Among the most important foreign policy decisions — the first being to address the COVID-19 pandemic — that US President Joe Biden has made is to set out the deadline for a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was America’s longest military campaign and it was a directionless shambles.
A lot has been written about it. In short, it was a knee jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks two decades ago by the US – meant to show that the US would seek revenge – that led to this long intervention with a coalition of 30 odd countries under various acronyms.
But it was the US that initially created the messy politics of Afghanistan, first with the creation of so-called Jihadi warriors to push out the Russian forces with Pakistan’s help and the Taliban. And then even as al Qaeda, found its bases in Afghanistan – all under the eyes of the US- this was acceptable to Washington since it didn’t affect their homeland. But it all changed after 9/11. However, despite the massive military effort, al Qaeda morphed with the help of Pakistan and is still around.
The US has spent USD 1.3 trillion and lost over 2,300 soldiers. At least 65,000 Afghans have been maimed, what with half or more than half of Afghanistan under the Taliban’s writ. What has the US move achieved beyond helping establish a farce of barely-elected governments in Kabul?
It led to endless meetings and deals to get the US out of that ‘graveyard of empires’ with a face-saving exit. The current plan is only about the exit of the US, not the future of Afghanistan. In that Pakistan will ensure it’ll be a key player – as it is obsessed with the idea of controlling Afghanistan – and all the talk about Pak collaborating with China, Russia and Iran are essential to serve that aim.
In India, we have an Army of woolly-headed ex diplomats and experts, all of whom see an important role for Delhi. Why? Because from the past two decades, India has put in over $2 billion dollars in infrastructure development -buildings, dams, roads- all in support of the Afghan people, Delhi says.
But in reality, it was to build greater influence in Afghanistan to counter Pakistan’s clout ( if India ever can) eventually. Yes, the North-South corridor from Iran’s coast into west Afghanistan and then Central Asia has the potential to enhance trade with the region in which India has also invested. But that has a long way to go as yet. What New Delhi has been doing in reality in the past years, is playing as America’s back up option. But even that now looks bleak and India will likely soon be left holding the can.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of pundits in South Block, who still see a role for India even though the only role that India has at best managed is whispering to the warring parties (through its retired diplomats in some recent conferences) that it’ll be around.
India has been a silent observer. Nothing upfront as yet. An obsession with conferences and track two dialogues is partly responsible for it. More importantly, it is the lack of India’s ability to stand up and insist on a seat at the high table. It is the baggage of India’s foreign policy we carry from the past since Pt. Nehru gave up the offer of a seat at the UN Security Council in favour of China.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan doesn’t want India in, and the world will go with the Pakistanis, whatever India may say about its good to work there. New Delhi’s strategy for the future of Afghanistan is unclear; Pakistan agenda is well known. Ambiguity was a good bureaucratic/diplomatic virtue in the past, that’s best to leave behind now.
The Taliban angle
The Taliban’s taking over the country has become a reality now. Even the Afghans have reconciled to it; the sharp escalation of the Taliban’s ruthless drive to capture power by mounting fierce attacks on the Government’s forces in the countryside and terror strikes in Kabul ever since the Trump Administration signed a peace treaty with them on February 29, 2020, is proof of that.
The Taliban’s taking over the country has become a reality now. Even the Afghans have reconciled to it.
Targeted killings of eminent journalists, civil society activists, physicians, champions of democracy and Government officials are all being done to signal, that the Taliban and its fanatical model of the Islamic State, are back. They’ve claimed to have perpetrated a couple of attacks, but not always so.
Reports in The Washington Post dated January 2, 2021, by Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan cited a voicemail response in which the chief Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said that the militant outfit had nothing to do with the killings. On the other hand, the Afghan Government officials have held the Taliban responsible for the growing violence and the killing of individuals.
The Washington Post report quotes, a former national intelligence chief, as tweeting that unclaimed bombings and targeted assassinations of civil society activists were “pillars of the Taliban terror campaign linked to their negotiating strategy”. It quoted him as further saying that they wanted to break the Afghan people’s political will and demand impossible concessions. Anyone familiar with the Taliban’s ways, and those of their masters — Pakistan’s notorious Directorate-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — would know that the Afghans are right.
India has been a silent observer. Nothing upfront as yet. An obsession with conferences and track two dialogues is partly responsible for it. More importantly, it is the lack of India’s ability to stand up and insist on a seat at the high table.
” An analysis of the purpose of the terror strikes will also support this conclusion. These are clearly aimed at achieving three objectives — to terrorise people into not resisting their violent take-over bid, to delegitimise the Afghan State by projecting it as one incapable of protecting the people, and to warn the incoming Biden Administration not to change the terms of the February 29 treaty,” wrote Hiranmay Karlekar – the author of the perceptive book on Afghanistan (Endgame in Afghanistan) – in The Pioneer in January 2021.
