Bermuda Triangle East

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Lt Gen (R) Asad Durrani

“The Eastern Crossroads of History”; is how the historian Toynbee described the region in our North-West. And indeed, it has been criss-crossed by human hoards, armed and unarmed, all through the ages. In 1747 Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the present day Afghanistan, united its major tribes and factions under a common flag. The new unity combined with the old diversity- ethnic, geographic and demographic- transformed the country from a highway for the invading armies into a quagmire. It was now more like the infamous Bermuda Triangle, except that this one sucked in empires and anyone who happened to be in the neighbourhood. When the British Indian Army first entered Kabul in the mid nineteenth century, the Nawab of Kalat famously remarked: “and how would it get out of there?” That one did not. But ever since, anyone stumbling into Afghanistan struggles to evolve an exit strategy- obviously not simply a matter of packing one’s bags and hitting the road. The British figured one out before the next venture: they bribed their way to Kabul and back. The sole superpower of that time could now claim that it had “avenged” its defeat. A good exit strategy should also help an aggressor save his face.

The Soviet Union’s exit in 1988-89 was less about saving faces than salvaging its forces. Implosion of the Empire too was staring in its face. The Soviets therefore simply struck a deal with Pakistan to ensure that their retreat did not turn into a rout.

Conditions for an American exit were quite favourable a few years back. In December 2009, President Obama in his address at the Officer’s Academy outlined a workable plan to get American troops out of Afghanistan: a military surge; followed by a drawdown. It raised many an eyebrow; “if one was to leave in not too distant a future, then why induct more troops?” Since it has been done a few times in the recently- before the US left Vietnam and Iraq, and the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan- there may be a method in this madness. I believe it is to complete the strategic cycle; in that two of its elements, battle and manoeuvre, must be so employed that each facilitates the other. Let me explain how it was supposed to work in the present case.

The surge was to create a strong enough force that merely by its existence, as a “force in being”, would persuade some of the “good, moderate, or reconcilable” Taliban to the talking table. However, if the non-military “manoeuvre” failed to create the desired effects, enough troops would be available to resume the “battle”. The cycle could be repeated till a critical number of insurgents were won over. The surge was also to meet ends of domestic politics. Since a victory of arms best serves a nation’s ego, the armed forces must be seen to have played a decisive part in the ultimate outcome. Most importantly, if the Afghan mission was aborted without giving the military, the ultimate American card, its best shot; it would have been suicidal for the ruling junta.

Indeed, no concept, however sound, would work if the essential conditions for its success were violated. Instead of holding back the military prong till the persuasion had played its part, the surge was used to soften up the Taliban so that the US could talk to them from a “position of strength”. For the militaries it is an article of faith, though it seldom works. In this case it had no chance. Had the Taliban lost ground they would have refused to talk, or would have been rebuffed as in 2002 when they sought reconciliation from a “position of weakness”. Now that they have gained ground, a different framework is needed to execute the exit, or what is euphemistically called the “endgame”.

It is a misnomer and it is misleading. Withdrawal of the foreign forces, if and when it takes place, will only end one phase of the “game” that has already spanned a third of a century. Many other games, including the “New Great Game” will go on, forever. Right now the best one can do is to make a reasonable assessment of how the so called endgame would play out. To get it right, one may have to start with a good understanding of the situation on ground and the mood of the people. What follows is based upon many rounds of discussion with some Afghan hands at home and a few visits to Kabul; the last one in May 2013.

That the influence of the Taliban has continued to expand and deepen is no more in question. One could sportingly concede that the war against them was lost or grudgingly accept that it could no longer be won. The fact is that during the last few years, no major development work was undertaken without the Taliban getting their cut. Lately, even the NATO convoys have to pay them if they wish to move in comparative safety: 150 Million dollars, alone in 2011. A similar amount is their due in the drug trade. Every year, nearly 500 Million dollars flow into the Taliban kitty from this.

The business climate is always more revealing. The real estate prices in Kabul are falling; in Peshawar they are rising- correspondingly. Those who made easy money in the last decade are buying property in Dubai and beyond. Eight Billion dollars have flown out of Afghanistan in 2012 (the finance ministry in Kabul concedes only half that figure). Economic activity is visibly in decline.

