By Rajeev Srinivasan
A recent report from Brown University suggests that the cost of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be far greater than previously believed: as much as $4 trillion.
Even more conservative estimates suggest that Afghanistan alone costs $100 billion a year: thus the decade-long engagement has cost the US exchequer a trillion dollars. No wonder the Americans are eager to declare victory and run like hell. But is their money well-spent? More importantly, what does this mean for India?
American opinion seems to revolve around the idea that they went into Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden, and now that this goal has been achieved, it is time for them to leave.
Not quite: who will clean up their mess? And what, in fact, have they achieved with all their exertions? Not much, despite all the huffing and puffing.
There was an announcement on 29 June that may mean, in effect, that the old Northern Alliance is being reconstituted. Have things come full circle?
Once again the Afghans are dividing themselves up along ethnic lines. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who together make up more than the Pashtun share of the population, may be coming together again, which could lead to the same fratricidal violence that has plagued the country for years.
According to a Wall Street Journal report on the announcement, “The new opposition group is led by former key figures in the Northern Alliance, which banded together mostly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias to fight the Taliban regime during civil war in the 1990s. Along with Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, the group is led by Gen. Rashid Dostum of the Uzbek community and Ahmad Zia Massoud, a prominent Tajik whose brother, Ahmad Shah Massoud, led the Tajiks against the Taliban before his assassination by Al Qaeda two days before the 11 September 2001, attacks.”
There is Mohaqiq of the Hazaras, Dostum of the Uzbeks, and Massoud of the Tajiks, all banding together to protect their interests.
This is eerily similar to the situation that prevailed before 9/11: Pashtun Taliban (nominally Afghans, but in reality, Pakistani ISI and Army men) ruled in Kabul, and the other ethnic groups, in particular the Panjshiri Tajiks led by the military genius and national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, mounted an offensive against them.
There are differences, of course. The Tajiks are rather divided, with several others in the picture: General Fahim, who is a vice-president in Hamid Karzai’s regime, Abdullah Abdullah, who was a candidate in the last presidential election, and Amarullah Saleh, ousted interior minister in the Karzai cabinet.
This is in contrast to previous times, when the Panjshiri Tajiks – whom the Pakistanis have always viewed as the principal thorns in their flesh in their effort to make Afghanistan their colony – were united under Ahmed Shah Massoud’s leadership. In fact, Abdullah and Saleh have another opposition grouping, the Besij-I-Milli.
The charitable interpretation is that all this is just normal jockeying for power in the backdrop of the imminent American departure. But there is more sinister possibility: which is that the Americans – they admit they are reaching out to the legendary “good Taliban” – are pressuring Karzai and others to make a deal with the Taliban warlords (read the Pakistanis) which would be inimical to India’s interests.
There are several old protégés of the ISI in the fray on the Pashtun side: the Haqqani network, for instance, and reliable old warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These groups have been handled positively brilliantly by the ISI.
For instance, Hekmatyar got as much as 40% of all the funds that the CIA channelled to Afghanistan in their campaign against the Soviets, and then he promptly turned against the Americans! Just yet another example of the ISI speciality: “give us your money so we can kill you!”
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In this mess, India has only one real option – which is to support the Northern Alliance or whatever version of it emerges as a true force. There is no point in supporting Karzai if he is going to cave in (based on American demands) to the Taliban.
Even though India has, in good faith, supported the Karzai government, if it brings in the allegedly “good Taliban”, there is no question that it would hurt India’s interests.
India should be under no illusions about the intentions of the Taliban. Any such should have been extinguished as early as the Kandahar episode, with the sorry spectacle of a foreign minister escorting Taliban/Pakistani terrorists to freedom.
India looked downright foolish. Let us emphasise again: the Taliban are a Pakistani construct, a proxy to advance the ISI’s oft-repeated dream of gaining ‘strategic depth’ by annexing Afghanistan.
It is true that there are elements in these alliances that should cause everyone to pause. For instance, Gen Dostum has been known to merrily switch sides. If I remember right, at one point, he allied with Hekmatyar to attack Ahmed Shah Massoud’s troops in Kabul. But the point is that these people are definitely the lesser evil as compared to Taliban.
The real solution – the elephant in the living room that everybody tiptoes around – is the dissolution of the Durand Line that artificially divides Pashtuns, and the de jure (as opposed to the emerging de facto) partition of Afghanistan into a Pashtunistan and a Northern Territory that includes the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks.
This has a rather unfortunate (from Pakistan’s point of view), but desirable (from the point of view of everybody else) consequence: it would mean the de facto collapse of Pakistan as well.
Once a Pashtunistan emerges, it will not be long before there will be a general unwinding of the rest of that country, as the simmering discontent in Baluchistan and Sind and the Northern Territories flares up. That will leave a rump Pakistani Punjab, which all the others in Pakistan heartily hate. They will all be busy fighting the Punjabis, leaving them with less energy to attack India.
The containment of the Taliban is of considerable interest to yet another party: Iran. The Shia Iranians are less than enamored of the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban: they also remember the massacres of the Shia Hazaras when the Taliban came to power.
There is another issue that India should look at seriously: the biggest hold that the Pakistanis have over the Americans is that the supply lines to Afghanistan are mostly through Pakistan.
The other possibility, Iran, is out of bounds because of American snippiness towards that country. Well, India has legitimate interests in Iran, including a port that has been built with Indian assistance, partly as a way of reaching out to Central Asia.
India could act as a honest intermediary to promote some kind of détente between Iran and the US. This would achieve at one stroke a couple of desirable things: first, it will bring Iran back into the normal discourse. It has been made a pariah, but it is too big a power to be treated as something the cat dragged in.
Second, that would instantly make Pakistan lose a great deal of its strategic geopolitical value. This would be highly desirable because the diminishing of Pakistan – its dismantling or its loss of relevance – would be a major blow to that other rogue nation in the neighborhood, China.
Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant and columnist.