Afghanistan: The Evolving Kaleidoscope For Pakistan and The Window for India

India needs strategic patience and must use the window of opportunity that the unravelling within Afghanistan provides. For Pakistan, future challenges are aplenty as it can add to the instability in Afghanistan but does not have the capacity or a plan to stabilise it

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By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)

As the US forces are exiting Afghanistan ahead of their timetable, the Taliban offensive has gained tempo in the northeast and south of the country.  It is inexorably bringing the country closer to the expected chaos and an impending civil war. Taliban has claimed control of 85% of the country. Some reports suggest it is around 30%. It could be anywhere in between. However, while the Taliban is gaining ground in many places there are also some places where they are being cleared. The situation is fluid. It is also in the news that Pakistani intelligence and terror outfits, Uzbeks, Uighurs and Chechens are in the forefront of fighting alongside the Taliban as they make inroads to expand territorial control in Afghanistan. There is a lot of analysis and prognosis as to what will happen in future. India’s interests and role in the emerging dispensation is also under the lens. Pakistan, it seems, is emerging as the most important layer in Afghanistan today having waited patiently for 20 years for the Americans to leave and regain its ‘strategic depth’. It is also being opined that Pakistan’s position on the Afghan chessboard is so powerful that it influences every move everyone else makes. Russia and China are riding the Pakistani horse  to open the Taliban gateway and secure their interests. Pakistan appears to  be once again on a roll and on the verge of controlling all of Afghanistan. Indian analysts are dismayed that India is on the back foot consigned to the side-lines once again. Just wait. When you read the views of Pakistani opinion makers an alternative reality pops out. Pakistan should have been more careful in what it wished for. It is coming true. All the best to them.

Arifa Noor in her article in Dawn opines that the unravelling within Afghanistan and the fallout in Pakistan, is not just the refugee problem but also the possible strengthening of the TTP due to its links with the Afghan Taliban. She also comments that Pakistan Government lays far greater emphasis on the past than the future. The future appears dark in most accounts for Pakistan.  However what is more noticeable is the apparent lack of detail. Only a bleak outline in broad brushstrokes are being offered.  She also opines that Pakistan’s policy options are outlined  in vague terms to deal with the refugee crisis as well as focusing on counterterrorism within Pakistan. The absence of an economic plan for Afghanistan is pointed out. In addition, she is of the view that the protracted violence will present Pakistan with an uncontrollable situation.

Fahid Hussain in his article examines the impact on Pakistan. He mentions of the marathon meeting of various committees on national security which have spent hours on end discussing Afghanistan with no solid recommendations emerging. There seems to be  nothing added to the existing discourse, and the dilemmas that surround it. The military leadership had framed three key policy questions on the Afghanistan situation for the political leadership to consider: (i) What should be Pakistan’s policy regarding the influx of Afghan refugees? (ii) Should Pakistan recognise the Taliban government when they capture Kabul or follow the international community’s decision? (iii) Should  Pakistan allow US drones and aircrafts to use our airspace to launch attacks on Afghan territory? All these issues are open ended for now.

Pakistan, it seems, is emerging as the most important layer in Afghanistan today having waited patiently for 20 years for the Americans to leave and regain its ‘strategic depth’. It is also being opined that Pakistan’s position on the Afghan chessboard is so powerful that it influences every move everyone else makes. Russia and China are riding the Pakistani horse  to open the Taliban gateway and secure their interests. Pakistan appears to  be once again on a roll and on the verge of controlling all of Afghanistan.

A Dawn report quotes the Pakistani NSA terming the Afghan situation as “extremely bad and out of Pakistan’s control”. An impending risk of an attack by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan(TTP) militants was feared. In fact two attacks have  already materialised in Khyber Pakthunwa (KP) with an Army officer and eleven soldiers being ambushed by TTP in one and nine Chinese deaths in a bomb blast in a bus in the other.  Pakistan fears that TTP cadres based in Afghanistan could enter Pakistan disguised as refugees. There is the constant worry that in case of a civil war, Pakistan would not be able to handle the influx of refugees.

Zahid Husain opines that the deteriorating Afghanistan situation across has also worsened Pakistan’s predicament with the threat of the Afghan conflict spilling over to Pakistani soil. He feels that despite the apparent tightrope walking it will be hard for Islamabad to escape the fallout. He is also not sure whether Pakistani policymakers have a clear grasp of the seriousness of the situation or  a clear strategy to deal with these challenges. The Taliban’s military success is bound to exacerbate Pakistan’s problem of militancy in the border areas and religious extremism inside the country. They are also worried about transnational militant groups ( IS and Al Qaeda) stepping up activities along the Pak-Afghan border region.  A significant part of the Al Qaeda leadership resides in this region and the gives them space to operate in Afghanistan.  There seems to be  competition among these groups  for territorial control. It makes the Durand Line region extremely volatile. In another article he opines that the changing regional geopolitics have created a new alignment of forces. The growing strategic alliance between the US and India and the China-Pakistan axis reflect these emerging geopolitics.

The Taliban’s military success is bound to exacerbate Pakistan’s problem of militancy in the border areas and religious extremism inside the country. They are also worried about transnational militant groups ( IS and Al Qaeda) stepping up activities along the Pak-Afghan border region.  A significant part of the Al Qaeda leadership resides in this region and the gives them space to operate in Afghanistan.

