To resolve the Afghan conundrum, amend the Durand Agreement
As so often in the past, Afghanistan confounds the world by being in the middle of a crossroads that lead nowhere. It is awash in blood again; as it has been intermittently from the time of Alexander the Great. After his bitter experience there Alexander advised; “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.”
2,000 years later, a Russian General echoed him in 1987, “Pashtuns are the bravest people ever born on the earth; these people can’t be defeated by force.”
Afghanistan has not changed much; it continues to be a fragile state, in continual conflict after the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Its challenges are many; among the lowest per capita GDP in the world, widespread poverty, and dismal social indicators. Its governance is paralyzed by a weak and divided central government, which the World Bank and Transparency International rank among the least effective and most corrupt in the world. Without external financial aid, Afghanistan would find it difficult to pay its security forces their monthly wages.
Effectively Afghanistan is governed by rival power brokers who often have their own security forces and compete with the Taliban for income from Afghanistan’s narco-economy.
All this is bad for any society, but Afghanistan has been singularly unfortunate that the foreign influence has rarely been benign. The 10 years of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s was pathetic: Almost 1.5 million Afghans were killed and nearly 5 million sought refuge abroad.
Thereafter, the blood-letting has been endless; first under the Taliban and, post 9/11, between the US-led forces and the Taliban, many shades of which are ISI proxies. This is the big difference between the invasions that Afghanistan suffered historically and the conflict it is facing now.
Earlier, it was a straight struggle between an invader and the Afghans. That changed after the Soviet invasion. When the US and Pakistan pushed the Mujahideen against Soviet forces they introduced a complex new dimension. Since then, three or more combating parties are the norm, with the result that peaceful resolution becomes even more complex.
Another change, little noticed but strategically vital, is that over several centuries, Afghanistan was largely a convenient mid-way station for conquerers en route to India. India was then the prize.
Now, Afghanistan itself is the prize.
Pakistan wants strategic depth there. China seeks economic benefits through mining concessions and feels the safety of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is to partly dependent on a favourable Afghan dispensation. Russia has found fresh geo-strategic rationale to re-engage there despite its disastrous exit in 1989. Besides safeguarding Central Asian states, it sees in this an opportunity to repay the US for what it did against the Soviet Union. More importantly, an American exit from Afghanistan would mean that the arc stretching from Afghanistan via Iran up to Syria may be inimical to the US.
Already, the Taliban are in effective control of 30% of Afghanistan today. Their attacks have increased steadily. In separate incidents in November they killed over 150 Afghan soldiers and trainees, besides civilians. Kabul airport came under missile attack soon after US Defence Secretary James Mattis landed there. Consequently, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed at the heavily fortified US base in Bagram and met the Afghan President there.
It will be too much to regard this as a psychological American defeat, but nor is it a healthy indicator of the security situation. Is it therefore possible that a Taliban attack causing large scale American casualties could lead to a sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
For Pakistan, that would represent a second victory over a global power. It feels it vanquished the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and, if it succeeds against US, its swagger would be huge.
India will then have reason to be very concerned because, with Afghanistan under its sway Pakistan would be able to direct all its negative energies towards India. Therefore, India has a stake in ensuring a stable Afghanistan.
But can India make the difference that both Washington and Kabul seek? It appears difficult given the lack of direct physical connectivity and the odds against putting boots on ground. But India is not entirely power-less. It can, in multiple ways, play the role of a force enhancer in Afghanistan.
For this, it needs to marry its tested soft power with smart power. Media is one such instrument. If Radio Free Europe could play a game changing role in East Europe, if the social media could motivate people to the Orange and other revolutions, then that same media can be a unifying factor for Pashtuns. Or, to take a more recent example, if Russia can influence voters in US, there must be ways to reach out to Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand divide.
This, combined with American military resources, can make the difference. But the crucial element is the American will to stay the course and get over the fear of a nuclear armed and militarily unpredictable Pakistan which delights in using terror perversely.
Successive US administrations have signalled the end of their patience with Pakistan’s duplicitous behaviour. Yet, when it comes to acting firmly against it, they concede helplessness because they fear the consequences. What good are American threats if, against all protocol, its Defence Secretary finds it necessary, as Mattis did, to call on Pakistan’s Army Chief in his office? Does it convey a message of US confidence or its willingness to placate the Pak GHQ? Until the US decides to take the bit in its mouth, the prognosis is fraught.
However, if internal convulsions were to press the reset button in Pakistan, the entire equation could change. However much the terror-afflicted part of the world might wish it, the possibility of that happening is fairly remote. Sadly, going by the current circumstance, the future does not hold much promise for Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Afghanistan will have to devise its own options; from mainstreaming the wavering Taliban to eliminating the recalcitrant ones. Since Pakistan is unlikely to change its goal, Afghanistan’s government and people will have to find a longer term, more effective counter to that quest. That can only come through a direct challenge to the historical inequity of the Durand Line which divided the Pashtuns.
Directly or indirectly, the world’s terror troubles today can be traced back to that sleight of hand in 1893 when the Durand Agreement was signed by an unsuspecting Afghan Amir.