Afghanistan – The Great Game Continues

Billed as ‘Heart of Asia’ by its multinational stakeholders, the landlocked Afghanistan is where a new chapter of cold war and what was touted as the Great Game, is being written. What happens here in the near future will shape the region’s history, but not without impacting much of the world.

We say the rest of the world because energy needs and armament exports shall continue to attract everyone to this region. The Great Game was aimed at the Czarist Russia and the former Soviet Union. Today, Russia retains this position, but as junior partner of a resurgent China. The two are, indeed, the unstated “other places” where the United States feels compelled to focus to justify its decision to quit the much-touted “global war against terrorism”.

Unable to shake off what his predecessors – George Bush who started and then escalated it to Iraq, Obama who could not undo, but what Trump has shackled him with, Biden is now committed to quit America’s longest war. In declaring that the US will withdraw its troops by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11, he has bought himself 132 days, no more. Its scheduling with the anniversary symbolizes America’s failure to sustain the war – forget winning it.

Now, think of a people whom the world’s most powerful nation abandons. It cannot, of course, be argued that the Americans stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. The Afghans have a history of keeping their heads high, and will not admit it. They have no choice either. They may have a glorious history of having defeated foreign invaders and survived occupations. But once the US withdraws, an elected government they support will collapse in a matter of months. Power struggle could begin with bloodshed and street fights.  The triumphal Taliban are already talking of retribution, setting up courts and introducing their stringent brand of Sharia. A nation with a chequered past and an uncertain presence now faces a grim future.

The sufferers, once again, are the Afghan people. The younger ones into science and technology at India-aided centres. The girls, about 40 percent of the academic force, may find their schools and colleges close, because the incoming Taliban think they are un-Islamic. Few would recall that the Russians helped educate a generation of Afghan women enabling them to nurture with relatively better position in their families. Now, their daughters and granddaughters will lose the freedom they enjoyed in the last two decades. 

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It is déjà vu for older Afghans, the high and mighty invading to defend democracy and fight terrorism, and then walking away, weary but not chastened or sorry, for repeating what they did in 1990. The West had won and rejoiced at the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now America’s turn to end its longest war and conduct a victory-less withdrawal that would make Vietnam seem graceful.

This was inevitable, given America’s war fatigue after losing 2,500 men and sinking three trillion dollars. But the military situation was favourable till 2017-2019. The Taliban had a tough time and heavy casualties, enough for the US to force a stalemate and a compromise that would compel the Taliban to talk to the government in Kabul. But Trump hastened to sign the deal at Doha in February 2020, ostensibly to enhance his chances of electoral victory in the presidential polls.

The American abandonment began when the pact was signed keeping the Ghani Government out of the talks and on Taliban assurances that everyone knew the Americans could not enforce, save their own facilities from being attacked. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was sought or secured for the Afghan populace. 

The US agreeing to withdraw by May 1, 2021 emboldened the Taliban to seize vast territory, attacking even schools and hospitals, to enhance their bargaining position. This reversed the gains the US Marines-supported government troops had made on the ground. Trump and his envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, shall be judged by history.

And now comes the new deadline of September 11. Whether the Taliban will view this delayed withdrawal as a breach of the agreement and resume large-scale attacks against Afghan and American forces is not clear. What is clear, however, is the success of their military strategy of pushing the Afghan forces, reduced to a mere 20,000 to 30,000 (as against the ambitious 250,000 originally planned). Their funding at USD four billion annually could end if the US Congress votes against it. Resistance by the government forces will ebb with security forces abandoning their positions and switching sides. This has been the past record.

Why would the Taliban agree to share power the way the Americans ask and the world community hopes, when they can take it by force? They already control large swaths of territory from a government with which they are being asked to cooperate? The Taliban regard the government in Kabul as a puppet of the Americans and barely hide their contempt for it. They have never committed to a power-sharing arrangement with the government, much less elections. The Kabul government is expecting a bloody endgame, and is likely to get it.  The Taliban believe they have already militarily won the war with Afghan forces, and they may prove right.

