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STRIVE organized a webinar on the subject on 16 Sep 21. It was done in two parts. In Part-I, Air Marshal Amit Tewari, PVSM, ASM, VM, delivered the Keynote address and in Part-II, in a virtual conversation, Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM and Maj Gen Harsha Kakar took the discussion forward covering a 360-degree perspective on Afghanistan. Col JS Chauhan was the Anchor of the programme who later conducted the Q&A session. Col RP Singh provided the technical support for the conduct of the webinar and Col AK Singh and Col Nilesh Kanwar did the recording of the event.
Objectives of the Webinar– Following issues were identified for analysis during the webinar:
- Introduction to Afghanistan-
- Divisions within the country: ethnic, rural/ Urban, and religious divide.
- Growth of Taliban.
- US involvement- Causes of failure of US.
- Current State-
- Internal contradictions within Taliban.
- Interests of China, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran.
- Impact of Afghan Govt on CARs.
- Status of Indo- Afghan relations.
- An appraisal of military operations of Taliban.
- Impact of Taliban Govt in Afghanistan on India.
- Way ahead for India.
Part-I: Keynote Address–
Air Marshal Amit Tiwari who has been an Air Attaché in the Indian Embassy at Afghanistan gave a very detailed overview of the Afghan issue. Some of the important issues highlighted by the speaker were as follows:
- Afghanistan is generally a Barren and Landlocked country. It was essentially a transit route to India from North West. Those who came to Afghanistan did so for their own vested interests and not for the good of Afghans. While foreigners had to transit through Afghanistan to invade India, during the nineteenth century, the British used Afghanistan as a convenient ‘pitch’ for playing the ‘great game’ to keep Russia out of undivided India. Russia came in late seventies in the twentieth century to save the communist government in Kabul from collapsing. US came after 9/11 in 2001 to destroy Al Qaeda and ended up fighting Taliban. All these three superpowers made similar mistakes- one; they foisted non-entities as the leaders which were viewed by the public as mere puppets thrust upon them by ‘infidels.’ Two; each invading power imposed its own set of rules and values that were alien to Afghans-like disarming locals, imposing taxes, introducing Western form of justice and social behaviour. Lastly; all of them reduced funding of tribal leaders and this had disastrous effects.
- Geography and related Geopolitical Equations– Afghanistan is surrounded by countries that are either inimical to the US [Iran and China], Pakistan [China’s client state], or having been part of former USSR [Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan] and still remain under influence of Russia. None of them wanted US to succeed in Afghanistan.
- Mineral Wealth of Afghanistan– Being rich in minerals, especially rare earth materials and rare earth is a big attraction. Russia, the USA and of late, China had been stakeholders in the stability of the country. Along with these three, other stakeholders are Iran and Pakistan as Afghanistan is a transit country for their trade routes. It is relevant to note here that even though China had invested in Aynak Copper Field in 2007, prospecting is yet to begin due to instability in Afghanistan.
- Ethnic Mindset-Intra and inter-tribal rivalry have always been rife among the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turks, Hazaras and Uzbeks of which the first two comprised 42% and 27% of the population. They sought reasons for fighting for subsistence. While Afghans have ethnic and tribal loyalties but they are known to make compromises for personal interests. Lack of exposure beyond their boundaries led them to be very conservative and wary of infidels especially when it came to change of their rulers and their societal norms. Subsisting on frugal means, loyalty was sort of staircased starting from brothers to family to village and on to tribes and then nationAfghans have ethnic and tribal loyalties, but they are known to make compromises for personal interests. For them Loyalty could be rented out and when subsidies and doles dried up, uprisings became active. He however, underlined that the loyalty cannot be bought.
- Infrastructural Build up and its Impact on Pakistan– India constructed the Delaram-Zaranj Highway that connects Afghanistan with Iran and provides the formerly easy access to the Port of Chabahar. Due to this, Afghanistan-Pakistan trade which stood at USD 2,500 million in 2010, fell to less than USD 1,000 in 2020. This would have obviously enraged Islamabad and could well be a reason for Islamabad to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t emerge as a strong and assertive nation.
