organisation. The merger of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (although Iran sits in between) depends on IS and al-Qaeda’s plans for the future. Some elements in Afghanistan supported IS, but the Taliban are mostly integrated with al-Qaeda. Therefore, they will take time to accept the IS caliphate. But it is always possible that the insurgents will come under one caliphate in the name of Islam and Sharia.
An intriguing piece of the puzzle, temporarily displaced, is
former president Hamid Karzai. For more than a year, he delayed signing the
Afghan-US bilateral security agreement with the aim of ensuring his own
relevance as the Afghan Constitution bars a person from a third term as
president. During the election he tried to promote the candidature of Zalmai
Rassoul, a nephrologist and former National Security Adviser to Karzai. When he
failed to get the required support, Karzai changed sides and threw his weight
behind Ghani. Karzai has strategically choreographed the composition of most
candidates’ tickets. He fielded Dostum from Ghani’s camp and paired Mohammad
Khan with Abdullah and tried hard to co-opt in various degrees all possible
Karzai’s office was involved in helping Ghani to be declared the winner. He understood that Ghani was an ethnic Pashtun, a former deputy, and a US favourite. But his access to the corridors of power is restricted and he is consolidating his position to protect his property and ensuring he does not fall to an insurgent’s bullet.
After the US, the most prominent player on the stage has been
Pakistan, a fact Washington must be ruing deeply. It may be America’s single
biggest policy blunder, “aligning Pakistan in the war on terror”. It made
initial sense from the military point of view as vital supply arteries run
through Pakistan. But it has a vast militant population and its ISI and other
state agencies are closely aligned with militant groups that made the war on
terror difficult to execute. ISI trickery was detected even before the first
shot was fired when US intelligence intercepted ISI’s advice to Mullah Omar “not
to surrender bin Laden and fight the US instead”.
Divided by the Durand Line, Afghanistan and Pakistan share a 1,400-kilometre border. The difficult terrain, porous borders and common ethno-religious links on both sides are constant problems in resolving issues related to Afghanistan. For this reason Pakistan always takes great interest in Afghan affairs and considers it a strategic backyard.
From 1974 onwards, Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and military chief General Zia-ul-Haq started large-scale funding of the Afghan opposition. During the 10-year resistance to the Soviet occupation, Pakistan was the Central Intelligence Agency’s gateway to the mujahideen. Its fears of encirclement by India in the east and a Soviet-supported Afghanistan in the west in the 1980s led to the doctrine of “strategic depth”, a brainchild of Pakistani military strategist General Mirza Aslam Beg.
The idea was to defend Pakistan in case of an Indian invasion by falling westwards. For this, Pakistan would assist the Afghan opposition and install a friendly government in Kabul and if it was invaded by India the army would retreat into Afghanistan, thus finding “strategic depth” to inflict a war of attrition on India.
This apart, Pakistan seeks a friendly government to get commercial route clearance to Central Asia; to neutralise the Greater Pashtunistan demand and to use Afghan soil to train Islamic militants. Its undeclared ambition is to dominate Kabul through proxy-engineered bloodshed and chaos in its own backyard. The National Assembly of Pakistan was informed on December 5 that Pakistan had suffered losses of about `5 lakh crore and the loss of 50,000 lives in the war on terror in the last 10 years.
It supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar after the Soviet pullout as
part of “strategic depth” and when he was not successful, switched to the
Taliban in 1994. When the US attacked in 2001, Mullah Omar departed Kandahar
disguised as a burqa-clad woman on the motorcycle of a trusted aide and reached
Quetta, Balochistan, where he was accommodated in seclusion by the ISI.
Pakistan has played both sides of the war with
It supports all three major insurgent groups, the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami. All operate from various Pakistani safe havens, inflicting heavy casualties on the coalition in Afghanistan. ISI hopes that once the drawdown is completed one or other of these groups will assert control in Kabul. The complex concentration of a wide array of militants in Pakistan; their safe havens in Afghan provinces like Kunar, Nuristan and Paktia; the increasing strength of the Taliban and crucial ISI support points to future bloodshed on a spectacular scale in Afghanistan.
