What is often referred to as the Afghan endgame is in fact the US endgame in Afghanistan. For the Afghans there is unlikely to be any endgame because if the US desperation to exit from Afghanistan is anything to go by, then Afghanistan is in for a very turbulent future. All available indications suggest that Afghanistan is going to be embroiled in what is almost a ‘death game’ or, if you will, a game of survival. A large part of the blame for this will lie on the heads of the Americans who seem to have lost the will, and perhaps run out of the wealth, needed to take the war on terror to its logical conclusion.
Under the mistaken notion that appeasing and accommodating terrorists (read Taliban) and their supporters and sponsors will halt the spread of Islamic radicalism, the US seems to have become a willing party to Pakistan's con-game in Afghanistan. Not only is the US now all set to abandon Afghanistan but worse, also outsource it to Pakistan, in effect throwing Afghanistan to the proverbial wolves. It is of course quite another matter that this disingenuous policy of restoring peace and stability in the Afpak region will prove disastrous, not just for Afghanistan but also for Pakistan and rest of the region which will be severely destabilised.
The simple paradox about Afghanistan is that if the war against Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates and affiliates is not won, the peace will be lost. And with it will be lost all the accomplishments and achievements of the last more than one decade since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Ironically, Even though the Americans and their Western allies recognize that the Afghanistan of today is very different from the Afghanistan of 2001, all their moves on the political, diplomatic and military chessboard seem to be aimed at undoing all the good things that happened after the defeat of the Taliban.
Notwithstanding the terror attacks of the Taliban which have increased drastically over the last few years, the fact is that the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan has after decades of unrest and war ushered in an era of progress, prosperity and relative stability. This is not to say that Afghanistan is a model of development and good governance and is becoming some kind of a land of milk and honey. But unlike the malevolent and destructive influence of the medieval Islamists, the benevolent influence of the West has planted the seeds of modernity in Afghanistan and started a process of state and nation building.
Afghanistan has a reasonably good army and police, which though a work in progress, is slowly developing into a national asset. Violence level in Afghanistan is much less than in Pakistan. Businesses (both legit and not so legit) are doing fairly well, employment is being generated, education institutions (including for girls) have spread by leaps and bounds and are imparting secular and modern values to the next generation of Afghans, health services have started functioning as has the judicial machinery. Things may not ideal, and there is a lot of scope for improvement. But at least they are moving the right direction. Add to this the enormous growth in urbanisation and along with it the growing aspiration levels among Afghans who are seeking to emulate the successful models of modern and not medieval societies.
Underpinning all these positive developments is the new political culture that has started developing in Afghanistan. The bulk of the Afghan people, despite all the conservatism in society, cultural barriers and even some misinterpretation of religion, appear to have put their faith in the democratic order. Once again Afghanistan is not a perfect democracy. But then neither is India even after over six decades of uninterrupted democracy. What is important is that the Afghan people deeply desire that political change must come through the democratic process and any transition must be peaceful. More than anything else, this yearning for democratic change is perhaps the greatest contribution of the Western presence in Afghanistan, almost a game-changer provided it is not short-circuited by imposing the barbaric Taliban on the Afghans as part of a deal with Afghans’ nemesis, Pakistan.
At a time when the Afghan political class, including the erstwhile warlords, are preparing for the 2014 elections, the Americans seem to be undermining not only the democratic system but also the legitimate government of Afghanistan by bending over backwards to appease Pakistan and use them to bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. This is nothing but a complete abdication of responsibility by the US and its Western allies. Of course, capitulation before the forces of Islamic radicalism and terrorism is being given the spin of ‘reconciliation’. Quite asides the fact that the Taliban have given practically no indication or inkling of a desire for any sort of reconciliation, much less co-existence with those who do not subscribe to their medieval mindset, the Americans have continued to parrot the ‘reconciliation’ mantra even though they probably know that the Taliban wouldn’t remain the Taliban if they were reconcilable.
Clearly, the US has a lot, in fact everything, riding on this ‘reconciliation’ plank hoping that it will bring the Taliban on board. What happens after the Taliban come on board doesn’t seem to have been thought through. Worse, the Americans don’t have any Plan ‘B’ if Plan ‘A’ doesn’t work. Other than confusion, the US policy in Afghanistan is based on a hope and a prayer that the enormous economic and political stakes that people have developed in the Afghan system and the new freedoms and empowerment that have been experienced by the ordinary Afghans will ensure that the Taliban won’t get a walkover if they refuse to reconcile. In other words, as far as the US is concerned, if Plan ‘A’ doesn’t work, the best case scenario in Afghanistan is either a civil war to keep the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies at bay, and the worst case scenario is a Taliban takeover.
