The Graveyard of Empires: Analysing the Future of Afghan Foll US/NATO Troop Withdrawal

A view is that when the US and its allies leave, an Afghan-Pak-Taliban combination could be disastrous for India, and therefore the US should leave an independent, sovereign state of Afghanistan under a democratically elected President. But again, will this concept work?


The Graveyard of Empires: Analysing the Future of Afghan Foll US/NATO Troop Withdrawal

This is a message from a veteran, who seeks clarifications on India’s policy towards Afghanistan: A citizen’s right. An address of goodwill to the joint session of Afghan Parliament on May 13, 2011 underscored the suggestion to form an Indian-Afghan Parliament Friendship Forum, to extend financial assistance for development from 1.5 billion dollars to 2 billion dollars and outlined the contours of a strategic partnership besides enhancement of people to people contact and so on.

It received bouquets from the media, and I am sure also earned a good chit for New Delhi from Hamid Karzai. But the crucial issue which has been left out from our policy making is, what happens if Ashraf Zhari is removed and the Taliban stage a successful coup? After all, King Muhammad Daoud Zahir was overthrown in a coup in 1973. Five years later, President Muhammad Daoud was murdered in a second coup.

Then President Taraki was ousted in yet another coup in September 1979 and replaced by Hafizullah Amin who had to call the Russians to run the Government. They came in 1979 and deposed Amin and installed Babrak Kamal who was replaced by General Najibullah in May 1986, who in turn was hanged by the Taliban as Russian withdrew.

So let us not take Ashraf Zhari’s survival for granted although one wishes him well. Accordingly, there are many questions and issues the Indian Government and advisors would do well to ponder upon.

These being: What is the United States' exit strategy, current and future objectives and implications? Is the US wanting to convert Afghanistan into a permanent client state such as Iran was for the US before their 1970-72 revolution? Pakistan’s efforts to contain both the US and India and to expand its influence in Afghanistan by assisting in revenue collection, suggesting transit and trade and possibly Chinese collaboration?

India’s stakes: What is or should be India’s emerging role-based on realities and not theories? Is New Delhi prepared for a more difficult and demanding time in Afghanistan as Kabul enters a new phase with US/North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops withdrawal and will not be caught off guard?

Have our security advisors and National Security Council (NSC) analysed this? Does India have any intentions to get militarily involved in Afghanistan by transporting troops and logistics through Chabahar Port with Iran’s consent? Finally, options open to India and what should our Afghan policy be? But before that, some general aspects and connected issues.

No foreign country has ever succeeded in permanently occupying Afghanistan. In the late 80’s after the largest covert operation in US history, the US supported Mujahideen defeated Soviet 40th Red Army in the 90s. Then the radical Taliban movement took over power. Because the US had failed to follow up battlefield success: A mistake they are now planning to avoid.

Concurrently, the US's grand design and dream of western style democracy in Afghanistan won’t work so long as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the warlords are there. There should be no doubt about it. If international forces leave, insurgent forces will take over.

Although the cost of staying is real, it is less than the cost of leaving. Furthermore, British had imposed the Durand line-the border between Afghanistan and erstwhile united India. Which artificially divided 15 million ethnic Pathans in Afghanistan from the 24 million Pathans in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). They share common language, kinship and are indistinguishable-something like our Naga problem in northeast.

Afghanistan does not recognize this border. Besides, three elections have taken place in Afghanistan in the last 13 years. A democratic government is in place. Though fragile, corrupt and incompetent. But then the choice lies between this government or a government led by fanatic, Islamist Taliban.

US/NATO, International Security Force (ISAF), Planned Withdrawal, Strategy & the Afghan National Army (ANA)

"US plans with military action and vague political meandering have been unsuccessful. The intention now appears to be to negotiate with the Taliban and bring them on board. But will this work?"
US Marines de-boarding transport aircraft at an airbase in Afghanistan; File Photo

The 13 year old war in Afghanistan has been the longest in US history. America has lost 1,400 troops (killed) since 2001 and the Americans back home are not ready to see or accept any more body bags from Afghanistan. That was the message for President Barack Obama when he took over.

There have also been divisions in US administration over identifying US policy, finding appropriate strategy to pursue it and finally, what constitutes success in Afghanistan?

