Afghanistan: What’s On The Table?

Afghanistan: What’s On The Table?

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Sunday, June 27, 2021 05:38 PM IST
Afghanistan: What’s On The Table?Dr S Jaishankar (Twitter)
  • At some point of time, it will have to be accepted that the answers to the issues of Afghanistan don’t lie with China, Russia, or America, but with India; and, that the principal hindrance to resolution rests with Pakistan.

There’s something cooking in the Hindu Kush, and it is not Lahori Tundey kebab.

The first hint of a new Afghani menu under composition came from American President Joe Biden, in April 2021, when he announced that US troops would be withdrawn by September of this year.

It was about time, because after two decades of a clueless, pointless, aimless war on terror, which did more damage than good, and achieved few, if any, nebulous political objectives, mom’s apple pie had gone fairly rancid.

As on date, the withdrawal is in progress, and if press reports are to be believed, about a third of the American forces in Afghanistan have already gone home.

To follow this up, Biden met Afghan leaders in Washington DC on 26 June. It was marked by the usual, tired platitudes of a ‘sustained partnership’, an end to ‘senseless violence’, and vague American promises of non-military support to Afghanistan.

This is meaningless at multiple levels. The Taliban are already busy re-establishing their redoubts in areas vacated by the Americans. Pakistani parliamentarians are already making valedictory speeches praising the Taliban (a late second, since Imran Khan had already called Osama Bin Laden a martyr in June 2020).

The Pakistani Army is falling over itself at a fresh chance, to leverage their geographical advantages in the Great Game (not to mention a resumption of unfettered control over the narcotics trade in the Golden Crescent, and selling their services to the highest bidder).

And Kabul-watchers mournfully wonder what Biden actually meant by offering support, when his military is now exiting one more country after having reduced it to a godforsaken mess.

Yet, a table can never stay bare; something has to be served, since the need for a diet of normalcy is a human necessity. That makes some believe that apple pie could be replaced by borscht (originally a Ukrainian beet soup, but made firmly Russian during the Soviet era).

It’s a possibility, even if active Russian military presence on the ground in Afghanistan, especially after the brutal debacle of the 1980s, appears remote.

And yet, this is the one point on which Russian, Chinese and Indian interests converge — getting America and NATO out of Asia.

It is, in fact, one of the main reasons why the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was established in the 1990s.

This powerful platform for mutipolarity lingered in obsolescence for decades, until India finally joined it in 2017. It would have been a geopolitical success, but for the fact that Chinese strategic and commercial interests clashed with Indian security concerns; the fly in the ointment, as always, was Pakistan.

It took the Russians a while to understand both this insoluble contradiction, and the bald truth, that neither the SCO nor the Quad can be an effective instrument without India’s acquiescence.

It’s not easy to dovetail divergent national interests, particularly when the core security issues of one SCO member (India) is threatened by the collusion of two others (China and Pakistan).

From the Russian standpoint then, this was one more frustrating, unviable effort to fashion a truly post-colonial Eurasia. After all, Moscow-watchers know how heavily the Russians had to sweat, to get the Americans to vacate their prized military bases in Uzbekistan (Karshi Khanabad) and Kyrgyzstan (Manas).

Thus, the emptying of the American larder in Afghanistan offers the Russians a third opportunity. Would they seize it? Answer: yes, because the additional contradiction, here, is that America cannot afford to walk away from Central Asia.

Can they seize it? Answer: no, not in any meaningful measure, until China and India resolve the Pakistan conundrum one way or another. Still, we can expect a stiffer Russian presence in Kabul as September approaches, accompanied by the standard overtures to Islamabad (and this will be invariably spun by our mainstream media as greater friction between Delhi and Moscow).

So, if it is not borscht, is it Peking Duck then? The answer is a loud no, even if the Wakhan Corridor (that mountainous sliver of eastern Afghanistan which links the Hindu Kush to the Karakoram, and whose strategic importance was the subject of former Army chief General VK Singh’s doctoral thesis) remains Beijing’s wet dream.

The reason is that such a move would be a tipping point, which would force even a Manmohan Singh government to react, to put it mildly.

Besides, establishing necessary dominance in Afghanistan would come at too high a cost, imposed both by the whimsical Shylocks of Rawalpindi, through their Taliban, and the traditional, fractious dynamics between umpteen Afghan tribes, whose approach to power-sharing has always been mercenary and transactional.