Although the US is insisting that it won’t exit from Afghanistan completely after 2014, this commitment is likely to be reneged. For one, the Taliban will be loath to ‘reconcile’ if there is even a minimal US presence of 6000-8000 troops in Afghanistan. This raises the real possibility that the US may agree to a complete pullout if troop presence becomes a deal-breaker. For another, even if the US maintains a small presence of troops behind after 2014, this will only be for a couple of years at best, and certainly not beyond 2016 if not earlier. The reason for this is that if civil war breaks out, the handful of US troops will not make much difference. If anything, the US will find it untenable and unsustainable to prop up the anti-Taliban forces from two or three bases they occupy. There will also be logistics issues for these bases which could well be surrounded by hostiles.
The real tragedy of Afghanistan is that the US will withdraw, leaving behind an underequipped, undertrained, and under-resourced Afghan army. The process of building the Army started in right earnest only a few years back and despite the progress made in this direction, the fact remains that the Afghan National Security Force is still in a fledgling state. Without proper air support, logistics supply and an intelligence network, the ANSF will find it difficult to discharge its security responsibilities. While the West is promising to fund the army and security forces for another decade, this commitment too remains very iffy. So much so that sceptics are already drawing parallels with the Soviets reneging on their financial and military commitments to the Afghan government of Dr Najibullah.
Under the circumstances, the Afghan anger and suspicion of the apparent US strategy of making Pakistan the pivot of their Afghan policy and giving Pakistan the central seat on the Afghan table is entirely understandable. Although the Pakistanis insist that they back an ‘Afghan-driven, Afghan-owned and Afghan-led’ peace process, the only Afghans they seem to think capable of driving, owning and leading the process are the Taliban. At the same time, after having proven their ability to keep stoking trouble in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis are now in the process of building leverages and bridges with all groups and parties in Afghanistan so that each group can be used to counter the other group if and when the need arises. The latest move in this direction is the Pakistani effort to reach out to the elements of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and rope them in to become part of the Pakistani grand strategy in Afghanistan.
Despite having sponsored, supported and giving sanctuary to the Taliban, the Pakistanis are not exactly comfortable with the prospect of letting the Taliban have a free run in Afghanistan. Their best case scenario is that the Taliban either agree to a power sharing arrangement in Afghanistan (even though this will eventually lead to their taking control of the country). At the same time, the Pakistanis are also not ruling out the possibility of a Taliban takeover after a brief but bloody civil war. The Pakistani hope that once the Taliban are accommodated in Afghanistan power structure, they will rein in the Pakistani Taliban. But if the Taliban get other ideas, the Pakistanis will use the Haqqani Network, Hizb-e-Islami, amenable sections of the erstwhile Northern Alliance and other groups to keep the Taliban in check. In short, the Pakistanis, who have often accused the US of pushing the war into their country, now appear to be creating conditions to push the war back into Afghanistan. That such a policy is going to unleash a wave of instability in the region is a no-brainer. But as is their wont, the Pakistanis are deluding themselves that they have the entire thing worked out, and the Americans are wittingly or unwittingly playing along.
In this entire ‘Great Game’ which is folding on its borders, the Indian government seems to be totally at sea on its options. Afghanistan doesn’t figure anywhere or with any degree of seriousness in the national debate. And if it does, it reflects the worst sort of myopia in that the only focus is on the impact that a talibanised Afpak region (whether run by Pakistan or by Afghan Taliban) will have on the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Quite frankly, if the forces of fanaticism are allowed to take root in Afghanistan, more than Kashmir, peace in all of India will be threatened. Instead of either towing the US diktat to lower its presence in Afghanistan, or trying to remain relevant in Afghanistan by riding on the US shoulder, India needs to forge an independent policy to keep the Taliban at bay, even if this means going against the US policy of appeasement and accommodation of Islamist terror groups and their patron, Pakistan. This will involve a deeper engagement with the Afghan government, not by placing boots on the ground but through other diplomatic, economic and military means, including tying up with Iran, Russia, the Central Asian States and even China.
The sooner the Indian government and security establishment wake up to the reality of Afghanistan, the more prepared India will be to tackle the emerging situation in Afghanistan. Otherwise, be ready to once again lock up the Indian embassy in Kabul and withdraw from Afghanistan, at least until the Afghan War 2.0 that will become inevitable after Islamist groups use Afghan soil to spread terror around the world.