The US and its allies (ISAF) intended to end their combat mission by 2014 in a year  phased plan commenced in July 2011, if conditions permit. Currently, there are 1,40,000 troops in Afghanistan including 30,000 US troops inducted in November 2010, 2/3rd being from the US.

After 2014, significant forces were to be left behind to train and advise the ANA and the Afghan Police. All this is according to the plan presented and approved by NATO and its allies (23 members) at Lisbon.

So far, US plans with Military action and vague political meandering have been unsuccessful. The intention now appears to be to negotiate with the Taliban and bring them on board. But will this work?

A view is that when the US and its allies leave, an Afghan-Pak-Taliban combination could be disastrous for India, and therefore the US should leave an independent, sovereign state of Afghanistan under a democratically elected President. But again, will this concept work? In February 2009, after his election President Obama had made Afghanistan as the centerpiece of his foreign policy. He also made a big change in his policy.

While former President George W Bush had three different policies for Afghanistan, Pak and India respectively, Obama’s administration had integrated Afghanistan and Pak into one policy and kept India in an advisory role. Further, as all aid and supplies from the US go through Pak to Afghanistan, the US needs Islamabad badly.

The US sees Afghanistan’s significance from an energy point of view from its geographical location, a potential transit route for oil/natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea, for economic control of oil and gas resources from West Asia and it plans to import 64% of its crude (25.8 million barrels per day) by 2020.

A rumor doing the rounds in November 2010 was that the US was building 13 secret bases in Afghanistan for an attack on Russia if needed (Operation Barbarossa 3). Concurrently, US interlocutors have been stating, that Pak and Afghanistan are both allies of US in their fight against terrorism. According to General Petraeus, a former US commander, who suggested US withdrawal from 2011 onwards, Afghanistan was in a state of mess and confusion.

Karzai, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan & Pakistan

"Taliban and Al Qaeda have been operating jointly. They raise money from sale of illicit drugs, foreign contributions, criminal activities like kidnapping, extortion and from protection payments."
The highly radicalized Afghan Taliban have been a thorn in the side of major world powers; File Photo

Afghanistan has been in a lot of trouble in the last 40 years. First, the Russian invasion in the 70s, then the warlords and the Taliban and then the US. Taliban and Al Qaeda have been operating jointly and even planned to target the Hydro-Power dam outside Kabul. They raise money from sale of illicit drugs, foreign contributions, criminal activities like kidnapping, extortion and from protection payments.

Besides, the Pak and Afghan Taliban have joined hands and therefore Karzai wanted Taliban sanctuaries in Pak to be destroyed. Karzai became President after winning elections in December 2004 and visited India in Feb 2005. His priorities were: education, economy and security and wanted India and Pak as friends. Afghanistan became a member of SAARC.

But he could not move out of Kabul without protection as the Government had little hold on eastern and southern Afghanistan. Karzai was again declared President in November 2009. He wanted to avoid an impression that he was a US puppet. He had taken a stand against civilian casualties by ISAF and against search of private houses. He had even proposed official talks with Talibans through a “High Peace Council'', an initiative launched by ex President Burhannddin Rabani.

In June 2010, according to a geological survey, there was mineral wealth (iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium) worth 1 trillion dollars in Afghanistan. Although according to Karzai, it was worth three trillion dollars or so. Accordingly, US and Indian businessmen are already making a beeline to sign contracts with the Afghan Government. Afghanistan, possibly like Saudi Arabia could hold untold potential?

Pakistan, Former Gen. Kayani & Strategic Depth in Afghanistan

"Islamabad had started operations in Afghanistan in 1979 through the Mujahideen against the Russians...Pak has also offered to train ANA officers some of whom are already being trained in Pak. Therefore, Pak is Afghanistan’s well wisher and not an enemy."
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani addressing a rally; File Photo

Islamabad had started operations in Afghanistan in 1979 through the Mujahideen (supported by the US) against the Russians. Pak does not permit transit facilities for Indian goods to Afghanistan have doubled. Karzai felt that Pak was trying to destabilize Afghanistan. While Islamabad says that Kabul is getting away with a lot of aid. He wanted oil and gas pipelines from Iran and Turkmenistan to pass through Pak.

