December 5, 2022

Time for cementing India-Afghanistan strategic partnership

Why I am saying that this is the right time for India to press the trigger of her Afghanistan strategy? The point here is to draw a circle around Afghanistan and position different players around it. Things will become crystal clear.

By Shibdas Bhattacharjee

If the strategic relationship is based on the doctrine of harnessing larger interests by taking zero risk or a bit calculated to a certain extent, the existing and emerging situations prove one point evidently; this is the right time for India to build relations with Afghanistan afresh. The prevailing situation in and around, the region exposes one factor prominently; world order is taking a paradigm shift. In the spectrum of global politics, things change obviously but certainly not in the manner as is the case now. The global order that emerged after the end of colonial rule in the post-World War II era broke after the fall of the USSR and during the phase of globalisation. This is such a transition. My indication is not the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine but a larger one that comprises almost the entire world that includes all the major parleys and the existing challenges before them. It seems hard for the so-called superpowers to navigate through the tides to keep the image intact. However, the point is related to Ukraine too but certainly not to that extent and intensity as perceived stereotypically.

Was not India waiting for this? Was India ignorant of this eventuality? Has India’s strategic think-tank made no homework? Fact is certainly not that, not at all indeed. But just the opposites were happening. India had both mission and vision. It is only India that has kept on shining during this turbulent time. Kudos to the manoeuvres done by External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, one of the greatest diplomats the country has produced. I have been his fan. Now rest of the world seems to perceive it in the same manner. A gem like Dr. Jaishankar makes me proud. Now I can afford to say that in some form or the other this brilliant personality has provided me; a layman daring to analyse strategic affairs at a time when probabilities seemed only for India unlike other nations for whom doors seemed to be closed. It is India and only India all around now; the entire world is moving in orbit accepting New Delhi’s status to be at the centre. All credit goes to the man of the moment in the global strategic gambit Dr. S. Jaishankar. The nation can never be indebted to an individual. Or else, I would have said India is indebted to Dr. Jaishankar. A true gentleman and patriot like Jaishankar will not be happy if someone says so. My observation tells me that.

It is India and only India all around now; the entire world is moving in orbit accepting New Delhi’s status to be at the centre. All credit goes to the man of the moment in the global strategic gambit Dr. S. Jaishankar.

Let me come to the point. Why I am saying that this is the right time for India to press the trigger of her Afghanistan strategy? The point here is to draw a circle around Afghanistan and position different players around it. Things will become crystal clear. I shall put the details into perspective in two parts. This is the first one: 

The point is not whether one touches the Afghan border or not. Important is: who can deliver for Afghanistan? Landlocked nation Afghanistan shares a border with Pakistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In this discussion, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan can be kept aside as the point of a larger strategic game. Even if these countries are taken into consideration, their actual state cannot be discussed as separate entities because of the influence of both Russia and Iran. However, the countries located far away like the United States, NATO members of Europe and China should be included. After all, the interests of India cannot be served either by subduing their dominance or building cooperation. So let me be precise: 

Afghanistan and Pakistan       

This factor is bound to emerge prominently despite the rift going on since the creation of Pakistan and Afghanistan being the only nation that voted against the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations in 1947. But one can hardly ignore the fact of pseudo-solidarity in the name of Islam despite so many sects. The problem with Pakistan has always been multi-dimensional in the case of Afghanistan; be the Durand Line dispute, annexation of Sindh and Balochistan; the regions always getting support from Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the region dominated by Pashtuns having an ethnic affinity with Afghan-Pashtuns leading Taliban. The world witnessed how the United States utilised Pakistan during the era of Zia-ul-Haq to form the Taliban first in Pakistan with the support of the then fanatic Sunni Islamic leaders and then exporting the network to Afghanistan to fight the so-called holy war against USSR.

