By Dr Subhash Kapila
Geopolitically, Afghanistan in end-2018 can best be characterised that it has certainly not turned out as United States second not so victorious Vietnam War despite Pakistan’s effort in collusion with China to forge a China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral to adversely tilt the balance against the United States. United States continues to be firmly embedded in Afghanistan as resolved by US President Trump.
Geopolitically, what is evident is that the United States under President Trump has put Pakistan under great pressure on cessation of its destabilisation of Afghanistan through the Taliban and other terrorists groups operating from safe havens in Pakistan. United States can be expected to place economic pressures also on Pakistan and these could work in light of Pakistan’s dismal economic situation.
Pakistan’s ripostes have been to prevail over China to forge the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral as would be evident from my past SAAG Papers. This Trilateral has attempted to carve out for them an independent role in Afghanistan, minus the United States. Not much headway is noticeable for the simple reason that this Trilateral includes Pakistan which continues to be the major part of Afghanistan’s conflictual situation and hence does not carry any credibility.
Resultantly, the China-Pakistan –Russia Trilateral as a whole does not carry any credibility as ‘honest brokers’ in bringing about sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Other than the Taliban, Pakistan and its born-again dubious Afghanistan benefactors have no natural allies within Afghanistan.
The Taliban stands over-rated by foreign observers and analysts oblivious of the fact that Taliban-controlled tracts within Afghanistan are held by terrorised force of the Taliban and not by any willing welcome cooperation of the Afghan people inhabiting such Taliban-controlled tracts. With increased capacity-building and better training of Afghanistan National Army the Taliban would find that such Taliban-controlled areas would become untenable.
Afghanistan situation in end-2018 needs to be examined at two different levels to arrive at objective conclusions which in turn would throw up perspectives for the mid-term future of Afghanistan. The first level to be analysed is the internal security situation in Afghanistan which stands greatly affected by Pakistan Army’s proxy war through terrorism groups attempting violent disruptions undermining the stability in Afghanistan. The second level which needs to be examined in greater detail is 2018 involvement of external powers in Afghanistan besides the resident -power, namely the United States.
The internal security and stability situation despite the presence of United States Military Forces can be termed as ‘Disturbed’ due to the incessant proxy efforts of Pakistan Army’s extremist affiliates like the Taliban and other groups like the Haqqanis operating from safe havens in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Despite their efforts to prompt the United States military exit from Afghanistan, their strategy unfolded so far has not succeeded. Afghanistan’s Security Forces imperceptibly have gained greater confidence in tackling the externally inflicted disruptive efforts to once again install a Taliban regime in Kabul as what was done by the Pakistan Army in the closing decade of the last Century. The United States military intervention in end-2001 following 9/11 dislodged the Taliban Government in Kabul.
Afghanistan has witnessed three presidential elections following democratic norms and what is notable is that in the past two decades unlike Pakistan where the Pakistan Army has ruled Pakistan directly or through proxies,, there is no such evidence of a military takeover by the Afghanistan Army exploiting the disturbed security situation. This is an optimistic pointer towards the potential of democracy taking roots in Afghanistan even though imperfect to begin with.
In terms of internal control of Afghanistan there are conflicting perspectives painted depending upon which side of the fence people are and their vested interests. Those wishing to see an American exit from Afghanistan paint dismal internal control situations that the Taliban is in control of large swathes of territory in Afghanistan. Admittedly, the situation is disturbed in Afghanistan but if it was so alarmingly dismal and threatening then the Pakistan Army would not have held its hand back in pushing a Taliban Government to power in Afghanistan.
The fact that it has not happened so belies such claims of Taliban’s likely victories over the United States Military Forces. Further, if the military situation in Afghanistan was favouring the Taliban taking control over Afghanistan then why is the Taliban currently engaged in talks with the United States in Doha?
Obviously and significantly too, the Taliban is in talks with the US interlocutors having realised that having been unable to get a better of the United States militarily, the next best option would be to secure some semblance of political legitimacy for political power sharing in the future of Afghanistan by engaging the United States on the negotiating table.
