AFGHANISTAN: CONTINUING MAYHEMS AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

“ Afghanistan has to be rescued from itself.” 

—Pakistani author Ahmad Rashid

 “ The US doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest.” 

—Former US Defence Secretary J.Mattis in his speech to Jamestown Foundation

Spiraling bouts of recurrent fratricidal violence, persisting political instability, a feeble central government and the machinations of regional powers pursuing their transient and petty agendas have, once again, put impoverished hapless Afghanistan at the crossroads of its destiny. Since November 2001, with the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, the USA has been the major player in Afghanistan, in its efforts to rid the state of becoming a launchpad for global terrorists. That the US is now preparing to exit Afghanistan, without its end objectives being even partially achieved, portends a grim future for Afghanistan. To further exacerbate matters, Pakistan, Afghanistan’s ‘Islamic brother’ to its east and south, has since decades been the major factor contributing to Afghanistan’s tribulations, which is a universally accepted strategic reality.

India, with whom Afghanistan has sustained civilisational, cultural, economic and political linkages since millennia, today stands somewhat isolated in the churning for Afghanistan’s future. This is rather surprising as, in recent years, India is among the very few nations whom the Afghan people respect. Over the past few years, India has given over USD 2 billion (excluding another 1 billion in the pipeline) in developmental assistance and educational aid and also some modest military aid to Afghanistan, including training of its personnel.[1]That India has scrupulously limited itself to solely the export of soft power to Afghanistan has been well received by the Afghans.

Pakistan, with its decades’ old stratagem of seeking ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan,  endeavouring by all means to have a pliant regime in Kabul, has successfully managed somewhat to keep India out of the current discourse for Afghanistan. Ironically, India’s strategic partner, US, is largely to blame for India’s marginalisation, as the US is banking on Pakistan to assist it in its current parleys with the extremist Taliban. The US appears overtly keen to exit strife-torn Afghanistan after 18 years of the longest and still unfinished war in its history and hopes that Pakistan will be able to help it to accomplish an early exit. It is a historical fact that quite a few of the US’s military involvements overseas have been unsuccessful, the examples of US intervention in Vietnam, Venezuela and Iraq being cases in point. If the US departs from Afghanistan with its mission unfulfilled, it will be yet another instance of the US not achieving its strategic aim, despite a prolonged military campaign.

Current American Dilemma in Afghanistan

Former US President Barack Obama, as part of his foreign policy objectives, had attempted to exit US military presence in Afghanistan. In May 2014, he had announced plans to pull virtually all military troops out of Afghanistan by 2016. Now President Donald Trump has also made his intention clear of pulling out US troops from Afghanistan, despite the conflict not having achieved US aims to set in late 2001 when the US had launched its operations in Afghanistan. To eliminate the terrorists and locate their kingpin Osama bin Laden, the forces deployed by the US and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were more than 100,000 troops by 2010. Gradually, the overall force levels have come down and now, just over 14,000 US troops and 17,000 troops from 39 other NATO allies remain in Afghanistan.[2] The Afghan conflict has been costly, both in terms of human and financial costs. The US military has suffered over 2,400 fatalities and in terms of treasure, the cost has been a staggering USD 800 billion-plus, with an additional USD 105 billion as the cost for rebuilding. The US, fighting the longest war in its history, is by any standards financially weary and militarily fatigued. Thus, over the last few years, it has not hesitated to open up channels of communication with the extremist Afghan Taliban—its main foe in Afghanistan.

Many rounds of talks between the US and Taliban representatives have taken place in Doha and with the delegations of other nations in Bonn, London and Moscow, over the past 3-4 years, to arrive at a mutually agreed formula for the US to exit and restore a semblance of normalcy to Afghanistan. Negotiations between the Taliban and the US have largely concentrated on the timeline for US troops withdrawal, the parameters for a ceasefire, intra-Afghan negotiations and obtaining serious assurances from the Taliban to cease all violent acts besides not giving any shelter to any terrorist group. Regrettably, the Taliban had refused to meet with the Afghan government officials, though they did meet a few of them informally at Moscow in 2018. With each passing month, the Taliban has been indulging in an orgy of violence as they feel that creating greater mayhem would considerably increase their leverage in the talks.

