Author : Vikram Sood

Originally Published 2011-03-04 00:00:00 Published on Mar 04, 2011
Nearly ten years in Afghanistan and not a solution is sight makes for sad commentary for the ability of the US to solve its security problems or to force a solution on other regions. The year of reckoning may have been postponed from 2011 to 2014.
Afghanistan's Uncertain Future
Nearly ten years in Afghanistan and not a solution is sight makes for sad commentary for the ability of the US to solve its security problems or to force a solution on other regions. The year of reckoning may have been postponed from 2011 to 2014 but this is only a matter of detail and three years are not even a comma in history. This merely postpones the inevitable. It is now more a matter of deciding the manner of exit; it is a question more of how, not about if or when, this will happen. It is feared, even if not admitted openly by the US, that they are in a situation that they cannot alter. In the early days of the 21st century where power equations are changing this must be a matter of concern in Washington DC. Strategic stalemate stares at the US which, for a superpower, is in effect strategic defeat.

The problem has its origins in the manner in which the entire Global War on Terror was handled from the very beginning. Since then, the ISAF/NATO led by the US has been fighting a wrong war in the wrong place with wrong allies. There was far too much reliance on airpower with inadequate ground forces to hold territory; there was too much reliance on Pakistan where essentially the problem originated. If the force required, according to this writer was 250,000 US/NATO troops four years ago, a far larger number would be required today when the Taliban has extended its footprint over not only the Pushtun areas in the south and east but also the north. The issue now is that neither will more troops help nor are they available with America's European allies eager to quit. The moment that more forces could have helped has gone.

The hunt was for Al Qaeda leaders who moved freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of them had preferred to stay in the cities so that they could have access to modern telecommunications and the rest of the world in furtherance of its global radical Islamist agenda. Inadequate forces in Afghanistan, with the borders not sealed and no attempt beyond verbal assurances from Pakistan was the manner in which the war was fought in the early months. Just when it was felt that the US/NATO might have a chance to succeed, attention was diverted to a futile war in Iraq. No serious attempt was made to plug the Pakistan end of the escape route for the Al Qaeda or later the Taliban.

Changing US priorities and strategies

There are some who believe that the present US predicament is not really the issue because this situation is the desired result of a grand conspiracy to create instability even through Islamic fundamentalists and to control the region. The Brzezinski interview with Nouvelle Observateur was quite remarkable both for naiveté and nonchalance. He said, "What is more important for world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? Some Islamic hotheads or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?" Brzezinski added "It's said that the West has a global policy regarding regarding Islam. That's hogwash: there is no global Islam.... It is the first world religion with 1.5 billion adherents. But what is common between fundamentalist Saudi Arabia moderate Morocco, militaristic Pakistan..,?" It was not that the US wanted to create chaos to control the situation; merely that they were willing to use any instrument to defeat the Soviet Union.
No one in the US ever realised that unlike the Vietnamese who never swore revenge against the Americans, the Pushtun and other Islamic radicals were going to be different and would use this as an excuse to carry the battle to the US. It is not that the US had this as a grand plan to control the world, but that they used the mujahedeen to unite the very Moroccans, Saudis and other Arabs with the Afghans and Pakistanis that Brzezinski said were as different as Christians in the Christian world. The US didn't learn from Vietnam, the Soviets didn't learn from the Americans either and then the Americans didn't learn from the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today we have a jihad that has its epicentre in a Pakistan which is itself on a slippery slope with its spill over in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, discourse in America has changed. Questions are being asked about why are US soldiers dying at the rate of 500 a year and why the US exchequer spending about US dollars 200 billion a year on an unwinnable war. By 2014 the next and 'final' date, America would have lost another 1500 young men and women. Admiral Mullen recently warned that 2011 would be bloodier than 2010. The primary aim of the US is to make America safe from terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan. There is a realisation that the US is unlikely to win; the government in Kabul is seen to be weak and ineffective; neither the Afghan Army nor the Afghan police are likely to be able to take control of the situation in the next three years. European and American public opinion s swinging away from this war; and anyone who has read Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars would realise that either President Obama is unsure what to do next or his heart is just not in it.

The next best thing to do is to somehow extricate with least damage by declaring "Mission Accomplished." Essentially US policies have been more of the same; a certain kind of bankruptcy of ideas that only shows in funneling more funds to Pakistan either as a reward for services believed rendered or in the hope that they will rendered. In the process, Pakistan has acquired a veto power on the US for its policies in AfPak.