Moving on to the examination of external powers geopolitical roles in Afghanistan, let us first begin with the United States. Undoubtedly, the United States is the ‘Resident Power” in Afghanistan and cannot be termed by any stretch of imagination as an “Occupation Power” like China in Occupied Tibet. As a Resident Power in Afghanistan not only has the United States shed American blood and money to secure Afghanistan’s peaceful and democratic future but has encouraged the Afghans to build their future by the military capacity building of Afghanistan and also the building of democratic institutions, besides economic viability.
With the advent of President Trump in power in Washington, the US President has firmly committed the United States to the security and stability of Afghanistan without any time-lines for US Forces drawdown in presence. This was a timely signal to the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral that was taking more than usual interest in Afghanistan.
China, in terms of external powers interest in Afghanistan can geopolitically be termed as ‘Pakistan Collusive Power”. China’s interests and involvement in Afghanistan has never been divorced from Pakistan Army’s strategic interests. China maintained virtual diplomatic contacts with Taliban Regime’s brutal rule in Kabul. China even in the last decade has not reined-in Pakistan Army’s terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan emanating from safe havens in Pakistan’s Frontier Areas. Geopolitically, China cannot be expected to play any benign role in Afghanistan or in any credible conflict resolution and peace processes.
China’s brutal suppression of Uyghurs Muslims in Xinjiang just across the borders would be an eye opener for the proud Afghans as to what is being inflicted on their Muslim co-religionists .Perceptionaly, would not the Afghans perceive what China stands for when its interests in Afghanistan are determined by Pakistan Army GHQ in Rawalpindi?
Russia has in recent years jumped on to Afghanistan geopolitics, both in terms of solidarity with China strategically and also to get back at the United States for inflicting a Vietnam on Russian Occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the bargain, Russia emerges as an ‘Exploitative Power’ in relation to Afghanistan furthering the interests of the China-Pakistan Axis in Afghanistan, conveniently forgetting that the same Pakistan Army has consistently claimed that it was Pakistan Army which inflicted a Vietnam on the Russian Army in Afghanistan through the introduction in South Asia for the first time of Islamic Jihad and Jihadi terrorism.
Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan spans over three decades where in different geopolitical configurations with different Major Powers the Pakistan Army has persistently inflicted medieval Islamic Jihadi scourges on the hapless people of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s sordid, intrusive and disruptive role in Afghanistan stands widely discussed and documented world-wide. It does not bear repetition.
In 2018, the United States under President Trump had to severely warn Pakistan in January 2018 and again with the advent of Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan that Pakistan must stop all terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil against its neighbours; with Afghanistan in mind more pointedly. The United States was forced to cut off all military aid to Pakistan but it remains to be seen whether with China as a collusive Major Power at its elbow whether Pakistan Army would stop its disruptive proxy military operations against Afghanistan and which in turn amount to a defiance and disruption of US security interests in Afghanistan.
India as the Major Power in South Asia has not only legitimate security interests in stability of Afghanistan but also has long years of civilsational contacts with Afghanistan, which predate the creation of the Pakistani nation-state. India can be termed as a “Benign External Power” in Afghanistan and has confined itself to the use of ‘Soft Power’ by pouring in millions of dollars in the reconstruction and nation-building of Afghanistan Perceptionaly, in the eyes of the Afghan people and their successive Governments India’s presence in Afghanistan is welcomed in comparison to Pakistan which is a next door neighbour.
Geopolitically in 2018, India enjoys strong geopolitical convergences over Afghanistan with the United States. Taken together, the United States and India need to embark on a fast track capacity-building of Afghanistan—– militarily and economically, besides democratic institution building.
Since the main theme of this Paper is focussed on Afghanistan’s geopolitical situation in 2018-end, one is tempted to draw comparisons with the geopolitical configurations in play in Afghanistan. We find two diametrically opposite political configurations—–the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral of autocratic nations at cross-play with the United States, India, Western Europe and Japan— al democratic nations.
In Conclusion, it needs to be stressed that geopolitically, the United States needs more than ever to stay embedded in Afghanistan in relation Indo Pacific security and also as what I had some time back analysed in a SAAG Paper the imperatives in Afghanistan of ‘United States Forward Military Presence’ on the lines of its deployments in Japan and South Korea. The foregoing is an inescapable imperative for the United States both in relation to China and Central Asia. It also needs to be stressed that India as the pivot of Indo Pacific Security now needs to do more in Afghanistan to supplement and assist the United States in emergence of Afghanistan as a moderate and democratic nation.