The delicate but opportune situation that has emerged in the wake of Taliban’s re-emergence calls for embracing the reality of geo-economic rather than the myth of geo-strategic
The Afghan president in person is being held responsible for the stalemate in intra-Afghan talks and he does sound hypocritical, as on the one hand the logic for not employing Afghan forces against the resurgent Taliban was attributed by him to prevention of civil war but simultaneously he indulged in procrastinating talks with little to offer and instead bragged about his electoral mandate, based ironically on 5% public participation. The political landscape suggests the upper hand of Taliban who this time around are reported to have broadened their base by having 40% non-Pashtu manpower, which occupied northern and western non-Pashtun areas without any resistance, contrary to the 1996-2001 era. This comports with Taliban assertions about voluntary surrender by Afghan forces.
During the Doha talks not only Taliban but Hekmatyar and others have disapproved of the tactics of Ashraf Ghani. The outcome likely is the emergence of Dr Abdullah Abdullah or G Hekmatyar as a consensus choice for leading the interim govt before the popular vote is sought at the hustings. Meanwhile the big five and the bordering countries of Afghanistan should persuade Kabul administration to implement the covenants of Doha agreement.
The anarchy in Afghanistan is likely to affect the countries bordering it, and more devastatingly the State of Pakistan. The Soviet invasion of 1979 saw influx of more than five million refugees into Pakistan and their spread across the country, resulting in militarisation of youngsters and their weaponisation. In Pakistan the combination of Islamists and Pashtun would not allow the government to ignore the situation in Afghanistan should the country be engulfed in civil war – the possible outcome of Ashraf Ghani’s strategy for dealing with the emerging crisis. It is analogous to Indian concerns for the political situation in Sri Lanka, propelled by Tamils from India as the clamour for rights is from their co-religious Tamil population against the integrationist State policies. Pakistan has double the Pashtun population as against Afghanistan’s and the cadres of Islamic parties have a history of unnerving even popular governments. The Indian set-up is immune from such popular pressure and Afghan developments hardly matter to it barring to the extent of strategic interests. Even when the Soviet invasion of 1979 took place, the number of refugees in India didn’t exceed 2000 to 3000, mainly the party members of Parcham and Kheliq factions of Afghan Socialist/ Communist parties but not the mainstream of Afghan society. In the later internecine and fratricidal conflict, India aligned with the Northern Alliance with material support, and after 9/11 seized the opportunity by joining the American-led coalition, to the consternation of the Afghan mainstream who alone in the multi-ethnic country actually have had a historical relationship with Indian subcontinent, more precisely in northern undivided India.
The Afghan animosity towards India had its origin in the two watershed events of 1979 & 2002 during which India was perceived to have partnered with marauders represented by Soviets & their proxies in the first phase of the uprising and then the trio of Ab Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan and Ahmed Shah Masood during the 2nd phase before 9/11. However, the fact of aligning on the first occasion with the Govt in Kabul and on the 2nd occasion with the American-led coalition including the northern alliance of Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek & Hazara ethnic minorities, created pockets of receptivity in the country for India, as against the elite and urban distrust for Pakistani State perceived as a constant partner of disarray.
But the enchantment with India suffered a severe setback after 2014 due to fascist-like pronouncements of the Hindutva brigade, which is being overplayed by anti-India forces to rouse the Afghans on the basis of their faith to stand against tyranny directed by a State against Muslims for no fault of theirs except for their adherence to the Islamic Deen. The unending war-like mongering on communal grounds both in print and electronic media in India acts as a reminder for the Ummah to rise in support of victims of falsehood and Islamophobia, and hence the negative repercussions in relations with Afghans despite excellent bonhomie sometime back promoted by the External Affairs Ministry. You can’t demonise a community as a whole back home and simultaneously endeavour for beneficial relationship with countries that are the bastions of the demonised faith.
The ascendency of Taliban in Kabul shall have least ramifications for India given the position of militancy in JK. Now the Taliban are committed to not export their version of resistance or allow use of their territory against neighbouring countries, apart from giving priority to improving socio-economic indices of the war-ravaged country. This is a golden opportunity for India to engage with the Taliban.
Afghanistan sits on vast mineral, high-quality gemstone and rare earth element reserves which in geological surveys undertaken by western research and survey teams have been assessed to be worth 1 trillion US dollars, though the Govt in Kabul claims them to be 3 trillion. Right from the ascendency of Tzars in Russia, the look towards Central, West, & South Asia policy, in view of geographical constraints compounded by frozen Arctic sea ports, was hamstrung by the unfavourable attitude of countries of the three regions of Asia, more so due to servitude of the population under Europeans. The end of the Cold War offered an opportunity for realising the dream of thousands of years for access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, even though not to the liking of the USA in the unipolar world but now with China second to USA only and likely to overtake it in economic terms by 2032, and assertiveness of Russia both politically and militarily, the decks are clear for a leap forward in intra-connecting the three Asian regions with China, Russia and Europe.
The intra-Asian connectivity, followed by extension to Europe, is the single biggest stride for forging unity in Asia, but subject to all countries committing to peaceful co- existence with leeway for settlement of bilateral disputes without prejudice to the existing boundaries and without use of force covertly or covertly. Trade with foreign countries, especially exports by land-locked central Asian nations, has not flourished in view of the available sea ports and circuitous routes making it unprofitable or simply unviable. The Iranian port of Bhander Abbas used by Uzbekistan & Tajikistan through Turkmenistan is an example which can be replicated by CPEC routes and particularly the Gawadhar, being a deep sea port with shortest distances to the trading hubs. The Chabhar port city in Iran, for outreach to central Asia through Afghanistan, is supposed to be partnered by China and made sister port of Gawadhar by Iran.