It is extremely suspicious of Indian intentions in Afghanistan and strongly opposed the Afghanistan-India “Strategic Partnership Agreement 2012”, first of its kind with any country. Pakistan has demanded its annulment and that Kabul sign a similar agreement with it. On March 28, 2013, Pakistan demanded that Afghanistan cut all ties with India.
In January 2013, at the UK-Pakistan-Afghanistan summit in London, it said Afghan army officers should not be trained in India but in Pakistan, and that Kabul should downgrade India ties. Karzai replied that if Afghanistan signed an agreement on the lines Pakistan wanted, the Afghan public would “stone us to death”. The BBC reported, “While you never hear a good word about Pakistan, you rarely hear a bad one about India.”
The ISI has long been giving safe haven to Afghan militants but now Pakistani militants get sanctuary in Afghanistan, paying Pakistan in the same coin. Pakistani militants, once ISI protégés, have gone rogue, threatening the country’s security. In addition, ISI is playing its own game to make Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif look like a lame duck by fomenting internal opposition.
esieged by the militancy and political opponents like Imran Khan and the Canadian cleric Tahir-ul Qadri, Nawaz Sharif seems helpless and there are periodic rumours of another military takeover. Pakistan’s 11 Corps Commanders who decide the course of the country met in September-October under army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to decide the fate of the government. Amid the protests in Islamabad and other parts of the country, they concluded that the army would not intervene in the struggle. But it could scuttle democracy to establish military rule anytime.
Pakistan’s internal insecurity, its militant landscape and deteriorating conditions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have a direct bearing on the border flare-ups between India and Pakistan in 2013-14.
Despite the threat from home-grown militants, the military is reluctant to take action. It stems from the fact that in the past, the military faced defeat and humiliation before the combined strength of the militants and was forced to sign at least half a dozen peace deals. The Shakai agreement of March 2004, the Sararogha agreement of February 2005, the Miranshah agreement of September 2006, the Khyber agreement of September 2008 and the two Swat deals of April and May 2008—all ended in failure.
Against this backdrop of disastrous military operations against the militants and failed peace deals, the ISI wants a replay of pre-2001 when militants focused exclusively on India and the Taliban government hosted the training facilities.
Judges avoid punishing terrorists in Pakistan because they face the prospect of death or flight from the country. The Mumbai attacks trial began in Rawalpindi but the case was transferred to Islamabad.
As soon as Nawaz Sharif took office he started negotiations
with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. But they ended in failure. When Karachi Airport
was attacked in June 2014, Pakistan decided on Operation Zarb-e-Azb against
TTP, IMU and al-Qaeda in North Waziristan. The militants are not limiting their
reach to North Waziristan but the military is not initiating an all-round
operation for two reasons. First, because the army believes Pakistan-friendly
militants should not be disturbed; and secondly, if all of FATA is targeted it
will lead to a humanitarian crisis that Pakistan cannot handle. Although Pakistan claims the
Haqqani Network is also targeted the leadership remains untouched. Since the
militants have spread to other parts to avoid the army operation, the military
on October 26 began Operation Khyber-I in the Khyber Agency.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has got a foretaste of problems to come in the December 16 outrage. Even as the two army-led operations were underway, seven TTP suicide attackers appeared at the Army Public School in Peshawar to kill 132 children and nine school staff members. Amid global outrage over the attack, on December 18, just two days later, an Anti-Terrorism Court allowed bail to Lashkar-e-Taiba operational commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, believed to be one of the masterminds of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008.
