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No end game in Afghanistan

Publication Date : 22-01-2013


The US has made its intention to pull out of Afghanistan clear. The countries that would view this as a positive development would be Pakistan and China along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that were major backers of the Taliban prior to 2001.

However, those countries might no longer be so sure now. Naturally, the countries supplying forces for deployment as part of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) would be relieved as well. It is not yet clear whether the US would exit fully as it had from Iraq or whether a residual force would remain. But no one in the country is going to claim success for Mission Afghanistan.

The Americans are pulling out of their own volition owing to unpopularity of prolonged deployment, high casualty rate as well as domestic economic difficulties.

The Americans have not been defeated as such, they have simply decided to cut their losses. Afghanistan and other countries in the region are worried about the scenario after the departure of foreign forces that had been deployed primarily for stabilising Afghanistan and preventing it from again falling into the hands of the Taliban.

Before entering into a more detailed consideration on the future of Afghanistan, it is necessary to have a look at the unfolding circumstances in the country as also the likely fallout on the countries that would be most affected by the pullout. How these countries deal with the fallout also needs to be assessed.

The US, having been the prime mover in Afghanistan for more than a decade since 9/11, it would be best to start with that country. Some policymakers in Washington would be unhappy at the turn of events that  caused their forces to quit without achieving their objectives.

Henceforth, while the US may continue to assist the Afghan government, one does not foresee Washington committing large forces in the country again. Allowing the Taliban to share power and to control parts of Afghanistan was evidently the last choice of Americans.

For the same reason, allowing Pakistan to assume a major role, even by proxy, cannot be a welcome turn of events. On the face of it, at least for public consumption at home, the Americans are quitting.

However, there is bound to be serious contingency planning for worst-case scenarios. Enough assets and back-up would need to be lined up to ensure that a Vietnam-type collapse does not happen after American forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Of course, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan in 2014 would be very different from the situation in South Vietnam from decades ago.

All the same, Pentagon needs to plan well to ensure that if residual forces are indeed maintained, it does not lead to a repeat of Dien Bien Phu. Nor for that matter would Pakistan’s military and the Taliban wish to risk retaliation by the USA which could be more fierce than what had been seen right after 9/11.

The second nightmarish scenario is the rising stockpile of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and its domestic conditions that can never cease to be a matter of the greatest concern for the USA and much of the world.

On April 22, 2009, US secretary of Sate Hillary Clinton warned in her testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Pakistan was in danger of falling into terrorist hands: “I think that we cannot underscore enough the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state, a nuclear-armed state.”

And again, Mrs Clinton, in an interview with Fox TV on 26 April, said that Pakistan had assured the US of the safety of its nuclear weapons, but the current volatile situation of the country raised questions about all of Islamabad’s assurances.

“One of our concerns, which we’ve raised with the Pakistani government and military,” she said, “is that if the worst, the unthinkable were to happen, and this advancing Taliban encouraged and supported by al-Qaeda and other extremists were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.” 

Mr Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, and an advisor to President Obama on Afghan policy, in a Brookings paper, listed the dangers of such an eventuality. He said: “The fighting has cast a spotlight on the shaky security of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal--the fastest growing arsenal in the world…Today the arsenal is under the control of its military leaders; it is well protected, concealed, and dispersed. But if the country fell into the wrong hands--those of militant Islamic jihadists and al-Qaeda--so would the arsenal. The US and the rest of the world would face the worst security threat since the end of the Cold War. Containing this nuclear threat would be difficult, if not impossible.”

The US and its allies have been concentrating on the nuclear proliferation threat building up in Iran and North Korea. After the AQ Khan episode, Pakistan seems to have been put on the backburner.

As a matter of fact, the nuclear threat from Pakistan is far more insidious and widespread than currently assessed in most quarters.

Iran’s capability vis-à-vis Pakistan on a scale of 0 to 9 is not even 1; Pakistan would be hovering around 7 or 8 in its comparative nuclear capability. Likewise, in the case of North Korea, though it has gone much ahead of Iran, it is not in the same league as Pakistan in the number of nuclear weapons that it possesses or is likely to possess.

