The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy.
The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).
— Kautilya, Arthasastra: Book VI, “The Source of Sovereign States”
The question arises, why is Afghanistan, a landlocked country with not many resources of its own, so important? One of the reasons is its peculiar geography…
Af-Pak is an expression normally used within US foreign policy circles to designate Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single geographical, military and diplomatic theater of operations. The purpose of this paper is to identify and highlight the role which the US, China, India, Russia, Pakistan and Iran amongst others, perceive for themselves in this volatile region. Of special relevance are the India centric security concerns which make India a major stakeholder as far as political stability and economic development of Afghanistan is concerned.
It is quite obvious that the major stakeholders are following the Kautilian1 principles of saam (political reconciliation), daam (monetary inducement), dand (force) and bhed (split) in one form or the other to implement their national strategies.
To fully comprehend the relevance of the Af-Pak region viz-a-viz India, it needs to be appreciated that the economic, political and military related fallout of any event there has a direct bearing on India. All conventional, sub-conventional and terrorism related threats that India faces today have their roots in this region. Pakistan and India share a border of about 2,912 kilometers.
The border between India and China is about 4,057 kilometers. Pakistan and China share a border of about 523 kilometers. Most people do not appreciate that India has a de-jure 106-km-long border with Afghanistan in the area illegally occupied by Pakistan (POK). Factor this aspect with India’s claim on POK and Pakistan loses its border with China and India gains a de-facto border with Afghanistan.
China eyes Afghan resources but like Russia, it has given no definite commitment to invest in Afghan security and stability.
Here it becomes important to mention ‘The Great Game’, also called the Tournament of Shadows in Russia. The ‘Great Game’ was the name given to the struggle for supremacy in Central Asia between the British and Russian empires for strategic economic and political gains, mainly in the Afghanistan, Iran/Persia and partly in the Tibetan regions. The Russian Tsarist government was a minor party to the Sykes–Picot agreement, and when, following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Bolsheviks exposed the agreement — “the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted”.2 In continuation of the Great Game, today the Chinese too are players in Afghanistan and Tibet both!
Seth Jones, an authority on Afghanistan calls it “The Graveyard of Empires”3. Afghanistan is a position of the Great Game that is impossible to hold over a protracted period. The USSR discovered the same in its 1979 misadventure in Afghanistan as the British had found in the 19th Century, and finally withdrew its last troops from the so-called “Graveyard of Empires” – Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan to aid Afghan rebels of the Northern Alliance in removing the Taliban regime which had allowed al-Qaeda to operate training camps within Afghanistan. This has led to new geopolitical efforts for control and influence in the region and the Great Game continues into the current century with energy resources and military bases as part of the Great Game.
The Af-Pak Region and Its Importance
The question arises, why is Afghanistan, a landlocked country with not many resources of its own, so important? One of the reasons is its peculiar geography, sharing its borders with China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Tajikistan (Iran and Turkmenistan have one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world). China is investing its soft power and the millions of US Dollars that it has accumulated to secure the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from the terrorist forces of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and its ambitious New Silk Road initiative. China’s Xinjiang province borders eight nations – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and, in China’s view, serves as a funnel for terrorism around the world and within China. Many Uighur fighters now in Syria are known to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement—an often violent separatist organization that seeks to establish an Islamist Uighur state in Xinjiang. China also eyes Afghan resources but like Russia, it has given no definite commitment to invest in Afghan security and stability. Russia is in continuation of its traditional great game.
Moscow is in the difficult position of not wanting American forces to stay in Afghanistan but also not wanting the withdrawal of forces to leave behind chaos.
The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has long-term geostrategic interests in Afghanistan: stability, economic development, and curbing narcotics flowing into Central Asia and thence to Russia. Moscow is in the difficult position of not wanting American forces to stay in Afghanistan but also not wanting the withdrawal of forces to leave behind chaos.4 The turmoil in Afghanistan is unlikely to spill over Afghan borders to Russia and it is highly improbable that the Taliban would cross the Amu Darya River towards the Central Asian Republics. A destabilised Afghanistan would probably trigger greater activity on the part of individual radical groups that are directed toward Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.5
Russia does not want this to happen in its ‘backyard’.
America’s involvement is to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks against its homeland and its strategic interest to keep China and Russia at bay. In this cauldron there is India, a ‘natural’ ally of Afghanistan (countering Pakistan and China?), its own problems with Pakistan aided terrorism and its interest in the Chabahar Port (Iran). On the other hand, Pakistan is paranoid about India getting a foothold in this region. Besides, Pakistan is also looking for strategic depth against India and views Afghanistan as its ‘backyard’! Iran has a history of animosity with America and wants to see an end of American forces and American influence in the region.
No one is really interested in the well being of Afghanistan as such. Therefore, the obvious alternative scenario is staring us in the face with ‘every country for itself’ — is incessant turmoil, political instability and possible civil war leading to chaos and disorder.6 This is the true story of Afghanistan.
The Existing Security Paradigm : Af-Pak Region
With the existing security situation in the Af-Pak region showing not much improvement to start complete American troop withdrawal, European NATO allies are already under strong political pressure at home to reconsider their participation in the Af-Pak adventure.
