No Free Passes For India In The New Great Game In Afghanistan

No Free Passes For India In The New Great Game In Afghanistan

by Vikram Sood - Tuesday, September 5, 2017 07:32 PM IST
No Free Passes For India In The New Great Game In Afghanistan An anti-Taliban soldier prays near a tank on the hills overlooking the Tora Bora. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
  • Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the Taliban. China, Russia and Iran want to woo them. India must act on its own.

Major global powers like Russia and China and regional powers like Iran are now ready to embrace the Taliban — in their own interest, but ostensibly for peace in Afghanistan.

First, a quick review of the internal security and political situation is necessary. The Afghans say that the security situation is not as bad as outside experts suggest it is; but then, it is not as good as the Afghans would have us believe. Measured by any yardstick, the Taliban controls more territory today than they did last year. The fall of Sangin district in Helmand province to the Taliban on 23 March perhaps epitomises the security problem in the country. Strategically located between the Helmand river and Kandahar, the district is a centre of the lucrative opium trade. Control of Sangin is thus de facto control of the opium trade, and provides the Taliban a direct link between the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

The stakes are thus high. No wonder that battles have been fierce and the largest number of British and American troops died in Sangin than in any other district. Since 2013, when the control of the district was transferred to Afghan forces, hundreds of Afghans also have died fighting the Taliban.

In late July, the Taliban captured Taiwara district for a few days before being driven out by Afghan commandos. In early August, they seized control of an area in northern Sar-e Pul province.

The Taliban have increased their footprint by about 15 per cent all over the country since 2015. The Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani controls about 60 per cent of the territory. There will also be no reduction in Pakistani support to the Taliban. Unless the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) acquires urgently needed weaponry and equipment, it will remain under considerable strain.

The US has remained extremely deferential to Pakistani hypersensitivity about Afghan rearmament. The ANSF thus never had the equipment and adequate training to be able to function as an army that was both an effective counter-insurgency force and able to engage against conventional trans-border threats. Ironically, foreign observers are now dismissive of the Afghan army’s capabilities as if the present state is entirely the fault of the Afghans themselves. Consequently, despite the estimated $780 billion spent mostly by the US over 15 years, the Afghan army remains underequipped and undertrained. A smarter, well-equipped, well-trained army comprising locals fighting on and for their own land would have been far greater value for money than well-equipped highly trained foreign troops.

Ultimately, American forces, seen as saviours in 2001, became just another occupation force in the eyes of the Afghans. This is what the Taliban have capitalised on. They have been able to attract some non-Pushtun to their ranks which increases their ability to withstand pressure or become more active in other parts of the country.

US soldiers patrol near the site of a 
US bombing during an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in 
the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. (NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)
US soldiers patrol near the site of a US bombing during an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. (NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, no one really wants to discuss the two major problems afflicting Afghanistan; one, the opium trade that sustains the Taliban and the impoverished Afghan farmer; and two, the support Pakistan has rendered the Taliban and continues to.

Much is being made out of the presence of so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. But informed opinion from Afghanistan asserts that there is no such entity like ISIS in the country. Some elements merely fly the ISIS flag. These are really those belonging to the Haqqani Network, closely associated with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISIS has brand equity amongst western nations, and now with Russia. Additionally, it provides Pakistan with deniability in its operations in Afghanistan. This might make the Haqqani faction look good, even humane, in the bargain. If the narrative about the Taliban among some powers can change to suit the occasion, so can that for the Haqqani Network. The ISIS is becoming a convenient diversion from the main threat to Afghanistan — the Taliban.

The US in Afghanistan

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US, as the sole superpower, also became the global cynosure of other people hoping for American support in their struggles against oppressive regimes. The world hoped for a generous magnanimous nation trying to uplift the less advantaged. Instead, what they saw was an unshackled America pursuing only its own interests. Besides, over the years, excessive use of military force has only exposed its limitations. In the 1990s, as the Taliban threatened Afghanistan, the US was willing to do business with them, hoping this would help American petroleum companies like Unocal with the Turkmenistan gas connection. Less than a decade later, in a role reversal, the US was hunting the Taliban. Today, the discourse is that the US should do deals with them. In the process, the US does not get a high score on the reliability index.