Perhaps Joe Biden's plan of withdrawal of ground forces substantially and then hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics may have been an option. Ambassador Robert Blackwill's Plan B for Afghanistan is actually an extension of this. He calls for a withdrawal of American forces substantially from the Pushtun south and east and concentrating in US forces in the north and north west as bases for striking against targets. This is perhaps a better option for America than a sudden withdrawal like the one in Vietnam even which would mean that the US lost. Blackwill's plan leaves some sizeable forces in the region protecting American interests though it also means an admission that the war as presently configured is unwinnable. Inbuilt in the Blackwill plan is a dialogue with the Taliban and reduction of US dependency on Pakistan and an informal coming into being of a Pushtun homeland. Both Biden and Blackwill realise that the essential problem is in Pakistan.

The Taliban, without any political or economic agenda beyond getting rid of the invader was a battered force in the early days of the US invasion and reconciled to accepting the new order, was allowed to stage a comeback through incompetence, insensitive unimaginative and heavily militaristic tactics of the invading American force that was quickly distracted to other theatres.
What is more likely is a stalemate where a tired Western alliance is bereft of most of its European allies and the battle becomes an exclusive one between the US and Taliban with an increasingly helpless and corrupt regime in Kabul. This regime which is increasingly being run by the same warlords and politicians who ruled Kabul from 1992 to 1996 will be pitted against those represented by the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network both of whom are backed by Pakistan.

Pakistan's ambitions in Afghanistan

Given the Pakistan Army's control over the Taliban, presence of its surrogates in Afghanistan along with reports of exploitable vital minerals in that country and the slowing down of the Kandahar and North Waziristan operations could suggest that there is a deal on the anvil. The West withdraws its fighting force substantially, outsources security of its projects to private military contractors while exploiting the minerals. Pakistan will have attained strategic depth and security through the Taliban and the Haqqani networks.

Obsessed with India, Pakistan has refused to take action against those groups that do not threaten its own existence - like the Afghan Shura in Quetta , the Haqqani Networks known for their anti-Indian animus and India-specific groups like the Lashkar e Tayyaba and Harkat ul Jihad al Islami, Jaish e Mohammed, or the sectarian militia like the Sipah Sahaba. It has taken limited action against Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan. However, the present mood in Pakistan is indicated by the assassination of the Punjab Governor, and, more significantly, the praise and open support that the assassin received. It is, therefore, going to be difficult for Pakistan to roll back the radical Islamic fervour that has gripped the country.

Pakistan has another dilemma. They want the Americans to leave so that they can take over control of Afghanistan. Ye t the fear is that if the Americans do leave substantially, then they will lose interest as in the past and the funds will dry up. So the entire game will continue to carefully choreographed where the US remains largely ineffective and dependent but keeps feeding Pakistan coffers.

Despite all the protestations, demarches, angry pronouncements, and plenty of carrots, the US has not been able to prevent Pakistan from playing its various proxies in Afghanistan, it has more or less bought the Pakistani argument that it is unable to take action in the west because of the India factor, and the Pak necessity to have 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan, and that because of all these factors it is also unable to take adequate action against its own terrorists.

Indian concerns

India has considerable concerns in the evolving situation Afghanistan and the region as a whole. It might be considered a satisfaction in Washington DC to be able to come to an agreement with the good Taliban assuming that they are less fundamentalist and therefore more benign than the other. The war in Afghanistan, it must never be forgotten, is not just against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda but against the medieval obscurantism that they represent. One also discerns dialogue in the west that seems to suggest that the Taliban are not such bad fellows after all, they have a regional i.e. Afghan nationalist approach and are merely fighting against foreign occupation. This argument implies that once this cause disappears then the Taliban angst will disappear and Afghanistan can be left to them. This is dangerous rationalisation and does not take into account Pakistani ambitions as well as the Taliban/Al Qaeda combine along with the criminal narcotics-warlord nexus. Accepting this deal is accepting the mindset and the short route to rapid Islamisation of the region and beyond.
India's concern is that the US anxious, to find a solution to its predicament in Afghanistan, will look the other way to Pakistan's acts of terrorism, will be ready to accept Pakistani charges of Indian interference in Afghanistan and intransigence on Kashmir and the continuing threat from India. Pakistan has fine tuned its strategy for the last three decades and has continued with that in the current US campaign. So long as it co-operates against the Al Qaeda and against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US will accept what Pakistan does elsewhere.

