The subject has become centre stage primarily because the USA has made clear its intention to pull out from Afghanistan . The countries that would view it as a positive development would be Pakistan and China along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that were major backers of the Taliban prior to 2001. However, the latter countries might no longer be as sure as to how they should view the development. Naturally, the countries supplying forces for deployment as part of ISAF would be relieved as well. It is not yet clear whether the US would exit fully as it did in Iraq or whether a residual force would remain; nobody in the country, however, is going to claim success for Mission Afghanistan . The Americans are pulling out of their own volition due to the unpopularity of prolonged deployment, high casualty rate as well as their economic difficulties. They have not been defeated as such. They have decided to cut their losses. Speculation is rife within Afghanistan and in the countries in the region most concerned as to what the post-pullout situation will be after the departure of foreign forces that were deployed primarily for stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing it from again falling into the hands of the Taliban. Before entering into a more detailed consideration on the future of Afghanistan it is necessary to have a look at the unfolding scenario within the country as also the likely fallout on the countries most affected. How these countries deal with the fallout also needs to be assessed.
The USA having been the prime mover in Afghanistan for over a decade since 9/11 it would be best to start with that country. There would be policy makers in Washington who would be unhappy at the turn of events that have obliged them to pull back and leave Afghanistan to its own fate in the sense that for them the fight is over without achieving their objectives. Henceforth while they might continue to assist the Afghan Government, they do not foresee committing large forces again. Allowing the Taliban power sharing and control over parts of Afghanistan was evidently their last choice. For the same reason allowing Pakistan to assume a major role, even by proxy cannot be a welcome turn of events. On the face of it, for public consumption within the US the Americans are quitting. However, there is bound to be serious thought for contingency planning for worst case scenarios. Enough assets and back up would have been planned to ensure that a Vietnam type collapse of their ally does not take place. Of course the situation on the ground in Afghanistan in 2014 would be very different from the situation that obtained in South Vietnam when the collapse occurred. Similarly, enough planning would have taken place in the Pentagon to make sure that the residual force maintained, if maintained, does not lead to a repeat of Dien Bien Phu . Nor for that matter would the Pakistan military and the Taliban wish to risk retaliation by the US that would be fiercer than what took place after 9/11.
The second nightmarish scenario is the rising stockpile of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and the internal conditions that can never cease to be a matter of the greatest concern for the US and much of the world. On April 22, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in her testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that Pakistan was in danger of falling into terrorist hands: “I think that we cannot underscore enough the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state, a nuclear-armed state.” And again, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with Fox television on April 26, said that Pakistan had assured the United States about the safety of its nuclear weapons, but the current volatile situation of the country raises questions about all of Islamabad assurances. “One of our concerns, which we’ve raised with the Pakistani government and military,” she said, “is that if the worst, the unthinkable were to happen, and this advancing Taliban encouraged and supported by al-Qaeda and other extremists were to essentially topple the government for failure to beat them back, then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan.” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, and an advisor to President Obama on Afghanistan policy, in a May 30 Brookings paper pointed to the dangers this presents. He said that “the fighting has cast a spotlight on the shaky security of Pakistan ’s growing nuclear arsenal - the fastest growing arsenal in the world. …………………………………………………………………… Today the arsenal is under the control of its military leaders; it is well protected, concealed, and dispersed. But if the country fell into the wrong hands - those of the militant Islamic jihadists and al-Qaeda - so would the arsenal. The U.S. and the rest of the world would face the worst security threat since the end of the Cold War. Containing this nuclear threat would be difficult, if not impossible.”
