Afghanistan At Precarious Crossroads

Sub Title : Afghanistan is the centre piece of the New Great Game being played out

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2021

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)

Page No. : 14

Category : Geostrategy

: August 5, 2021

Afghanistan formed an important segment of the Great Game in the early 20th Century and continues to remain a part of the New Great Game of today. The withdrawal of US forces has offered a window for Taliban to exploit and for other players to enter the arena. Only time will tell how the situation pans out

Background and Recent History

The geostrategic importance of Afghanistan is historically borne out. It commands space over connectivity of the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Russia to the Indian Ocean, especially since Iran, the other country with similar characteristics, has been an international political pariah for long. Afghanistan’s significance is also enhanced because it provides crucial connectivity from India to the CARs through either Pakistan or Iran. It is surrounded by different civilizations; the Chinese to the North East, Central Asian to the North, Persian to the West, Arab to the South West and the Indian to the East. Its rugged terrain configuration and the characteristics of its population have helped stave off all attempts at occupation of its territories over a fairly long period of history, thus giving it the title, ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

At the end of 1979 the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan supposedly in order to protect its underbelly – the CARs.  However, a resolute ten year war fought by the Afghans with assistance from Islamic mercenaries from all over the Islamic world, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the US, and facilitated by Pakistan led to the defeat of the Soviets. The Soviet defeat was followed by a civil war, internal turbulence and eventual takeover by the Taliban in 1996. The Taliban were originally just students of Islamic theology from various seminaries established on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border during the Soviet-Afghan war of the Eighties. They established a theocratic state with a highly radicalized leadership which gave sanctuary to the then fast emerging radical Islamic terrorist group  called Al Qaida and its top leadership, including its mercurial chief, Osama bin Laden. Al Qaida overplayed its hand, planning and controlling the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11, resulting in a revenge seeking, planned and deliberate military campaign by the US, NATO and allies against the Taliban who were the Al Qaida’s hosts. The Taliban was roundly defeated and Afghanistan was occupied by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  Ever since Dec 2001 when Operation Enduring Freedom was launched there have been efforts to subdue the defeated Taliban who found sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan. The US could never muster sufficient forces for a sustained presence in entire Afghanistan to prevent a potential return of the Taliban. The latter knew that patience would pay and in terms of outcomes the age old adage of Graveyard of Empires’ would apply.

In the last seven years there have been frequent proposals for a comprehensive pull out by the ISAF and the strong US contingent. However, the likelihood of the strategic repercussions on the region and the Middle East, an area of considerable US interest 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. The Trump Administration made serious efforts at negotiating deals with the Taliban but it was finally left to President Joe Biden to take the decision to withdraw all forces by Sep 2021; in fact the withdrawal will probably be completed a few weeks before that.

The uneven downturn in economies worldwide and mismatch in footprint of the Covid pandemic is leading to a global strategic reset. The way the situation in Afghanistan will pan out will affect the path of the reset. The US is hell bent on leaving Afghanistan although it is keenly seeking ways by which it can monitor and perhaps even sporadically respond to some contingencies which may have larger potential of spinning out of control or creating an international impact.

It is keen to shift focus from the Middle East (including Afghanistan) to the Indo Pacific where the threat from China is perceived to be getting larger by the day. The last time the Taliban was in power in 1996-2001 only three nations recognized its regime as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan. The former two may follow the US in their strategic guidance. Pakistan is likely to perceive advantage in the emerging situation and will probably be the Taliban’s guide on external affairs in the near future.

Of course, it cannot be presupposed that the Taliban, which reportedly rules a majority of Afghanistan’s 370 districts, will be in a position of authority as soon as the US forces leave.  The Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are strong and well experienced but it’s a question of loyalties and how long these forces will remain united, remembering that Afghanistan’s other problem is ‘tribal warlordism’.