The ninth round of talks had commenced on 22 August 2019 between the US delegation and the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar. The day previous, US envoy to these talks, Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad (himself of Afghan origin) informally met Mullah Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban in a one-to-one interaction. The result of these talks, which carried on for over a week, have not been divulged so far except for a tweet from Khalilzad, which read “We are at the threshold of an agreement that will reduce violence and open the door for Afghans to sit together to negotiate an honourable & sustainable peace and a unified, sovereign Afghanistan that does not threaten the United States, its allies, or any other country.”[3]However, TRT World, a Turkish news channel, quoting Kabul based Tolo News, stated that as soon as the Agreement details are officially made public, US troops would vacate seven bases within 135 days of the Agreement.[4] Not surprisingly, and in conformity with their old tactics, the Taliban had launched over the weekend, while the talks were on, two major attacks on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e-Khomri. Besides, the former Mayor of Faizabad, Gen Nazir Mohammad Neyazi along with several others were killed in an explosion caused by an embedded mine in Badakhshan on 1 September 2019. This was the second attempt by the Taliban to eliminate Neyazi, who was one of the uprising forces commanders in Badakhshan, after failing to do so in an earlier attempt by a suicide bomber in 2017.[5]

Twice delayed, many analysts across the world had expressed little confidence in the elections, scheduled for 28 September 2019, taking place at all due to the ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban. This changed when President Trump called off the talks with the Taliban on 7 September 2019, after a US soldier, Sgt Ellis Barreto was killed in a suicide car bomb attack carried out by the Taliban in Kabul. The explosion also killed 11 other people. “What kind of people would kill so many to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse!” Trump tweeted.[6] The elections went ahead as scheduled, though threats from the Taliban kept most Afghans away from the polls. On the positive side, the election did go through despite the Taliban and Pakistan doing their utmost to have the elections cancelled.

Pakistan’s Continuing Duplicity and Intrigues

As with India since 1947, Pakistan’s relationship with its ‘Islamic brother’ Afghanistan has been characterised by a roller-coaster ride. Most ordinary Afghans believe, since decades, that had it not been for Pakistan’s myriad machinations inside their nation for more reasons than one, Afghanistan would have been politically stable and blessed with a sustainable democracy. According to most analysts, Pakistan’s much talked about ‘quest for strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and its enduring endeavours to have a pliant regime in Kabul has led to Afghanistan’s continuing instability and untold violence in that hapless nation.

As is universally acknowledged, Pakistan, since years, has supported the fundamentalist Afghan Taliban and various extremist warlords including the Haqqani network and al Qaeda elements. Though he changed tack to a certain extent recently, US President Donald Trump has frequently chided Pakistan’s duplicitous role in Afghanistan with their supporters in that nation targeting US and ISAF soldiers. Dr Marvin Weinbaum, Director for Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute, Washington DC, has succinctly commented that “…a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan not only promised to neutralise Pashtun irredentism but also helped to train and indoctrinate jihadis for the struggle against India in Kashmir.”[7]One aspect which appears to not having been much discussed is of Pakistan’s policy towards Kabul, that it aims to nullify all efforts by rebel Pashtuns for carving out an independent ‘Pashtunistan’ and ensuring the sanctity of the Durand Line, the 1893 international border between Afghanistan and then British India. Successive Afghan governments, right since the drawing of the Durand Line, have never recognised its legal validity—a fact which has made every government in Pakistan more than uncomfortable.