The US and its allies have been concentrating on the nuclear proliferation threat building up in Iran and North Korea . After the A Q Khan episode Pakistan seems to have been put on the back burner. As a matter of fact the Pak nuclear threat is far more insidious and widespread than is currently assessed in most quarters. Iran ’s capability vis-à-vis Pakistan on a scale of 0 to 9 is not even 1; Pakistan would be hovering around 7 or 8 in its comparative nuclear capability. Likewise in the case of North Korea although it has gone much ahead of Iran , it is not in the same league as Pakistan in the number of nuclear weapons that it possesses or is likely to possess. What is more relevant North Korea does not have the radical groups that are capable of carrying out terrorist acts of varying intensities practically across the globe; Iran to date limits its reach to Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. The Pak radical groups in concert with sympathizers in the Pakistan Army and ISI have developed the potential to capture power in the state in the not too distant future, perhaps sooner. It means that they could become masters of the Pakistan nuclear arsenal as also the delivery system vastly augmented by North Korea and China . A recent report attributed to Professor Shaun Gregory of Bradford University in the UK mentions that Jihadis thrice attacked Pakistan nuclear sites (Times of India, August 11, 2009). A headline on page 15 of the Indian Express dated January 11, 2009 quoting an article that appeared in the NYT stated: "Obama Camp Fears Pak Nukes Falling into Wrong Hands”. It needs to be added that these are incidents that the western analysts are aware of. There would have been others that were known only to the Pakistan authorities. Hence for the US and the world neutralizing Pak nuclear capability is far more important for the global community than going after the much lesser threat from Iran or North Korea. Of course, China would demur, but that is only to be expected.
In sum the Zero Option now being mentioned in some circles in Washington might not be an option.
Of the countries in the region directly impacted by the events in Afghanistan , Pakistan remains the most important among them. It is the country most affected by Afghanistan ; it is also the country primarily responsible for the worsening situation in Afghanistan . Without going into the history of past events, it would be more profitable to examine the options now open to the Pakistan Army-ISI combine and the tools with which they operate - the Quetta Shura led by Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network. There are other groupings among the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan that surface from time to time. On the face of it, Washington has been amazingly generous with Pakistan after the decision to quit leaving behind a residual force whose strength has yet to be determined. Going by past experience, the Taliban moving in strength into Afghanistan will be backed to the hilt in every possible way to enable them to take over a much larger area than is presently being envisaged by the Americans. Whether this phase is embarked upon gradually or at a much faster pace will again depend upon the fighting potential of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the support provided to the ANA by the residual US force and other forces that will surely come into play. It is these other forces and interests that might turn out to be the more important deciders of the outcome in Afghanistan over the coming years. Suffice to say that the strategic depth that the Pakistan Army and its operatives are carving out for themselves might turn out to be a strategic nightmare sooner than they realize or expect. The Pakistanis have been agitating for the Americans to quit Afghanistan ; so that they can move in. Ironically not many years down the line they will rue the fact that the US opted out. In fact it was they who were providing a modicum of stability to Pakistan . Terrorism has grown into the most destructive phenomenon in Pakistan today. The list of victims of terrorist attacks is expanding rapidly, going up from 164 casualties in 2003 to 40,000 in 2011. According to official data, damage suffered by the country from 2000 to 2011 exceeded $70 billion. An important element of the out of control terrorist activity now plaguing the country was Pakistan’s direct involvement in military actions in Afghanistan and the creation of the mujahideen units, who after the end of the military actions rose to prominence as a military and political force first in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan. Since then they have grown from strength to strength. The point of view of George Friedman, a U.S. analyst, is that Pakistan is losing its “trajectory into the future.” This opinion is underpinned by the increasingly chaotic social and political life in Pakistan , the army’s involvement in domestic processes, the poorly regulated government economy and the inability of political parties to set up adequate political life for more than five years. This “institutional vacuum” is inevitably filled up by other organisations, in case of Pakistan , terrorist structures.
The next country that shares a large border with Afghanistan is Iran . Recently it had been suspected in certain circles that the Iranians might be aiding the Taliban to make things more difficult for the Americans. However, the situation changes dramatically the moment the Americans pull out and leave Afghanistan to its own fate with the hope that the ANA will be able to put up a good fight. Whatever be the case, the Iranians will certainly not countenance a Taliban takeover or even a major push beyond their acknowledged area of influence in the south and the east. Additionally, their policies would converge with those of Russia , the CAR and India . The Iranians would move boldly to solidly back the militias of a re-formed northern alliance and in the process become perhaps major stakeholders in Afghanistan at par with Pakistan . Here it is worth recalling that the Zaranj-Delaram road constructed by India confers upon Iran much greater flexibility and has opened several access point from the Iranian side into Afghanistan that were not available earlier, thereby further reducing the over-dependence of Afghanistan on Pakistan.