Muhammad Amir Rana articulates that Pakistani leadership must make clear choices, either going with the US or China. As per him  almost everyone believes Pakistan can influence the Taliban, notwithstanding the complications involved in the relationship. Following the Doha deal, the Taliban’s confidence has grown and they have become more assertive. Their advances  in Afghanistan has boosted their morale. Taliban’s growing power will decrease Pakistan’s influence over them. He sees Pakistan walking  on a tightrope trying to balance its relations with other players. He also mentions that Pakistan and China have many political and strategic convergences, but both need to develop a certain level of mutual trust where the two feel comfortable about each other’s international and regional engagements.

Yet another report in Dawn mentions that the impact on Pakistan could translate into two outcomes: (i) A fresh influx of refugees into Pakistan to exacerbate the burden that Pakistan is already bearing due to the very large refugee presence in the country (ii) A civil war in Afghanistan could have a spill over effect and regenerate violence and militancy in the border areas including the erstwhile FATA region as well as in Balochistan. Further the major concern is that Afghanistan could descend into chaos fuelling a full-scale civil war with India, Russia and Iran backing different factions and dragging Pakistan into a protracted conflict.

The Taliban of today is far different from the one which provided  ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan a quarter century ago. It has clearly stated that while Pakistan is welcome to help them, it cannot dictate or impose its views on them. If Pakistan is using its double forked tongue to say one thing in meetings and do another on ground it is heading into big trouble.

The overall sense one gets is that the Pakistani intelligentsia is in a state of trepidation. The Taliban of today is far different from the one which provided  ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan a quarter century ago. It has clearly stated that while Pakistan is welcome to help them, it cannot dictate or impose its views on them. If Pakistan is using its double forked tongue to say one thing in meetings and do another on ground it is heading into big trouble. Let us be clear. Pakistan cannot manage itself. How can it handle Afghanistan?  Overall, Pakistan can add to the instability in Afghanistan but does not have the capacity or a plan to stabilise it. In the event, Baluchistan and KP will remain militancy prone and unstable. TTP has revitalised. The bad news for Pakistan is that TTP  has an agenda of wanting to take on the Pakistan army and overthrow the government in Islamabad. Pakistan is going to be saddled with a refugee problem it cannot afford nor will the West fund it. Russia and China will not be inclined to do so. So all the big talk of cooperation, influence  is suspect. I only see misery ahead for an impoverished Pakistan. Its western border will trouble it for a long time.

It is also being reported that China can buy its way out of trouble by putting money on both sides of the table. That is easier said than done. Taliban is the least trustworthy to keep up its promises. That much is proven. In fact they will revert to gory violence as days unfold. There is already evidence of this. In fact, my hunch is that Taliban will say that they will not allow Xinjiang militants (ETIM) to flourish in Afghanistan and put a price on it. They might do exactly the opposite so that China is the new milch cow to blackmail. Iran will not allow the Sunni Taliban to hold complete sway. It has larger implications for the Shia Iran and dominance of the Islamic world. So if one thinks that a Iran – China – Pakistan – Russia axis  will develop to stabilise Afghanistan and ride into glory. Forget it. Let us not forget the USA is still around. It has quit Afghanistan but it is not yet out of the game. The US general now in charge, has ominously declared: ‘It’s not the end of the story. It’s the end of a chapter.’ Also remember USA still has to protect its homeland by not letting IS and  Al Qaeda hatch another plot to bring down another Twin Towers elsewhere. By exiting Afghanistan, USA has gone into a ‘weapons free’ status. Let us see what happens. It will be interesting to see as to who will put boots on ground. China or Pakistan? Chinese greed for Afghans resources might lead it to outsource everything to Pakistan, which in turn will outsource it to LeT or some such outfit. The chaos is about to begin.

By exiting Afghanistan, USA has gone into a ‘weapons free’ status. Let us see what happens. It will be interesting to see as to who will put boots on ground. China or Pakistan? Chinese greed for Afghans resources might lead it to outsource everything to Pakistan, which in turn will outsource it to LeT or some such outfit. The chaos is about to begin.

India needs strategic patience and must use this window of opportunity. A knowledgeable Indian businessman who has lived for two decades in Kabul opines that,  Afghans love to hate Pakistanis and hate to love them. On the other hand, everyone in Afghanistan trusts India including Taliban. That surprised me. It is a great thing that people trust India. Hence,  patience is the watchword. My hunch is that no dispensation in Afghanistan will leave India out of its future and depend on Pakistan. The Afghan is too proud, independent and wily to do that. I doubt if either China or Pakistan will attempt to feed our ‘two front’ fears for the next 4-5 years when this great instability is emerging on their borders. Simply too risky given India’s inherent strengths. It gives us a great opportunity to sort out our political issues in J&K.

This is also the window to sort out our economy and build military capacities. Shed rhetoric. Shed imagery and imaginary thinking. Do something solid. As far as the military is concerned, it does not matter if we theatrise or not. It matters that we are up to speed in building core military capacities. The challenge before our supremist military leadership who want everyone to “Support” them : it has been 70 years since independence and we are yet to have our indigenous rifles or tanks! The leadership has got what they wanted – rank, power, position and authority. Have they given the men they command what they need to defend the nation? “Support” yourself before you want anyone to “Support” you. Otherwise the nation will certify you as national failures. History is cruel in its coldness of presenting facts.

-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda

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