Afghanistan has never been conquered fully and given way the political foothold on permanent basis, with few exceptions of annexation of some peripheral tracts for short durations. Afghanistan consists, largely, of mountains interspersed with plains and deserts. It is roughly segmented in eight geographical entities ruled by the war lords with quasi autonomous administrative authority. The psyche of Afghanis continue to resonate their mediaeval religious mindset with uncompromising attitude as regards to their tribal social milieu. Therefore, the anatomy of rebellious emotional quotient remains same even today, when it comes to outsiders trying to intrude into their geographical space.
Afghanistan became central to global geopolitics for reasons of its pivotal location to dominate the energy rich Central and West Asia. It was also the bastion to check spread of communist ideology into South Asian landscape under the British. The British attempted to intrude into Afghanistan three times and did achieve optimal success in their strategic objectives, though never ruled it. They created the state of Pakistan based on politically convenient theocratic concept to take care of their vested strategic interests in West and Central Asia prior to their departure in 1947 and thus left a sting in the tail to generations to come . It probably was done as they were not confident of united Independent India to do their bidding with seemingly obdurate and non pliable nationalist polity.
The departure of British created a strategic space between Central Asian Republics (CARs) under Soviet control and South Asian landscape with Pakistan as a frontline state of western powers. The cold war prompted USSR to create strategic depth to Central Asian energy belt by orchestrating a political coup to replace the king of Afghanistan with communist dispensation. It was followed by a military intervention in 1979 to deny political take over by pro western power polity seen to be gaining ground in Afghanistan.
In response, the US intervened indirectly by creating Taliban, a mechanism of purportedly indigenous resistance to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Taliban was an innovative concept to defeat structured conventional forces by religious fanatic rebel guerilla cadres. Pakistan, an ally of US, became the firm base for training, logistics and conduct of operations by these non state actors sans any accountability. The experiment had proved to be a success as it did contribute meaningfully in Soviet withdrawal in 1989, though main reason was economics leading to disintegration of USSR.
Then Afghanistan lay open once again as the strategic space to be occupied for reasons of energy security as had been the case with Soviet intervention earlier. The US saw an opportunity and orchestrated military intervention on the excuse of Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in the aftermath of 9/11. It is a historical “divine justice” that the Taliban, a force created by the US, has come back to haunt them when they came to Afghanistan a decade later. A friend became a foe in this tranche as Taliban was ostensibly seen to be the protectors of Al Qaida the perpetuator of attack on twin towers in New York.
By this time the Taliban was a well structured political force with experience of governance and expertise in guerrilla warfare honed during Russian occupation. The pattern of Taliban to fight in grey zone remained same as trained by the US, albeit with much improved military structures at their command. It has been an action replay by Taliban this time against high tech warfare of the American military rendering them also to be ineffective against home grown ill-equipped insurgents .
The Al Qaida chief was finally eliminated on 02 may 2011 found in a safe house in the Pakistan. Subsequently, the then President Obama on 23 May 2013 announced winding up of the GWOT and later on 28 December 2014 he declared that combat role of US forces in Afghanistan was also over. The US intentions of draw down from Afghanistan was rolling now with number of hiccups due to emergence of ISIS and also increased violence by the Taliban. The 19 year long campaign has been generally futile and resulted in senseless violence on daily basis and untold miseries to the Afghan people. The country stands devastated politically and economically with social fabric in total disarray.
The US is seeking a graceful exit from Afghanistan realizing the diminishing returns in staying back in the backdrop of sufficient oil and gas production back home. Similarly, the US has plans to thin out from West Asia also where they have substantial military presence. However, US would like to continue their political predominance both in Central and West Asian landscape for their geo political interests. Hence, they need their local proxies to their bidding once they are physically out from the Asian landscape.
In West Asia, US has chosen to motivate their Sunni Arab regional allies to forge alliance with Israel to make them strong enough to neutralize existential Iranian threat of nuclear strains. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco have already established diplomatic relations with the Israel besides Egypt and Jordon who had shaken hands much earlier. As per media reports, Saudi Arab is also likely to follow this trend soon. Once this happens, quite a few other nations are expected to join the bandwagon.
With Israel and Sunni fraternity combined, it would increase military deterrence against Iran impacting on antagonist agenda. The new administration in the US is likely to rejoin the Iranian nuclear deal which in turn would be able to control the nuclear ambitions of Iran reducing the threat quotient. Moreover, establishment of an independent Palestinian state, being a condition for ongoing reconciliation process, is expected to dilute Iranian antipathy to Israel.