For the purposes of this paper the Central Asian Republics can be grouped with Russia as the threats that they would face from a resurgent Taliban would be common to them all. It may be recalled that these threats - as on the earlier occasion - related to sanctuaries provided to groups like the IMU under their leader Juma Namangani that had made deep inroads into the Fergana Valley and were threatening to de-stabilize Tajikistan , Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan . At some stage Kazakhstan would have felt the heat as well. The second major threat comes from the flow of drugs from Afghanistan , although the flow of drugs has continued regardless of who the power holder is in Afghanistan .
In the late 1990s after the Taliban had taken over practically 90% of Afghanistan with the Panjshiris under Ahmed Shah Masud being the only holdout, Russia was in a much enfeebled position toward the end of the Yeltsin era. Besides the demoralization and lack of equipment in their armed forces they had only a weak, dispirited motorized division on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. Had 9/11 not intervened there is hardly any doubt that after the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masud the Taliban would have pushed deeper into Central Asia, that having been the initial game plan of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who were the main backers of the Taliban. This time around the situation is totally different. Russia is fully prepared to safeguard its interest in Central Asia - and Afghanistan as well - once the Americans pull out.
India has been kept last being the only regional country under consideration that has no contiguity with Afghanistan . From all indications and statements appearing in the press, it seems to be the most apprehensive about the post-2014 scenario after the Americans leave. The realization has yet to dawn in India that they were unable to have a meaningful presence in Afghanistan notwithstanding their aid and development efforts because up to nearly the very end the US would not have countenanced it. For most of the period from 2001-2013/14 they were leaning heavily towards Pakistan . This is no longer the case. Circumstances on the ground and bad generalship* on the part of the Americans have obliged them to reach an accommodation with the Taliban and their Pakistani backers. Towards the end they had started realizing that a greater Indian footprint in Afghanistan could turn out to be a stabilizing factor for the country. With this in mind the green light would have been given to the Afghan government to come to a strategic defence agreement with India . The window of opportunity that has been opened for India allows it to become the most important player in Afghanistan post-2014 should the nickel finally have dropped on its government and the strategic community, i.e., you have to become a player in the field to achieve your objectives. When India starts looking at its obligations to itself and Afghanistan from this perspective the situation could take a dramatic turn for the better. The multiple options available to India - options that would generally be welcomed in Afghanistan – need not be gone into at this stage. Suffice to say that the Afghan people look upon India most favourably as a benign presence when compared to all other regional players that have contiguity with Afghanistan . Similarly, practically all regional countries minus the countries that back the Pakistan–Taliban combine, would welcome India as a player and strategic partner for stabilizing Afghanistan . The US and its Western allies, including most countries from Southeast and East Asia that had sent detachments to Afghanistan with ISAF would also be fully supportive. The only fly in the ointment in this promising picture would not be Pakistan or China that has taken a back seat because ‘its all whether friend’ is again the lead player once the Americans leave, could be India itself with its self-doubt and tendency to fall between two stools.
Having taken a round of the powers that have a stake in or are in a position to influence events in Afghanistan either directly or through proxies (as in the case of China) it emerges that in the ultimate analysis it is Afghanistan itself that will decide its future. It is worth re-iterating that the Afghanistan of today is an entirely different ball game from the time the Taliban ruled over Afghanistan over a decade ago. The conditions on the ground, the possibilities that have been opened up for the Afghan people and the level of education and commercial activities have undergone a major transformation. There is no way that the Afghans or Afghanistan can be an easy take for Taliban or its backers.
