In all likelihood, in collusion with Pakistan, China is all set to arrive in Afghanistan in a big way drawn essentially by the huge mineral resources there that remain unexploited and access to the future energy resources of the Central Asian Republics (CAR).
US Plans for Withdrawal
Enunciating American policy objectives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region at the end of 2009, President Obama flagged important milestones of the new US strategy. The announcement rekindled hopes for troops that were bogged down in a quagmire with prospects for retrieval that till then seemed somewhat remote. Apart from inducting 30,000 troops by way of reinforcements to scale up of the offensive against terrorism in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the President went on to speak of enhanced efforts in Afghanistan to reverse the gains by Taliban countrywide. Simultaneously, there would be concerted effort at enhancing security of the civilian population and at assisting the Afghan government to progressively develop the capability to provide for their own security and take over withdrawing American forces.
“¦the entire scheme to create the Taliban to dislodge the Northern Alliance from power was approved by the US as it served their interest immensely to have a strong fundamentalist force in Afghanistan to checkmate Iran especially as Saddam Hussein was no longer available.
These pronouncements were a significant climb down from the fiery rhetoric of March 2009 wherein the President defined the US goal as “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent their return to either country in future”. Perhaps the most significant component of the strategy unveiled end 2009 was the intent to begin withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Eight months later the President turned intent into resolve when in an address to the nation on August 31, 2010, declared July 2011 as the firm date for the cessation of combat operations and the commencement of withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Taking a cue from the announcement by the American President, other member nations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition are also planning to wind up from Afghanistan by 2012.
Despite the most scientifically directed war on Afghanistan for a decade conducted with overwhelming technological superiority, the aims and objectives of the US military campaign, have not been achieved. Operations by the Taliban against the US and ISAF continue unabated and despite the proclaimed elimination of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda remains as potent a threat as before. The move to withdraw US forces is therefore in no way related to the ground situation in Afghanistan but more on account of domestic policy imperatives. The precarious state of the US economy that appears to be in complete disarray and opposition at home to a war that has turned out to be prohibitively expensive and unpopular, has rendered US position in the region untenable. The process of withdrawal of US forces, albeit slow, is therefore inevitable even at the risk of it being perceived as a military defeat. As per plans made public, the exercise is expected to be completed by 2014 by which time the residual US forces numbering around 20,000, will be limited to non-combat support and advisory role.
India’s Security Concerns
The Indian policy establishment is understandably wary of the power vacuum that could engulf war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of US withdrawal if and when it actually takes place. There are apprehensions and for good reason, that the ensuing power struggle triggered by power vacuum might unleash a new wave of conflict in an ethnically diverse society and plunge the nation into prolonged instability. Policy makers in India believe that turmoil in the region could spill over with serious security implications for India.
The Indian policy establishment is understandably wary of the power vacuum that could engulf war-torn Afghanistan in the wake of US withdrawal if and when it actually takes place.
There are apprehensions that there could be a surge in the level of terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir as also in other parts of India. The question that agitates the collective mind of policy makers is whether India can afford to remain passive and a mute spectator to the developments in the region or as expected of an emerging regional power, ought to play a proactive role including military intervention to safeguard her security interests? What then are the options before India?
The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan
In an effort to decimate Al Qaeda and stabilise Afghanistan, US forces have been battling essentially the Taliban, for a decade. Ironically, it was the US working behind the scene that helped Pakistan create the Taliban whom they dislodged from power post 9/11 for perceived complicity with the Al Qaeda in the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The ousted Taliban regime in Kabul was replaced by Hamid Karzai who was an American choice. A Pashtun of the Popalzai tribe from the Kandahar region, Hamid Karzai, believed to have been close to the CIA, lived mostly in Pakistan after completing college education in India.
After induction of the Taliban into Kandahar in 1994, its ranks swelled rapidly to 40,000 on account of the large number of jobless but armed Pashtun Mujahideen skilled only in the art of pulling the trigger, jumping on to the bandwagon.
At the outset, it would be necessary to understand the origin of Taliban in Afghanistan and briefly recapitulate the events that have led to the current situation before proceeding further. It would also be pertinent to mention that the Taliban in Afghanistan should not be confused with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which is an entirely Pakistan-based entity that unlike the Afghan Taliban, emerged spontaneously in 2007 to pose a serious challenge to the authority of the Government of Pakistan. The TTP also referred to as Pakistan Taliban, has its own independent agenda and despite commonality in name, has no overt linkage with the Afghan Taliban.
