Emerging Situation in Afghanistan and Impact on South Asia
Sub Title : Taliban’s return to power has left the geopolitical situation fairly nebulous
Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2021
Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Page No. : 16
Category : Geostrategy
: September 30, 2021
Taliban’s return to power has left the geopolitical situation, which was already in the middle of a churn, fairly nebulous. India must be prepared for a temporary negative impact on J&K and adopt a wait and watch policy insofar as engagement with Taliban is concerned
We live in times that may be considered a strategic analysts’ delight. From pandemic to portends of renewed global terrorism, the return of violent extremist ideology to the traditional badlands, a super power perceptibly on decline and a middle power seeking ascendance through a not too peaceful route, trends moving towards absence of freedom of navigation at the high seas and new strategic alliances and partnerships emerging through breaking of longstanding bonds, it is a world adrift. Rightly it’s a reset which is inevitable and is being triggered by the rapidity of events in Afghanistan which hit the world unexpectedly.
The later part of the Trump Presidency saw the initiation of the steps to complete the disengagement and withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan. Clearly the mission to win the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) was being short circuited as the self-imposed US limits of deployment and operations could clearly not deliver the aim. Justification to terminate the mission could easily be projected. A 2 trillion dollar mission over 20 years does not need to find reasons for conflict termination, especially when there are alternate threats which have emerged in the two decade period. Since Barak Obama’s time, the proposed US strategy of Pivot to Asia and Rebalancing has been hanging fire, awaiting serious consideration. However, in the period since 2009 the Middle East was also aflame with the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS. All these cumulatively over time drew the US back into that region even as it remained tied to Afghanistan. The broad concept that the US wished to play out after mid 2021 was a withdrawal from Afghanistan without endangering stability and a freedom from terror threats from Afghanistan’s territory to the US mainland and that of its allies. There existed a hope that the arrangement of raising and training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) would succeed in ensuring the longevity of the National Unity Government which would hold fort and secure US interests. Unfortunately, this concept proved to be completely flawed with the 88 billion USD ANSF, equipped with modern weapons and technologies proving inept and the Taliban 2.0 romping home even before the date of final withdrawal announced by the US.
The Developing Situation
As always, the most convenient way of studying the developing situation in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to Taliban 2.0 is to examine the political, military, social, economic and psychological domains as they are developing.
Politically while a government has been established no one is really sure about its true composition. The all-male 33-strong cabinet is made up of Taliban heavyweights, some of them former detainees at the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison and one even on the FBI most wanted list. It has reinstated the Ministry of Virtue and Vice, a religious police force that was earlier used in enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic laws when it last ruled Afghanistan. The head of state of the new Taliban government is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. His 23-year-old son was killed in 2017 while carrying out a suicide attack against the ANSF having driven an explosive-laden vehicle into their base in Helmand province. Akhundzada will probably be based out of Kandahar, the Islamist movement’s spiritual home. Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhunda, a close associate and political adviser to Mullah Omar and one who has been on a UN sanction list since 2001, is to be the Prime Minister. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be the Deputy to Mullah Akhunda; it is learnt that he was shot and injured in a shootout within the ranks of the Taliban and is convalescing. The all-important appointment of the Interior Minister has gone to Sirajuddin Haqqani, an ISI lackey and head of the infamous Haqqani network which was also responsible for the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 and the 2011 attack on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel. Haqqani carries a 10 million US$ bounty on his head. Muhammad Yaqoob Mujahid the eldest son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban founder, has been nominated as the Defence Minister. KhairullahKhairkhwa, is the Minister for Information and Broadcasting. He served as acting Interior Minister and Governor under Taliban 1.0, spent 13 years in the Guantánamo prison and came away in an exchange executed by former President Barak Obama; an American soldier in captivity was released by the Taliban. Khairkhwa is reputed to be one of the hardest nuts to crack and the intelligence community had recommended his non-repatriation. Yet the then US President insisted upon it.
There are competing factions within the Taliban who are likely to jostle for space. The ‘Doha boys’ already appear to have drawn the ire of those who did not get to experience more worldly things while the former allegedly enjoyed the glitzy world of diplomacy for two years. Then there are those who remained incarcerated in Pakistan for long and are the ones probably perceived to have sacrificed the maximum.
Given this government a serious change of nature in governance style or ideology can be least expected. Taliban 2.0 is a mixture of different interest groups and ethnicities all with diverse agenda especially in terms of which external power to align with. An awkward situation exists whereby the Taliban government is aware that its two biggest challenges are legitimacy and financial backing. Both are linked. Unlike the last time in 1996 when Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan recognized the Taliban government, this time no nation has moved towards this status. Nations prefer to follow the way shown by the international community and the United Nations (UN) in recognition. Even Pakistan for all the rhetoric is fully aware that it would gravely err if it chose to go unilaterally towards recognition. China came out with a promise of an immediate 31 million US$ assistance to the Afghan government but it too is mindful of the fact that it may not be able to go outside the international community’s informal strictures being applied through the route of holding back recognition of the government.