The Afghan National Army’s (ANA) ability to ensure security in the Country was always in doubt. History, Geography, Topography and Demography; all work against the conventional forces, especially when pitched against militias in tribal territories. Now, it is official. While talking to some foreign delegates, a high representative of the Afghan defence establishment listed critical deficiencies that seriously limit the ANA’ combat worthiness. Another from their brass admitted that only a small portion of the force was available for combat; the rest must man the check-posts. The French Envoy, who recently left to head his country’s external intelligence service, delivered the parting kick: the ANA could not fulfil the mission thrust upon it.

Most of the pro-regime factions, true to the Afghan tradition, have always been in contact with the Taliban. Some of them now brag about them in the belief that it would help them play in the big league when the “endgame” begins.

The “Status of Force Agreement”, to sanctify any post 2014 role for NATO, has not yet been signed by the government in Kabul. The main stumbling block seems to be the caveat imposed by the Jirga called by Karzai: “any foreign troops remaining after 2014 must operate under Afghan law”. Since the American Military on foreign soil never submits to local edicts it was the subtle Afghan way to say that the foreign forces had run out of their welcome. Till the fateful decision is taken, the pragmatic Afghans would continue to extract their pound of flesh. It is quite thinkable in fact that given the right incentive, even the Taliban, right now one of the beneficiaries of the foreign presence, might give a tacit nod to NATO’s limited role beyond 2014.

The presidential elections scheduled for the next year do not mean the same thing to everyone. Some might genuinely believe that the event would help nurture and entrench the democratic process. For the unarmed groups, it is obviously the only way to political power and the smaller amongst them are therefore closing ranks to find a consensus candidate. The Taliban would probably follow the example of their ally in resistance- Hikmatyar’s Hizbe-Islamai that has considerable presence in the Afghan Parliament- and field undercover candidates. Then there are those who rode to power under the cover of B52s. With no firm roots in the Afghan polity, their choices are limited: flea the country; or offer their expertise to one of the power centres. For them the villain of the piece is Pakistan. They believe that but for the cross-border support the Taliban had no chance, and they could have thus continued to rule the Afghan roost.

Amongst the pro-regime factions, there is near consensus that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban was unavoidable. They also believe that the Taliban too were now ready to play ball; possibly after an umbrella agreement with the Americans was concluded. In support of this argument, Omer’s Ramadan speech is widely cited. It also makes sense: the Taliban are in a good position to clinch a favourable deal; a durable peace was not possible without a broad consensus; and most importantly, it would help get the occupation vacated. These may well be the reasons that Mullah Omer gave his nod to the Doha Process. Why he suspended the first round however is not very clear: because Washington failed to deliver on its part of the deal; or, because the young radicals in his own ranks were not favourably inclined!

Being traditionally suspicious- an essential trait if one is to survive in harsh surroundings- the Afghans do not take things for granted. The Taliban are therefore preparing for the long haul. It essentially means retaining the ability to carryout periodic military forays all over the country. Besides signifying that they remained relevant, it would help them keep control of the countryside and ensure a steady flow of money into their coffers.

In Kabul no one seems excited about Pakistan releasing some of the Taliban prisoners. Except for an odd individual no one believes that even Mullah Barader could come out and make a difference

Since the situation is fluid, most if not all the Afghan factions are reaching out to each other to weigh various options. The idea is to remain flexible and make the best of any opportunity that presented itself; and if none did, to find a modus vivendi.

The American designs are not easy to read. The ambivalence may be deliberate to keep options open, but the discord amongst the various state institutions in Washington was more likely the cause.

The US must have known for example that the ANA could never ensure security, which is a tribal function. It still pumped in billions of dollars to raise, arm and train this white elephant. Again, even though the dialogue with the Taliban was conceded as the sine qua non of its exit strategy, this track was never pursued seriously or sincerely. Apparently, NATO intends to keep a long term military presence in Afghanistan. Major expansion and up-gradation work on some of the big bases like Bagram, Mazar-e-Sharif, Shindand and Kandhar, reinforces the notion. But then there is also no doubt that such presence would be unacceptable to the majority of Afghans and unpopular in the Region, making it an untenable proposition beyond a couple of years. It is therefore either a ruse to keep all others guessing, or is aimed at perpetuating turmoil to rationalise a strong foothold.