Now back to the Afghan Taliban. In the power struggle that ensued after the fall of Russia-supported Najibullah government in April 1992, the non-Pashtun (Persian speaking) Mujahedeen groups also referred to as the Northern Alliance or the Afghan United Front, headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani duly supported by his nephew Ahmad Shah Massoud and the renowned Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, captured power in Kabul. This was the second instance in the history of Afghanistan that a non-Pashtun government usurped power in Kabul. The first time the Pashtuns were out of power was for nine months in 1929. With a non-Pashtun government firmly in the saddle in Kabul by the second half of 1992, Pakistan not only suffered erosion of its influence in Afghanistan but also was denied unimpeded access to the Central Asian Republics, something it needed badly for economic reasons. A non-Pashtun government in the seat of power in Kabul was therefore not acceptable to Pakistan as it did not in any way serve her political, strategic or economic interests. However, all efforts by her to inspire the Pashtun Mujahideen to dislodge the Rabbani government from power, proved to be futile as they were no match for the powerful Northern Alliance.
It was in the context of this political and military stalemate that in 1993, Pakistan set about creating a new force to dislodge the Northern Alliance from Kabul. This new force consisted of just 5000 young men who during the decade long Soviet occupation had grown up in the Afghan refugee camps along the Pakistan side of the border and were educated in the numerous Saudi-run religious schools known as Madrassas. Already steeped and indoctrinated in Wahabism, this group was named as Taliban (plural of ‘Talib’ meaning ‘student’) was trained, armed and equipped by the ISI and the Pakistan Army. Funds came from fundamentalist regimes in the Middle East. Complemented by officers and JCOs of Pakistan Army, the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Omar, a veteran of the war against Soviet Union, was inducted in 1994 into Kandahar, a Pashtun stronghold. Incidentally, this was the very route followed by Nader Khan in 1929 who raised a force in India to dislodge the non-Pushtun regime Bacha-e-Saqao in Kabul.
The presence of Osama bin Laden in a military cantonment near Islamabad should dispel all doubts about Pakistans true position in the US-led global war against terrorism.
After induction of the Taliban into Kandahar in 1994, its ranks swelled rapidly to 40,000 on account of the large number of jobless but armed Pashtun Mujahideen skilled only in the art of pulling the trigger, jumping on to the bandwagon. The highly motivated Taliban fought their way Northwards from Kandahar, often suffering very heavy casualties in several battles against the Northern Alliance that proved disastrous for them. Sustained by an endless supply of recruits from the refugee camps in Pakistan, by 1996, the Taliban had captured Kabul and set up a very cruel and oppressive government there. Guided and supervised by Pakistan, by 1998, the Taliban had established control over 90 per cent of the territory of Afghanistan. Incidentally, as stated briefly earlier, the entire scheme to create the Taliban to dislodge the Northern Alliance from power was approved by the US as it served their interest immensely to have a strong fundamentalist force in Afghanistan to checkmate Iran especially as Saddam Hussein was no longer available. The job done, the US turned away leaving Afghanistan to its own fate; but not for long. The attack of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centre sent the US hurtling back into the Afghan imbroglio.
The Afghan Taliban and Pakistan
Even though Pakistan has been a staunch ally of the US and a partner in the global war against terror, the campaign by US forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan has not exactly been in Pakistan’s security or strategic interests. For Pakistan, the Taliban which consists of Pashtuns, is a strategic asset through which it was able to subdue the Northern Alliance and control practically the whole of Afghanistan. But the US launched an assault on the Taliban regime in October 2001 jointly with the armed forces of the United Kingdom and the Northern Alliance to disrupt Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. Neither of these stated objectives of the US were congruent with Pakistani interests but having joined the global war against terror under threat by the US of being “bombed into stone age”, Pakistan had no option but to pretend to collaborate with the US in their campaign against terror. Thus it was that Pakistan resorted to a policy of duplicity i.e. “running with the hare and hunting with the hounds”.
The presence of Osama bin Laden in a military cantonment near Islamabad should dispel all doubts about Pakistan’s true position in the US-led global war against terrorism. The fact that the double game by Pakistan continued for a decade reveals an incredible level of ignorance or naivety or perhaps helplessness on the part of the US. Both Pakistan and the Taliban would like to see US forces depart Afghanistan early. The US is unlikely to make any headway in the ongoing talks with Taliban as the latter are already beginning to sense victory. Besides, the US is way off the mark in trying to distinguish between what they describe as ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Taliban. Such a categorisation is not possible as Taliban is just one entity, ‘Good’ for some, ‘Bad’ for others. The US may well be barking up the wrong tree once again.
It is on account of the sustained clandestine support to Taliban by Pakistan that the US has not been able to score a decisive victory over their enemy that has been waging what in essence is a guerrilla war. No sooner that US forces depart Afghanistan, with full physical and moral support from Pakistan, the Taliban will move aggressively to regain control of Afghanistan restoring the situation that existed prior to September 2001.
