Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd)


During the last week of July 2021 Mullah Baradar, Afghan Taliban’s political leader, met with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, opening up the prospect of yet another new entrant in Afghanistan – China. This new Chinese chapter in the Afghan history, indeed if it is written, might be very different from the earlier ones. Russia and America stormed into the country with all guns blazing, but both the countries grossly underestimated the cunning and tenacity of the Taliban and the geopolitics around Afghanistan.

In the last seven years, there have been frequent proposals for a pull out by the ISAF and the strong US contingent. However, the likelihood of the strategic repercussions on the region and the Middle East, prevented this. Troops were reduced to bare minimum with focus on resources of air power (including UAVs) and intelligence. The fear of resurgence in global terror due to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a possible sync between Al Qaida and ISIS kept all decisions in suspense

With the American troops withdrawal set to be completed by Sep 11, it would be yet another exit from the fractious, rentier state where tribe loyalty and religious fervor weigh far more than the nationalist ethos. Afghanistan may grow from those roots and imbibe a touch of modernity, but to expect a Liberal Democratic system of governance to bloom from those roots is a serious error that the US is guilty of.

China will not make the same strategic errors, not just because they are great students of history lessons but because they have the gumption not to involve themselves too deeply in a nation state that still exists in a different age and is heading farther back in time.

China therefore, will have three strategic aims in Afghanistan.

Their primary intent will be to tap their proxy Pakistan to ensure that their interests are best served in Afghanistan. Why not get the Pak army, ISI and even the political establishment to do all the dirty work and keep its own hands clean? It would lend clear deniability to China when the turmoil in Afghanistan begins to hit international structures.  Beijing is also eyeing the war-torn nation for investment and influence opportunities.  China’s third strategic aim would be to keep its borders secure from the Afghan side and prevent any ingress of terrorism in its Xinjiang region where millions of Uyghurs have been interned into the so called ‘re-education camps.’

Options for India, a country dear to the common man in Afghanistan with historical ties, may appear to be limited, particularly as the Taliban surges ahead to capture vast swathes of the countryside. However, the battle s for cities might turn out to be different as the ANA is strong, well equipped and well trained. India will do well to support the democratic government in place and continue with its efforts in infrastructure development. Military support, short of boots on ground is also a plausible step.

This issue carries another detailed feature on Theatre Commands in India, a much discussed issue in strategic circles. There appears to be unanimity on the aspect joint operations, with a common thread of counselling to tread carefully and deliberately, as the issue involves the most significant military transformation since independence.