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

U.S. Exit From Afghanistan Holds Scary Prospects

th year, with practically no prospect of a decisive outcome. This narrative has to begin by viewing the ‘Game’ from the American prism because the US, its Monroe Doctrine in shreds in the mountains of Afghanistan, is emerging as the likely net loser. It survived Vietnam, but Afghanistan is already impacting its position as the world leader. Ironically, Trump, while working to withdraw, wants regional players to send troops that should replace his. Nobody, including India, is buying that. Each would want to protect own turf and if possible, gain geopolitical influence. This is the new “Great Game.” Trump administration is striving for a deal to extricate itself. Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s Afghan-American envoy, says he has made some headway with the Taliban. The US is seeking ‘verifiable’ assurances before quitting Afghanistan. The trillion dollar question (the US has spent that much in this conflict) is whether the US can enforce those terms once it quits. It did ‘degrade’ the Taliban over the years, but never enough to force them to negotiate. Principal reason for that was their Pakistan sanctuary. Three US Presidents took long to realize this. Their punishing it occasionally yielded no solution. Taliban know they cannot get control over Afghanistan until the Americans quit. But they rule on the ground. Hence, it is doubtful if they would be satisfied playing a minor role in a collective Afghan government. Their refusal to respect the current Afghan government could be a deal breaker. But they can, as they have done, sit out. Sensing success at some stage, Taliban seek to appear reasonable, under the Sharia law, on treatment to women and religious minorities. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has said what they followed “early times” while in power could alter as the situation has ‘evolved’ and is ‘different.’ The Hindus, Sikhs and Christians who constitute microscopic minorities, would enjoy their religious freedom. For now, the US has virtually sidelined the Kabul regime it has propped for 17 years. Sensing the inevitable, President Ashraf Ghani is protesting and has the ears of those in the region who, while wanting the US to quit, don’t want to facilitate it. Nobody is expecting a smooth transition should a deal materialize. But Afghanistan, landlocked and abjectly dependent upon Pakistan, is seeking to break out. It has just begun exports to through a totally new route, from its Zaranj city to Iran’s India-built Chabahar port to Mumbai. India sent 1.1 million tonnes of wheat and 2,000 tonnes of lentils to Afghanistan through Chabahar. Both also established an air corridor in 2017 after which Afghan exports to India stood at $740 million in 2018, which is double of what Pakistan exports to India. This is but a sneeze for Pakistan that undoubtedly remains the key player, backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations and controlled by China that has set up the bigger Gwadar port in Balochistan. For every step–back Washington takes, Beijing advances that much and more. The Sino-Pak duo could emerge as the net gainer. But will they end Pakistan’s woes – refugees and drugs, principally – given their deep penetration in its society? The Durand Line dispute shall persist; even the Taliban when in power had not accepted it. Trump, like predecessor Obama, keeps lambasting Pakistan for failing America’s “war on terrorism” and being part of the problem instead of the solution. He has withheld funds, but has also ensured cooperation – at a price. It is an open secret that the bailout booty Pakistan has begun receiving from Saudi Arabia and the UAE is at America’s behest. It is also meant to restrict China. But the “iron brother” has already gotten big thanks to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, Trump holds the proverbial trump card – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, till Pakistan delivers on allowing access to departing American troops and equipment. Like China, Russia and Iran would also want the US out of this Asian theatre. America under Trump seems their best bet as each hopes to extract its pound of the Afghan flesh in terms of geopolitical influence. They all agree that the Islamic State (IS), losing territorial battle in Syria but spreading its tentacles eastwards into Af-Pak region, is a bigger threat, not the Taliban whose worldview was and remains restricted to Afghanistan. Everyone realizes that what the US/NATO failed to achieve with 150,000 troops on the ground, cannot be done with 13,000 of which Trump wants to withdraw a half to begin with. Notably, opposition in the US to quitting Afghanistan is nowhere as fierce as what was evident when Trump decided to quit Syria. Another Afghan reality is that although the Taliban control more territory than they ever did, they cannot on their own overrun Kabul. A depleting and de-spirited National Army can still hold out. The Sino-Pak combine would not want this as that would make the Taliban too strong to tackle. Ditto Iran that must guard the interests of Shia population in a Sunni-Pashtun dominated set-up that would gain control of Kabul. Having long fed the conflict by providing the Taliban a safe haven, Pakistan, too, would fear the untrammeled emergence of a fragmented Afghanistan under a Taliban government. In sum, everyone wants a piece of the animal in this game of “Afghan Buzhkhashi.” Tackling Taliban first and improvise a solution from outside may not be easy. The complex Afghan polity includes many ethnicities that have often been at war. The conflict is actually of Pashtun versus Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and numerous minor groups. Many have in the past changed sides. Since the Jirga culture of collective debate and decision has been destroyed, it is difficult to see them working together. Any foreign-imposed arrangement between a foreign power and one ethnic group reached in a Gulf capital is unlikely to work. What is there for India? It has gained and lost presence since the days of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the British and the Soviets. The American exit could again render it ‘friendless’. This is a grim prospect in a more complex geopolitical environment, having spent a whopping three billion dollars and invested in goodwill among the Afghans since 2002. India needs to work carefully with old allies – Russia, Iran and the Central Asian Republics. And with China that last year agreed to launch a joint project in Afghanistan partnering India. India-Pakistan tensions rage over terror attacks in Pulwama followed by India’s retaliatory strikes, with more trouble in store. The Iran-Pakistan tensions also simmer after Iranian Revolutionary Guards were attacked a day before Pulwama. They only underscore the reality that what is being billed as the ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan is getting complicated by the day. Despite Trump’s resolve, it would naïve to think that the US would quit so easily a virgin land of copper and several yet-to-be-explored minerals. They are needed for the American industry, especially, the defence industry that must sell arms and keep, like trouble spots elsewhere, the Afghan pot boiling. There seems no ‘end’ to this ‘game’. Will history repeat itself? Will the international community again abandon a war-ravaged Afghanistan like it did three decades back after the Soviets withdrew, paving the way for the Taliban, then 9/11 and then the IS? Will Afghanistan then remain a citadel of transnational terrorism, a drugs haven and sanctuary for various Jihadi groups? The prospects are scary. The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com  ]]>