Narcotics as a driving force and Russian worries

Western discourse has mostly been about geo-strategic aspects but tends to underplay the narcotics-criminal-warlord connections. It is often not forgotten that the value of the illicit narcotics industry equalled as much as one-third of Afghanistan's regular economy. It is an important way of funding for the insurgency, competes with regular development, and undermines governance. Of the roughly $3 billion dollars generated by the Afghan narcotics trade, UNODC estimates that anywhere between $90 and $160 million per year is channelled to the insurgency. Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world's opium, which is refined into heroin in Afghanistan and other countries. The UNODC estimates that 1.6 million Afghans were involved in opium poppy cultivation during the 2008-09 growing period, representing 6.4% of the total population.

Russia has been one of the most affected countries and an estimated 90 percent of heroin consumed in Russia originates in Afghanistan and comes via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, Afghan heroin kills around 100,000 globally, including 30,000 Russians, each year. This is far more than the annual losses of combatants in Afghanistan.

From Afghanistan, opium and, increasingly, refined heroin is trafficked to Western Europe and Russia via Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia The drug trade across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is not only weakening state control but also cementing linkages among drug traffickers throughout the larger region, Taliban, insurgents, and criminal groups. In turn, this nexus of drugs, crime, and insurgents threatens NATO supply routes and offers resistance to ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas.

The Russian dilemma is that they want to end the narcotics smuggling, they do not want Islamic radicalism to reach even their southern neighbours but at the same time they do not really want the Americans or NATO achieving this. Yet they are in no position to intervene in the conflict.

Other powers

It is possible that the US may be left with a situation where it finds itself backing the Kabul regime while Pakistan backs the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network in an Afghan civil war. China with ambitions to reach the Persian Gulf, is the rising power seeking space and resource bases for itself, with Pakistan as its staunch ally. India needs to strengthen its relations with Iran and Russia who would be similarly affected by the rise of Taliban, for access to Central Asia and West Asia.
While Pakistan, in search of strategic depth, and security against an India proclaims to fear both on its Western and Eastern borders, has assumed for itself a pre-eminent position as virtually the sole arbiter of Afghanistan's fate, there are other countries in the region that have stakes in Afghanistan. Iran, for instance, surrounded as it feels with Sunni regimes/monarchies along with US CENTCOM forces located in the neighbourhood and with a 936 kilometre border with Afghanistan, is immensely apprehensive of a Wahhabi-Sunni regime in Afghanistan, and has reasons to feel claustrophobic and surrounded. A frequent complaint from Americans is that the Iranians are unreliable as they have harboured Al Qaeda and Taliban, besides the nuclear issue that bedevils US-Iran ties. This is far less duplicitous than what the Pakistani regime has been doing with the US. American reluctance to deal with Iran and the latter's unpredictable behaviour has been one of the many drawbacks in evolving a unified approach against the Taliban/Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

A US-Russia understanding on Afghanistan has just begun to evolve and would reduce US dependence on Pakistan for logistic support to that extent. The Central Asian Republics on Afghanistan's northern boundaries fear the spread of Talibanised doctrines once Afghanistan falls to the Taliban. China seeks a place for itself in the Gulf via Afghanistan possibly as an alternative access routes in case Pakistan becomes more unstable. Further, China like Iran India and Russia would be extremely wary about the rise of Taliban and the possibility of this ideology filtering in to Xinjiang. Even so, a trilateral between India, Iran and China on this seems remote so also a trilateral between Russia, India and China.

After 2014

An American withdrawal in some form or the other is now a given. India has to prepare for the aftermath. This could be of various kinds.

It is sometimes forgotten that in the ultimate analysis the Taliban are Pushtun who live on both sides of the Durand Line and there has been an upsurge in anti-Pushtun violence in Balochistan, Karachi and FATA. It may not be long before there is an upsurge of a demand for Greater Pushtunistan once the foreigner and, therefore the common enemy, has departed and the Pushtuns internalise their several problems swept under the carpet by successive regimes. Pushtun assertiveness will almost certainly lead to retaliation from Afghanistan's other ethnic groups. Religious obscurantism combined with ultra-nationalism can be a very explosive mix. Of course given Afghanistan's complex tribal structure it is not easy to predict how the future will shape out. Besides any change in the configuration of the Pushtun belt will have its repercussions on Pakistan. Any Indian policy for the future must take this possibility into consideration.