Geostrategic Analysis

To study Afghanistan from any angle its geostrategic location demands full analysis because seldom does such a location play as crucial a role in a country or region’s geopolitics as does that of Afghanistan. Its geostrategic significance is its linkage to Central Asia, Iran, China and Pakistan, and indirectly to India too; its location is also central to the communication links. Its diverse ethnic composition and existence in a potent zone through which connectivity is afforded to various countries, gives it a unique advantage. An implosion within such a country always has far reaching consequences. The New Great Game has its tentacles and even the core centre located in this region. That involves the search for ‘spheres of influence’ in the underbelly of Russia, attempts on control over future energy resources, extensions of connectivity between Asia, Middle East and Europe, a potential ground for breeding radical ideologies and hence global terror  sanctuaries,  and an important zone for international narcotics smuggling, all of which depend on transnational networks. It makes the negative potential of the area much higher than any other geographic zone in the world; actually higher than even Syria. Turbulence of any kind in one nation spreads rapidly into other nations. The ethnic and ideological connect between nations exacerbates the situation. Afghanistan is a classic case of internal issues of a nation going far beyond its borders, regionally and globally. Its internal politics are ridden with complexity; the Pashtuns (40%), Tajiks (33%), Hazara (11%) and Uzbek (9%) have little convergence and also maintain different linkages with regional powers. The Taliban, essentially Pashtun, has transformed much from its last political avatar of 2001, agreeing to have even Hazara (essentially Shia) chieftains within its ranks. However, there does not appear to be any other ideological change, especially regarding the position of women in society and the role of religion in governance. With Saudi Arabia altering its ways and looking at a more evolved ideology will the Taliban attempt to give more political weight to radical ideology, is the question. But first it has to comprehensively defeat the moderate elements before it can even hope to realize its dream of returning to Kabul. Although reports may indicate that all is not good for the Government forces in the field, the Afghan National Army (ANA) with its Special Forces is still formidable and a walkover is unlikely notwithstanding the reports of its defeat in a few battles. The battle may meander between tactical victories and defeats many times. In these times loyalties too will change.

Analyzing US Failure

The two decade war in Afghanistan will be analyzed from multiple angles in the years to come and mostly will be classified as a huge strategic failure on the part of the US and its allies. The inability of a superpower to turn things around and erase Afghanistan’s reputed title – ‘Graveyard of Empires’, will probably be seen as the failure of leadership, strategy and international cooperation to bring peace to a stricken land. The US defeat in Vietnam, classified by Richard Nixon as a campaign where strategic objectives were met, and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan were both events of the Cold War. The adversaries then were clearly ranged against each other in terms of near conventional conflict situations. The US failure in Afghanistan, however, is a virtual submission to the will of non-state actors who had limited resources to boot. The concept of war fighting meandered between counter insurgency and quasi conventional operations without resting on either. That the Taliban could afford to survive and have the ambitious military capability to defeat the organized ANA is a reflection of the US failure to come to grips with the situation.

Efforts were made to strengthen the anti-Taliban forces of the National Unity Government and provide assurance to the world that it could hold on and govern. An ‘Afghan led and Afghan owned solution’ is what we often heard.  None of this seemed to have worked, although some yet claim that it’s too early to write off anyone in the emerging   fight. The Afghan National Army (ANA) and National Police, all of over 300,000 strong, have not been short on courage. Almost 8000 fatalities per year battling out the Taliban’s various offensives and this has been despite the air support provided by the US from within Afghanistan. Does the ANA have the capacity to battle on its own? The casualty figures somehow tended to dampen perception. The reluctance to provide advanced heavy weaponry to them was because no one trusted their ability to fight with it and secure that advanced military equipment. It was perceived that most of this equipment would fall into Taliban hands and facilitate it to take its fight to the allies. India was often urged to provide some heavy weapons, ammunition and helicopters. We have an enduring and positive relationship with the ANA and our political and diplomatic relationship with the Government of Afghanistan could not have been better. We trained Afghan officer cadets and soldiers in large numbers at our academies and even our regimental centres, provided weapons and even a few helicopters and used the soft power route to build the relationship with the people; eventually becoming a nation that the Afghans trusted the most. However, there was little that India could do in terms of provision of additional  heavy weaponry in the face of the possibility of an eventual relationship with the Taliban (catering to the contingency of it coming to power) or the safety and security of the US forces and its allies should these weapons fall to the Taliban.