Daniel Davis, a former lieutenant-colonel in the US army, who served in Afghanistan, confirmed that even with more than 100,000 US troops on the ground, there were still massive swaths of the country that were no-go territories for friendly troops. He added that so long as Pakistan refused to stop the Taliban from using its territory as a safe as it has been, it wouldn’t matter if President Donald Trump sent 200,000 troops to Afghanistan. The US, frozen by its dependence on Pakistan, could never bring itself to push that country far enough on this. The issue is that given the usual ratio between terrorists and counter-terrorist forces, US would need upwards of 500,000 troops in Afghanistan to control the 50,000 Taliban. There just are not that many troops available nor the funds.

Security analyst Sameer Lalwani has summed up the various policy recommendations available for handling Pakistan. He said: “(T)he greatest obstacle to any turnaround in Afghanistan is that there is the absence of a realistic strategy to deal with Pakistan”. If there is no strategy to change Pakistan’s behaviour – coercion, inducement or brute force — the situation in Afghanistan will not improve substantially. This is the crux.

Wars fought from the comfort of air-conditioned consoles thousands of miles away or bombardment seen as blips on LED screens do not record the sound of pain or the anguish of death that a cluster bomb dropped from the air brings. Drones kill terrorists, mostly; but they do not defeat terrorism. Drones cannot win counter-terror wars because they cannot control territory.

The growing feeling is that America has lost this war and the one in Iraq-Syria. The question is how to retrieve the situation and remain in control.

With Pakistan now strengthened after the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) agreement and the recent opening of avenues with Russia, it is likely to be even more intransigent than in the past. A multi-nation diplomatic and military initiative would be necessary if a solution has to be found. The US cannot run solo on this anymore. The US would not be able to leave, if at all, without appearing to have put in place an agreement that seems to secure the future of Afghanistan. Views and interests of other neighbouring nations — Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India — would need to be taken on board.

From Russia with ambition

The Russians, Chinese and Iranians are wooing the Taliban as Pakistan sits secure and smug that its policies of investing in the Taliban are seemingly beginning to give dividends. The only holdouts to this fervour are the Afghans themselves and the Indians. Quite naturally, the suitors have to construct a convenient storyline as each of the players have their own interests in mind; Afghanistan is only incidental.

The Russians see an opportunity in the weakening of US stature in the Middle East. Events in Iraq and Syria have left the Russians in an advantageous position. Moscow probably sees its navy having an assured presence in the Mediterranean through the Syrian coastline, and if they have access to Iran via Afghanistan, then they have access to the Persian Gulf. This may be an adequate counter to the Chinese presence in Gwadar and Indian interests in Chahbahar. The Russians thus see for themselves a new opportunity in the region provided they can handle two negative but related factors. One is that of the rising Islamist threat to themselves through Afghanistan and Central Asia. The second, related to this, is the never-ending problem of narcotics, which is now the centrepiece to any solution in Afghanistan.

Russia wants to be strategically relevant in the entire region in opposition to US interests. The clash between Russia and the US and its European allies has been building up since Georgia in 2008, onto Crimea in 2014 and finally, Ukraine. The allegations that Russia had interfered in the last US presidential elections have also exacerbated relations.

Russia has moved a considerable distance away from its stance in the 1990s when along with India, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, a joint effort was made to keep the Taliban at bay. This was successful until the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on 9 September 2001. The suicide bombers had travelled via Pakistan. The implications of this major event were lost in the catastrophe of 9/11.

The Russians have met Taliban representatives several times in the past two years. It is possible that the Russians seek to get the Taliban to destabilise the Ghani Government seen by the Russians as a US-backed regime. Besides, neither the Russians, Chinese nor Iranians have taken too kindly to the US decision to maintain its bases in Afghanistan for power projection into Central Asia. President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has said Russia “will not tolerate this”.

Kabulov has also said that the ISIS is a bigger threat to the region than the Taliban. The storyline is that in the interest of peace in Afghanistan, the Taliban be considered as a political and social movement. The Russians believe that the ISIS cannot be eliminated without cooperation from Pakistan. This cooperation means being on the same page about the Taliban. It is interesting that none of the powers — America, Russia, China and Iran — is willing to even talk about the role that the Pakistan-backed Haqqani Network will be playing in the game that is unfolding.

The Russians do have genuine worries though. An estimated 50,000 Russians die every year due to heroin addiction. This is a huge number in any country but even more in a country with a declining population. Fifteen years ago, the Muslim population in Russia was about 10 per cent; today it is more than 13 per cent. Moscow is now home to about 1.5 to two million Muslims, making it the second largest Muslim city in Europe. The Muslims are mostly Sunni but many were without the traditional Muslim moorings. This is beginning to change with increasing radicalisation.