Judges normally avoid punishing terrorists in Pakistan because if they do they face the prospect of death or flight from the country. This was evident from the Mumbai attacks trial as proceedings began in 2009 at the ATC in Rawalpindi but the case was transferred to the ATC in Islamabad the next year. In March 2014, the Islamabad court was attacked and in April 2014, proceedings came to a virtual standstill as the special judge expressed his inability to conduct the trial of Lakhvi and other six suspects due to security reasons. Probably, the judge granted bail under pressure. Once Lakhvi is out, he could restart LeT operations, resuming a vicious cycle where the militants, pressed at one end, pop up elsewhere.
When Afghan President Ghani visited Pakistan in November, the army briefed him “with evidence” that Pakistan’s operation in North Waziristan was targeting “terrorists of all shades”, including the Haqqani Network. But on November 17 the National Security Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, appeared on TV to oppose the indiscriminate targeting of militants in favour of a more selective approach.
On December 5 LeT’s Hafiz Saeed declared that Pakistani mujahideen would support the Taliban from the new year. In the 1994 campaign, Pakistani madarsas were shut down to send students to aid the Taliban in their struggle. If this happens again, not only will Afghan security be affected but Pakistan too will face new dangers.
hen the Taliban ruled, India lost contact with Kabul and the ISI used Afghanistan as a sanctuary for anti-India terrorists. India has a genuine interest in Afghanistan which considers India an old, reliable friend. India has invested or pledged ₹ ₹12,600 crore in Afghanistan over the past 13 years for reconstruction. Invariably, Afghans of all classes, with money or government support, visit India for medical treatment and to provide refuge for their families. Most Afghan ministers have family in India and their frequent visits to New Delhi have given it the name of winter capital of Afghanistan.
Since 2007, India has trained Afghan infantry and this facility has been strengthened since the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement. Every year, over 200 Afghan officers, 600 infantry and 100 commandos are trained at various Indian academies. Apart from cooperating with Kabul, New Delhi has also expedited the ₹630-crore Chabahar port in southeastern Iran. The project is significant as India’s commercial rival China virtually owns Gwadar port in Pakistan, 70 kilometres east of Chabahar. The Iranian port’s potential is high because it allows India a link with Kabul that bypasses Pakistan.
New Delhi has also re-oriented its Afghan strategy, reaching out to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and keeping the door open to the Taliban. They too have returned the courtesy and called India a “significant country” in the region. The Taliban understand India better now because they know that unlike Pakistan, India resisted the US call to supply troops. This policy has stood the test of time and should be continued.
India’s contributions in Afghanistan and its regional interests are acknowledged by all except Pakistan. But if civil war descends on the country all this will be at risk.
The new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to invest `539 crore in developing Chabahar and in upgrading India’s relations with Afghanistan. During his visit to the US in September, Washington assured Modi that any peace overtures to the Taliban would take note of India’s security concerns. But relying on others for security is a losing game and India has to initiate its own policy and be ready to fight its own battles.
While Afghans welcome India’s involvement in reconstruction, such close contacts awaken the old Pakistani paranoia about encirclement by hostile neighbours. The Indian consulates in Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat are seen as outposts to create an anti-Pakistan Afghanistan. Pakistan has often accused India of abetting Baloch rebels and has never missed a chance to try and keep it out of Afghan affairs. For instance, it wanted to extend the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement 2010 to India. Pakistan not only vetoed the decision but restricted Afghan transport to Peshawar without allowing it to move to Wagah border. Pakistani proxies invariably attack Indian interests in Afghanistan. Indeed, in a sense Kabul is considered the new Kashmir.
Initial signals indicate that the Ghani government is not enthusiastic about India as he still has not come to India, whereas Ghani has travelled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two prominent backers of the Taliban, apart from China. In fact the Afghan regime has aired its displeasure over Indian reluctance to provide military hardware as per the Strategic Partner Agreement.
India’s contributions in Afghanistan and its regional interests are acknowledged by all except Pakistan. But if civil war descends on the country all this will be at risk.
