Last month, US President Joe Biden announced a complete and unconditional pullout from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, thus proclaiming an end to the longest US war. The withdrawal deadline coincides with the twentieth anniversary of the horrific 9/11 al-Qaeda aerial assaults in New York and the Pentagon that prompted President George W Bush to seek retribution by attacking terrorist bases in Afghanistan.
Biden has throughout remained a critic of the American presence in Afghanistan. No sooner than he had the authority did he order an end to a war that was 'not worth the costs in blood and money' - 2,400 troops and $ 2 trillion. Biden claimed that the original objectives, ousting al-Qaeda and ensuring Afghanistan is never again used as a pad for launching attacks on the US, are already achieved. He underscored a stark reality that the US couldn't extend its presence in Afghanistan in an elusive hope to create conditions' ideal' for a pullout.
Afghanistan – Great Games
Numerous military campaigns in the region since 516 BC highlight the strategic importance of Afghanistan as a stage for Great Games. Rudyard Kipling popularised this term to portray the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia that started in the 18th Century and ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Under this agreement, Afghanistan was declared an official protectorate of the British but remained a nominally independent nation.
The US-USSR cold war in the late 1970s revived the Great Game. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and the ensuing fight against the America-backed Mujahedeen left 800,000 Afghans dead, and another seven million of them uprooted. After an agreement in Geneva, this blood-spattered war ended with the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. Most experts attribute the phoenix-like rise of extremism in the region to the devastation caused during this conflict.
In 1996 Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban. Paradoxically, US-reared-Taliban stung their erstwhile benefactors by offering a sanctuary to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, latter mounting a horrendous attack on the US mainland. Massive retaliation by the US and allied troops unveiled the ongoing phase of the Great Game.
The US and the Taliban signed a peace deal at Doha on February 29, 2021. Both the US and NATO agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, provided the Taliban didn't renege on their guarantees. Besides agreeing to swap POWs and holding power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government, the insurgents also promised to deny any space to al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups in their control areas. Even though the Taliban refused to participate in Istambul peace talks on April 24, 2021, yet Joe Biden went ahead with his unconditional drawdown. NATO followed suit.
Unconditional Pullout- Implications
As Biden announced the decision, there were about 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan and another 6500 from NATO. The drawdown has already commenced. This unconditional pullout is likely to impact various stakeholders within Afghanistan severely, and no country in the region shall remain untouched.
Antony J. Blinken, US Secretary of State, proposed a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, a 90-day ceasefire, secondly, evolving a consensus formula for Afghanistan by the US, Russia, Pakistan, China and India under the UN auspices, and, thirdly, establishing a Taliban- Afghan government 'inclusive' regime in the interim. This proposal appears shelved, at least for the time being. Recent Taliban statement claiming 'the Islamic Emirate will under no circumstances ever relent on complete independence and establishment of a pure Islamic system and remain committed to a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem following the complete and certain end of occupation' is manifestly ominous.
The insurgents also promised to deny any space to al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups in their control areas. Even though the Taliban refused to participate in Istambul peace talks on April 24, 2021, yet Joe Biden went ahead with his unconditional drawdown. NATO followed suit
Afghan - Ground Situation
According to the Long War Journal, out of 325 districts, the government forces control 127 or 30% and the Taliban control 76 or 19%. For the rest, two factions are contesting for control. The Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think tank, claims the Taliban are stronger now than ever since 2001.
Ever since the Doha agreement, the Taliban have intensified attacks to expand their control areas. Recently, the Taliban captured Dahla Dam, Afghanistan's second-biggest dam, after months of fierce fighting in its former bastion of Kandahar. This dam provides irrigation to farmers via a network of canals and drinking water for the provincial capital.
After the complete US withdrawal, the Taliban are likely to see the war, which they believe they already have won, to its completion. According to the US "Threat Assessment Report", peace prospects remain dim. Ignoring President Ashraf Ghani's offer to give up his remaining presidential term, the Taliban betrayed the long-held belief that elections remain an un-Islamic concept.