Within the parameters laid down in the Shimla Agreement 1972, both India & Pakistan are committed to maintaining the status quo. The development of the Karakoram highway precedes the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and its massive improvement under CPEC is continuation of the use of existing roads in the area, only therefore India has needlessly sown the seeds of mistrust by harping on “no compromise on sovereignty”. It is high time for India to revisit the flawed stance and join the Chinese initiative for connectivity instead of wasting resources and time on Pak obsession/phobia and on alternatives standing in no way equal to surface road and railway lines that form the main components of CPEC and the proposed express highways from Ashgabat Turkmenistan, Tashkent Uzbekistan, & Dushanbe Tajikistan to Peshawar in Pakistan on GTR after traversing Kabul & Mazair Sharief in Afghanistan. The hydrocarbon starved nations, particularly China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and ASEAN, could have access to it uninterruptedly through a network of pipes and refineries at cheaper prices, thereby converting the Asian countries into a mutually beneficial interdependent economy.
Haven for militancy
But fructifying of such prospects into reality is in the hands of Afghans alone, who have to make a choice between geo-economic and geo-strategic. Their penchant for the latter has so far been the only impediment to the realisation of dreams of the region’s populace, little realising the changes that have swept the region since the Wakhan corridor, forming part of British India, was ceded to Afghanistan for creation of a buffer between Russia and British India. Now all bordering countries desire its common use for trade and commerce.
The sprouting of militant organisations like East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Central Asia (IMCA), Tochikistoni Ozod (Free Tajikistan), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hizb-ul-Tahir(pan-Central Asia), Tahriqi Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamatul Ahrar (mostly of Lashkar Jungvi Pakistan), Jundullah (Iranian Baloch) & Baloch militants of Pakistan (BLF/BLA) post the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan begs answers from Karzai, Ashraf Ghani & others in view of these organisations’ non-existence or limited presence during Taliban rule. Mostly the cadres of these organisations are from respective countries/regions but stay put in the safe sanctuaries of Afghanistan with full knowledge of the Afghan National Army/ Afghan Defence Services, who on quid pro quo basis use them in bordering neighbourhood as strategic assets for counter insurgencies wherever necessitated in their war against homegrown Afghan Taliban. The outfits from Central Asia & East Turkistan face authoritarian & repressive regimes back home which don’t acquiesce with their claims of Muslim identity in predominantly Muslim countries/regions, and the suffocating environment is further stifled by lack of religious freedom and democracy along with extreme poverty and concentration of wealth and political power in ruling parties, lending legitimacy to armed struggles.
The Pakistan-focussed organisations, steeped more in religiosity and less in traditions and rituals, have declared the mission to establish “an Islamic state” in Pakistan, while Baloch secessionists aim at seceding from the country and the Jundullah Sunni Baloch wage war against Iran considering the Govt in Tehran to be a biased, intolerant and sectarian one. The inability of Afghan ruling classes to choose between perpetual war and peace, and between secular polity and theocracy, has put the country in a quandary where it is against the extremism of Taliban in their country but promotes similar ideology in neighbouring countries, more focussed on Pakistan and by default against others also. The sectarian and ethnic push through irregular militias with aid from neighbouring countries shall undo Afghanistan, resulting in creation of ethnic centres of governance and the entire region to revert back to stone age, which can be prevented by bidding farewell to terror-related engagements and working with sincerity for establishing an inclusive interim Govt under a neutral personality, overriding the ethnic and sectarian considerations, followed by elections for National Assembly on the basis of universal franchise without any discrimination. The chants for Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process shall lack legitimacy should the Taliban choose otherwise. Let nations having contacts or bargaining positions with the Afghans of different hues facilitate the restoration of peace in the country, instead of pitting one against another for advancing their strategic interests through their sleeping cells which Afghan society in general is unable to anticipate due to misplaced information orchestrated by the ruling parties as much as by the opposition, but the onus is on the ruling party.
Futility of the military option
The muscular option, on the analogy of Syria, advocated by self-centered peaceniks for defeating the Taliban shall plunge the country and its neighbourhood into unending turmoil with not only casualties in lakhs but the entire infrastructure in complete ruin, reducing the region to a wasteland. Russia, China, Iran & Pakistan have aligned together for fast-tracking a political solution acceptable to all, or at least to the majority of stakeholders of Afghan society. The Indian approach towards ending the Afghan conflict has not yielded dividends, as the countries concerned fathom well the repercussions that will accelerate the splitting of the region on ethnic and sectarian grounds. Even Saudi Arabia as the custodian of holy places and a parallel power centre for looking after the interests of Muslim nations has chosen to back the option of political settlement, with the rider that the Taliban distance itself from ISIS/Al Qaeda, & pari passu by Turkey which has ethnic and cultural affinity with Turkmenistan & others in the region. The active involvement of Saudis in the turbulent country may prompt them to settle scores with Iran as retribution for promoting the Houthi militia in Yemen against the Saudi kingdom. The Taliban at present are fighting Afghan forces only but in the event of regional Govts choosing the military option, the Taliban’s counter offensive may get rechristened as Afghan holy war, a threat which the bordering countries have appreciated and which is the reason for their lining up with Russia & China.
The isolation of India for the first time in Greater Central Asia is worrying and calls for a recalibrated approach by relegating the geo-strategic interests to the backburner. Neither Pakistan can convert the Afghan territory for strategic depth nor can India encircle Pakistan by use of Afghan soil, and even the need for this doesn’t arise in face of unequivocal opposition of Taliban to use of its territory against the countries near and far, which amounts to denying of access to Pakistan for the purposes of what is being debated as “strategic depth”.
—The writer is former Chairman of JKPSC and tweets at @aaluzdeva