In Afghanistan, the US has reached out to their rival Taliban as their participation is seen to be mandatory in any future political dispensation that would take care of their interests. In doing so, they seem to have played down participation of the government in office while striking a peace deal with the Taliban. Apropos, certain conditions for Afghan reconciliation peace deal are clearly skewed in favour of Taliban ostensibly to ensure their willing participation in facilitating US interests.
As the process of national reconciliation is moving forward, the Taliban are seen to be indulging in violent ways to acquire higher bargaining power. The local war lords have their own vested interests and are expected to indulge in political opportunism. Given the sectarian and ethnic schism of Afghan society, the process of reconciliation has become more complex and complicated. There are no easy solutions and the state of uncertainty and disturbed security situation is likely to continue for quite some time. On other hand, as the US intends tinning out from Afghanistan there are number of contenders to exploit the vacant geo-political space.
Russia is moving steadily to re emerge as a global power once again with an objective of occupying the strategic space in Asian landscape in offing. Russia has already secured a place of an arbitrator alongside US in West Asia after her military intervention in Syria in September 2015. Now they are consciously working towards bringing about political stability in troubled Afghanistan which could not be done by US despite their investment of 19 years. It, obviously, is part of their new geo -political grand game.
Russia has been engaging Afghanistan for quite some time apparently to check the ISIS known to be establishing their presence with patronage of Taliban. It is necessary to stem this trend as it would impact on security matrix of Russia and her Eurasian allies. A secure Afghanistan also fits into their prospects of increasing their presence and domination of Central and South Asia in absence of US. This strategic notion when hyphenated with their presence in the Syrian sector would help in facilitating ‘’Bear hug from Mediterranean to Indian Ocean’’ an ambition since Czarist era.
In that, Pakistan with their connectivity to the Indian Ocean is gradually becoming important to the Russia as central to their strategic narrative. Russia, accordingly, has also shown their inclination to provide military hardware to Pakistan consequent to US restrictions on arms supply to them. Moreover, Russia is inclined to join the Chinese CPEC bandwagon looking at economic synergies. There is an emerging pro Russia outreach by Pakistan, though they continue to look towards US for military and economic aid. They have a hope of change of mind with new administration in the US known to have given statements supporting Pakistani narrative on Kashmir .
China is another major stake holder in Afghan affairs with prospects of big business on their mind looking at the reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in offing. Moreover, Afghanistan is important to China for pushing through their connectivity projects to Eurasian theatre as part of their BRI scheme. The success of CPEC, biggest political investment of China in the recent times, is also contingent on secure Af-Pak region. China has been engaging Iran also with proposals worth $ 200 bn for infrastructure development with an eye on establishment of energy and economic corridor. All above would be possible only if Afghanistan is politically stable. Accordingly, China is supporting the peace initiatives as it impacts their strategic interests and economic opportunities within as well as outside Afghanistan.
Pakistan, with their close links with the Taliban, is being sought by US to use their leverages so as to move out of Afghanistan from a position of strength. Pakistan, accordingly, is central to any discussion on Afghanistan which they are expected to exploit for their strategic purposes. Taliban, in Pakistan army perspective, is viewed as strategic asset to push their Kashmir narrative with potential of replicating 1990 model once they come back to power . Pakistan has their vested interest of achieving strategic depth against arch rival India through political synergy with the Taliban. Pakistan, accordingly, wants to keep India out of any meaningful political engagement in Afghan affairs.
Whereas, India has a strong lobby in Afghanistan which is expected to ensure that India retains her strategic space being a major economy in the region. Indian logistics connectivity with Afghanistan through Chabahar port is an advantage that India enjoys in the regional strategic matrix despite all the negativities created by Pakistan. Even Taliban cannot ignore potential of India in sustaining their economy and development, hence likely to reach out positively once they are part of governance in Afghanistan. On the contrary, Pakistan has nothing much to offer except religious narrative which in any case is getting diluted looking at the political shifts taking place in the Islamic world.
Silent yet significant geo-political shifts are in offing with regional and extra regional players throwing their dice complicating the Afghanistan political conundrum. In that, we need to look at our national interests of enhancing our strategic pull through economy centric policies instead of looking at the legacy political frictions. Accordingly, India needs to be pro active in engaging with whichever variant of political dispensation emerges in Afghanistan post their national reconciliation. It is a diplomatic challenge to create positive perceptions on the strength of our economic prudence and soft power to revive the nostalgia of proverbial “Kabuli wala” relationship to steer the destinies of two old friends.