America’s Afghanistan pullout – repercussions
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 03 Jan , 2019

The Christmas gift from US President Donald Trump in announcing US withdrawal from Syria and 50% troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has shocked half the world, though it would have called for celebrations in some quarters too. Half the world is shocked because for US allies and America’s strategic partners, its sincerity and reliability under Trump is more than questionable. Trump’s statement that US troops should be defending US borders, though he did not say “only US borders”, also keeps speculation open ended from where the US will pullout troops next and plunge which other region in chaos.

The world is aware that America’s invasion of Iraq on grounds of Iraq’s nuclear program was a complete lie; instead it was aimed at control of oil, the region, geopolitical power, and part of the larger plan as disclosed by General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO, that while bombing of Afghanistan was still on, US had already made plans to take out seven countries in five years starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off with Iran. During the Obama regime, Michael Flynn, former Director, US Defence Intelligence Agency (much before  he became Trump’s NSA and was sacked) went public in saying that the “rise of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra was the ‘willful decision’ of the US”. It is also known that ISIS was supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, Turkey being the conduit for training, arming and supplying the ISIS. It is through Turkey that ISIS smuggled out oil, making millions of dollars on daily basis.

The US did end up fighting the ISIS but that is no different from what happened in the case of Al Qaeda. Trump’s claim that ISIS has been finished is nothing but a joke.  In his article titled ‘US Strategic Blunders in Southwest Asia’ published in South Asia Analysis Group published on March 18, 2013, Subhash Kapila had written,  “Strategically, the US cannot expect to sustain a long-term and effective presence in South West Asia by a constant and vicious demonization of Iran. Iran commands the Shia Crescent extending from Lebanon, through Syria and to the borders of Afghanistan…… the current de-stabilization of Syria through a US-Saudi Arabia contrived war is more targeted at Iran than Syria.” But presently, it is the timing of US withdrawal that is questionable considering that the fight against the ISIS is at crucial stage. Is it to relieve pressure on ISIS and divert them to Iran-Afghanistan, with ISIS already attacking Iraq once again?

The resignation of US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has shook America and Senators are approaching Trump to stay the course in Afghanistan. But it is unlikely Trump will relent, given his eccentricities. Mattis had publicly supported the US military mission in Syria, saying in September, “We are in Syria right now to defeat ISIS and destroy the geographic caliphate, and make sure it doesn’t come back the moment we will turn our back. So there’s going to be a little while that we’ve got to work with the locals.” Trump’s announcement has led to demonstration in northern Syria fearing ISIS attack, and Turkey has already commenced attacking Syrian Kurds.

Compared to Syria, US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is of greater concern for India, given its proximity and links beyond to Central Asia and Eurasia. 50% US troop withdrawal implies withdrawal of 7000 troops, leaving behind similar number. But before going into the repercussions, it would be useful to revive some past indicators when Obama had first mooted similar US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 2013, General Sher Mohammad Karimi, then Afghan Army Chief stated in BBC program ‘Hardtalk’ that fighting in Afghanistan could be stopped “in weeks” if Pakistan told the Taliban to end the insurgency, and that Pakistan controlled and gave shelter to Taliban leaders, deliberately unleashing fighters on Afghanistan. He qualified his statement further by saying, “The Taliban are under Pakistan’s control – the leadership is in Pakistan.”

Earlier, an editorial in the Express Tribune of Pakistan on April 4, 2012, had read, “The US is leaving behind what is rated as the largest Afghan Army in history numbering over 200,000. US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has said that the Afghan Taliban are on the run after having suffered reversals inside Afghanistan. What he doesn’t say is that he fears that just as the Soviet Union was defeated by a combination of Afghan mujahideen and Pakistani warriors, this time too Pakistan could infiltrate its non-state actors to achieve the ‘strategic depth’ it requires to feel safe about its northwestern neighbour. What is scarier for the world is the perception that Pakistan doesn’t control its non-state actors hundred per cent, as demonstrated by the Punjabi Taliban fighting the Pakistan Army in parts of Fata.”