Similarly, after 9/11 when the US decided to attack Afghanistan searching for the plotters; Osama-bin-Laden and Mullah Omar, Pakistan provided America the base to execute its anti-terror war against the Taliban. More so, the way the United States executed the secret mission to kill Laden in his hideout at Abbottabad located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2011 sent a wrong message regarding the sovereignty issue of Pakistan as the US executed Operation Neptune Spear making rampant use of Pakistan’s airspace. Naturally, this was perceived as anti-Islam in Pakistan by the fanatic elements, particularly by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan also known as the Pakistani Taliban for whom Laden was a role model. When the United States ultimately left Afghanistan, by that time new generation of leadership evolved within the Taliban who prioritised diplomacy and international recognition for economic survival than maintaining a friendship with Pakistan; a bankrupt nation.

On the other hand, the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan provided fresh oxygen to Tehrik-i-Taliban to execute subversive activities that resulted in Afghanistan taking control of the entire Durand Line. At present volatility is persisting across the entire Durand Line because of enhanced escalations both by the Afghan-Taliban and Tehrik-i-Taliban of Pakistan. This encouraged other separatist groups like the Balochistan Liberation Army in Balochistanthe Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army in Sindh, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement for the cause of Pashtun solidarity that is becoming volatile with the passing time. As far as data available on South Asia Terrorism Portal there are 19 in Balochistan, 21 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, three in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (also mentioned as Azad Kashmir in the SATP portal), 11 in Gilgit-Baltistan, 39 in Punjab, and 14 in Sindh proscribed terror outfits. The total number is 179. But this is mentionable that on the same page name of 81 terror outfits have been stated as proscribed terror outfits under the head of Pakistan. However, the existing situation in Pakistan exposes dismal security challenges for Pakistan and is the most viable from Afghanistan. Pakistan has become a non-entity in Afghan affairs and its strategic mission is a far cry. Thus, the Pakistan factor can be kept aside in the case of Afghanistan at least in the given time. 

Pakistan has become a non-entity in Afghan affairs and its strategic mission is a far cry. Thus, the Pakistan factor can be kept aside in the case of Afghanistan at least in the given time. 

Afghanistan-USA

The bilateral relationship between the United States and Afghanistan cannot be perceived as normal bilateral tie-ups between equal stakeholders. The legacy of American policy regarding Afghanistan delineates one point obviously; the US has only tried to use rather than misuse the Afghan soil for vested strategic interests both for its assertive against former USSR or present Russia and to extend its base in the West Asia (from India to West Asia). But in the same process successive regimes of the United States have committed a series of blunders so far. 

But what about the present state of the relationship or rather probability of US presence or dominance in Afghanistan; of course, nothing. America had to face the worst strategic and diplomatic disaster in the context of Afghanistan after the Vietnam nightmare. Fact is the way Americans left Afghanistan proved the point yet again that no foreign country can ever run affairs in Afghanistan. This was true during the era of European imperialism, post-World Wars international order, Cold War global dynamics, or the one that evolved after the fall of the USSR. In the present context problem for the US is multi-pronged; restricting Russian escalations in Ukraine, keeping NATO intact, preventing China’s forward march in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and even substantial parts of the Atlantic. In fact, in the entire world American strategy is licking dust, and emerged situation proves that under the fragile leadership of President Biden, America will keep on losing its remaining strategic hold. Russian aggression in Ukraine has smashed the superpower image of America and its credibility has declined to an unprecedented low for obvious reasons.

However, the most important point is the US needs someone to calibrate its strategic agenda in Afghanistan. But who will do so? The fact is: not only the present Taliban regime of Afghanistan but the nations around the periphery; be Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The standpoints of all these countries have always been anti-US. Expecting anything from Russia is just a foolish one. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey-like countries will never allow Biden and Pentagon. Then who remains? Pakistan? Well, the state of Pakistan has been discussed. Simply, Shehbaz Sharif’s government which is perceived as a US agent in Pakistan can by no means make an inroad for the United States to expand its strategic hold in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the relationship between Iran and Russia is deepened today and the strategic chemistry will close all doors to keep the US away from Afghan affairs.

The relationship between Iran and Russia is deepened today and the strategic chemistry will close all doors to keep the US away from Afghan affairs.