Meanwhile, Islamabad has offered to build a 10.5 km rail track and to assist the Afghan Government to collect revenues. Besides, a joint Pak-Afghan Jirga was held in Kabul in May 2007 but no visible results emerged. Pak has also offered to train ANA officers some of whom are already being trained in Pak. Therefore, Pak is Afghanistan’s well wisher and not an enemy.

Concurrently, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani wanted the US to deliver on Kashmir and to be given a freehand in shaping the future of Afghanistan. He was the first Army Chief who stated at a press conference in February 2010 openly, that Pak had the legitimate right to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan but did not want to control it. But to regain what Pak lost 2001.

On the other hand former Pak President Musharaf said in the US in November 2010, that India was trying to create an anti-Pak Afghanistan. Pak sees India’s financial and development aid to Afghanistan as some sort of initiative by R&AW to encircle Pak and to make Afghanistan anti-Pak.

Foreign Aid & The UNO

"In Feb 2018, representatives of 70 nations gathered in London to pledge an aid of 10.5 billion dollars for education, economic development, removal of poverty and security."
UN Building; File Photo

Afghanistan has been receiving colossal financial assistance. Representatives of 56 donor countries met in Berlin sometime before 2004 where Karzai wanted two billion dollars. While the donors wanted poppy cultivation to stop in 27 districts of Afghanistan. Karzai had been welcoming aid from the US, India, Iran and Pak. But wanted it to pass through the coalition structure.

Another conference of 18 foreign ministers was held in New Delhi to consider aid to Afghanistan. In Feb 2018, representatives of 70 nations gathered in London to pledge an aid of 10.5 billion dollars for education, economic development, removal of poverty and security. While the US, UK and Germany have cancelled their debts from Kabul.

In July 2010, 60 foreign ministers again held a conference in Kabul to monitor and consider more aid to Afghanistan. Karzai was confident that ANA would be ready to take over law and order of the country by 2014, more than three years after the US commenced its withdrawal.

Indian Stakes, Aid, Development, Projects, Oil & Gas

India’s Cabinet Committee on Security  even considered stationing a brigade for protection of Indian assets in Afghanistan besides the ITBP and the CISF detachments...But this did not work out.
Indo-US annual joint exercise, Yudh Abhyas; File Photo

Indian philosophy seems to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by offering financial assistance, construction and development. India is one of the largest donors of aid to Afghanistan.

A large number of refugees live in India. Approximately 1000 Afghan students come to India every year. And nearly 32 Afghan cadets are under training at the National Defence Academy (NDA).

Right from Feb 2005, when Karzai (newly elected President) visited New Delhi with 8 cabinet ministers, India had offered to train the ANA but this was not agreed to. In Aug 2005, during the Indian PM’s visit to Kabul, three agreements concerning education, health and agriculture were signed. A view was that one could drive down in two days from Kabul to India on a 1,300 km road from Kabul- Khyber Pass-Peshawar-Rawalpindi-Lahore-Amritsar.

India was keen to get an oil/gas pipeline both from Turkmenistan and Iran through Afghanistan- Pakistan-India. However in April 2006, Talibans issued a notice to all Indians to leave within 48 hours. Then, there were two bomb blasts in the Indian Embassy in July 2008 and Oct 2009 respectively causing a fair number of casualties.

India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) even considered stationing a brigade for protection of Indian assets in Afghanistan besides the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) detachments but not as a part of the ISAF.

But this did not work out. In December 2010 Karzai noted that India was prepared to offer Light attack Helicopters and that this proposal had led to adverse reaction from Pak. Finally, India has joined in a 10 billion dollar gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan in Central Asia via Afghanistan and Pak. This inter-governmental agreement was signed at Ashgabat on Dec 12, 2010 with respective Presidents and is backed by the US.

In Jan 2011, Indian business rivals in domestic markers like Sail, Tata, Essar, RINL and Jindal had come together to jointly bid for iron ore assets and to explore building a steel plant in war torn Afghanistan.