Russia does have a serious problem if one considers that an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 ISIS cadres speak Russian of which half are Russian citizens and the rest from Central Asia. This makes Russian the second most popular language in the ISIS. The Russian contingent have their own command and control structure. Inevitably, the fear now is that these jihadis will return to Russia. By 2015, these battle-hardened cadres were finding their way home.

China is worried about an Islamist spillover from the ISIS or even the Taliban, into Xinjiang province and Iran is decidedly uncomfortable with a strong Sunni presence on its borders. The Iranians are also apprehensive now of the recently formed Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, a collection of Sunni nations. Policies in and about Afghanistan are more likely to remain a reflection of a larger US-Russia antagonism and a high level of mutual suspicion accompanied by rising ambitions and fears of China and Iran.

Chinese checkers

The Chinese seek to move into empty spaces that might be vacated by an America that is looking for exits and solutions that are not seen as failures. Yet the Chinese have until recently refrained from getting militarily involved and have let the Russians lift the heavy load for them in Syria. They themselves give the image of a responsible country with deep pockets, but most do not quite see the tight fists inside them. Their investments in Afghanistan designed for extracting mineral resources are less than India’s. China’s strategic interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia revolves around the One Belt One Road project, of which the CPEC is a subsidiary project. China sees an opportunity in Iran, which would enable it to have access to the Gulf through Afghanistan and to the Caspian Sea through Iran.

China’s security interests hover around keeping Xinjiang free of Islamist influences i.e. the Taliban and ISIS varieties. Banning beards of a certain length and veils may be a part of this attempt to provide conformity, but also indicates a growing fear among China’s rulers about this restive province. This may not be enough and hence the Chinese have been using the Pakistani connection for contacts with the Taliban. They will go along with the Pakistani distinctions between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban”. It suits China to have direct contact with the Taliban, which gives both the Taliban and Pakistan greater legitimacy and the Chinese hope to secure themselves somewhat in Xinjiang. India may have provided some limited military assistance lately (M-25 attack helicopters) but the Chinese also have conducted joint patrols with Afghan forces to indicate their availability in the face of an US drawdown.

Iranian interests

The Iranians have been concerned about events in Afghanistan from the time the Afghan jihad started in the 1980s. The presence of Soviet troops in their neighbourhood and a jihad bankrolled by the Saudis along with archenemy America’s active assistance was a cause of deep concern. Later in the 1990s, they cooperated with India and Russia to try and stem the Taliban tide but many arrangements fell off the table after 9/11. The growing uncertainties in Iran’s neighbourhood and the fears about ISIS have also pushed the Iranians to seek a solution to the problems in Afghanistan that involve the Taliban. Iran has sheltered Taliban elements in the past. Obviously, Iran’s leaders remind themselves that they need a peaceful and secure border with Afghanistan and for that would need to come to terms with the Taliban.

A triangular relationship between Iran, Russia and China had been evolving for some time. China and Iran signed a military cooperation agreement in November 2016, which envisages bilateral military training and closer cooperation on regional issues, with Syria and terrorism being on the top of the Iranian list. Around the same time, the Russians also announced that the two countries were negotiating an arms deal worth $10 billion to supply Iran with T-90 tanks, artillery systems, aircraft and helicopters.

President Xi Jinping visited Iran in January 2016 and the two countries agreed to increase trade to $600 billion. Earlier this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Moscow. The signal was to the US — that the relationship was alive and strong. This kind of tripartite closeness makes agreements on issues like dealing with the Taliban and Afghanistan a lot easier for the three governments.

Pakistan geopolitical problem

“Kabul must burn,” so said General Akhtar Rehman of the Pakistan Army and director general, ISI, during the Afghan jihad. This was in the 1980s as the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were ramping up pressure on the Soviets and the Afghans. This policy has not changed, only the directors of the policy and actors on the ground may have got new names. Kabul still burns, thanks to Pakistan’s inimical policy towards Afghanistan. Pakistan may assume it has successfully turned the tide in the short term by having major powers willing to do a deal with the Taliban. One is not sure if the cure proposed is worse than the disease. Terrorism never pays back folly with kindness.

A tripartite Russia-China-Pakistan engagement has also begun to work. The three had met in Moscow to discuss a flexible approach to lift sanctions against select Taliban leaders. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are important for Russia in its push for greater presence in South Asia. Meanwhile, Pakistan will continue to exert pressure on Afghanistan through groups operating from Pakistani sanctuaries.