Afghanistan and EU-UK 

As far as the other stakeholders of the West are concerned, they are certainly the NATO members of Europe particularly the UK, France, and Germany. Russian aggression in Ukraine has exposed the fragility of all the 28 NATO members of Europe. Approaches of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, France President Macron, and German Chancellor Merkel regarding the Ukraine crisis have raised widespread criticism. This exposes the existing strategic doctrine of the imperial powers of the last century; they by no means seem to have the potential calibre to protect security and the strategic interests of Europe and their respective nations. What has been the policy of the European nations during the last few decades? This is nothing but feeding the US agenda and of course. The real state of the policy of these nations is shameless slavery; navigating something holding the tail of Uncle Sam. This has made them weaker with the passing time. On the other hand, the active participation of almost entire of Europe in the military misadventures led by the US; be Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and others have only proved to be strategic disasters. Similarly, the inherent dependence of these countries on Russia particularly for energy supply makes their stands weaker. If their god-father United States fails to make inroads in Afghanistan, what can these countries do? Nothing, in the real sense.  

The active participation of almost entire of Europe in the military misadventures led by the US; be Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and others have only proved to be strategic disasters. Similarly, the inherent dependence of these countries on Russia particularly for energy supply makes their stands weaker. If their god-father United States fails to make inroads in Afghanistan, what can these countries do? Nothing, in the real sense.  

Afghanistan-China    

This was a common perception that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would result in enhanced diplomatic drives of China. But that sounds a bit stereotypical. No doubt, considering the strategic agenda of China, a significant development took place; the China-Solomon Islands defense deal. Baring teeth of China seemed in case of Taiwan but the dragon could not bite. The internal political dynamics of China show unlike Putin, Xi Jinping perhaps does not have that much grip on the affairs of China. In this context, one of the prominent indicators is the existing rift within the Communist Party of China. Another oneis the economic backlash in China. The New Indian Express reported on May 10, 2022, under the caption {Xi Jinping promotes Communist Party youth wing ahead of key congress} as “Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday promoted the role of the ruling Communist Party’s youth wing ahead of a key party congress later this year that comes amid rising economic and social pressures.” The same quoted Xi saying “always be a vanguard force in mobilising China’s youth in the continuous endeavour– build up firm beliefs, and boost their courage and skills to carry out struggles– “patriotic and innovative, while not being misguided or intimidated by difficulties– “Unswervingly following the party and striving for the party and the people is the original mission of the Communist Youth League” 

This insightful report indicates some important points about the political dynamics of China particularly a lobby within China evolving may be at a slow pace to challenge the authority of Xi. However, here the point is Chinese inroads into Afghanistan. One factor that emerged evidently after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is contrary to the popular perception of China replacing the United States in Afghanistan in terms of dominating Afghan affairs, Beijing did not seem that much pro-active regarding Afghanistan. The reason is simple. Who could make China’s position stronger in Afghanistan? This is none but Beijing’s all-weather friend Pakistan. 

One factor that emerged evidently after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is contrary to the popular perception of China replacing the United States in Afghanistan in terms of dominating Afghan affairs, Beijing did not seem that much pro-active regarding Afghanistan. The reason is simple. Who could make China’s position stronger in Afghanistan? This is none but Beijing’s all-weather friend Pakistan. 

I have already stated the challenges Pakistan is facing both from Afghan-Taliban and Pakistan-Taliban. Let me refer yet again to how China-Pakistan relations soured up during the last few months. Naturally, all these are stumbling blocks before China as far as Afghanistan is concerned. With China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) going to the ice bag, there are not only uncertainties but improbabilities too as far as China’s long-cherished dream to build requisite infrastructure to access land roads up to West Asia. The Chinese contribution to the ongoing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan is also negligible. Chinese strategy has never been giving freebies but harnessing strategic gain alluring of investment. But present Taliban leadership does not seem to be ready to accept such a deal. Also, the internal political dynamics of present China do not seem to give Xi a free hand to make such an adventure. Similarly, the pandemic-crashed Chinese economy does not seem to have that luxury. But here the most important point is the Chinese apprehension of coming under economic sanctions. Ukraine war and related affairs particularly sanctions on Russia have made China a bit more cautious. The situation prevailing around China; be its relations with East Asia, Far East Asia, bitterness between China-ASEAN, and of course, the issues of the South China Sea and vast part of the Indian Ocean Region are also preventing Beijing to accelerate its mission to Afghanistan. Above all when China is apprehending losing its grip on Pakistan, how can it think about Afghanistan-related issues and concerns? Given time shows China is outside the purview of Afghan affairs for valid reasons.