There are a few other scenarios that one can visualise for Afghanistan. As the situation continues to deteriorate and the US keeps having its strategic re-evaluations, the future looks gloomy. It varies from an ultimate disaster for the region and indeed the world if the insurgency continues to grow rapidly to re-establish near total Taliban control with Al Qaeda back in reckoning in the country. While the Taliban would then control a region, possibly with effective Pakistan oversight and Al Qaeda would become better equipped to spread its global network. The Al Qaeda creed would then spread outward into Central Asia and beyond and strengthen in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It is far too close to India for any comfort.

Nevertheless, the future looks uncertain and violent unless there is an all-nation guarantee for Afghan neutrality and non-interference by other powers. It is a fair assumption that Karzai's Afghanistan is unravelling fast and no one really has any idea how to prevent this. Meanwhile, the Saudi-Wahhabi and the Pakistan-Military nexus, the latter's nexus with the Afghan drug lords, worth billions of dollars, seem to assume that they would be picking up the pieces in a divided country with Pakistan at last attaining its 'strategic depth' vis a vis India. This is not how it may happen eventually.

The cure, if any, lies in Pakistan where all Afghan specific and India specific insurgent/terrorist groups take shelter, receive support and now coalesce for Pakistan's foreign policy objectives. So far India been comfortable with its infrastructure assistance to the Afghans while others battled for bigger stakes. This situation is going to change with Pakistan remaining hostile because enmity with India that is seen and portrayed as a hostile predator has been the cornerstone of its existence.
There are no easy answers no quick solutions. A solution can be possible only if four aspects are seriously considered. Pakistan must be reined in and made to understand that it is less indispensible to US interests than it makes out. The US must accept that it can no longer determine the fate of other countries on its own and has to reach out to other neighbouring countries like Iran and others who have important stakes in the stability and independence of Afghanistan i.e. Russia and India. Additionally, the US has to use more of the stick and less of the carrot when dealing with Pakistan. The narcotics criminal warlord nexus must be severed. This cannot be done without adequate agricultural relief work preceding this; which in turn cannot be done adequately without pacifying the various areas, especially Kandahar where the challenge is the greatest. There has to be closer US and NATO engagement with Russia and separately Iran for dealing with Afghanistan effectively. We must evaluate if there can be any agreement amongst all nations about non-interference in Afghanistan or will Pakistan continue to remain a considerable part of the problem.

Whatever happens in the next few years, it must be accepted that the nature of the region will change, perhaps forever. A stable Pakistan may have been able to exercise reasonable influence on a much weaker Afghanistan. That influence would certainly not have been to India's advantage. However, Pakistan is itself in a mess of various kinds, where the voice of the polity, society and the military is that of an increasingly intolerant and violent religiosity along with ethno-political fissures. It is doubtful that even if the US were to leave victorious or leave substantially whether Pakistan would be able to either control or bring stability to the region. Pakistan's quest for strategic depth is more likely to end up as a strategic quagmire. What we are looking at is a very unstable and turbulent region from the Oxus to the Indus.

Faced with this ominous situation of approaching chaos, the urge in India would be that we must do something in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must resist this temptation and distinguish between wanting to do something, the need to do something and ability to do something. As a nation we must realise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change our neighbourhood, the ability to do so and the difference between the two. Our social indicators remain abysmal, and mere GDP growth rates are misleading. The best we can do is to decide to strengthen our defence, security and intelligence; and to get internally cohesive and strong without being distracted by party ambitions. We do not seem to display any sense of urgency in any of these vital matters and seem quite happy with global approbation. We should not therefore get tempted to go in as flag waving liberators acting as someone else's surrogates, to clear their mess or surrender our core security interests in Jammu and Kashmir or elsewhere. To do so would be monumental folly.

It may be best to wait it out, keep a low profile instead of perpetually seeking a place at the High Table.

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Vikram Sood

Vikram Sood

Vikram Sood is Advisor at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Sood is the former head of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) — India’s foreign intelligence agency. ...

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Holger Rogner

Holger Rogner

Holger Rogner International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

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