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By Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh (RETD)
The attack on the twin towers in September 2001 remains saved in the memory of almost everyone, in response to which, American forces entered Afghanistan on 26 September that year. The first to enter were a CIA team dropped into the Panjshir Valley in the North of the country. At the peak of the war against global terrorism a decade later, they had more than 100,000 troops battling the Taliban. About 2,400 US service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded and trillions of dollars spent.
However, twenty years since they first arrived, all of them will be gone and the longest war in American history will be over, Vietnam lasted nineteen years. President Joe Biden has decided to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September 11th 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks which prompted them to enter Afghanistan in the first place, though missing the deadline of 1st May worked out by the Trump administration with ironically the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan better known as the Taliban which is not recognized leaving the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani out of the talks. It is expected that the NATO Resolute Support Mission forces will follow suit. The question remains whether this war will be over or will their departure prompt a resurgence of the same terrorist threats?
President George W. Bush ordered the invasion after the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, with the goal to punish Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda followers, who were sheltered in Afghanistan by their Taliban hosts. The war was launched with widespread international support but became the same long, bloody, unpopular slog that forced the British to withdraw from Afghanistan in the 19th century and the Soviet Union to retreat in the 20th. The war has evolved, and expanded, from a counter terrorism mission to one devoted to nation-building, securing democracy and ensuring civil and women rights. But the Afghanistan government has remained fragile and the security forces ineffective, thereby allowing the Taliban to stage a comeback.
Although successive US presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the fact that Al Qaeda and Taliban enjoyed a safe haven across the border in Pakistan. In fact Osama Bin Laden was finally tracked and killed near the Pakistan Military Academy where he had been in a safe house during the Presidency of Obama.
Over the past year, Afghanistan security forces have lost territory due to Taliban assaults, and have relied on American air power to beat back insurgents. However, due to the stakes involved and the government’s waning credibility , militias — once the main power holders during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s — have rearmed and reappeared, and are challenging the security forces in some areas. Is this re -emergence an ominous sign of what lies ahead for the country? There is no doubt that the Taliban is stronger than it has been since 2001 and after the US withdrawal may attempt to seize control of the country by force.
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell criticised Biden’s decision, saying on Twitter, “Foreign terrorists will not leave the US alone simply because our politicians have grown tired of taking the fight to them. The President needs to explain to the American people how abandoning our partners and retreating in the face of the Taliban will make America safer”.
However, Secretary of State Blinken on a visit to Kabul on 15 April said that America had “succeeded” in achieving the objective it set out nearly 20 years ago — Al Qaeda had been significantly degraded and bin Laden “brought to justice.” But has the diminishing influence of Al Qaeda now been taken over by the Taliban and ISIS with similar if not greater potency and there is no word about the fragility of its governance. Hence can this be termed as a retreat in the face of an undefeated enemy or an abdication of responsibility or is it a sign that American priorities have shifted elsewhere?
Whereas Taliban leaders clearly believe they have won the war. As the Taliban’s Deputy Leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, said; “No mujahid ever thought that one day we would face such an improved state, or that we will crush the arrogance of the rebellious emperors, and force them to admit their defeat at our hands. Fortunately, today, we and you are experiencing better circumstances.”
Regional dynamics, and the involvement of outside powers, has had a direct bearing on the conflict in Afghanistan. Most important being Pakistan, which has played an active, and mainly a negative, role in Afghan affairs for decades. Pakistan’s ISI maintains ties with Afghan insurgent groups, most notably the Haqqani Network .Much of the insurgency’s power and longevity can be attributed either directly or indirectly to Pakistani support. Even though General Bajwa while speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue had talked about: “non-interference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighbouring and regional countries;” this new stand seems far removed from reality.
General Kayani had once stated; “a peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan provides us the strategic depth- a concept that is totally misunderstood”. In 2010 while speaking at the NDU in Washington he clarified that; “Strategic Depth is not physical space but the presence of a neighbour to the west that was friendly and not hostile to Pakistan’s interests”. However, Pakistani is likely to view a weak and destabilized Afghanistan as preferable to a strong, unified Afghan state led by a Pashtun-dominated government. As it has a large and restive Pashtun minority further complicated by the presence of over one million Afghan refugees, and a long-running and ethnically tinged dispute over their shared 1,600-mile border. Further, tribal laws, customs and affinities always transcend national laws. With the pandemic already wreaking havoc on its economy Pakistan cannot afford an outpouring of refugees due to a civil war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, fearful of strategic encirclement by India, however continues to view the Afghan Taliban as friendly and anti-India.