- Causes of US Failures in Afghanistan were as follows:
- Lack of any clear cut/long term goals leading to frequent change of plans. Thus they violated the cardinal principle of selection and maintenance of aim. From the initial objective of getting Osama bin Laden, the aim underwent several changes under different Presidents on an annual basis. Consequently, the US didn’t lose a 20-year war- it lost a one-year war 20 times!
- US followed the flawed strategy of overreliance on ‘Exiles’ to fix the problem of governance.
- Since its only route of sustenance for its forces in Afghanistan ran through Pakistan, the US decided not to strike Taliban sanctuaries on Pakistani soil and as such could not pulverize Taliban hold outs in FATA and Khaybar Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
- Poor population/ Area to solider ratio unlike US operation in Kosovo.
- Lack of funding/spending in terms of $/inhabitant/year unlike US expenditure in Bosnia.
- Attempting to force changes in the tribal system with western ideas- it was not accepted by public at large.
- Reasons of meltdown of the Afghan Army wereprimarily due to US posturing from time to time which led to a trust deficit, particularly after Doha accord which confused the Afghan Army about their fate post US withdrawal and a feeling of likely to be thrown to the wolves, post withdrawal and as such they decided to fend for themselves. In this connection, it is relevant to note that tribal and ethnic loyalties are far stronger in Afghanistan than the Afghan national identity and that is why when going started getting tough the Afghan Army wilted.
- As long as the Haqqani network [which is Pakistan’s proxy] is in full control, any meaningful talk with Taliban is not possible.
Food for Thought–
- Are only the US, Russia and China interested in Afghanistan and not the entire Western world?
- How will the recognition process of Taliban 2.0 Govt will evolve? Will it follow the same trajectory as was the case when Taliban 1.0 came to power in 1996 when only three countries; Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan recognized it?
- All factions in Afghanistan are united to drive out the infidels but after that whether they will they remain united now that the infidel is out- voices of dissonance within the Taliban ranks, with opposition by ISKP becoming shriller, Al Qaeda coming out of hibernation, with Tajiks not accepting central authority and Hazaras becoming restive?
- With the allegation that the Taliban is taking Afghan civilization to the “stone age”, can they be trusted?
- Where will the funds to rebuild Afghanistan come from?
- Is China the elephant in the room?
Part-II: Conversation between Maj Gen Ajay Chaturvedi and Maj Gen Harsha Kakar
The conversation was focused on the points where the keynote speaker left and the issues which were not covered in the keynote address. The conversation was initiated by Maj Gen Chaturvedi. Major issues covered during the conversation were as follows:
- During the conversation, in his initial remarks, Maj Gen Chaturvedi highlighted the fact that it was the US that has given Taliban legitimacy through the Doha Agreement. In this regard, it is pertinent to note that a US based independent think tank ‘Asia Foundation’ had carried out two surveys. In the first one conducted in 2009, 50 percent of Pashtuns in rural areas supported Taliban, but in the subsequent 2019 survey, this figure had come down to just 13 percent. This survey considered in conjunction with the scenes of mammoth crowds trying to leave Afghanistan and people risking their lives by clinging to aircraft in a bid to escape says it all. Here also it needs to be noted that after coming to power the Taliban appears to have split into pro-Pakistan Haqqani faction and the others. A negligible Tajik and Uzbek representation, no Hazara representation in the Taliban government, Haqqanis getting a lion’sshare and Doha group led by Mulla Baradar havingbeen substantially marginalized is a reality today. further the problem gets complicated, because even though Pashtuns may account for 42 percent of Afghans, they aren’t monolithic and if Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks come together they make up 46 percentage, which is near parity and can lead to a serious turf war. In this connection it needs to be appreciated that though, the ‘ethnichierarchical ladder ‘in the Afghan society in which the Haqquanis are on the at relatively lower rung of the society, yet they are at the pole position in the ‘so called’Taliban government. This, along withthe neglect of Tajiks and Hazaras will be a point of friction in the Afghan body polity. The reappearance of Al Qaeda and the emergence of the Pak protégée i.e. the Haqqani network are points of concern for India.American apathy is also quite evident from the terms and conditions of Doha Agreement which cater for US interests but not that of Afghans. No wonder, that while Afghans kept dying in attacks perpetrated by Taliban, US forces in Afghanistan remained unharmed. Even in the ISIL-K (ISKP) terror attack at Kabul airport, while Washington showed grave concern on the death of 13 US soldiers, not much has been said about the 183 Afghans who were also killed in the same attack.It’s no secret that Taliban chief Akhundzada is aligned to Al Qaeda and therefore, US departure from Afghanistan and sudden emergence of ISKP and Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri’s sudden audio message are no coincidences. Similarly, with a significant number of the members of the Taliban government being proscribed terrorists and some even having bounties on their heads, the situation is far from reassuring.