The ANA is suddenly seen to be doing better than earlier reported. The Taliban is obviously not following traditional tactics of targeting the urban centres. They appear to be aiming to first get hold of maximum rural districts and cut off supply lines to the urban areas. Getting to urban centres and large cities such as Kandahar and Kabul isn’t easy unless you have the heavy weaponry and lots of artillery to enforce a break in. That is because the periphery of a city is strongly held by the defender; even a small penetration can be quickly counterattacked from concealed positions. Taliban does not have that kind of firepower and it’s here that they are likely to suffer attrition.

An eventual suffering of the people and their displacement as refugees or internally displaced people should be expected, probably in large numbers creating a humanitarian crisis of its own.  Turbulence and chaos could unnerve the Government but that is where important advisers must keep an open line with the ANA leadership and keep counselling them on the developing situation.

There have been no reports of desertions yet, except unconfirmed reports of move of a unit into Tajikistan. ANA has almost 160 aircraft of all kinds but ammunition may be in limited quantum. The professionalism required for planning operations may also be lacking. What is becoming increasingly clear is that post 31 Aug 2021 when the US and NATO forces have completely withdrawn there is no likelihood of the immediate fall of the Government of National Unity. If the cities are in their hands and also the airfields this battle may turn out to be a long drawn one.

The UN which should now have been much more proactive on the entire unfolding crisis is likely to receive considerable flak. Once earlier in the early Eighties, the 3 million refugees who were displaced from Afghanistan and were camped on the Afghan-Pak border, were largely responsible for the creation of the extremist trends within Islam which have deeply affected international security for the last 40 years. Under these circumstances a Syria like situation appears to be emerging – another stalemate and lingering civil war which makes for the creation of sub conventional forces with their own ambitions, adding to the problems of the region.

The International Dimension

The US is hell bent on leaving Afghanistan although it is keenly seeking ways by which it can monitor and perhaps even sporadically respond to some contingencies which may have larger potential of spinning out of control or creating an international impact. There are Russian and Chinese interests in Afghanistan and these along with the dynamics of the US withdrawal makes for an interesting and absolutely unpredictable situation for now. There is Iran too; and the current negotiations for its return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 are going on in Vienna. The outcome of those and the role it wishes to play in the affairs of its eastern neighbour will be of much interest, especially since the Taliban (as obscurantist Sunni) and Iran (Shia) are absolutely ideologically different. Lots of nations are expressing their opinion and seeking to be influential in Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan lead the flock. The Taliban is selling wares to each based upon what their interests are. Which nation actually has influence is yet uncertain. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are conspicuous by their apparent absence. Many analyses are stating that Pakistan may have hosted the Taliban leadership for 20 years but the Taliban is no way beholden. There is speculation that if the Taliban finally seizes power it may wish to spread its tentacles deep into Pakistan creating a huge internal security problem for it.

There is no consensus on how much the Taliban has changed since 2001. On the face of it lots of good vibes are being given with promises galore. More clarity is also needed on how much support it receives from the common public in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan Army Chief was to have visited India at a crucial time. India has in the past extended both soft power support to the Afghan government and military support to the Afghan Armed Forces. With reports that India is also in some kind of engagement with the Taliban in an apparent bid to balance its options, will the Indian Government be in a position to promise more resources such as ammunition and heavy support weapons to the ANA.  This will call for great diplomatic tact even as we extend a helping hand which the Afghan government expects.

Pakistan’s propaganda machinery is in full flow. It wishes to make the world believe that the Taliban is unstoppable and will soon be in Kabul, in the seat of power. Taliban is denying the presence of any Pakistanis in their ranks although information appears to confirm that approximately 10,000 fighters from Pakistan may have been inducted to support the Taliban. These may include some fighters from the Lashkar e Tayiaba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM), both Kashmir focused terrorist entities that would obviously be looking to cultivate a transnational Islamic image for subsequent exploitation.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that post 31 Aug 2021 when the US and NATO forces have completely withdrawn there is no likelihood of the immediate fall of the Government of National Unity. If the cities are in their hands and also the airfields this battle may turn out to be a long drawn one. It is likely to see large scale displacement of population with minimal availability of humanitarian agencies. Under the circumstances how long can Afghanistan survive without being driven to a Syria like situation, is a question difficult to answer.

