Decades of a wrong Afghanistan policy has now landed India in a right royal fix. The emerging situation in Kabul — where the US President has set US interlocutor Zalmay Khalilzad a 1 September deadline to thrash out a deal for a phased withdrawal of American troops — presents a particularly tricky problem that has major implications for India. And for New Delhi, there are no easy solutions.
One can’t really blame Donald Trump for his impatience to get out of Afghanistan and deliver a foreign policy “win” ahead of his 2020 Presidential campaign. For the US, the Afghanistan war (officially the longest ever) has been an unmitigated disaster. Washington has never really understood the true nature of the beast that stared at it, fighting the wrong war, using the wrong tactics, making an ally out of a treacherous enemy and even paying the enemy for its treachery.
The Americans wanted to smoke out Al-Qaeda and its host, the Taliban, after the 9/11 attacks but it failed to figure out Pakistan’s role in the deal while co-opting it as the “ally” in the war. It couldn’t (or may not have even wanted) to figure out what’s in it for its ‘major non-NATO ally’, Pakistan.
When Imran Khan declares that Islamabad will no longer fight America’s war, he is not far from the truth except that Pakistan had never fought alongside the US, and in the guise of an “ally” pocketed billions of dollars over decades, furthered its own geostrategic interest in Afghanistan, and ensured that a resolution remains firmly out of American reach.
Pakistan gave shelter to the Taliban when the Islamist militia was under pressure and sustained it when angry Americans were hot on Taliban heels even as it agreed to cooperate with the US in its war. When Colin Powell had delivered an ultimatum to General Pervez Musharraf, it agreed to give the US “overflight and landing rights for all aircraft, access to airports, naval bases, and borders, enable intelligence sharing, stop shipments of fuel to the Taliban and stops Pakistani fighters from joining them.”
However, even as Musharraf agreed to do so, Pakistani ISI officers were simultaneously aiding the Taliban with fuel, military intelligence, logistical support, and armaments. Pakistan’s motive was, and still is, to continue backing its proxy — the Taliban — and prevent India from gaining strategic depth through a democratically elected government in Kabul. Pakistan had nurtured the Taliban with American money for decades and they were not going to let go of that strategic weapon just because US priorities had changed.
An article in 8 December, 2001 edition of The New York Times had quoted ex-ISI chief Hamid Gul, who was still an influential figure within Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service agency, as saying: “Osama bin Laden is a sensitive man and he had nothing to do with the attacks on America… You Americans will have to support the Taliban one day. They are not going to go away. They are integral, organic, historic.”
Pakistan helped the Taliban rejuvenate, allowed it to throw a challenge to the nascent democracy in Afghanistan and let it rip apart the war-torn country into shreds through terrorism. Now that a desperate US is trying to end the war and somehow cut an “exit” deal, Pakistani generals have delivered the Taliban on to the discussion table and earned some brownie points in the bargain. It has been duly rewarded by the White House with Imran getting the chance for a one-on-one with Trump.
The US has been blundering for decades in Afghanistan, blindsided by an enemy which used its geostrategic location and its status as an unstable, rogue nuclear nation to its fullest advantage. The ‘Madman theory’ has served Pakistan in the past and is paying dividends again.
As Colonel (retd.) Lawrence Sellin of the US Army who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan noted in The National Interest, “for over seventeen years we have wrongly applied counter-insurgency doctrine to a proxy war waged by Pakistan against the United States and Afghanistan. At the same time, we supplied Pakistan with generous aid packages to bribe them from pursuing a course of action opposed to our own, which they considered in their national interest… In essence, our leaders, through a combination of incompetence and indifference, allowed the United States to be defeated by Pakistan and paid them to do it.”
So when a frustrated Trump tacitly admits defeat via deadlock and decides to pull out of Afghanistan, for once, his move found largely bipartisan support with even the Pentagon sounding exhausted over an “unwinnable war” that has continued for 18 years, cost 2,419 American lives, 1,142 allied lives, 62,000 Afghan security forces’ lives, ,2400-plus civilian lives and at least $942 billion in expenses since 2001 for the US alone.
It is clear to many that the deal being discussed by Khalilzad with the Taliban is little more than a desperate exit strategy instead of a “peace process”. The Taliban knows that all it has to do is to run down the clock, and domestic pressure in the US will do the rest. Pakistan has seized the moment by squeezing itself into the equation by delivering Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban figure who had been held captive in Pakistan. Baradar played an important part in the talks, and reinforced Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan needs a “political solution”.
Accordingly, Pakistan has been the latest nation to be inducted into the Afghanistan ‘peace process’. Three countries — the US, China and Russia — have expressed satisfaction with the inclusion of Pakistan in the process and all four issued a joint statement on 12 July, “urging the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and begin talks with the elected government in Kabul to usher in an era of peace and stability in the war-ravaged country.”
Notwithstanding the 'chutney', the situation leaves India in the lurch. But New Delhi must stop blaming Washington. Every nation, after all, fashions its foreign policy based on self-interest and there is no point holding the US responsible for removing its security cover in Kabul when it is becoming too costly for Washington to do so.
If India wishes to sustain its security and strategic interests in the war-torn nation, nurture its 18-year-old ties and maintain its role as an important stakeholder in Afghanistan’s nation-building, then it must stop looking towards American security cover and consider putting its own boots on the ground.
Nobody disputes the fact that Pakistan is aiding the Taliban and will do whatever it can to undermine Indian interests in Kabul. However, if the Ashraf Ghani government looks helpless and elbowed out of the ongoing peace process, India should do more instead of just sermonizing from the sidelines about an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled process, which includes the government in Kabul” when clearly such a formula has no takers in Washington, Moscow, Beijing and obviously Islamabad.
It is time for the Narendra Modi government to revamp its Afghanistan policy and be prepared to take some risks, even if it means courting unpopularity in the short term.
Updated Date: Jul 21, 2019 23:45:55 IST