Afghanistan-Russia

This is true that US withdrawal from Afghanistan provided Russia with unbound opportunities to evolve as the most potential stakeholder in Afghan affairs once again after the 1970s. But President Vladimir Putin prioritised restricting Ukraine from joining NATO more than anything else. Since the Russian military aggression started in Ukraine, Russia naturally shifted its entire attention to the Ukraine war. However, the outcome of the war did not happen as Russia predicted. Neither strategically nor militarily Russia was prepared for this long war. When I am writing this piece 88 days have already passed since Russian aggression started against Ukraine. No doubt, deaths and devastations are going on in Ukraine. Ukraine has been ruined virtually. However, the resistance provided by the Ukraine army and of course the trajectory is shown by President Zelensky caught international attention. Both for the resistance and counter-offensives of the Ukrainian army, Ukraine has already become Waterloo for Putin as his successive plans failed. Apart from heavy military losses, the Russian economy crashed because of economic sanctions. Inflation in Russia, adamancy of Putin, the role of the Kremlin and even some unconfirmed reports came both in media and social media about certain assassination plans of President Putin; all these prove one point Putin may or may not win the Ukraine war but this is certain that Russia will need decades to restore the economy. Present Russia is obviously outside the purview of Afghanistan. 

Inflation in Russia, adamancy of Putin, the role of the Kremlin and even some unconfirmed reports came both in media and social media about certain assassination plans of President Putin; all these prove one point Putin may or may not win the Ukraine war but this is certain that Russia will need decades to restore the economy. Present Russia is obviously outside the purview of Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan-Iran 

After the withdrawal of Afghanistan if any country seemed making extensive homework to deal with the situation is certainly Iran. In the entire Islamic world, Iran has its distinctive identity and obviously, its democratic architecture is well constructed. Iran has a substantive presence in the affairs of Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. The Taliban-Iran relationship seems to be productive. 

However, this seems to me barely one side of the coin. The strategic strength of any country cannot be seen in isolation of the global strategic spectrum. If this is true, there are obvious challenges before Iran as well. These may be of lower magnitude compared to all the nations and blocks stated above. Firstly, affairs in any Islamic country cannot be seen keeping aside the traditional rift between Shia and Sunni. Iran leads the Shia Islamic nations but the Taliban belongs to radical Sunni Islam. Secondly, ethnic identity issue is a major cause of conflict in Afghanistan. Taliban belongs to the Pashtun community and constitutes 42 per cent of the total population of Afghanistan. But there are 27 per cent Tajik and nine per cent Hazara who originally belong to Iran and speak Persian (Dari); their issues and concerns under the rule Taliban are major issues for Iran. Significantly, Iran always advocates for a government ruling Afghanistan ensuring representation of all communities. More so, Iran taking the stand in favour of Russia during Ukraine may result in the imposition of more sanctions on it. Similarly, how the existing sanctions impacted Iran came to light during the last talk on Iran’s nuclear issue.

Another point is: will the Taliban agree to be a part of that bloc under economic sanctions? This is a very relevant point. From the policy initiations of the Taliban, it does not seem to be considering its venture of global consensus. A delegation of Iran also went to Europe on the call of European nations to negotiate on the issue; a deal; Afghanistan not allowing terror networks operating from its soil and in return normal diplomatic relations between Taliban and the West. Then can Iran play a larger role in the affairs of Afghanistan? Things look complicated. But this is what diplomacy is.

A delegation of Iran also went to Europe on the call of European nations to negotiate on the issue; a deal; Afghanistan not allowing terror networks operating from its soil and in return normal diplomatic relations between Taliban and the West. Then can Iran play a larger role in the affairs of Afghanistan? Things look complicated. But this is what diplomacy is.

To be Continued– 

Shibdas Bhattacharjee is an Assam-based columnist and strategic affairs analyst. He writes his article under a specific category of “Sagacious Beholding.” The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://www.strategicaffairsindia.in 

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