Financially the Taliban government is in doldrums with the freezing of all assets abroad by the US and international monetary institutions. A humanitarian crisis is reportedly on the cards and has been the first concern that the international community has addressed. More than 18 million people – nearly half of Afghanistan’s population – require humanitarian assistance, while one in three people are going hungry. There are too many abandoned families with men who supported the US and its allies having escaped to other countries. The Covid 19 pandemic too is far from over. Agriculture is the main livelihood for roughly 75 percent of the Afghan population, yet fighting has made it impossible for many people to plant their crops in time. This, coupled with severe drought in Afghanistan, has resulted in predictions for a poor harvest this year. A mission to address the problems of the populace is underway. Future policy towards the Taliban will depend on the manner in which aid workers and NGOs will be treated. One of the serious challenges will be posed by the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) which was responsible for the suicide bombing at Kabul airport on 26 Aug 2021. IS-K thrives in an environment of chaos and targeting foreigners, especially from the West, is likely to be their aim to remain relevant in the near future.
The IS-K decision to project itself through the Kabul suicide attack on 26 Aug 2021 has brought the entire issue of global terror back to centre stage. Terror thrives in a state of confusion, weak governance and internecine lawlessness. Besides Al Qaida which has been here for almost 25 years, we have the IS-K, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Haqqani Network, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and East Turkestan Islamic Movement. For good measure the Pakistan deep state has launched the Lashkar e Taiyyaba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) into the fray with their fighters, to garner direct influence. It is known that Azhar Masood, the JeM Chief made a beeline to Kandahar to meet elements of the Taliban leadership to make early inroads into the power circle that may dictate the security environment of the region for some time. Among the partnerships and enmities here, the IS-K and TTP are in cooperation but the former has major issues with the Taliban even as the TTP seeks cooperation with the latter; IS-K seeks access to Central Asia more than it does to South Asia where the space is far more crowded. The Al Qaida has its limits of networking and is under greater tutelage of the Taliban and in full cooperation with it. It attempted early advertising of its significance by advising the Taliban 2.0 to take the battle to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The Pakistani terror groups promote the interests of the Pakistan deep state which has direct linkages with the Taliban 2.0.
In the near future the Taliban is likely to be deeply embroiled in attempting to legitimize its presence for the sake of practical administration but equally also to find the means to stave off the likely battles between the terrorist groups on Afghan soil. IS-K would attempt to win over some of the extreme radical elements within Taliban ranks.
Geopolitics – The Sino-Pak Factor
A world order in the making in 2020 yet had at its centre a strong US awaiting transition to the Indo Pacific to meet future challenges. The difference in 2021 is that the combination of the pandemic, the mishandling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a political and military leadership of the US with a diminished image, all combine to create a perception of a superpower on the decline. The US has to shake itself out of this perception to enable it to handle the effects of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It has also to ready itself to simultaneously meet the threats in the Indo Pacific as much as those of the Middle East and Afghanistan. The announcement of AUKUS may be welcomed on one hand but it also raises many questions on the degree of trust that the US accords to its partnerships. For the moment there is much less scope for exclusive focus on a region; by virtue of being a superpower the US must retain the capability to respond to and calibrate the situations both in the Indo Pacific and the Middle East, plus the Af-Pak region. South Asia, as the region in between, will remain geopolitically significant into the near future.
There is a reason for the above belief. Most analysts believe that China is extremely wary of its 22 million Muslim population and the potential of it being radicalized to the extent of posing a threat to China’s internal security and regional stability. A reappraisal of that belief actually points towards the thought that simmering instability in the region comprising Afghanistan and its neighborhood may actually accrue strategic advantage to China. China would be confident of handling its own minority Islamic populace through coercive means; it’s been doing this for some years now without any meaningful response from the Islamic nations. Thus, backlash is unlikely. Support to the Taliban in many ways meets China’s intent of also keeping its Belt & Road Initiative on track through the aggregated influence among the various nations in which the infrastructure exists. This appears a tactical convergence of interests of China with some disparate mostly non-state elements who claim the mantle of Islam; none of the other countries who have majority Muslim populations have such convergence. Pakistan and elements within the Taliban 2.0 would like to be seen as the flag bearers of Islam. For China the biggest advantage of the above tactical ploy is to keep the US concerned about this region and thus prevent it from making the Indo Pacific its chief concern. It currently does not have the qualitative maritime muscle to contest the US in the Indo Pacific but hopes that in the due course of the next decade and a half it will be in a position to hold its own more effectively.