Pakistan, since years, has been subtly causing problems to the democratically elected regimes of earlier Afghan president Hamid Karzai and now of President Ashraf Ghani by clandestine support to the extremist Taliban. With the current Afghan presidential elections scheduled on 28 September 2019, it is widely speculated that Pakistan will do their utmost to have these elections postponed/cancelled and hope for a Taliban led the government to be installed as a result of the current parleys between the US and the Taliban which Pakistan is ostensibly facilitating. As regards Afghanistan affairs are concerned, Pakistan is back in the reckoning, after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the US on July 2019. At a joint press conference subsequently at the White House, the mercurial US President Trump, alluding to Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, declared “I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves”.[8] To stay in the good books of the US, the Pakistan government is doing its best to influence the treacherous Taliban to agree to some formula with the US which will enable the US troops, not delay further, their planned exit from Afghanistan. In the coming days, PM Imran Khan is hosting the Taliban leaders in Islamabad. Last year, the Pakistan government had quietly released the co-founder of the Afghan Taliban, terror kingpin, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from its Karachi prison. Mullah Baradar is now one of the chief negotiators for the US-Taliban rapprochement. The Ashraf Ghani led Kabul government is naturally wary of Pakistan’s machinations and rather disappointed with the US hurry to quit Afghanistan in its current state of being still grossly violence-reeked and politically unstable.

Russia and its Changing Role in Afghanistan

A  Putin-led resurgent Russia, over the last three years in particular, now sees itself as a major player in Afghanistan’s emerging contours, despite having been indifferent all these years since the Americans had stepped into Afghanistan in 2001. The then Soviet Union, after a 10-year stay in Afghanistan from 1979-1989, had to vacate Afghanistan, thanks to the collective efforts of the Americans, their supported Mujahidin and the Pakistanis. That in later years, the Mujahidin got transformed into the Taliban who are now being wooed by their earlier enemies is another example of strange bedfellows getting together in the ugly world of geopolitics! The Taliban are no longer considered as untouchables by the Russians who feel that the Taliban are also legitimate stakeholders in mainstream Afghan politics. Importantly, for the Russians, the Taliban would be a bulwark against ISIS presence now spreading from Afghanistan into the Central Asian Republics. That the Russians wish to take over some strategic space in Afghanistan, consequent to the US exit, is understandable.[9]

The Russians have been organising some multilateral conferences over the past two years with several stakeholders for resolving Afghanistan’s problems. However, they have had to postpone one important conference they had scheduled in early September 2019 as the US pulled out from it and the Ashraf Ghani government too wanted some more time to configure an internal consensus before attending this conference. Media reports do talk of Russia and even Iran secretly confabulating with Taliban leaders for a solution to the Afghan conundrum. These initiatives have understandably not gone well with the Kabul government who have warned these nations not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding all these current differences, Russia sees itself as a major player in Afghanistan once the US makes its exit.

Status of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG)

Afghanistan has witnessed a large variety in the systems of governance over the past decades—from monarchy to communist rule, the Soviet intervention to Taliban rule and then democracy from 2004 till date. After President Hamid Karzai’s tenures in Kabul, the NUG was formed in 2014 after great pulls and pushes from different contenders. Its performance over these years has been characterised by major policy differences, especially between President Ghani and the CEO Abdullah Abdullah.  Last year (2018), even the high profile NSA, Hanif Atmar, also parted ways with his president. Nevertheless, despite the US also marginalising Ashraf Ghani in their talks with the Taliban, the Afghan president has braved varied challenges to his fragile government from many quarters and is now ready, once again, for the presidential polls on 28 September 2019. Like his predecessor Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani has always been grateful to India for its developmental assistance to their nation.