Besides concerns for women's rights, girls' education and free speech under a Taliban regime, the possibility of retribution against Shi'as and others is real. To the charges that the US is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, Blekien defended the decision by arguing that the promise of recognition, relief and financial aid would discourage them from any bad behaviour and scorning international norms. It is wrong to assume the Taliban would sway under any international pressure.
Throughout the peace negotiations, the Taliban held firm to its long-held strategic goals and its perceived Islamic mandates. It even spurned pressures from the foreign powers to agree to a ceasefire and an accelerated peace negotiation. Rather than shun a radical regime in Afghanistan, neighbouring countries are likely to approach the Taliban regime with offers of cooperation and assistance to discourage them from exporting radical Sunni Islam and harbouring and arming cross-border insurgent groups.
Drug &Radicalised Cadre Trade
United Nation Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) report estimates the Taliban annually generate $1.5 billion through heroin and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. However, this estimate is peanuts compared to the overall revenue generated by global drug networks. Besides, Afghanistan also provides an organised pool of radicalised cadres/criminals for guerrilla and terror operations and functionaries to run felonious networks globally. With a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, this would be a humungous problem at hand.
Doha Agreement: The insurgents promised to deny
any space to al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups in the controlled areas
China-Russia- Iran- Turkey Axis
On the one hand, instability in Afghanistan could impact the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) adversely. On the other hand, a Taliban regime could stir unrest in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. However, as an all-weather ally of Pakistan, China eyes a more significant role in the region. In recent years, Russia has also tried to assume the mantle of a peacemaker. Though both, the Afghan government and the Taliban, remain wary, Russia's growing links with Pakistan could translate into a post-US role for Moscow.
Despite long hostility and a theological conflict between Iran and AfPak, Iran, of late, has played all her hands very carefully. A few years ago, Iran opened its communications with the Taliban and even hosted the latter's delegation at Tehran. Media reports also indicate that remnants of ISIS and al-Qaeda maintain an interface with the Turkish intelligence. With China backing the Pakistan-Turkey-Iran axis, the emerging scenario remains worrisome.
Experts say that the 2020 US-Taliban deal would not have been possible without Pakistan's backing. It played a crucial role in bringing the insurgents to the table. With the Taliban High Council operating from Quetta, the Taliban leaders frequently flew out and into Pakistan during the negotiations. It is a fact that the Taliban are a creation of Pakistan's deep state. Pakistani security establishment continually evaluates Afghanistan in terms of 'strategic depth' in its forever hostility with India, more so when a friendly regime controls it. However, strategists feel Pakistan would also have to bear all the consequences of the predicted chaos in the region – a civil war and a refugee exodus.
India's overall venerability to terror remains high. Though India has improved its ranking from 5th to 8th on the Global Terror Index behind the highly impacted nations, it has a task cut out to protect its strategic and security interests in the region. The shelved Blinken proposal recognised India's role as a regional stakeholder. Haqqani group, nurtured by Pakistan and inimical to India, would play a significant role in any Taliban regime.
Indian security establishment believes that militant organisations like L-e-T and J-e-M have relocated to Afghanistan. With an imminent change in power wielders there, these groups could come back to life. With changing power dynamics in Afghanistan, India has genuine internal security concerns. After all, in 1980, the Afghan Mujahideen did spill over into insurgency-ridden J&K. However, India's $ 100 million developmental aid to the country has earned it enough goodwill and acceptance as a genuine ally of the people of Afghanistan. But its security concerns far outweigh the gains from this goodwill.
The death toll in the recent bomb attack outside Sayed Al-Shuhada School in the Afghan capital Kabul has claimed 85 lives, mostly young girls. The explosions shook Dasht-e-Barchi, home to a large community of Shi'ites from the Hazara ethnic minority targeted in the past by Islamic State, a Sunni militant group. A US-NATO commitment to 'continue to be with Afghanistan, its people and institutions in promoting security and upholding the gains of the last 20 years' rings hollow. Escalating violence in Afghanistan portends a bloody civil war post-US pullout.
(The writer is a retired army officer, regularly contributes on strategic and security issues)