The situation on the ground is bound to worsen. Emboldened by the American withdrawal, and constituting a further threat to the Ghani government, are the regional satraps. These power brokers have always survived by changing sides, violently. They may now cut deals with the winning side, the Taliban, who are Pashtuns but dominate even in non-Pashtun areas.

President Ashraf Ghani is Casabianca, the proverbial boy on the burning deck. It could be a matter of months before his government collapses or cuts a deal of its own with the Taliban – a deal that will be hailed as a great peace move, probably making him worthy of a Peace Nobel. Sorry, but cynicism set in when going by the past records.  

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As of now, Ghani’s future could be bleak. He can only hope that he does not meet the fate similar to some of his predecessors. Najibullah’s body was hung by the lamppost after even the United Nations failed to help. Given his academic background, he might end up as an American university don, unlike last South Vietnamese president, Kao Kye, who sold pizzas.   

To the world community, the expression being touted is of the US’ “responsible exit”. It inherently accepts that there definitely is America’s responsibility, having started it all two decades back as “global war against terrorism”, and implies that any semblance of having won that global war or even having eliminated terrorism has remained elusive after two decades. It is also a bitter reminder is that the US and the West as a whole went to Afghanistan against the invasion by the then Soviet Union with similar objectives, slogans and promises. When the Soviets withdrew, the victorious West abandoned Afghanistan to fractious groups of fighters.

It is advantage Pakistan that nurtured the Taliban for long, and China, its mentor. India cannot like it. It has no friends among the Taliban and few among the other groups. But staying out is not an option for India. It has invested three billion dollars and in well-earned Afghan goodwill for two decades. Earlier, the US would ask Pakistan to “do more” on curbing terrorism. Now, India is being asked, to “invest more” in a hostile Afghanistan. Identified with the US in the region now, it must feel as abandoned as Ghani and his men, till it cultivates new equations. It is difficult, like it was when the Soviets withdrew. That explains why developments in the “Heart of Asia” have global implications.

The writer co-authored: Taliban & the Afghan Turmoil (Himalaya Books, 1997), Afghan Turmoil: Changing Equations (Himalaya Books, 1998) and Afghan Buzkhashi: Great Games and Gamesmen (Wordsmiths, April 2000). He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

From Howdy Modi To ‘Kem Chho’ Trump

Much water has flown down the Potomac and the Jamuna since Indian-Americans organised an enthusiastic “Howdy Modi” event last September. The Indian premier had then extended full political support to President Donald Trump who is eyeing re-election in November. The Indo-US ties have not changed radically, but are getting ready to be cemented, while domestic conditions and electoral prospects in the ‘largest’ and the ‘greatest’ of democracies definitely are altering. This lends diplomatic and domestic weight to Trump’s India visit, scheduled for February 24-25. 

Now, it is Modi’s turn to host a “Kem Chho”, equivalent to “howdy” in Gujarati. Like he had hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and later, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Modi will begin Trump’s sojourn with home state Gujarat, where he remains wildly popular. Many Indian-Americans prospering as academics and entrepreneurs are from this western Indian state. Visiting Gujarat could thus help Trump politically, like it helped Britain’s Boris Johnson. A hark-back to ‘howdy’ will certainly be attempted.

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A more aggressive and triumphant Trump may be visiting India. Compared to 50,000 Indian Americans at the Texas event, Trump says Modi has promised him welcome by “millions and millions” of Indians at the just-built cricket stadium touted as the world’s biggest. “Donald Bhai” should be happy. 

Taking that the Trump visit is a quid pro quo exercise, what will Trump bring to India to ‘deserve’ the three million Indian-Americans’ support? India has a long wish list, and presumably, Modi, too, would have one, a private one, that enables him to ride his current woes.  

Tens of thousands of Indian-Americans gathered at the ‘howdy’ event had cheered on the two populist leaders, unmindful of the critics’ accusations of them both of having polarized their own people.

It is not clear if Sabarmati Ashram is on Trump’s itinerary. From his track record, however, the irony of his seeking solace at what India’s apostle of peace, truth and nonviolence would call his ‘home’ can’t be ignored.