- Maj Gen Harsha Kakar in his initialremarks pointed to the fact that all Talibanis had the same base – the Pakistani Madrasas and their newfoundsuccess will call for sharing of spoils. However, Mullah Baradar first going ‘missing’, then putting out an audio message followed by a video interview raises more questions than answering them. Similarly with no news of Akhundzada, no one knows for sure where things stand except that there are differences within Taliban. A clear indication of the schism was visible during the visit of Qatar’s Foreign Minister to Kabul when none of the members of the Doha Faction were there to meet him.As things stand presently, the Haqqanis rule the roost and the Northern Resistance Front (NRF)appears to be getting the support from Tajikistan and Iran. As far as the question of the recognition of the Taliban govt is concerned, unlike last time when at least three countries had recognised them, this time it is still a‘wait and watch’ by almost all countries.Even Pakistan, who is trying to keep India out of Afghanistan, clear the Durand issue and seek suppression of the TTP before offering recognition.For Pakistan, its relations with Kabul haven’t turned out as it had expected. Although China has indicated that she will recognise the new dispensation has not done so because still there is no clarity about the ETIM. In this connection it is relevant to note that there is a lot of speculation that China may use its money-power to further its vested interests in Afghanistan, but the international community is unlikely to allow Beijing to have a free run. Moreover, Chinese interests are served only when the situation in Afghanistan normalizes- which can happen only when Taliban regime honours its commitments with respect to human rights, women’s rights and minorities’ rights. Whether Taliban will abide by its commitment or not is a matter of speculation at this stage, but an intelligent guess is that such a change in Taliban is unlikely. It may also be noted that the Taliban might be having a large force of well-armed fighters but can these undisciplined and highhanded force serve as the country’s army and police forces? In the ministry declared by the Taliban (by the way due to internal contradictions the govt has not yet been inaugurated), every minister has links with terrorist groups and if Russian NSA says that there are 10,000 ISKP terrorists along the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan borders waiting for a chance to enter Russia, then it’s obvious that Taliban has no control over its border areas. Furthermore, Taliban has not taken any action against TTP and the ETIM may be keeping a low profile but it hasn’t been subdued. So, the situation in Afghanistan is far from normal.However, the immediate critical issue is the lack of availability of funds and with the meagre financial resources how will they run the country?
- In the ensuing interaction it emerged that for governance,finance is an overbearing factor. To control a restive population armed/police force is required beside a justice system and a delivery mechanism for essential goods and services. Afghanistan had three major fund generation sources [in ascending order]- one, border trade tariffs and taxes, two, illegal contraband exports, and three, foreign aid. However, after Taliban takeover, all foreign aid [which accounted for 60-70 percent of the income] has been stopped. With both Iran and Afghanistan having closed their borders with Afghanistan, no income is getting generated from border tariffs. The aid for the moment has been stopped and all funds due to Afghanistan have been frozen. Thus, the only option left to Afghanistan is go for drug money and clandestine sale of weapons and high-tech equipment left behind by US forces, but this is not a sustainable option.As per some estimates, about 92 percent of Afghans will go under the poverty line under the prevailing circumstances. The support being pledged by China ($31 million) and Pakistan providing few plane loads of aid material is quite inadequate. Thus, Afghanistan faces a humungous financial crisis and extending humanitarian aid to Kabul is therefore becomes imperative. The UN has pledged US $ 600 million humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.Presently, Afghanistan was needing humanitarian aid in terms of food and medicine which only Russia and India can provide, and it is in India’s interest to take it up with Afghanistan in turmoil, linking up with Iran to open a support corridor will help India in keeping the Chinese at bay. China in any case is known to demand its pound of flesh for any aid. With ETIM not being defunct yet, China will continue to play the wait and watch game and at the same time “promise” all sorts of aid. Pakistan, caught between the deep sea and the devil, though totally its own doingbecause of its running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, is in a difficult situation. Today it is pleading with the world to give Taliban 2.0 a chance and to provide aid and yet not being able to recognize the Taliban dispensation in Afghanistan. The continuance of US troops on its soil is neither finding favour with the Taliban nor with their domestic audience. It is worth mentioning here that India has an excellent people to people contact because the aid extended by India had always been without any strings attached andwith view to boost the local economy by involving locals in their project execution. India may review her decision and as part of UN initiative may consider extending aid to Afghanistan.
