With too many players pushing their agendas, who will gain control after US pullout?
Images of the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre, New York on 11/9/2001 will remain a gruesome reminder of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorism for generations to come. Joe Biden has chosen 11/9/2021, the twentieth anniversary of this tragic event, as the deadline for US pullout from Afghanistan. Instead of paying tribute to the martyrs around the globe who laid down their lives fighting this scourge with an event symbolizing victory over it, Joe Biden seems to have done just the opposite by choosing this solemn day to fly out.
The unconditional US pullout comes barely three decades after a similar pullout by the Soviets. It reaffirms Afghanistan’s record of being the ‘graveyard of empires’. Soviets withdrew in 1989 after being embroiled for almost ten years. During the run-up to the 1988 Geneva Accord and the consequent Soviet pullout, Americans were actively negotiating with the Soviets on the one hand, while on the other, extending full support to Taliban and Pakistan. On their part, USSR supported Najibullah’s proposal for UN monitored, free and fair elections in Afghanistan. Gorbachev was also very keen to make Afghanistan a test bed to show the world how much can be achieved in resolving global conflicts if the US and USSR worked together. The irony was that we had a situation where the communist USSR was appealing for establishment of a democratic set up in Afghanistan while the US remained solely focused on ensuring an ignominious Soviet exit.
Today, United States finds itself exactly where USSR was in 1989 and Ashraf Ghani is where Najibullah was then. Pakistan’s status as a ‘kingmaker of sorts’ remains unchanged. China shadow looms large in the region. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are closely watching the developments and Russia has ensured an important role for itself and Taliban is a force to reckon with. As per the latest assessment available, the Afghan government controls 33% of Districts in the country and Taliban controls 19% with a constant tussle going on for control of the remaining 48% districts. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Jaish e Mohammad and ISIS are seeing new opportunities post US pullout. The conglomeration of Pak ISI, Taliban, Al Qaeda & Haqqani Network exerts considerable influence. There is also a distinct possibility of the Islamic State (ISIS) carving out some areas for itself.
It is apparent that while Afghan government and Taliban are the two major players vying for control, neither has control over the whole of Afghanistan. Taliban is opposed to any elections. It wants the country to be brought under Sharia law and the 7000 odd Taliban prisoners to be set free. Afghan government on the other hand, wants the country to be an Islamic Republic with a constitution and democratic institutions, granting freedom of speech, equal rights for women, right to education etc. Considering the deep contradictions in their stated vision for a ‘way forward’, a joint arrangement between the two main players looks improbable. If a joint arrangement does not work out, will the Afghan government be able to hold out on its own after the US pullout? The answer to this is entirely dependent upon the support that Afghan government would receive from external players in terms of military equipment, intelligence and financial support as well as the role that Pakistan is going to play. Although Taliban receives support from Pakistan and has considerable dependency on its deep state, Taliban does not let itself be controlled by Pakistan. The TTP (Tehreeke Taliban Pakistan) factor makes the equation further complex. Regardless of who gains control after US pullout, groups like Al Qaeda, Haqqani Network, Jaish e Mohammad and ISIS will attempt to create pockets of influence for themselves. There is also a distinct possibility of ‘splintered control’, in other words, total anarchy. It is also a fact that 9/11/2021 is still some distance away providing adequate room for surprises and changes in the scenario. It is this haze that we see ahead, post the US pullout; a milieu with too many players and stakeholders pushing their separate agendas, none letting the other get a predominant foothold.
Another question that is being asked is whether America is playing into China’s hands. America continues to keep a close watch on the region from its military bases in the Middle East. With Pakistan firmly under the Chinese clutches and situation in Afghanistan being what it is, in any case, there was nothing much that US was gaining by being in Afghanistan, except throwing away dollars, taking hits and earning the ill will of Afghans. Moreover, Islamic fundamentalists are now too wide spread globally to be suppressed by actions in Afghanistan alone. It is also a fact that Pakistan, today, is a bigger fountainhead of the Islamic fundamentalist poison than Afghanistan. If the US introspects what were its objectives when it plunged into Afghanistan in 2001, what has been achieved and what can be done now, it may find an answer only to the last question. Coming to China, it is obvious that its aim is to maintain momentum of the Chinese march towards economic supremacy and global leadership. While that march is certainly facilitated by economic weaknesses and dependencies of the target nations, it cannot be taken forward, without there being a certain degree of political stability. A faction-ridden, ravaged, unstable Afghanistan in turmoil would, therefore, be the last place that China may want to invest in or be involved in. In fact, with the US outsourcing to itself all the dirty jobs in Afghanistan, China was in an envious position; it enjoyed a free run to pursue its geo-economic interests in the region without unduly worrying about the turmoil happening around. The minimum default security assurance that China enjoys now, whether in CPEC or mining in Afghanistan, just disappears with the US pullout. This raises the question whether China will get physically involved by way of troop deployment in Afghanistan post US pullout. Having witnessed one big power after another being forced to decamp unceremoniously after failing to bring order into Afghanistan, China is most unlikely to burn its fingers. If indeed they decide otherwise, it may only end up adding another tombstone in the Afghan’s cemetery of empires. If the situation demands, China may adopt a wiser option of seeking UN or a regional peace force deployment. It may even encourage or force Pakistan to deploy its forces in Afghanistan, offering in exchange, a guarantee against any Indian threat on the Pak borders. As far as the US-China power play is concerned, it appears that Joe Biden’s call for an unconditional pullout, apart from being an action in desperation is also throwing a challenge to the Chinese, ‘Here is the Afghan mess; you are welcome to clean up’. So, rather than playing into China’s hands, Joe Biden, inadvertently or otherwise, has put to test China’s ability to join the big league. China finds itself in an ‘unknown territory’ and has to tread with great deal of caution.
In the backdrop of these developments in the region, we also need to assess the likely impact of the US pullout on India’s security concerns. The best case scenario for India would be the Afghan government remaining in place even under a power sharing arrangement with Taliban. The worst case would be Taliban snatching power. An unstable neighbourhood will certainly be a cause for worry and could become a safe haven for terrorist groups and even bring ISIS closer to Indian borders. However, with the far greater vigil that exists along the borders today, it should be possible for Indian forces to effectively check any significant impact on terrorism in the valley. On the other hand, the political situation in J&K has the potential to be whipped up and needs to be addressed on priority. Elections must be held in J&K and an elected government put in place without delay. India must initiate proactive measures to remain engaged in Afghanistan and hedge our bets by reaching out even to Taliban, without undermining the Afghan government. The External Affairs Minister’s recent statement welcoming talks between Afghan government and Taliban is a step in the right direction. Talking to Taliban is in consonance with our own professed “Afghan led, Afghan controlled and Afghan owned” peace process and will also give us a chance to remain engaged regardless of the ‘faction rivalry dynamics’ and its outcome. Whether it is Taliban or the Afghan Government, India must stay engaged and also maintain its focus on being seen as an important reconstruction and development partner by building on India’s impeccable record in this sphere. India has silently completed over 400 development projects in Afghanistan which include schools, roads, Afghan parliament, Salma dam, and irrigation projects with another hundred odd new projects in the pipeline. Overall, India seems to be on course to manage the impact of US pullout, subject to maintaining vigil on borders and ensuring enhanced focus on our internal security
This article was first published in The Week.