Withdrawal symptoms in Afghanistan

THE ROAD TO KABUL: Such considerations have also raised the question of how India could respond to protect its strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan, seen as a gateway to resource-rich Central Asia. Picture shows a militant near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.   | Photo Credit: Ishtiaq Mahsud

A few weeks ago the U.S. and Britain handed over their Leatherneck and Bastion military bases marking the effective end of combat operations by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in Afghanistan.

Many fear that after the U.S. withdrawal the Taliban will take over southern parts of the country with growing terrorism and insecurity threatening a weak government in Kabul. In India this is compounded by the fear that Pakistan will take advantage of the situation to expand its influence in Afghanistan in its search for ‘strategic depth’. Afghanistan will then provide a training ground for terrorists who can attack India. Moreover there is fear that Pakistan’s ‘all-weather’ friend, China, may also enter placing our strategic interests and Indian aid projects and investments further at risk.

Such considerations have raised the question of how we could respond to protect our strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan which is also seen as a gateway to the resource-rich Central Asian countries. Suggestions have ranged from training and equipping the Afghan military to building alliances with the remnants and heirs to the Northern Alliance which once dominated the northern non-Pashtun parts of the country under the likes of the redoubtable Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Limitations of geography

Unfortunately there are serious problems with all this. India has no contiguous land border with Afghanistan. Development of the Chabahar port in Iran with a road/rail link to Afghanistan has been seen as a solution, but that route is long and would pass through insecure regions. At best it is a medium-term project. So however much sympathy we may have for the long-suffering Afghan people, geography sharply limits what we can actually do.

The result of such analysis is of much concern. Is there any light for us in this bleak outlook?

First consider what our interests in Afghanistan really are. The country is thought to be rich in minerals but we can’t access these. Not only are they located in remote and dangerous areas but without land access we can’t bring large amounts of ore to India or send the heavy machinery required to mine them. Pakistan is not likely to allow us transit and the Chabahar route will not have the capacity in the near future. The same problems arise with the gateway to Central Asia idea — worse because the distances are even longer with poor communications. All this suggests that we need to calibrate carefully our future investments in the country.

Then look at the Pakistan ‘strategic depth’ issue. Since the Mongol conquest of Afghanistan in the 13th century few foreign powers have got much joy in trying to subdue the Afghans. The British tried in the 19th century with little to show for their efforts and more recently, neither the Soviet Union nor the U.S. gained much glory in Afghanistan. The Afghans have always shown a fierce resistance to any foreigner arrogant enough to attack them. Their own internal history has been one of continual strife among different groups and satraps. In the last century four Afghan rulers died violently.

Pakistan angle

Why do we think that Pakistan will fare any better in Afghanistan than far more powerful empires before them? On the contrary if they are unwise enough to meddle in the country, not only will they squander much blood and treasure but they will certainly import even more terrorism and strife into their own cities and towns.

Moreover as the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan ends, the U.S. need for Pakistani cooperation for transit and logistic support will fall quickly. Joining the American War on Terror in 2001/2002 brought Pakistan huge U.S. military and economic aid as well as quasi-immunity for the military/ISI’s use of ‘non-conventional assets’.

But after U.S. withdrawal — as happened earlier in the 1990s — U.S. interest in and aid to Pakistan will rapidly decline. So will U.S. tolerance for Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a proxy weapon. The recent U.S. Pentagon report on Pakistani support for terrorism is a straw in the wind.

China is unlikely to want to take over the U.S. role in financing Pakistan and there may be limits to Gulf country financing especially with the falling oil price.

Following U.S. withdrawal, Pakistan could continue to use proxy terrorists and chase ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan and look for financial and other support from China, the Gulf, wherever. But it may find that the key word is the ‘depth’ into which its own economy and society is pushed. And without U.S.-provided cover, supporting terrorists will bring it widespread condemnation. Access to World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) resources will become more difficult. This course will prove self-destructive and bring much grief to the country’s people through economic decline and further domestic terrorism but one should never underestimate the folly of human beings.

Or Pakistan could try to become a normal state, seek peace and security at home, good relations with its neighbours and strive for economic growth and rising prosperity for its people.

Let us hope Pakistan’s military and civil leadership have the sense and the capacity to follow the second path. For our part we need not be despondent but vigilant — to protect ourselves vigorously in the first case or respond positively in the second. Either way, Pakistan has greater cause to worry than we do about the withdrawal symptoms of U.S. departure.

(Uday Abhayankar is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer, who has also served in a senior capacity in the United Nations.)

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Printable version | May 5, 2021 6:42:12 AM |

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