Doubts on the efficacy of the Afghan response to major ingress via Pakistan , wherever they exist, need to be dispelled straightaway. There are several reasons for these doubts. The most important being that if the mighty US backed forces with all the technology at their command could not overcome the Taliban, then how can the ANA whose efficacy is doubted even when the Americans are there, take on the Taliban successfully. The second relates to the degree of backing that would be available to the Afghan government and the ANA post-2014 by way of funding as also the high-end technology support including air, heavy artillery and helicopter support that would be available to the ANA.
There is no doubt that these apprehensions are reasonable. It is most unlikely that the Afghan Government and the ANA will be abruptly left high and dry once the bulk of the US force has been withdrawn. Over the years, there could be some phasing out. When that happens, other donors and backers having a stake in Afghanistan will step in, provided that the Afghan government and the ANA demonstrate staying power and have not allowed the Pak-Taliban combine to extend their sway over larger areas. Moreover, and this aspect is vitally important to understand, once the Americans leave the Afghans know that they have to fend for themselves. No major intervention of the Russian type or the likes of the US intervention will again take place to save Afghanistan from an attack by Pakistan and its proxies. Concomitantly, one of the main reasons for support for the Taliban, wherever it existed, would have been automatically downgraded. The foreigners having pulled out the only aliens that now remain would be the foreign-backed Taliban and their backers. Thus, clarity of purpose and perception would obtain for the first time throughout the country; that the Afghans are on their own and the only foreign elements threatening them and their future reside in Pakistan .
The United States and NATO have united the Pushtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan with support from Islamabad in the process creating a new threat for Pakistan . Many Pushtuns residing in FATA and the NWFP have begun to identify Pakistan more as an enemy than a friend because Islamabad has allowed Americans and other foreigners to kill Pushtuns. Further, the Pakistani troops have also joined in killing the Pushtuns under the pretext of eliminating the extremist Pakistani Taliban. As a result, there is a likelihood that when the Americans leave, the Greater Pushtunistan movement may come to the fore. A large section of Pushtuns from both sides of the Durand Line, a much larger group than that supporting the Taliban, might well join the fray. Kabul will ensure that it comes to pass.
With the haze that created the self-doubt about the Afghans’ and the ANA’s ability to take on the Pakistan-backed Taliban having been dispersed it is possible to discuss the staying power and efficacy of the ANA. No doubt there are ethnic and other divisions in the ANA. However, these could be papered over to a large extent once there is a commonality of purpose and clarity about the enemy and from where it is coming; as also the affliction that would once again be visited on the Afghan people should the Taliban be allowed to take over a second time around. Hence, whatever the doubts about the ANA that are being voiced currently it is very much on the cards that the ANA will give a good account of itself. What is more the Afghan government and the ANA would be making plans to erase the Durand line once and for all so that the games being played on account of the artificial divide cease and the real enemy evicted from these territories once and for all.
The powerful leaders in the north would have been preparing their militias for the big fight should the Taliban push outwards. Initially, these forces would back the ANA to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan . Both the ANA and the northern leaders being free agents once again would jointly go into a no holds barred fight that might not be confined to fighting only on the home ground in Afghanistan . They would have trained irregulars to pay the Pakistan military back in its own coin by carrying the fight into the depth areas of Pakistan using the same terror and IED insertion tactics as the Taliban have been using in Afghanistan. Many commanders feel that man-to-man once the Americans leave the Taliban or the Pakistanis are no match for them on Afghan soil. Their knowledge of the terrain and how to use the terrain with small raiding parties that can melt into the locals would be better than the Taliban coming from across the border. Should the Pakistan Army not be restrained by a civilian Pakistan government, the dismantling of Pakistan might begin once the Americans have left.
Talk of an end game in Afghanistan is not only premature it is based on reasoning that harks back to the past. The real game for the future of Afghanistan will begin once the bulk of the US forces leave.
* Elaboration of this comment will be found in the follow up paper “Why the Americans Lost the War in Afghanistan ”.
New Delhi , January 19, 2013.