Further in anticipation of US withdrawl, India’s Army Chief visited Tajikstan in November 2010 and offered a Field Ambulance (medical cover) comprising of 70 personal including training in counter terrorism and also visited the military airfield at Ayani which was upgraded by India. Where New Delhi night even positioned half a squadron worth of rotary aircraft in cooperation with Russia.

With regards to the former PM's visit to Afghanistan on May 12-13, 2011 in addition to what has already been stated earlier in paragraph one, India had agreed to train Afghan women's police battalions, donated 1,000 buses, agreed to support the escalated cost of Salama Dam and showed interest in the Russian proposal for private companies to participate in bids for a mining centre.

China & Russia: Beijing has already taken a headstart in developing Afghanistan’s Giant Aynak copper mine since 2008- a 4 billion dollar project. Afghanistan is also inviting tenders for developing Hajigak iron mine-one of the biggest in the world. China would probably go for it.

In April 2010, before leaving for China on May 17,2011 Pakistan’s PM Y R Gilani met Karzai and suggested that the US had failed both Pak and Afghanistan, because of its economic issues and was therefore not in a position to support a long term regional development initiative. Therefore, a better partner would be China. So, here is a statement by Pakistan which is currently living on US dole.

Russia is concerned and wants to prevent narcotics trade coming in from Pak. They are also concerned that should extremists take over, they will start filtering to other parts of Central Asia and would not therefore like Talibans to share power. The US has a military base in Kyrgyzstan, too close to the Russian border and are concerned about it. They want to be the only masters in Central Asia. Concurrently, NATO seeks Russia’s help to give alternative routes to Afghanistan.

What Inferences can be Drawn?

"The situation in Afghanistan has remained unpredictable and will remain so. Even the US does not really have a clear and articulate policy."
Afghanistan has been a graveyard of empires; Graphical Representation 

(a) Asharaf Ghani’s survival is a crucial issue. We seem to have taken it for granted. If he is eliminated, US/NATO will have to think twice before withdrawal. Their plans may have to be revised. India's development projects will in any case come under serious threat and will be stalled by Talibans and Al Qaida with Pak support.

(b) The situation in Afghanistan has remained unpredictable and will remain so. Even the US does not really have a clear and articulate policy.

(c) If India wants oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Iran, then these will have to be through Iran, then these will have to be through Iran's Chabahar port (yet to be fully developed) Islamabad and Talibans will not let these pass through Pak.

(d) New Delhi has poured in a lot on money in Afghanistan. It is establishing relationships with Uzbekistan,Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and signing strategic partnerships with them, at the drop of a hat. But  for what overall purpose? New Delhi has also offered some military support and equipment to Afghanistan. But in no way, India can afford to get militarily involved in Afghanistan.

(e) The loyalty and effectiveness of ANA, now under training by Americans and Police will be tested in the not too distant future. Will it remain loyal to Ashraf Ghani? Will its ranks be infiltrated by the Taliban? Will the senior Afghan military officers deliver a coup? Finally, what happens if Ghani is removed?

(f) China is a serious contender for Afghanistan markets. It is already very well placed in POK and the effectiveness of its construction and other programmes is visible. It would be ready to deliver arms and military equipment to the ANA. It will be ready to build roads, contonements, lay railway lines and oil and gas pipelines as they are doing so successfully next door in Pak.

In addition, Gwadar Port  South of Chabahar Port is already functioning efficiently. Where they have factories installed to manufacture goods for export to Africa. So, it is possible that Beijing and Kabul may sign a strategic partnership with or without Ghani with Pak in support.  Which will create an entirely new situation.

Options: India’s options  in Afghanistan are limited. The Taliban, Al Qaeda and Pak do not like Indians. Besides, China is waiting to step in to capture Afghan markets. India’s stay in Afghanistan is entirely dependent on Ghani’s survival and so long as the US/NATO alliance is there. That however does not stop New Delhi from making an effort to maintain cordial relations with Afghanistan and its next door Central Asian neighbors.

The other situation is, When the US/NATO alliance has to stay on for reasons beyond their control and Ghani survives. That is a situation which needs to be seriously analysed by our National Security Advisor (NSA), NSC, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), National Investigation Agency (NIA), Service Headquarters, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and R&AW who have all the necessary data at their desks, to which the common man does not have access.

(Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: majgenvkmadhok@gmail.com)

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