There may also be broader aims to be served if these fortresses were kept operational: strike fear in the hearts of some “rogue”, nuclear or potentially nuclear, powers in the neighbourhood; foil Chinese ambitions in the Af-Pak region; influence or spoil the “New Great Game” (merely a cover name for the war over Central-Asian resources); and in due course push its New Silk Road project.

Then there are groups within Afghanistan that stand to benefit financially and politically from the status quo and are therefore opposed to any effort to patch up with the Taliban. Peace and stability in Afghanistan- an upshot of a broad based accord- was therefore not necessarily in everyone’s interest.

All the same, the majority of the Afghans and the neighbouring countries desire an end to this war: the latter, because of the fallout on their territories and to get the Region rid of foreign military presence. There are therefore a number of initiatives to bring the warring factions to the table. Pakistan being the country most affected is obviously in the forefront. It has kept contacts with all the major Afghan factions to facilitate negotiations at the “right time”; that is when all or most of them and the US would concede that all other options had been exhausted. In the last couple of years, there were a few attempts- Munich, Doha and Paris- to test the waters. Another round at Doha seemed more serious and if not already abandoned, could set the stage for what can actually be described as the “endgame”: an intra-Afghan dialogue to restore peace and stability in the Country. Just in case one or the other important faction was not confident to get a reasonable share on the table, it might try to obstruct the process. The “right time” would then have to wait a bit longer.

The Regional response to all the above developments has been building-up over the last decade.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was probably the first step. Created under the cover of fighting terrorism, it essentially aims to promote regional cooperation to deal with the fallout of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. It is taking its time to become effective. In the meantime, some of the more concerned countries are trying to get their act together and where needed improve bilateral ties.

Pakistan for example has removed a longstanding irritant in its relationship with Iran. In a coordinated operation the two countries practically wiped out Jandullah; a militant group based in Pakistani Baloachistan that was operating inside Iran with significant external support. Despite financial and security constraints, and considerable American pressure, both Tehran and Islamabad have kept the Iran-Pakistan Pipeline (IPP) project alive. Iran on its part, unlike in the past, refrains from criticising Pakistan on the latter’s inability to protect its Shiite population.

Turnaround in Russian relations with Pakistan is remarkable. Moscow now endorses the latter’s full membership of the SCO and has offered help to modernise the Karachi Steel Mills that are using Soviet technology of the 1970s. It has also pledged financial aid to bring electricity from Tajikistan to Pakistan. Till late, Gazprom was the lead contender to build the IPP.

China probably has the best cards in the game and it seems to be playing them well. It builds pipelines in Central Asia and invests in Afghan minerals. Sixty billion dollars in bilateral trade effectively take care of any illusion that India might one day be persuaded to “contain” China. And it ships oil from Iran through the straits of Hormuz unmindful of the American armada or embargo.

One significant step that this “Gang of Four”- Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan- has taken is a clear stand on the US’ New Silk Road project. Ostensibly, it is for the economic good of the area with Afghanistan as the hub. Within the Region, however, it is seen as a ploy to perpetuate American influence, justify retention of military bases, and diminish the role of Iran, China, and Russia. Except for the Kabul government, no regional country supported the proposal when it was presented in Istanbul on the 7th of November 2011. China and India kept a low profile, the former firmly in the belief that the other countries would effectively scuttle it, and the latter probably because of its desire to maintain balance in its relations with the East and the West.

Then there are others in the Region- Afghanistan’s northern neighbours like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan- who, while still going through the throes of the post-Soviet transition, fear more trouble ahead. The impending drawdown of the NATO forces is very likely to encourage the dissidents in these countries to revive their struggle against the present regimes. Since most of these movements are led by Islamists, those in power find it politically expedient to label them as “religious fanatics”. Though overplayed, this card still sounds the right chords; also in the Region, with Russia and China for example.

Along with the risks, the Central Asians also have opportunities: they can exploit some of NATO’ compulsions. They are bargaining on the price of passage, provision of military hardware (that NATO might leave behind), and on any other favour that the US and its allies may need when exiting through their territories. The fact that some of their areas are now the preferred routes for drug trade would also play a role in such deals.

Essentially, the regional countries, like the various Afghan factions, are positioning themselves to contend with any possible situation that might emerge. Since the shape that the so called “endgame” in Afghanistan would take is not yet clear, it seems to be the wise thing to do.

