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No end game in Afghanistan (II)

Publication Date : 23-01-2013


Central Asian Republics other than Pakistan and Iran are directly impacted by the developments in Afghanistan. The Republics can be grouped with Russia as the threats that they would face from a resurgent Taliban would be common to all. It may be recalled that these threats--as on the earlier occasion--related to sanctuaries provided to groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) under their leader Juma Namangani that had made deep inroads into the Fergana Valley and were threatening to destabilise Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

At some stage Kazakhstan would have felt the heat as well. The second major threat comes from the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, although it has continued regardless of who holds power in Afghanistan.

In the late 1990s after the Taliban had taken over practically 90 per cent of Afghanistan with the Panjshiris under Ahmed Shah Masud being the only unconquered bastion, Russia was in a much enfeebled position towards the end of the Yeltsin era. Bogged down by demoralisation and lack of equipment in their armed forces, Russians had no more than a weak, dispirited motorised division on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.

Had 9/11 not happened, there is hardly any doubt that after the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masud, the Taliban would have pushed deeper into Central Asia. This was the initial game plan of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who were the main backers of the Taliban. This time around, the situation is totally different. Russia is fully prepared to safeguard its interest in Central Asia--and in Afghanistan as well--once the Americans pull out.

India is the only regional country that has no contiguity with Afghanistan. From all indications and statements appearing in the Press, it seems to be the most apprehensive about the post-2014 scenario after the Americans leave.

The realisation has yet to dawn on India that it was unable to have a meaningful presence in Afghanistan notwithstanding aid disbursed and its development efforts because up to nearly the very end, the US would not have countenanced it.

For most of the period from 2001, Americans were leaning heavily towards Pakistan. This is no longer the case. Circumstances on the ground and bad generalship on the part of Americans have obliged them to reach an accommodation with the Taliban and their Pakistani backers.

Towards the end, they had started realising that a greater Indian footprint in Afghanistan could turn out to be a stabilising factor for the country. With this in mind, the green light would have been given to the Afghan government to come to a strategic defence agreement with India.

The window of opportunity that has been opened for India allows it to become the most important player in Afghanistan post-2014. India must realise that one needs to become a player in the field to achieve one’s objectives.

When India starts looking at its obligations to itself and Afghanistan from this perspective, the situation could take a dramatic turn for the better. The multiple options available to India--options that would generally be welcomed in Afghanistan--need not be gone into at this stage.

Suffice to say that the Afghan people look upon India most favourably as a benign presence when compared to all other regional players that have contiguity with Afghanistan. Similarly, practically all regional countries minus the countries that back the Pakistan–Taliban axis, would welcome India as a player and strategic partner for stabilising Afghanistan.

The US and its Western allies, including most countries from South-east and East Asia that had sent detachments to Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force  (Isaf) would also be fully supportive. The only fly in the ointment in this promising picture would not be Pakistan or China, but India itself with its self-doubt and tendency to fall between two stools.

Having taken a look at the powers that have a stake in or are in a position to influence events in Afghanistan either directly or through proxies (as in the case of China)  it emerges that in the ultimate analysis, it is Afghanistan that must decide its future. It is worth iterating that the Afghanistan of today is an entirely different ball game from the time the Taliban had ruled over the country more than a decade ago.

The conditions on the ground, the possibilities that have been opened up for the Afghan people and the level of education and commercial activities have undergone a major transformation. There is no way that the Afghans or Afghanistan can be an easy take for Taliban or its backers.

Doubts on the efficacy of the Afghan response to major ingress via Pakistan need to be dispelled straightaway. There are several reasons for such doubts. The most important being that if the mighty US-backed forces with all the technology at their command could not overcome the Taliban, then how can the Afghan National Army (ANA)--whose efficacy is doubted even when the Americans are there--take on the Taliban successfully? There is also serious doubt the degree of backing that would be available to the Afghan government and ANA post-2014 by way of funds and high-end technology.

There is no doubt that these apprehensions are reasonable. It is most unlikely that the Afghan government and ANA will be left high and dry abruptly once the bulk of the US forces has withdrawn. The phasing out could be done over the years. When that happens, other donors and backers having a stake in Afghanistan will step in, provided that the Afghan government and ANA demonstrate staying power and have not allowed the Pak-Taliban combine to expand their sway.

Moreover, and this aspect is vitally important, once the Americans leave, the Afghans need to know that they have to fend for themselves.

No major intervention of the Russian or American variety will come Afghanistan’s way to protect it from an attack by Pakistan and its proxies. Concomitantly, one of the main reasons for support for the Taliban, wherever it existed, would have been automatically downgraded.

The foreigners having pulled out, the only aliens that would now remain in Afghanistan would be foreign-backed Taliban and their backers.

Thus, clarity of purpose and perception are needed to make it clear that the Afghans are on their own (once the Americans leave) and that the only foreign elements threatening them and their future reside in Pakistan.

The US and Nato have united the Pushtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan with support from Islamabad, in the process creating a new threat for Pakistan.  Many Pushtuns residing in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have begun to identify Pakistan more as an enemy than a friend because Islamabad has allowed Americans and other foreigners to kill Pushtuns. Further, Pakistani troops have also joined in the killing of Pushtuns on the pretext of eliminating the extremist Pakistani Taliban.

As a result, there is a likelihood that when the Americans leave, the Greater Pushtunistan movement may come to the fore. A large section of Pushtuns from both sides of the Durand Line, a much larger group than that supporting the Taliban, might well join the fray. Kabul will ensure that it happens.

With the haze that created the self-doubt about the Afghans’ and ANA’s ability to take on the Pakistan-backed Taliban having been dispelled, it is possible to discuss the staying power and efficacy of ANA. No doubt, there are ethnic and other divisions in ANA.

However, these could be papered over to a large extent once there is a commonality of purpose and clarity about the enemy and from where it is coming; as also the affliction that would once again be visited on the Afghan people should the Taliban be allowed to take over a second time around. Hence, whatever the doubts about ANA that are being voiced currently, it is very much likely that ANA will acquit itself well.

What is more, the Afghan government and ANA would be making plans to erase the Durand Line once and for all so that games being played on account of the artificial divide cease and the real enemy is evicted from these territories for once and all.

The powerful leaders in the north should be already preparing their militias for the big fight should the Taliban push outwards. Initially, these forces would back ANA to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan.

Both ANA and the northern leaders being free agents once again, would jointly go into a no-holds-barred fight that might not be confined to fighting only on Afghan soil. They may even recruit trained irregulars to pay the Pakistan military back in its own coin by carrying the fight into the depth of Pakistan using the same terror and IED insertion tactics as the Taliban have been using in Afghanistan.

Many commanders feel that when it comes to man-to-man combat, once the Americans leave, the Taliban or the Pakistanis will be no match for ANA on Afghan soil. Their knowledge of the terrain and how to make best use of it by deploying small raiding parties that can lose themselves among the locals would be far better than the Taliban coming from across the border. Should the Pakistani army not be restrained by a civilian Pakistan government, the dismantling of Pakistan might begin once the Americans have left.

Talk of an end game in Afghanistan is not only premature, it is based on a reasoning that harks back to the past. The real game for the future of Afghanistan will begin once the bulk of the US forces leave.


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