Taliban steps in as the US withdraws

After nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, the US military is in the final stages of withdrawing troops from the country, bringing an end to America’s longest war.

Almost 95% of US troops have left and the Taliban have rapidly expanded their presence to large swaths of country. The speed at which Afghan security forces have lost control to the Taliban has surprised many and led to concerns that the capital, Kabul, could be next to fall. All foreign forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by August 31.

Operational Updates (at the time of going to press, 01 Aug 21), by the editorial team

  • Areas under Control. According to the Long War Journal which tracks control of territory in Afghanistan, the Taliban now controls 13 of 16 districts in Herat province. Most of its gains came in the month of July. Nationwide, the Taliban controls 223 districts, with 116 contested and the government holding 68, according to the Long War Journal, 17 of 34 provincial capitals are directly threatened by the Taliban.
  • Withdrawal of US air assets. US air assets provided more than 80% of the combat power to battle the Taliban. Its withdrawal along with civilian contractors to provide maintenance has put an enormous strain on the Afghan Air Force.
  • 3.5 Million displaced. The worsening security situation in the wake of foreign troop withdrawal and Taliban advances, has forced an estimated 294,000 from their homes since January, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on July 21, bringing the total internally displaced to more than 3.5 million. In the month of June alone, 77,000 people were displaced, the UNHCR said.
  • Civilian Casualties. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented 5,183 civilian casualties (1,659 killed and 3,524 injured) since the start of 2021 – a 47% increase compared with the same period in 2020. “Without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan is on course for 2021 to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since 2009” said UNAMA. The UN warned in a new report issued on July 26 that civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 reached “record levels,” including “a particularly sharp increase in killings and injuries since May when international military forces began their withdrawal.
  • Taliban accused of War Crimes by the US, UK.  The United States and the United Kingdom have accused the Taliban of “war crimes” in the southern town of Spin Boldak in Kandahar province, alleging that dozens of civilians were “massacred”.
  • US to evacuate journalists, aid workers from Afghanistan. The US State Department is widening the scope of Afghans eligible for refugee status in the US to include current and former employees of the US-based news organisations, US-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive US funding. Current and former employees of the US government and the NATO military operation who do not meet the criteria for a dedicated programme for such workers are also covered.
  • Russian and Uzbek militaries begin joint Afghan border drills. Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan began joint military drills on 01 Aug near the Afghan border amid fears of a worsening security situation in Afghanistan that could spill over into Central Asia. Russia said 1,500 Russian and Uzbek soldiers would take part in the five-day exercises that began at the Termez military site in Uzbekistan. Moscow would send a much bigger military contingent to Tajikistan for separate trilateral exercises due to begin there later this week.
  • EU will not recognise Taliban if they gain power by force. Envoy Thomas Nicholson, head of the European Union delegation to Afghanistan, was quoted by The Afghanistan Times as saying, “If Taliban rise to power militarily, the EU will not recognise them.” He also said the bloc was trying to stay involved in the situation in the country as much as possible.
  • Seven Taliban killed in US air raid in Lashkar Gah. The Afghan defence ministry reports stated that US air raids were conducted on Taliban targets in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. The ministry says seven Taliban fighters were killed in the attack.  It also said the government forces started clearance operations in the western city of Heart.
  • Taliban killing of Afghan pilots ‘worrisome’.  Taliban assassinations of Afghan pilots this month mark a “worrisome development” for the Afghan Air Force as it reels from a surge in fighting. At least seven Afghan pilots have been assassinated off base in recent months as part of what the Taliban says is a campaign to see US-trained Afghan pilots “targeted and eliminated”.
  • Afghan parliament backs Ghani’s security plan; Taliban dismisses it. The upper and lower houses of the Afghan parliament released a joint statement after President Ashraf Ghani’s address, expressing their full support for his security plan. They also declared their “firm” support to the republic, human rights, women’s rights and the freedom of speech.  The Taliban rejected the proposal in a statement in response to President Ashraf Ghani’s address to the legislature, saying his “statements were all nonsense”.