The campaign of 18 candidates for the Afghan presidential elections held on 28 September 2019 had been in full swing since July this year.  While the Election Support Group comprising donors like the European Union, US, UK, Germany, Sweden, Japan, NATO etc had strongly advised the Kabul government to ensure the independence and autonomy of the election conducting agencies, there were complaints by many lesser-known parties and candidates about Ashraf Ghani appointing many officials close to him to oversee the elections. Post the elections, the two front-runners, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his coalition partner Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed that they had enough votes to win, but that would be determined when the final count is declared on 07 November. If none of the candidates gets 50 per cent of the votes, there will be a run-off between the top two candidates. Whether the results will be widely accepted has to be seen. Of the 9.6 million voters, only 2.1 million voted—a mere 22 per cent. With peace talks called off, the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. At the United Nations on 30 September, Afghanistan was represented by its National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib. On the world stage, Mohib sent a message to the Taliban, “Join us in Peace or we will continue to fight”.[10] The Taliban are unlikely to heed the call.

Options For India in Afghanistan

As mentioned earlier in this paper, India enjoys the respect of the Afghan people for its non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and sincere efforts in assisting the nation’s development. However, with the Taliban now likely to become a major stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan, India faces a Hobson’s choice in its political preferences in the emerging contours of Afghanistan. By any standards, India now faces a quandary in the options it can formalise in its Afghan policy in the foreseeable future. Many Indian security analysts opine that India may have to review its options with prudence and alacrity in the coming months and recalibrate its policy for Afghanistan. That the Taliban, Pakistan and China would like to continue isolating India in future Afghanistan affairs, as hither-to-fore, is a foregone conclusion. Notwithstanding India’s discomfiture with the current trends in Afghanistan’s emerging political contours, the following steps are recommended:

  • India must support by all measures it can muster, for democracy to find its feet in Afghanistan. It should identify Afghan leaders and those tribal chieftains who believe in the unity of their nation and democracy.
  • It must establish strong channels of communication with the likes of Abdullah Abdullah and other like-minded Tajik leaders of the former Northern Alliance.
  • India should endeavour to forge a consensus with the likes of Russia, Iran, Germany and the EU, CAR’s and also the US which will continue to play a significant role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction even after the draw-down.
  • India must impress upon various agencies of the UN to continue their good work in impoverished Afghanistan, especially in the areas of elimination of cultivation and smuggling of drugs. Education and empowerment of women will take a hit if the Taliban gets into a major role in the coming months and international agencies will have to thus play a vital role in ensuring that their earlier pioneering work does not get washed away.
  • India must provide lethal military equipment to augment the combat capability of the Afghanistan National Security Forces, provided their command and control rests with a democratically elected government and not with the Taliban.
  • India should utilise, in its soft power exports to Afghanistan, the genius of the huge Afghan diaspora now settled in India.
  • India must not be in a hurry to establish any linkages with the extremist Taliban who, if they come to power, will take Afghanistan back to the dark ages.
  • Indian intelligence agencies in concert with the Afghan intelligence agencies must keep a watchful eye on the activities of the ISIS, remnants of the Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network elements in Afghanistan who appear to be lately showing considerable interest towards the Indian state of J&K.

Conclusion

It is indeed a pity that the world’s sole superpower is again committing a strategic blunder in the region by virtually abandoning Afghanistan where, ironically, the first global war on terror was launched. Notwithstanding the so-called electoral obligations of President Trump in 2020, the compulsions of geography and geopolitics are too grave for India if Afghanistan falls, once again, to political instability and the establishment of an extremist regime. The coming months portend serious security challenges for India from the land of the Hindu Kush. It will thus require all of India’s strategic wisdom and a firm resolve to thwart all threats which may emerge from an unstable Afghanistan of the near future.

*Lt. General Kamal Davar (Retd.) was India’s first chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency and is currently President of the Delhi forum for Strategic Studies.

1. Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. “Miffed Govt Lists $3 Billion Projects as Donald Trump Mocks India’s Afghanistan Aid.” The Economic Times, Economic Times, 4 Jan. 2019, economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/miffed-govt-lists-3-billion-projects-as-donald-trump-mocks-indias-afghanistan-aid/articleshow/67375954.cms?from=mdr.

2. Al Jazeera. “Timeline: US Military Presence in Afghanistan.” USA News |   Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, September 8, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/timeline-military-presence-afghanistan-190908070831251.html.