Two countries whose cooperation could be very helpful to the final outcome are India and Pakistan. Both have certain advantages but also a few limitations. India has more capital to invest and its relations with Afghanistan are not burdened by history. Yet, it cannot realise its full potential unless Pakistan, which comes in the way, plays ball. Pakistan being the immediate neighbour is better placed and having helped the Afghan resistance in the last decades, enjoys more leverage. However, due to the turmoil within, and on its western borders, it needs India’s good will to keep peace in the East. During the last couple of years the two countries did try to improve the atmosphere.

When India conducted a major military exercise close to its western borders in 1987, Pakistan mobilised for war. A similar manoeuvre two years ago virtually escaped public attention in Pakistan. Long after it was due under the WTO rules, Pakistan finally granted India the MFN status. It was followed by efforts to liberalise trade and visa regimes. In 2011, Karzai visited Delhi to sign a “strategic agreement” that provided for increased economic cooperation and Indian training assistance for the Afghan military. In earlier times it would have created an uproar in Pakistan. This time around it hardly raised an eyebrow. And of course, India attended the second round of the Istanbul Process because unlike the previous occasion, Pakistan did not use its Veto.

India generally responded positively to these gestures and at one stage it seemed that the two countries might turn a new corner in their relationship. However, clashes along the LOC earlier this year and the events that followed Afzal Guru’s execution prove yet again that amongst the Indian establishment, any development that relieves tension with its western neighbour raises alarm.

With little prospects of working together with Pakistan, India has found other means to reach out to the Afghans; at times even at the cost of irritating its new strategic partner, the US. Along with Iran it has entered in a paradoxical triangular relationship with the war torn country. Though under American occupation, Afghanistan depends upon Iran for its oil needs and hence cannot join the US-led embargo. India seeks a close equation with the US, but has made major investments in the Iranian port of Chahbahar to create an alternative link to Afghanistan (the one through Pakistan, though more convenient, is obviously not available). Geo-economics thus compels the three countries, wide apart in their relationship with the US, to work together against American wishes.

Assuming that the major Afghan factions have not reached an agreement in the next two years and the US retains significant military presence beyond this period; the following are some possible scenarios.

The Taliban are persuaded to join the political process and agree to a time bound foreign military presence. Prospects of that happening may not be very promising, but if it could be pulled-off the chances of a peaceful transition would improve.

Present trends continue with no major change in various alignments. In that case, the 2014 elections will have no significant effect on the security situation; the Taliban would adapt their military activities to retain, even expand, their hold at least of the countryside; ANA would have to frequently call upon NATO’s stay behind forces for support; and the consequent rise in violence, and loss of patience in the US and its allies with an unending war, would make a policy change inevitable. This with some variation seems to be the most likely course.

In case the Kabul Regime does not permit retention of foreign combat forces beyond 2014 and all of them consequently leave without a grand Afghan consensus in place, an internal armed conflict is likely to ensue. Its intensity and duration will depend upon the ability of the regional countries, especially of Pakistan, to contain and manage the chaos. Since the Region has been closing ranks on the Afghan endgame, it is thinkable that the regimes here have pondered upon how best to meet this contingency.

The rider in all the above situations is that the Taliban would continue to present a united front at least till the negotiations start. Being primarily a war coalition though, it is very likely that once on the table or latest after a settlement is reached, they will cease to remain a single entity.

One goal towards which regional countries could start working right away is the formation of a consensus government in Afghanistan. Besides ensuring security within- what no military force could do, or the Afghan National Army ever can- it would also enable the Country to take independent decisions in its relations with other nations. We only have to look back at Afghan policies during its buffer years. It played hardball with the neighbours without posing any serious threat to any of them.

Shortly after the Cold War ended, Strobe Tolbert, an American academic, diplomat, and a specialist on Soviet affairs, wrote about the consequences for Central Asia. He concluded that “The New Great Game” could either be played together or by no one at all. Like Afghanistan, the broader region too cannot function without an overarching consensus. When there are too many actors who, irrespective of their size, can throw a spanner in the works, nothing works till all or most of them are on board. Insurgents or saboteurs could only blow up pipelines; cross-alignments amongst competing centres of state power can keep the Region in turmoil for decades to come.