Pakistan’s attitude has been consistent: the Taliban are the true representatives of Afghan politics and need to be supported in the hope that a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul will recognise the Durand Line and not allow India any meaningful role in Afghanistan. We should not expect any change in this approach. Pakistan punishes Afghanistan for being India’s friend and for its policies towards India.

It is relevant to note what two US generals said about Pakistan in their statements before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In February, General John Nicholson stated that the Taliban and the Haqqani Network were the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan, adding that their senior leaders enjoyed freedom of action within Pakistani safe havens. They thus had no incentive to reconcile. In March, General Joseph Votel was forthright when he said that out of 20 US-designated terrorist organisations operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region, seven were in Pakistan: “Of particular concern to us is the Haqqani Network, which poses the greatest threat to coalition forces operating in Afghanistan.” It is eminently clear where the problem is — Pakistan’s sanctuary and support, converting this into a perpetual war.

If the ISIS is seen as a global threat, then the correct way of handling it is through global efforts and not through appeasement of a regional menace — the Taliban.

The Heart of Asia bleeds

Americans now tell themselves this is their longest war with nothing much to show for it, apart from the billions spent and American lives lost. Americans and others can pack up and leave, Afghanistan is not their country. Where do the Afghans go? Spare a thought for the Afghans. They have seen war and turmoil for nearly 40 years. Children have been born and died in the war before they became adults. Many young Afghans have not known what peace means. Today, their neighbours are preparing to make deals with the Afghans’ main tormentors who trade in narcotics and violent obscurantism. The Afghans are told that is in their interest that they do this. Such travesty.

Afghanistan is being punished for its location; Pakistan is rewarded for the same reason and India is simply ignored. That is realpolitik.

Afghanistan will continue to need large amounts of international assistance to build its economy in the decades ahead. There is no getting away from that. Afghans do not need doles and handouts. Their foremost need is to be able to control and eradicate the menace of narcotics that feeds the unscrupulous and the terrorists and denudes the country.

The trouble is everyone knows this has to be done, but no one follows it up. Merely spraying opium cultivation with pesticides is not enough. It is essential to cut off this source of funds to the Taliban and the drug lords. Tonnes have been written about counter-insurgency but much less has been written or done about the drug menace.

Instead of a concerted counter--terror action against the Taliban, we are now seeing some of the most powerful powers of the world meeting to decide how best to acquiesce to them. As a result, what the world will have, including the world they seek to protect, is more of the same. Maybe even worse. The end of the Afghan jihad was seen as a victory of the faith over a superpower. A deal with the Taliban will lead to similar interpretations with consequences for all of us, including Pakistan.

India a spectator, or a player?

The first step is to decide whether we want to play to our strengths. Second, that Afghanistan expects a great deal from India, so depending upon our decision on the first issue, what are we prepared to do?

Unlike other nations, we need to do something for the Afghans to help ourselves. It is self-congratulatory to tell ourselves that our stock among the Afghans is high, our image is good and our soft power is appreciated. The first danger is that this image can change. The second danger is that this will certainly not be enough in the long run. We have to step up our act and be the power that we say we are. This means much more economic developmental assistance in terms of projects, training in skills, technical and medical education, or anything else the Afghans need. Ask them. An India-Afghanistan Economic Task Force that is nimble and empowered will help in quick decisions and rapid implementation. Health and medicine (research, production and healthcare facilities), and academia, both in India and Afghanistan and some scholarships even outside India would help. Research of various kinds, water management, alternative cropping, small-scale manufacture are some of the activities that would help. All these should be geared to creating skills and employment opportunities.

We simply have to step up our military assistance to Afghanistan. We need to be quite forthright about this and not apologetic. Lack of similar support from other major powers like China and Russia should not discourage us; on the contrary, we should see this as an opportunity. As a regional power, we do not have to perpetually keep looking over our shoulder and seek approbation for our actions. We need to bolster Afghan security across the board to bolster ours. Close intelligence and security co- operation is necessary. India and Afghanistan have a Strategic Cooperation Agreement. This must be energised.

For that, we need to remember that we are facing a two-front contingency all the time with China’s higher profile in our neighbourhood.

We need to remember that ultimately we are on our own in this game.

There are no free passes.

A longer version of this article was published on the Observer Research Foundation website (

Vikram Sood is the former head of R&AW, India’s external intelligence agency.

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