- One such planned project by India to boost the agriculture in the Kabul Valley which is quite arid, is to construct 12 dams on the Kabul River and its tributaries.India signed a MoU with Afghanistan in Feb 2021 to build first of these 12 dams at Shahtoot with a view to augment water supply to Kabul. Along with the Shahtoot dam, India had also pledged to commit $80 million for about 150 projects in Afghanistan. India will have to take a call to continue work on these projects or abandon them.Here it is important to note that to improve the economy, a boost to agriculture (4/5 of Afghan population depends on agriculture) would be a step in right direction. Therefore, conservation and storage of water is the next logical step. In the circumstances, the importance of harnessing the Kabul River to irrigate the arid lands will be a game changer. However it needs to be noted that in case of Kabul River Afghanistan is the upper riparian and Pakistan is a lower riparian. Kabul river joins Indus at Attock and is a major source of water from West into Indus (Crucially the Kabul and its tributaries augment the flows of the Indus at Attock by between 20 and 28 million acre feet (MAF); the variation depending on climatic factors, especially recurring droughts in Afghanistan). In the absence of any kind of water sharing treaty between Afghanistan and Pakistan, both neighbours may face another conflict situation in not so distinct future.
- Since Taliban has initiated no action to curtail terrorist groups operating from its soil, Afghanistan’s neighbours are obviously worried. Russia is reinforcing border deployment in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with additional troops and Iran too has done the same. Iran’s Hazara Brigade that had fought in Syria is now back, and should there be any further atrocities on Hazaras then it could result in a local uprising and this is one of the reasons why both Iran and Tajikistan are supporting the NRF in Panjshir.
- On issue of threat to India and need for a calibrated response the two discussants came out with following conclusions:
- It is important to recapitulate that the Taliban 1.0 did not support Pakistan on Kashmir and may not do so in its new avatar too. However, since Taliban are essentially mercenaries, their services can be hired, like Pakistan did in the mid-nineties. Should the Haqqani led Taliban government is not being able to maintain its fighters, then they will find other wealthy patrons like TTP and ISKP, or even ISI [for fighting in Kashmir]. However, there has been a lot of improvements in security matrix of J&K, in terms of an effective counter-infiltration grid and positive local sentiments due to which it is unlikely that the Taliban fighters will find going easy. However, India cannot lower its guard and therefore security forces will have to remain vigilant.
- As far as India is concerned, it is not likely to move forward till the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes as is evident of New Delhi supporting the UN initiative for extending humanitarian aid to Kabul but not committing anything in cash or kind. A person who has spent two decades in Afghanistan and revealed that Taliban wants to interact with India, not only for receiving aid and completion of projects underway, but also as a counterweight to resist Islamabad’s unreasonable demands. Today India, followed by Iran are most suited for this and there seems to be a renewed push in Indo-Iranian cooperation. With ministers and intelligence advisors from US, Russia and the UK rushing to New Delhi after Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, it’s clear that the world realizes that it can get in touch with Kabul only through either Russia or India. The international community will keep exerting pressure on Taliban to fall in line and India thus becomes a key player.
- Another worrying issue relates to response of some of the main stream politicians/ religious leaders in India to the accession of Taliban to power. Such irresponsible utterances have very far reaching implication for social amity and national security. There is a need to build national consensus on the issue,because divided polity is not in the national interest.