The US has tried every trick for dialoguing and bringing the Taliban on board: Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG); direct talks with Taliban through Taliban office in Doha; offering goodies by leaking Afghan Peace Process Roadmap by Kabul-based High Peace Council that even offered Taliban non-elected positions at various levels in government, virtually giving Taliban complete control of Pashtun dominated areas along Afghanistan-Pakistan border; ongoing talks with Taliban through Trump’s emissaries and Special Representative, and; Trump writing to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for assistance in bringing Taliban to reconcile. But the situation in Afghanistan is hardly like what the abovementioned editorial in Express Tribune had said in 2012, The Taliban is on the ascent and controls almost half of Afghanistan.

Taliban is in no mood to compromise as they smell that US wants to cut its losses and scoot. Taliban has been adamant from day one that they want all foreign troops out of Afghanistan, do not believe in the Afghan Constitution, and want Afghanistan turn into an Islamic Caliphate with rule of Sharia. So the US pulling out 50% of its troops will not matter, even if the Taliban’s current demand for being given free movement in two-three provinces is granted, or even given control. And, US must be completely naïve to think that Pakistan will oblige to Trump’s request. Even if US relieves the pressure on IMF to let it grant the loan Pakistan seeks, response from Pakistan should be expected as perfunctory. 

Post Trump’s announcement of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the euphoria in Pakistan would be similar to what Myra MacDonald had written on December 10, 2014, wherein she said, “When Lt-Gen Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan’s ISI agency, delivered a speech on Afghanistan in London last month, it was hard to miss the note of triumph. Afghanistan, he said, had already seen off two major world powers – the British Empire in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th. Now a third, the United States, was heading for the exit. For anyone who believes Pakistan’s aim in Afghanistan all along has been to turn the clock back to Sept 10, 2001 – when it exercised its influence over the country through its Taliban allies – it could almost have been a victory speech”.

The above gives the picture of what is likely to happen. For India, to draw solace from Trump’s earlier utterance that “India is our most important partner in Afghanistan” is hardly material. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has bravely said that “US troop withdrawal will not affect Afghan security”; but he is far removed from the reality on ground. Short of air, artillery and three-year contractual period of soldiers, the Afghan National Army (ANA) barely manages to secure major population centres, which too at times face Taliban attack. To what extent the US troops staying back would assist ANA operations too are questionable. It may be recalled that when Kundus was invested by Taliban first time in 2015, US Special Forces (SF) were not granted permission to assist ANA despite USSF requesting the same.

For India, US troop withdrawal implies security of its projects in Afghanistan will be threatened much more. Pakistan has been aiming to finish off Indian presence in Afghanistan, Imran’s recent statement about India’s role in Afghanistan being a red herring. Indians and Indian concerns in Afghanistan will come under serious attack. Should the Pakistan-supported Taliban take over Afghanistan, Afghan government will naturally be aligned with China and Pakistan. It is not difficult to visualize that Pakistan’s full attention for export of terror will then be focused on India. There is yet another eventuality that India must examine. Given Trump’s eccentricities he may well call off the trade war with China one fine day. This may result in China adopting a much harder stance against India. 

The world knows that the problem in the region is Pakistan. Yet, the US, possibly on behest of its ‘deep state’, has taken only limited actions against this terror state. India will need to muster and employ its total comprehensive national power to deal with the situation, provided we know what it constitutes and how to employ it, rather than relying on US and others.  Such measures must include political, diplomatic, economic, military and psychological levels.  Haroun M. Mir, Director, Afghanistan Centre for Research  and Policy Studies had stated in March 2012, “It is time to be aggressive in dealing with Pakistan and assert the ‘natural role’ as leader in the South Asian region, particularly over the Afghan issue. Balance of power in the South Asian region has shifted long back. India has advanced economically as well as militarily far more than Pakistan. But I don’t understand why India is still in the early 80s mentality….. Don’t make concessions to Pakistan. Enough of Gandhigiri now. You are seriously accepting being slapped again and again in the face.”

At the sub-conventional level, we should have been ‘inside’ Pakistan years back, and also joined hands with Afghanistan, that latter had been indicating past several years. Artillery fire plans and ‘surgical strikes’ matter little by themselves. Neither does announcement of raising a ‘special surgical strike unit’ impress, especially after suffering at Pakistan’s hands for almost three decades. India must fight its own wars. Unless we bridge the asymmetry vis-à-vis Pakistan and China at the sub-conventional level, we will continue to be at the receiving time. Conventional conflict is not sufficient response to hybrid war. Need of the hour is to develop some ‘surgical’ will power that matches present day warfare, not bogeys that catch the eye of voters.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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