When the super power, currently headed by an unconventional man, seeks to withdraw from a conflict theatre without scoring a decisive victory or conceding defeat, there are bound to be repercussions, far and wide.
President Donald Trump seems to have set third quarter of year 2020 as the deadline by which he wants all American troops out of Afghanistan, ostensibly so that he can claim to have “brought the boys back home” and seek re-election.
This makes all the players appear conciliatory but harden their respective stand, only allowing a victory-less withdrawal. But will the US quit?
Prolonging its presence cannot be anybody’s case. The NATO, brought in to fight the “global war against terrorism”, cried off long ago. Even Trump’s critics at home and allies and adversaries outside acknowledge that this has been the longest American military engagement, now into its 18th 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 email@example.com