Any move by India to send its forces into Afghanistan to replace those of the US and to take on the Taliban as also to ensure the survival of the Karzai government, would inevitably lead to a direct conflict with not only with the Taliban but also with Pakistan and in due course, with China.
This would be the culmination of years of effort by Pakistan to acquire strategic depth against India. Also, given the fact that President Hamid Karzai is an American nominee and is not exactly a favourite of the Taliban, he may not be able to retain power for long unless he plays his cards well. His survival would depend upon his ability to mend fences with Pakistan and extend a welcome to China. In all likelihood, in collusion with Pakistan, China is all set to arrive in Afghanistan in a big way drawn essentially by the huge mineral resources there that remain unexploited and access to the future energy resources of the Central Asian Republics (CAR). But Hamid Karzai is of little significance to both Pakistan and the Taliban alike and hence may be quite dispensable. Hamid Karzai’s predicament would be somewhat similar to that of erstwhile President of Afghanistan Dr Najibullah in 1989 post Soviet withdrawal. Despite US efforts at training up the Afghan military and police forces, it is highly unlikely that the Karzai government in Kabul would be able to withstand the onslaught from the Taliban-Pakistan combine.
Indian Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan
There is a school of thought that India needs to assume a leadership role in the region, a sentiment endorsed by Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, during her recent visit to India. Whether such a responsibility should include taking over from the US in Afghanistan to secure her national security interests, is a subject of debate. Any move by India to send its forces into Afghanistan to replace those of the US and to take on the Taliban as also to ensure the survival of the Karzai government, would inevitably lead to a direct conflict with not only with the Taliban but also with Pakistan and in due course, with China. Given the fact that India does not have a land route to Afghanistan, it would have to depend on Iran to induct forces into the country. India has helped build the 217-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway to link Afghanistan to Iran to provide a link with Chabahar port in Persian Gulf. Constructed as a part of a programme related to economic assistance to Afghanistan, Iran may not appreciate its use for transportation of military forces and stores. Besides, India has not been sensitive to Iranian sentiments resulting in souring of relations in the recent past.
Besides, given the indifference with which successive governments in India have treated the issue of modernisation of the armed forces, it is doubtful if today they are fully geared to undertake offensive operations against Pakistan or China.
Alternatively, India would have to depend on the Central Asian Republics such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to induct and support forces in Afghanistan. Both diplomatically and militarily, either of the options would be infinitely complex and logistically unsustainable. Besides, given the indifference with which successive governments in India have treated the issue of modernisation of the armed forces, it is doubtful if today they are fully geared to undertake offensive operations against Pakistan or China. To expect India to dispatch an expeditionary force into Afghanistan capable of confronting Pakistan and possibly China while under attack from all directions by the Taliban, will be unreasonable and unrealistic. Such a move under the prevailing circumstances would without doubt, be highly detrimental to the image, prestige and morale of the armed forces if not suicidal. Besides, in the last two centuries, the British, Russian and now American experience with military intervention, leave little scope for doubt that the Afghan cannot be subdued easily, at least not for long.
Relations With India and Pakistan
An Indian expeditionary force pitted against the Taliban would inevitably be seen to be colluding with the Northern Alliance. This is likely to antagonise the Pashtuns in general which is the majority community in Afghanistan fiercely opposed to the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. Currently India enjoys goodwill of the inhabitants of the Afghan nation regardless of ethnic or tribal affiliation. India and Afghanistan have had long historical and cultural ties cherished by both sides and despite the decades of turmoil and conflict in the region, the sentiments have not diminished. India need not be unduly concerned about the fundamentalist nature of the Taliban. It needs to be understood that the Taliban are largely Pashtuns and for this community, tribal values are as important, if not more, than fundamentalist Islamic values. Talibanisation of Afghanistan therefore ought to be seen as a temporary aberration arising out of the force of circumstances and under external influence. Essentially, it is a by-product of the decade long Soviet occupation and consequent upheavals in Afghanistan especially the ethnic conflict post Soviet withdrawal.
Pakistan will try and frustrate Indias effort to be a part of any international forum for Afghanistan.
If and when the Taliban do take control of Afghanistan and establish a stable regime, with the passage of time, fundamentalism will gradually fade and there will be a revival of the Pashtun character and value systems. As for relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the level of the governments, it has traditionally been somewhat hostile and tension filled. The chances are that in the long term perspective, the relationship will remain as fractured as the ethnically diverse Afghan society. The inherent divide between the Persian and Pashto speaking sections of Afghan population will continue to persist. This factor will constantly impinge on the equation between the two nations. As Pakistan has a large Pashtun community, it has strong affinity for the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. However, the current bonhomie between the Afghan Pashtun community and Pakistan cannot be taken for granted. Once the Taliban succeed in establishing their own regime in Kabul, the existing bonhomie may not continue at the existing level for long as there is the deep-seated traditional distrust between the Pashtun and the Punjabi Muslim who wields power in Pakistan.