3. Khalilzad, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay. Twitter. Twitter, August 31, 2019. https://twitter.com/us4afghanpeace/status/1167945304290672642?lang=en

4. TRTWorld. The US to pull troops from 5 Afghan bases in 135 days after Taliban deal passes. TRT World, September 3, 2019. https://www.trtworld.com/asia/us-to-pull-troops-from-5-afghan-bases-in-135-days-after-taliban-deal-passes-29461

5. “Former Mayor Of Faizabad Killed In Explosion In Badakhshan.” Reporterly, September 1, 2019. http://reporterly.net/live/newsfeed/sunday-september-1/former-mayor-of-faizabad-killed-in-explosion-in-badakhshan/

6. Times of India, September 11, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/us-afghan-talks-explainer-everything-you-would-want-to-know/articleshow/71078588.cms

7. Marwin Weinbaum, “Afghanistan and its Neighbour: An Ever Dangerous Neighbourhood”, USIP Special Report No. 162, June 2006, p. 5.

8. Al Jazeera, “Trump Wants Pakistan to Help Extricate US from Afghanistan,” Pakistan News | Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera, July 22, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/trump-pakistan-extricate-afghanistan-190722193747363.html

9. Vinay Kaura, Moscow’s changing role in Afghanistan’s stability, Economic Times, 29 August 2018, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/moscows-changing-role-in-afghanistans-stability/articleshow/65589607.cms?from=mdr

10. Ravi Agrawal, Kathryn Salam, “Is Afghanistan’s Election Credible?” FP October 1, 2019, available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/01/is-afghanistans-election-credible-ashraf-ghani-abdullah-taliban-india-pakistan-united-nations-monsoon/

[1]Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. “Miffed Govt Lists $3 Billion Projects as Donald Trump Mocks India’s Afghanistan Aid.” The Economic Times, Economic Times, 4 Jan. 2019, economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/miffed-govt-lists-3-billion-projects-as-donald-trump-mocks-indias-afghanistan-aid/articleshow/67375954.cms?from=mdr.

[2]Al Jazeera. “Timeline: US Military Presence in Afghanistan.” USA News |   Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, September 8, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/timeline-military-presence-afghanistan-190908070831251.html.

[3]Khalilzad, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay. Twitter. Twitter, August 31, 2019. https://twitter.com/us4afghanpeace/status/1167945304290672642?lang=en

[4]TRTWorld. The US to pull troops from 5 Afghan bases in 135 days after Taliban deal passes. TRT World, September 3, 2019. https://www.trtworld.com/asia/us-to-pull-troops-from-5-afghan-bases-in-135-days-after-taliban-deal-passes-29461

[5]“Former Mayor Of Faizabad Killed In Explosion In Badakhshan.” Reporterly, September 1, 2019. http://reporterly.net/live/newsfeed/sunday-september-1/former-mayor-of-faizabad-killed-in-explosion-in-badakhshan/

[6]Times of India, September 11, 2019, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/us-afghan-talks-explainer-everything-you-would-want-to-know/articleshow/71078588.cms 

[7]Marwin Weinbaum, “Afghanistan and its Neighbour: An Ever Dangerous Neighbourhood”, USIP Special Report No. 162, June 2006, p. 5.

[8]Al Jazeera, “Trump Wants Pakistan to Help Extricate US from Afghanistan,” Pakistan News | Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera, July 22, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/trump-pakistan-extricate-afghanistan-190722193747363.html

[9]Vinay Kaura, Moscow’s changing role in Afghanistan’s stability, Economic Times, 29 August 2018, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/moscows-changing-role-in-afghanistans-stability/articleshow/65589607.cms?from=mdr

[10]Ravi Agrawal, Kathryn Salam, “Is Afghanistan’s Election Credible?” FP October 1, 2019, available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/01/is-afghanistans-election-credible-ashraf-ghani-abdullah-taliban-india-pakistan-united-nations-monsoon/

 

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