Thus, running the risk of simultaneously drawing the ire of America, Russia, and India, without tangible strategic benefit, and with still no certainty on the Karakoram Highway passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, would be an intemperate step too far for China.

They will, however, seek to get their hooks further in, through infrastructure projects, or mining licenses, for starters.

Adding a fusion touch to the plate here, are the Anatolian flavours of a Doner Kebab. During a side meeting with President Biden, at the NATO summit in Brussels on 14 June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to secure Kabul airport after the American leave.

This is about as ludicrous and dangerous as offers get.

As it is, Turkey has its gangly legs in two boats, unconvincingly playing the part of a dependable NATO partner, while acknowledging that its future lies in closer ties with Russia; and they’re getting hammered from both sides for it.

To top that with dreams of a grand Ankara-Islamabad axis, naturally underwritten by Beijing, is to dress a Doner-Tundey kebab roll with Soya sauce.

It just doesn’t pair, and for good effect, the Taliban have already issued a statement saying that the Turks are unwelcome in Afghanistan.

What’s palatable, though, is the scent of saffron that now wafts from the kitchen, after a long, long gap: Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s brief, unexpected trip to Athens, Greece, on 26 June.

It rang a bell because we rarely hear of Indian officials calling on Greece; for all his travels, Modi has yet to visit the country. And yet, it also marks a visible shift in how India uses foreign policy as a tool.

Very tellingly, point nine of the Greek foreign office’s post-visit statement notes that both sides discussed developments pertaining to the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.

This is a direct reference to Turkey (made indirectly, of course, as only diplomats can), and her volatile, age-old border issues with Greece, which have nearly set both nations at war in the past.

Jaishankar’s visit, then, must be treated as a signal to Erdogan — that any lunatic neo-Caliphate notions of Turkish involvement in Afghanistan, along with the Pakistanis, would attract a presently-undefined punitive cost from India, and her friends in Europe.

That’s not how India normally makes a point, but these are abnormal times, and opportunistic plays will not be — cannot be — tolerated. With the Americans exiting Afghanistan after devastating that land, the Taliban back in the game, the Russians and the Chinese hesitantly weighing the ‘vacuum’ metaphor, and the Pakistanis showing themselves to be eminently capable of achieving everything but peace, India’s options are becoming severely limited.

Time is also running out, fast.

Naturally then, there will be the odd press report of India engaging the Taliban in talks, along with sniggering commentary, of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s ignominy, of having to deal with the very group which poses a clear and present to his country.

Okay, but mocking aside, this is just one, unavoidable facet of a complex situation which India will have to tolerate, as long as it essays to have a say in affairs, while continuing to lack direct land access to Afghanistan. Otherwise, the situation could degenerate faster and further than anticipated.

Now, Jeff Smith of the Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, wrote in late April 2021 for the Observer Research Foundation, that there are no winners in Afghanistan.

Agreed; but it cannot be, that such a dangerous situation, brought about by persistent American policy failures, is perpetuated endlessly, especially when the resultant fallout of that chaos always affects India the most.

Banal clichés might be all right for think tanks, but they have no place in the real world. For proof, readers may look at what happened just a few hours ago, to savour the fare to be served, come September: a terrorist drone strike was carried out earlier today (27 June) at Jammu air base, injuring two Indian Air Force personnel.

Although damages to the base were mild, this attack marks a resumption of aggressive proxy policy, which had been kept in abeyance following the attack on Pathankot air base in January 2016.

Consequently, the more certain elements try to keep India out of the post-American flux in Afghanistan, the more vigorously India will be forced to drive those dynamics in her national interest.

Sceptics might not see it that way, but this is the truth: India is the only country on the list, which, in moral terms, stands to materially benefit from a politically stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

There’s even a little adducible history in support: from as far back as Mauryan and Guptan times, through Harsha, to the Mughals, the Peshwas and the British, peace in the northern plains has always been contingent upon peace in the Hindu Kush.

Therefore, in conclusion, no matter how knowledgeable, objective, or well-intentioned geopolitical analysts might be, they are going to have to accept at some point of time, that the answers to the issues of Afghanistan don’t lie with China, Russia, or America, but with India; and, that the principal hindrance to resolution rests with Pakistan. Any other line of reasoning is aspic.

Besides, people should know that as subtle a spice as saffron is, and compared to the miniscule amounts used, the aroma it releases is deliciously heady and overpowering. It also pairs well with almost anything on the table – whether soup, entrée or dessert, or borscht, Yakhni Pulao, and apple pie.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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