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It would be a welcome distraction for both nationalistic leaders, who face deepening political troubles at home. Trump has weathered the impeachment storm since a majority of American lawmakers seemed to agree that it is okay for Trump to do just about anything if it is in “public interest.” This removes any doubts about his Republican re-nomination and helps take on the Democrats, as of now divided and confused. And looking at his berating the opposition in parliament this week, Modi, too, seems to be in a similar mood, despite a dismal debacle in Delhi’s Assembly polls.      

Trump has eight months to chart his political/electoral course, while Narendra Modi has over four years – more than Trump’s entire tenure. He may hope that the “Kem Chho” event may undo the damage to his standing at home and his image in the Western world, caused by his divisive political agenda and an economy in dire slowdown.

Run-up to the tiny but politically significant Delhi Assembly polls saw angry, but largely peaceful, protests, having women and children in the forefront. In what analysts say is accumulated discontent, Indians from all walks of life have railed against a new citizenship law that is widely seen as discriminatory toward Muslim minority and a blow to India’s roots as a secular democracy.

Protests are being replicated in several Indian cities and reportedly, in 30 North American and British cities. Although he is himself known for adopting such postures at home, Trump could come fully-briefed about all this to assess his hosts well.

The Trump visit, said to be born out of their New Year greetings on telephone, could well be Modi’s attempt at a bounce-back. It is a coup of sorts. An American president’s India visit – like it had happened when Bill Clinton, George W. Bush Jr. and Barack Obama visited in the recent years — carries political endorsement and definite economic benefits. With a warm hug to “Donald Bhai”, Modi hopes for both. And since both espouse similar ideologies, unlike Obama who criticized Modi a week after he was feted, Trump could be fully accommodating. Modi can hope to offset some of the Congressional and media criticism in the US.

Pending the visit, officials in two countries have made feverish preparations, including a much-anticipated trade deal. Both are eager for more business and looking to find a counterweight to the rise of China.

The brass tacks would begin in New Delhi. Trump and Modi will have to navigate some tricky geopolitics. Americans have for long been trying to woo India into a closer strategic partnership to contain China, but New Delhi has remained lukewarm. This is unlikely to change. India wants to retain its strategic autonomy while dealing with neighbours. And, truth be told, it’s not easy to deal with Trump’s America.

Both sides are also eager to ink a trade deal. Snags remain and only a partial deal of a modest $10 billion is likely. Although a much smaller economy, India with 1.3 billion people is a huge market. The Trump administration, with eye on the November elections, seems obsessed with the overall American trade deficit and wants India to buy more American goods.

India has tentatively agreed to end price caps on imported medical devices like heart stents and artificial knees, which had been a key sticking point in the talks. But that’s not enough. Trump himself has attacked India’s high tariffs, particularly on Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle, incidentally, is but a speck in the overall bilateral trade. But, it’s like the Rajiv Gandhi Government was forced to buy almond, a low-priority import, from Californian farmers who supported then President Reagan.

Thus, before granting any concessions on that front, the US wants India to promise to purchase billions of dollars of American turkeys, blueberries, apples, pecans and other agricultural products to help reduce a $25 billion trade deficit with India. The Modi government, for its part, is insisting that the Trump administration restore a preferential trade status for India that lowers tariffs on goods like textiles. Let’s see.

Seeking and securing American waivers to its purchases, like oil and defence equipment, from other counties has been painful for India. It has all but surrendered on Iran’s oil. After several decades, four major weapons systems purchased from the US were show-cased at the Republic Day Parade last month.

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Trump and Modi have been keyed-in on Afghanistan in the past. The former wants a role for India. But India would be the last thing on Trump’s mind when pushing the “peace plan”, which is actually a victory-less withdrawal facilitated by Pakistan. Hence question arises: Can the Americans overcome the Pakistanis who want to block India? Or, would they want to?  

With that is connected Kashmir since the Modi Government’s annulment of its special status and break-up of India’s only Muslim majority state, howsoever controversial, is aimed as a bulwark against preventing the Jihadi repeat of the 1990s.

Trump continues to propose to ‘help’ (a shift from ‘mediation’ and ‘facilitation’) its resolution. But knowing well India’s sensitivities, any whispers of the ‘K’ word will surely be in play-safe privacy when he meets Modi without aides.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com