He added that by all accounts, a climate of fear and a feeling of siege prevails in Kabul as well as in the countryside, at least one-half of which is under the Taliban’s control. People are afraid to come out of their homes. Many are beginning to believe that a take-over by the Taliban is inevitable and, hence, it is best to hedge their bets”.
Despite all their denials and deceits, it is an open secret that if there is one government that controls the Taliban, it is Pakistan and its Army. The US continued to buy all their lies and even funded Pakistan with USD 33 billion in the hope Pakistan would help them put an end to the terror organisation al Qaeda. But despite so much investment in terms of money, lives and time, the US is where it began 20 years ago. It has disastrously lost that war. Three reasons are responsible for that:
(a) the US had gone after the ‘wrong enemy’. The enemy was the Pakistan army and ISI, not the hardy Afghans who were fighting to preserve their life and culture, as told in great detail in books by many authors like Akbar Ahmed and Carlotta Gall. If the US had paid a fraction of what they spent in Afghanistan by outsourcing this war to the Pak army to eliminate the terror networks of al Qaeda, it would’ve been a win-win for both.
(b) Another reason was successive American governments had no strategy, sometimes there was a decision to pull out troops and then there was a re-surge of troops. So all gains on the ground were lost and had to be re-gained. Battling insurgencies are long drawn out affairs, that require the use of mind over matter. The US could’ve learnt from India and the UK, but their arrogance didn’t let them seek guidance.
(c) Finally, what the West has never understood is that locals in war-torn land do not want ‘democracy’ per se. What people want is good governance and a life without fear and some peace. Despite the hype about elections in Afghanistan, the elected President(s) Karzai and Ghani had lacked acceptability and were unable to get much done except give America the window to call the shots. There was no rule of law outside the fortified buildings of Kabul, and corruption was rampant. It was obvious that whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq, western models of governance had failed. Just regime change isn’t an answer.
What could be the role now for India in Afghanistan?
Interestingly though, India is perhaps the only country that has sincerely made tangible commitments to the re-building of war-torn Afghanistan, from its Parliament building to schools, hospitals, roads and dams. But that goodwill and good work haven’t got India anywhere in playing a role of consequence in the future settlement of Afghanistan.
And it would be foolish to hope for a bigger role in deciding the political equations of this eternal battlefield. It’s a quagmire. It’ll be prudent to concentrate now if India wishes to further develop the North-South trade corridor that connects Central Asia via western Afghanistan to Iran and the Arabian sea.
This would give India entry to the markets on this route and keep India out of Pakistan’s agenda to control east Afghanistan. But to get India’s spooks out of Pakistan’s hair will require serious reorientation in thinking.
Bereft of financial resources to match India’s investments and goodwill, Pakistan’s military hawks have cultivated an abundance of proxy armies, especially the Taliban, that now controls over 50% of Afghanistan! Pakistan is wedded to the idea that Afghanistan will provide it with strategic depth against an Indian invasion, an idea that is now almost an article of faith for Pakistan’s Army, even though many Pakistani scholars dismiss it as sheer paranoia.
Thus, any Indian effort to provide the Afghans military equipment and training of its forces will be resisted and will only add to Pakistan’s anti-India hysteria of a two-front threat. In fact, for years now, Pakistanis have complained that India has supported their Baloch rebels—with virtually no evidence—and some even absurdly alleged that India was behind the December 16, 2014 attacks on the army school in Peshawar.
And to add to everyone’s dilemma, the Afghan government(s) can’t seem to get their act together: they have no financial system of any consequence and can do little governance. Here India can certainly help Kabul to put systems in place. Beyond that Delhi should abandon any delusions of shaping the future of Afghanistan and its politics and playing the ‘great game’.
Thus, any Indian effort to provide the Afghans military equipment and training of its forces will be resisted and will only add to Pakistan’s anti-India hysteria of a two-front threat.
Or can India extract more for its efforts this time? With America’s patience with Pakistan having run out, China is keen on a bigger role in Afghanistan- by extending the CPEC – and Russia has its eyes on Afghanistan too. But Pakistan is only determined to expand its footprint in Afghanistan. It certainly doesn’t want India there.
Also, Russia and Iran are keen to enter Afghanistan to stake a claim to its apparent mineral wealth. Could New Delhi, therefore, adopt a transactional strategy with Pakistan. If India avoids a politico-military role by avoiding troop deployments and getting cooperation from Pakistan, in return, with tangible concessions on the Indo-Pak front? Pakistan has expressed a willingness with a ceasefire on the LoC to perhaps concentrate on its options in Afghanistan.
So let the Pakistanis do that. We want no interference in J&K. But can India get pro-active, verifiable measures by Pakistan to abandon the use of terrorism as a tool against India?
If that can be achieved, then it will be enough for a start. It would otherwise be a stark reminder that New Delhi had continued to pay and re-enforce its policy failures when the same $2 billion dollars India put into Afghanistan could have been better spent to win over neighbours like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal – who’ve steadily gone into China’s camp – whatever the apologists of India’s past policies on Afghanistan might say to us.
-The story earlier appeared on www.timesnownews.com