What is more relevant is that North Korea does not have the radical groups that are capable of carrying out terrorist acts of varying intensities across the globe; Iran to date limits its reach to Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Radical groups in Pakistan, in concert with sympathisers in the Pakistani army and ISI have developed the potential to capture power in the not-too-distant future, perhaps sooner. It means that they could become masters of the Pakistan nuclear arsenal as also the delivery system vastly augmented by North Korea and China.

A recent report attributed to Professor Shaun Gregory of Bradford University in the UK mentions that jihadists thrice attacked Pakistan’s nuclear sites. And Indian newspapers have reported American fears of Pakistani “nukes falling into wrong hands”.

Western analysts are aware of the developments. For the global community, neutralising Pakistan’s nuclear capability is, therefore, far more important than going after Iran or North Korea. Of course, China would demur, but that is only to be expected. In sum, the “zero option” now being mentioned in some circles in Washington might not be an option, after all. 

Of the countries in the region directly impacted by the events in Afghanistan, Pakistan remains the most important. The country most affected by developments in Afghanistan; it is also primarily responsible for the worsening situation in Afghanistan. Without going into the history of past events, it would be more profitable to examine the options now open to the Pakistani army-ISI combine and the tools with which they operate--the Quetta Shura led by Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network.

There are other groupings among the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan that surface from time to time. On the face of it, Washington has been amazingly generous with Pakistan following its decision to quit, albeit leaving behind a residual force whose strength has yet to be determined.

Going by past experience, the Taliban moving in strength into Afghanistan will be backed to the hilt in every possible way to enable them to take over a much larger area than is presently being envisaged by the Americans. Whether this phase will be embarked upon gradually or at a much faster pace will again depend upon the fighting potential of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the support provided to the ANA by the residual US force and other forces that will surely come into play. It is these other forces and interests that might turn out to be more important deciders of the outcome in Afghanistan over the coming years.

Suffice to say that the strategic depth the Pakistani army and its operatives are carving out for themselves might turn out to be a strategic nightmare sooner than they realise or expect.

The Pakistanis have been agitating for the Americans to quit Afghanistan; so that they can move in. Ironically, not many years down the line they will rue the fact that the US had opted out and will undoubtedly acknowledge that the Americans had been providing a modicum of stability to Pakistan.

Terrorism has grown into the most destructive phenomenon in Pakistan today. The list of victims of terrorist attacks in the country is expanding rapidly--it went up from 164 casualties in 2003 to 40,000 in 2011. According to official data, damage suffered by the country between 2000 and 2011 exceeded US$70 billion.

An important element of the out-of-control terrorist activity now plaguing the country was Pakistan’s direct involvement in military actions in Afghanistan and the creation of mujahideen units, which after the end of military actions rose to prominence as a military and political force first in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan. They have grown from strength to strength since. George Friedman, a US analyst, thinks that Pakistan is losing its “trajectory into the future”.

This opinion is underpinned by the increasingly chaotic social and political life in Pakistan, the army’s involvement in domestic processes, the poorly-regulated economy and the inability of political parties to set up an adequate political life for more than five years. This “institutional vacuum” is inevitably filled up by other organisations, in case of Pakistan, terrorist structures.

The next country that shares a large border with Afghanistan is Iran. It was recently suspected in certain circles that Iranians might be aiding the Taliban to make things more difficult for the Americans. However, the situation will change dramatically the moment Americans pull out and leave Afghanistan to its own fate with the hope that ANA will be able to put up a good fight. Whatever be the case, the Iranians will certainly not countenance a Taliban takeover or even a major push beyond their acknowledged area of influence in the south and the east.

Additionally, their policies would converge with those of Russia, Central Asian Republics and India. The Iranians would move boldly to solidly back the militias of a re-formed northern alliance and in the process, become perhaps major stakeholders in Afghanistan, at par with Pakistan.

Here it is worth recalling that the Zaranj-Delaram road constructed by India confers upon Iran much greater flexibility and has opened several access points from the Iranian side into Afghanistan that were not available earlier, thereby further reducing the over-dependence of Afghanistan on Pakistan.

(To be concluded)

The writer has authored "Third Millennium Equipoise", "Restructuring South Asian Security", "Restructuring Pakistan", "Dealing with Global Terrorism: The Way Forward", and "Global Security Paradoxes: 2000-2020".  


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