- Even though the US has shifted its focus from Afghanistan to QUAD, it would nevertheless keep a window open for any unforeseen contingency in the future. US appreciates that India is an important stake holder in the region’s stability.No wonder, NSA of Russia, CIA Director, Head of MI 6 of UK and head of BDN of Germany all visited India.Since India has excellent relations with Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran,USis likely to find that the objectives of the US and India will have synergy. will have to rely on New Delhi during any Afghanistan related crisis. Although not stated in so many words but during the forthcoming meeting of PM Modi and the President Biden during Modi’s visit, Afghanistan will definitely find a place during the discussion as Afghanistan is still far from stability and threat of export of terrorism from Afghanistan is still quite real.
- Q 1. What is the role of Turkey and Qatar in the Afghanistan crisis?
- A 1. Turkey has been making a lot of noises about Muslim brotherhood all over the world, but it has not even accepted a single refugee from Afghanistan, which exposes its duplicity and while its silence on this issue indicates a wait and watch policy. Qatar remains a conduit for US engagement and a source of financial support, which may finally help the Taliban govt to get support from other Muslim countries, specially Saudi Arabia and UAE, who may want to regain their lost leverage with the Taliban.
- Q 2. US is being accused of taking away Afghan governance experts and technical support staff due to which Afghanistan faces a brain drain. Comments.
- A 3. Though Taliban assured amnesty to those who worked for America and the Afghanistan government, it did not live up to its promises and that’s why such people are desperately trying to flee the country to escape reprisal. So, while the US may have encouraged them to leave, those who worked with Americans or the government chose to leave in order to save their lives. Taliban has to decide whether it wants to follow the Iraq model [replacing all those who served under Saddam Hussain with new faces] or let the current incumbents continue. So, it’s a two-way traffic. Infact, a large number of soldiers have taken refuge in neighbouring countries and Col Rehman Rehmani, an ANA officer who was attending an army course in US when Taliban took over, has successfully extricated 180 former ANA pilots who had escaped from Afghanistan and taken refuge in its neighbouring countries.
- Q 3. Taliban has successfully governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with similar resources. So why is everyone so apprehensive about its capability to govern this time?
- A 3. Till 2001, Afghanistan had a subsistence economy. However, in the last 20 years, Afghanistan economy has been linked to the US dollar and American economy, and became completely dependent on foreign funding. Moreover, the last two decades have seen a number of changes and new technologies like mobile phones and social media have made people more aware and discerning. Therefore, due to the quantum changes in the quality of life since US occupation, the 1996-2002 Taliban model of governance cannot be expect to work today.
In his concluding remarks, the Vice Chairman of the STRIVE, Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd) emphasized that the situation in Afghanistan is still very fluid and quite serious from the perspective that likelihood of export of terrorism from Afghanistan, with Taliban in power, is quite real. India and other neighbours, in short to medium term, will have to remain vigilant against a spurt in terrorist activities in their respective countries. Pakistan may be gloating over with the fact that they have been able to create a strategic depth in Afghanistan, but with a belligerent TTP likely to get a boost with Taliban in Kabul, she needs to be ready for more unrest in border areas. In any case she will have to deal with the financial and security stress due to refugees in immediate terms. With Taliban 2.0 showing no change in its attitude from Taliban1.0, with the Haqqani Network in driving seat, India needs to remain vigilant against likely spillover of the small arms and as such a boost to the morale of Kashmiri militants. In terms of the management of the geopolitics of the region it is a challenge for the Indian diplomacy to wean away Iran and Russia from their support to Taliban to counterbalance China- Pak nexus with a view to regain her relevance in the region. May be a stronger support to Afghan people by completing the stalled projects and taking initiatives for the humanitarian assistance under the aegis of UN will help India.
STRIVE Webinar 9: “Afghanistan: Connecting Past to Future”- By Team STRIVE (Air Marshal Amit Tiwari, Maj Gen Ajay Chaturvedi & Maj Gen Harsha Kakar)
Air Marshal Amit Tiwari Keynote Address: “Afghanistan Connecting Past to Future“
With inputs from Col AK Singh and Col Nilesh Kanwar!
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the respective author/ speakers and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that they belong to or of that of STRIVE.