For that eventuality India does not have a plan except for the default support of its old ally, the Northern Alliance. Its investments, like that of other countries, will go up in smoke in no time. Considering the Nato drawdown and India’s vulnerability to terrorism, India cannot see its defence through the prism of its border alone. In the 1990s civil war, India negotiated with Tajikistan for use of the Farkhor airbase located within three kilometres of the Afghan border to aid Northern Alliance fighters. Similar negotiations are in the offing and India would need to build closer ties with Central Asian countries apart from Iran.
The Afghan conundrum could put India at risk if the government fails to be part of the post-withdrawal period. Apart from enriching the ANA and the military arsenal, India must support groups that favour it to counter-balance anti-India activities in Afghanistan.
s the western presence fades, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours as well as Iran and China will be key to future stability. It is surrounded by a host of neighbours—partners and predators. Militarily, geographically, religiously, ethnically and commercially, all these nations are important. Indeed, the next round of the Great Game for influence in Afghanistan has begun.
Iran is already seriously engaged in aid projects and is expanding its intelligence networks across Afghanistan. Iranian money flows into the office of the president with the explicit purpose of maintaining good relations and to check overwhelming American influence. Although Iran is at loggerheads with the US on nuclear weapons, it participates in and has endorsed US and Afghanistan-sponsored guidelines for the future at meetings in Istanbul and Bonn in November and December 2011.
The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, unlike the US AID programme, engages directly with the grassroots and has more influence than its American counterpart. Iran shares a language, Persian, with half the Afghans, which acts as a bond between the two peoples. Iran spends more than `630 crore a year on reconstruction and in the event of a Taliban return it will most likely channel this money to its old ally, the Northern Alliance.
But the contrasting interests of neighbours are a perennial source of trouble for the government. For example, Iran views the US-Afghan long-term strategic agreement as a threat and it even warned Afghanistan of dire consequences, including sending back the 10 lakh Afghan refugees currently in Iran, if the treaty is not abrogated. Afghanistan’s dependence makes it impossible to pursue an independent foreign policy.
Iran shares a 936-kilometre border with Afghanistan and half of its opium, 90 per cent of the world’s production, enters Iran either for consumption or transit. Water from Afghanistan’s mountains feeds Iran’s arid east and if Afghanistan slides into civil war, Iran wants its proxies to dominate the country because it see itself as the transit route to Afghanistan.
China reached out to the Taliban in the pre-9/11 period, promising political recognition in return for a commitment to prohibit anti-Chinese forces from operating in Afghanistan. Mostly, though, its policy towards Kabul could be described as “masterly inactivity”.
It preferred to reach Kabul via Islamabad, never interested in a serious engagement or recognised India’s role. But given the drawdown, Beijing has initiated a tectonic shift in policy by opening its own channel of communications with Kabul. It has started investment on a gigantic scale and considers Afghanistan a gateway to Central Asia’s commerce, and has begun a dialogue with India on the post-pullout situation.
President Ghani, an economist by training, made China his first foreign destination, while China has shown tremendous interest in Afghanistan’s natural resource and energy sectors where it has invested nearly ₹47,500 crore. It has not only appointed a special envoy to redefine ties with Afghanistan but also hosted the 2014 edition of the “Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process”.
Although the Chinese government has refused to contribute to the annual ₹26,000 crore fund, it will train Afghan police officers and diplomats. China’s interest in Afghanistan’s stability stems from the fact that after US troops leave, increased instability will encourage Uighur separatists to play a greater destabilising role in China’s Xinjiang region.
In Uzbekistan, the Islam Karimov government and other concerned stakeholders have limited connections with past governments. But since Uzbek warlord Dostum assumed the vice-presidency after the 2014 elections, its role in Afghanistan will be augmented. The Uzbek government has recently rechristened its policy toward the Taliban and is open to a dialogue with it.
Ghani’s vision ties development and security to foreign assistance funds. The president is too engaged in getting outside funding while protesting that Afghanistan’s poverty makes it unable to do this internally.