The Afghans by nature are fiercely independent. They will listen to Pakistan only as long as they need them and not after. In any case, Afghans abhor foreign occupation or influence and will never accept diktats from any one including Pakistan. They have also displayed the capability to wage war endlessly without any inclination for compromise. However, despite the mutual distrust, Afghanistan will never risk open military confrontation with Pakistan purely on account of economic compulsions. Afghanistan is aware that the key to its economic prosperity lies in Pakistan. Being a land locked country, it is the Pakistani port of Karachi that provides the most convenient access to the Indian ocean. Import by Afghan businessmen of consumer goods from South East Asia meant for both the Afghan and Pakistani markets, is routed through Karachi. Besides, the Pak-Afghan border i.e. the Durand Line, is completely porous and two-way informal trade flows freely across the border to the benefit of the people of both nations. The business communities on either side of the border have therefore an abiding interest in keeping the Pak-Afghan border free of military or any other type of conflict. Military intervention by India could just spoil the party and hence is not likely to be welcome by anyone other than the Northern Alliance! With a military intervention, India could get hopelessly bogged down in a meaningless conflict with little or no relevance to own national interests.
Pakistan’s Quest for Strategic Depth
Afghanistan considers Pakistan to be its ‘backyard’ and hence its policies are driven by the perceived need to have full control over it to secure her western flank so that she can concentrate forces on the eastern front against India. On account of her long standing and perpetual confrontation with India, Pakistan seeks a friendly neighbour on the West which would also provide her the strategic depth. But perhaps equally important are the economic compulsions that make control over Afghanistan a critical imperative. Pakistan would like a friendly and pliable government in Kabul that has control over the whole of Afghanistan and is dependent on support from Pakistan. This will serve Pakistan’s economic interests best as she will have unimpeded access to the CAR for trade and as also access to the future energy resources of the world to ensure long term energy security. As oil from the CAR can only flow southwards through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the industrialised nations of Asia such as China and Japan will be at the mercy of those who sit astride the oil pipelines from CAR to the Indian Ocean ports. It is of little wonder that China is investing heavily in infrastructure projects to provide connectivity between Gwadar and Sinkiang Province.
Policy makers in the Indian government ought to factor in the deep ethnic divides in Afghanistan and ensure that our policy formulation does not reflect any ethnic bias or preference.
The political, strategic and economic interests of Pakistan vis-a-vis Afghanistan are so overpowering that it would be imprudent for India to jump into an open rivalry with her in Afghanistan. Pakistan will try and frustrate India’s effort to be a part of any international forum for Afghanistan. India’s approach ought to be to forge a new relationship directly with the regime in Afghanistan that is based not on any type of territorial control but one should have a humanitarian and economic dimensions. India has so far invested $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects such as highways, power plants and medical facilities and has pledged another $500 million. While the projects related to powerplants and medical facilities address genuine and pressing humanitarian concerns and more of these are required all over Afghanistan, it needs to be borne in mind that better roads and highways also serve to boost illegal trade in drugs and weapons which is still rampant in the region. India therefore needs to be more circumspect in the selection of infrastructure projects.
The Taliban are not inherently anti-India and we should scrupulously avoid giving them a reason to be. Specifically, we need to be careful not to be overtly pro Northern Alliance. Policy makers in the Indian government ought to factor in the deep ethnic divides in Afghanistan and ensure that our policy formulation does not reflect any ethnic bias or preference. India’s demeanour towards the Afghan people must appear balanced, just and fair to all ethnic groups. We need to do business with the government in power without any reservation about its ethnic identity or its equation with Pakistan. We need to provide in India, fully funded facilities for basic and higher education as also for vocational training in a variety of disciples for Afghan children in sizeable numbers to build a pro-India human capital over a period of time. On the professional front, institutions in India should provide free of charge, in-service training in all disciplines of civilian and military regimes. In the regime of healthcare, apart from creating institutions in Afghanistan, assistance by way of super specialist medical treatment ought to be made available in India preferably free of charge. In the long run, investment in human resource development and healthcare would lead to an equitable relationship and open avenues for economic engagement by way of investment in Afghanistan to exploit the multi-trillion dollar mineral wealth hitherto untapped. Rushing into Afghanistan chasing natural resources without building a foundation for the relationship, may prove counterproductive.
What India needs to focus on immediately is not competition with Pakistan for physical strategic depth but should aim to nurture the historical and traditional relationship with Afghanistan to forge what could aptly be described as “emotional strategic depth”. The rest will follow.