Iran shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, and perceives threats from both. A Taliban regime in Kabul would only increase this threat perception. In spite of their links with Hazara’s in Afghanistan, and the theological divide between the Shias and the Sunnis, Iran has even hosted a Taliban delegation at Tehran yet it also fears the rise of Sunni extremism. Paradoxes exist everywhere.
China will also suffer from instability in Afghanistan, as it can have an impact on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. It also fears the Taliban stirring unrest in the Uighur minority Xinjiang region and has stated that Washington should accommodate legitimate security concerns of the regional countries to prevent “terrorist forces” from taking advantage of the chaos in the war-torn country. On the other hand, as Pakistan’s supporter, it could see a bigger role in Afghanistan including access to its minerals. China is attending the UN conference on Afghanistan scheduled to be held in Istanbul from April 20 to 04 May to find a peaceful solution to Afghanistan’s civil strife.
Russia after its withdrawal in 1989 is now taking on a more prominent role of peacemaker but its acceptance to the Taliban remains. It also provides an excellent opportunity to strengthen its cooperation with two other major stakeholders: China and Pakistan. Both Russia and China also view the US presence in Afghanistan as a deterrence against them. But does Russia see its engagement in Afghanistan as a means to secure its periphery? Or does Russia see stability in Afghanistan as a key to stability in Central Asia?
India needs to face up to certain hard realities, the first being that the US which served our strategic interests is no longer staying on. Secondly, Taliban will retain control of the government either directly or indirectly and their linkages with the deep state within Pakistan are strong. Next is that while India rightly concentrated on reconstruction and developmental projects however our focus was on soft power in a country where hard power calls the shots. We were unwilling to put boots on the ground and unwilling to provide weapons, our focus has been on training. In spite of our close ties with the Afghanistan governments of Karzai and Ghani over the past two decades, India was not able to use this period and opportunity to achieve our objectives.
As a country India has suffered due to the nexus between militants, Taliban and Pakistan which was evident during the hijacking of IC 814 in 1999. India needs to ensure that Afghanistan territory is not used by militants acting against our interests. The consequences of this withdrawal as far as India is concerned are dangerous. The only advantage we have is the goodwill and contacts developed amongst the population and moderates and the ties with the Tajik’s and Uzbek’s who still have influence in the North, we need to leverage this to our benefit and protect our interests.
The options before Afghanistan at this juncture are varied; idealism demands a stable government supported by international aid and backed by the Taliban. Reality points otherwise, either Taliban directly assume power or install a puppet regime and retain all the strings of control. The next is the stepping in of a Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan backed government thereby increasing the presence and influence of these countries directly and through their proxies. The worst is the balkanisation of Afghanistan along ethnic lines with the Pashtuns, Tajik’s, Uzbek’s and Hazara’s all controlling their areas of influence. There is also a generation who grew up after the exit of the Taliban and value their rights and are unlikely to welcome strict Sharia laws; clashes within could result. All scenarios are fraught with various degrees of danger for the stability of the region. A possible solution presently lies in a United Nations backed Peace Keeping Force ; however the Taliban are unlikely to welcome it and China and Russia still have a veto power in the Security Council to see such a move going through or a negotiated peace settlement driven by the United Nations incorporating the countries of the region. What needs to be seen is who finally shepherds the process for Afghanistan’s stability.
We need to remember what President Paul Kagame of Rwanda told Lionel Barber, the Editor of Financial Times; that western attempts to impose democracy in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have backfired disastrously: – “you think these countries will be democracies again. Not in our lifetimes.”
All superpowers at their time have tried to control Afghanistan, but can Russia be considered to be at the same pedestal as USSR and is China now wanting to tread into an area where all superpowers have rushed and exited after throwing in the towel leaving behind an unfinished agenda. What needs to be remembered is that the US is physically distanced from Afghanistan which affords it the luxury of walking out leaving it where it was; it continues to remain one of the poorest, most violent and corrupt countries in the world.
An alliance between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, with Russian support all countries with interests and influence in Afghanistan and extension of this arc till Turkey will be of concern due to its security implications.
Turmoil in Afghanistan directly effects its neighours and as far as India is concerned, there needs to be stability both in Afghanistan and the region, otherwise it may lead to the spread of radical terrorism as was witnessed earlier. It is possible that Afghanistan turns into another civil war or becomes a haven for international terrorist organizations and narcotics. Though the world has changed in the last twenty years unfortunately not much has changed for Afghanistan. There can be no doubt that the problems for Afghanistan will snowball as its people face this existential challenge.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)
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