Tajikistan, another neighbour, wants equitable distribution
of powers among all Afghan ethnic groups. But if the Tajik-dominated Northern
Alliance runs into trouble, Tajikistan will edge towards its ethnic brothers.
But it is worth noting that unlike the other neighbours, the involvement of
these two will be moderate. Nevertheless, their interest in stability remains
he US drawdown is bound to increase Russian anxieties, given its long and troubled association with Afghanistan. Once the Americans leave, Russia fears Islamist militants will infiltrate Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, threatening Russia’s southern flank. It believes only the “real ability of Afghanistan to defend itself not the artificial timeline of withdrawal” will lead to stability. Russia also fears an exponential increase in drug trafficking once Nato is gone. So the Nato pullout will lead to new challenges to the security of Central Asian countries and Russia.
On December 4, 59 countries took part in the 2014 London Conference on Afghanistan, meant to verify progress on development after the Tokyo conference of 2012. The partners pledged ₹26,000 crore a year for development and sustenance. Ghani sought endorsement of his plan for a “decade of transformation” from 2015 to 2024. The September Wales summit of Nato confirmed financial support for the ANSF up to 2017 and, where appropriate, throughout the decade of transformation.
Upon a closer look, Ghani’s vision ties development and security to foreign assistance funds. The Afghan president, like his predecessor, is too engaged in getting outside funding while protesting that Afghanistan’s poverty makes it unable to do this internally. This leaves unanswered the question of when, if ever, Afghanistan will stand on its own. Such continued dependence on others to hold the fort may prove fatal in the longer term.
According to UN estimates 161 armed groups have been disbanded, 1,050 armed individuals arrested, and 5,700 weapons seized. But that leaves an estimated 1,800 armed groups with approximately 1.2 lakh armed members and 3.36 lakh small and light weapons remain at large in Afghanistan. This is about twice the size of the ANA. Weapons from the international black market land in Afghanistan straight from Karachi port. These staggering numbers point to the futility of all reconstruction efforts. World leaders talk eloquently about stabilising Afghanistan but the failure of the coalition is palpable. An “occupying” force largely ignorant of local history, tribal structures, languages, customs, politics, and values was destined to fail.
A calibrated analysis shows up some of the ironies of the theatre. For example, the US does not consider the Taliban the enemy but has fought them for 13 years. The other irony is that the US is more insecure today than before. Its decision to station troops even after withdrawal will prove counter-productive as the Taliban have clearly said they do not want international forces in Afghanistan. US policy confusion is conspicuous; it does not want the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara dominated Northern Alliance to rule Afghanistan but is also reluctant to see the Taliban there.
As a result, the US has not allied with any of the four major groups, inviting the ire of all.
It is in the US interest to admit that the Taliban are the most powerful group and rather than sticking to its present directionless drift, it could help build Afghanistan by letting Afghans do the job.
he major lesson from this disaster is that a task half-done is easily undone. After the successful battle against the Soviet Union, the US walked out in 1989 when Afghanistan was most in need of assistance. As a consequence, the country erupted into civil war, which made it a breeding ground for terrorism. If Washington wants to avoid repetition of past follies, it has to do things differently. Both the policy “to remain aloof from Afghanistan” as well as present policy “to occupy the country” have been abject failures. A third policy is urgently needed.
The strength of the Northern Alliance is historically limited to northern Afghanistan while the Pashtuns, including the Taliban, Haqqani and other warlords, dominate the rest of the country. No group can hold the entire country in a civil war. So the various ethnic groups and tribes have to devise a power sharing formula to avoid bloodshed and anarchy. Taliban participants at the Paris Conference have indicated their willingness for “an inclusive government”.
But the Ghani-Abdullah alliance cannot be seen as an alliance between the Pashtun and Tajik since neither are mass leaders. The emergence of IS has emboldened the Taliban and there is every possibility that Afghanistan could go the Iraq way, which makes durable peace difficult and the US less secure than ever.