The US which has had a strong relationship with Pakistan due to geostrategic considerations has mostly displayed reluctance to deal with Pakistan’s rogue behaviour. It too realizes the need to review its policy in a manner that it can get Pakistan to act responsibly towards the international community, failing which Pakistan must be at the receiving end of all actions which have been taken against other rogue states. What the US needs is a Pakistan strategically clearly balanced in its favour and perceiving its interests through that alignment. That is not going to be as Pakistan perceives that it has the ability to play either way in the competition between the US and China; with each way being advantageous to its interests. The US is going to find it difficult to coerce Pakistan except through the route of withholding economic support but by now Pakistan seems adept at managing its economic affairs in a minimalist way with some support from China. It also appears to be resigning itself towards not finding a special relationship with Saudi Arabia any longer. Yet things could be changing there too. The approach of the US, as evident during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the US, reveals no clear indications of a future approach to Pakistan.
Among the geopolitical affairs of the post Afghanistan period which tend to flummox is the relative silence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both countries with major financial clout and influence in the Islamic world. Both nations were among the exclusive three that recognized Taliban 1.0. They have observed with some consternation the role played by Qatar through the crisis and the proactive diplomacy undertaken by it; as the intermediary between the US and the Taliban. The power of the Saudis and the Emiratis is far greater and an eventual role for them is inevitable. The worry should be whether that will again come through the route of Pakistan.
Most analyses give Pakistan advantage in the first phase of post withdrawal Afghanistan. However, clearly Pakistan remains tenuous in its approach. It has too many directions to look in and is unclear about its own interests. What it aims at is a regime in Kabul largely under its control and completely opposed to any Indian role in Afghanistan. It does not wish to be an American-Saudi proxy in the great game because that combine has Indian interests embedded too while also tilting the balance against the alternate forces making a bid for larger influence within the Islamic world. In the midst of all this Taliban 2.0 may well wish to find its autonomy away from the strings of control of Pakistan. The geopolitics could not be more complex and we may have seen just the tip of the iceberg with much more to come. Pakistan clearly remains the key player and its importance can only be written off at the cost of major risk.
No one is denying the fact that the greatest beneficiary of the strategic outcome of the events of the last fortnight is Pakistan. To fully comprehend Pakistan’s benefit, one has to recall the grand strategy which was drawn up in the Eighties by Pakistan’s former President Zia ul Haq. It involved the radicalization of a core group of Afghan and Pakistani youth who would assist first in the fight against the Soviets and thereafter be an asset for Pakistan’s nefarious agenda in the region which primarily focused on the secession of J&K from India. The line of radicalization was aimed to serve the purpose of Islamic unity. This line went far back into the Middle East from where much of the inspiration and material assistance came. Has this grand strategy changed is the question we should be addressing? On the face of it the internal chaos Pakistan has witnessed with its policies should deter it from revisiting this strategy. Externally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of Pakistan’s greatest supporters of the past, have changed tack and are now waiting and watching much like the rest of the world. The Taliban itself appears to be putting out a changed exterior, fully conscious of the chaos that Pakistan can draw it into with its nefarious designs for the region. In the midst of this the ray of hope for Pakistan remains the involvement of China. Pakistan hopes to be the friend, philosopher and guide for China to steer its Afghanistan policy which is currently driven by two factors. First is the fear that China lives with, of the likely spread of terror networks into its restive western region of Xinjiang. Second is the desire to extend China’s influence into the region of the ‘New Great Game’ (which will probably see a renewed competition) to safeguard its strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Russians are playing cautiously after an initial rush of adrenaline, realizing the importance of keeping balance. Enhanced Pakistani influence does not augur well for Russian interests either.
The two questions put to me with regularity relate first to the effect of the instability in Afghanistan and the advantage gained by Pakistan, on India’s security, especially J&K; second, whether India should be looking towards engaging with the Taliban as a reversal of its past policy. Both need separate and detailed analyses. The impact of the events in Afghanistan depends largely on how far Pakistan wishes to revive its grand strategy of the Eighties and the extent to which Taliban wishes to play along. The Taliban is not a natural adversary of India; it was Pakistan’s instigation and handling which created that perception. Left to pursue its policies more independently the Taliban may wish to develop a line of cooperation and engagement with India, as is also evident from Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Stanikzai’s recent statements. Pakistan will look for early exploitation of the situation even though that may simultaneously enflame all its security concerns – Afghanistan, J&K and internal security. Rationality was anyway never Pakistan’s strong point. India should be prepared therefore for a temporary negative impact on J&K, although this may not last; current Indian state of readiness is appropriately suitable as long as the security grid of J&K is not disturbed.
As to the issue of engagement with the Taliban is concerned, since it is unclear which faction, group or dispensation is likely to dominate even after government formation, India must go along with the international community. The wait and watch policy adopted by much of the world appears the only way forward without any stringent biases towards letting the past dictate the future. Let tomorrow be another day.