It is important to mention here that it remains to be seen whether President Obama can find individuals with genuine area-specific knowledge. That a deputy national security advisor responsible for Afghanistan was unaware of the well known Durand line, the contested border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, named after Sir Mortimer Durand (Foreign Secretary in British India in 1893), is symptomatic of ignorance experts and advisers in the US administration.7
The Taliban were not involved in 9/11, nor did they assist in the attacks. Rather they allowed Al-Qaeda into their country and then defended them from America. The current relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is very icy, as the Taliban feel they have been exploited by Al-Qaeda.
It is important to understand the demographic footprint of the region and know something about the main factions operating there. First we have the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, both of which are distinct terrorist groups of extremist Muslims who misinterpret the tenets of Islam to further a violent agenda. While there may be some overlap in these groups, they are both different. The Taliban which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-20018 is an Islamic group founded by Mullah Mohammed Omar which follows a a combination of Sharia Law and Pashtun tribal codes. It shares some concepts of jihad followed by the Al-Qaeda group. Al–Qaida is an fundamentalist Islamist group following Sharia law and was founded between 1988 and 1990 by Osama Bin Laden and Mohhamed Atef. Next we have the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), Daesh or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Made up of a lot of the former Iraqi Republican Guard (in Syria atleast) often called “khawarij” or “takfiri” by other Muslims. These terms refer to Muslims who betray other Muslims and kill them. ISIS is perceived in this way because they betrayed other rebel groups in Syria and started fighting against them.
The ISIS is a violent jihadist organization that has grown from a terrorist organization and insurgency to a proto-state in portions of Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda and ISIS perceive America and the West as enemies, whereas the Taliban simply wish to be left alone. Most of the Taliban commanders who have joined ISIS to date were opposing the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar. Following disclosure of Omar’s death, there has been disillusionment in the ranks of the Taliban and a total disagreement over who should be the next leader; some accepted the new leadership under Mullah Mansoor though others turned to ISIS.
The Taliban were not involved in 9/11, nor did they assist in the attacks. Rather they allowed Al-Qaeda into their country and then defended them from America. The current relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is very icy, as the Taliban feel they have been exploited by Al-Qaeda.The ISIS considers itself betrayed Al-Qaeda, and is also fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban want to overthrow the government of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda wants to rid the middle East of American influence and certain other governments. ISIS wants a worldwide caliphate, and will do anything for land and power, even if that means stabbing their friends in the back.9 It has expanded over vast territories in Iraq and Syria and inspired some other terrorist networks and factions in the Middle East and Africa like Boko Haram to join this group. But the only group that defied ISIS and refused allegiance to its leadership is the Taliban. So far, the two groups have engaged in deadly clashes in parts of Afghanistan where it is ”recruiting soldiers in Helmand.”
The current goals of the Taliban is to remove the foreign forces in Afghanistan, overthrow the central Afghan government, and reestablish their control over the country.
India’s Major Concerns
For close to seventy years after independence, India was a non entity as far as the world was concerned, mainly because of its inward looking, in-coherent and inconsistent policies driven by myopic short term agendas resulting in flawed economic and foreign policies. Now with its rising capability and by using its newfound military, economic and political assertiveness, India is looking forward to playing a role in global geo-politics by extending its soft and hard power to improve and actually influence its regional and bi-lateral relations. The biggest worry of India today is terrorism abetted by Pakistan and the possible spillover of the ISIS and / or the Taliban and Afghanistan/Syrian based jihadi and extremist groups. India is also worried about the rising Chinese influence in the region and Chinese forays in the Indian Ocean.
A word about the Pakistan -Taliban – ISI -India equation will be in order here. Following 9/11, the United States and the Northern Alliance (the opposition force in Afghanistan) quickly defeated the Taliban and removed them from power. The remaining leadership of the Taliban fled to Pakistan and after a few years regrouped and regained its strength.They have been fighting both Afghanistan and NATO forces since then, with the continued support of elements of the Pakistani intelligence and armed forces.
The current goals of the Taliban is to remove the foreign forces in Afghanistan, overthrow the central Afghan government, and reestablish their control over the country. Their membership continues to be predominately Pashtuns. They receive significant assistance from portions of the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). For Pakistan, the Taliban exists as a way to for them to exert influence and possibly control Afghanistan and provides Pakistan a level of strategic depth against their true enemy: India. The Taliban is closely aligned with many other insurgent and terrorist organizations operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani Network. The leadership of the Taliban is based in Pakistan, but nearly all of its attacks are in Afghanistan. There is a separate organization called Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or the Pakistani Taliban) that is based in Afghanistan and conducts attacks against Pakistan.
Pakistan is wary of the ISIS because of its close alliance with the Pakistani Taliban, which have been caught up in a struggle that has killed more than 4,000 Pakistani soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians. Indeed, the key reason ISIS has appeared most strongly in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar is because of the presence there of Pakistani Taliban fighters driven over the border by recent Pakistani military offensives.10 Iran fears the ISIS because of its savage anti-Shiite sectarianism. Russia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are wary of the ISIS because of the numerous Chechens, Uzbeks and other Islamic militants in its ranks, and its promotion of Islamist revolution in the lands of the former Soviet Union.11