Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla
The Current Western Assessment
The western analysis on Afghanistan is that their forces had gone into the country in order to defeat al-Qaeda, and to prevent it from posing a threat to their societies in future. With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the ends have been basically achieved, and it is time to thin out the troops to a few thousand at most. The Afghan Armed Forces, in this telling, have also been brought into battle-readiness, and will hold firm in the face of any eventuality that might follow the western withdrawal. Finally, according to this narrative, Afghan society has itself changed, and there can be no return to the days of the Taliban, and there is no real danger of a take-over by the Taliban even after 2014.
2. Some analysts add that Pakistan, which is, they recognise, the sponsor of the Taliban, has also changed, and is aware that they are as much a threat to Pakistan itself as to any of the other countries of the region. The death toll inside Pakistan has made the Pakistan army understand that the Taliban are not an asset, but a threat to itself. Therefore, Pakistan will also play a more responsible in the region, and the prospects for peace and stability are thus good.
Flaws in the Western Narrative
3. There is, however, an alternative portrayal of the situation in and around Afghanistan. For a start, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not weaker than they were in 2001, they are stronger. Osama is dead indeed, but the ideology he stood for is stronger and its adherents even more motivated than before. The Salafi ideology is in fact making inroads into South Asia in a way it never did before. There is a German study, in fact, which shows that Salafi ideology is the fastest growing among all religious ideologies in the world today. It is important therefore to take a look at this ideology for indications it may provide for what to expect once the western military presence is drawn down.
4. For the Salafists and their allies among the terrorist groups fighting in Afghanistan, the current war in Afghanistan traces its origins to Koranic prophesy of the end of days. According to this, the current fighting is the war for Khorasan, which covers not just today's Afghanistan, but also Central Asia. They have, in their eyes, bested and destroyed one superpower – the Soviet Union – and have now won against the second and only superpower today, the US. After the battle of Khorasan, it will be time for the Ghazwa-e-Hind, which is the Campaign for India, and will cover all of South Asia. Having won against India, it will be time to liberate the Holy Places – Mecca and Medina – and remove the al-Saud from power. This, in turn, will lead to the final battle for the liberation of al-Quds, their term for Jerusalem.
5. This sounds overly ambitious and grand, but this is what is motivating the terrorists in Afghanistan, and they have certainly shown a willingness to kill and die for their beliefs. They have been at it in different guises for over thirty years, and, with each iteration, the fanaticism only grows stronger. Burhanuddin Rabbani appeared moderate compared to the younger fighters and militias active today. Further, there is no suggestion that the pipeline that produces these groups is drying up – quite the opposite. It is known that during the 1980's, the Pakistani system was producing 20,000 jihadis each year, as this has been disclosed in the authoritative account [The Bear Trap, written, with an American co-author, by Brig Yusaf of the ISI Afghan operations] of the anti-Soviet Afghan war in that decade. Since then, this number has only gone up. Although the Pakistani leaders have from time to time tried to register, and thus exercise some control over, the madrassas, this has not happened. Therefore, it is possible only to make an estimate of the numbers involved. With this caveat, it is safe to suggest that the number now would be no less than 20,000 annually, at a conservative estimate. This provides a figure certainly in the hundreds of thousands today. Many have died in the fighting, among the terrorist groups and between them and the armies they have confronted. Many more have probably grown old and returned to a peaceful life. However, all things considered, and taking all this attrition into account, there should be no doubt that the number of jihadis available for fighting is at least as large as the Afghan armed forces that they will confront.
6. Of course, there is a non-religious interpretation as well for the emerging situation. History provides some useful insights, even if it does not precisely play out the same way. We know, for instance that Pakistan continues to see Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth against India, formal demurrals notwithstanding. Even though there has been some change of words in Pakistani strategic articulation, the reality is that it continues to oppose any Indian role or presence in Afghanistan. Its actions indicate more clearly that it will seek to inject the Taliban into the Afghan political process, and as the dominant force. Although the western hope - it is nothing more - is that Pakistan and the Taliban will be prepared to share power, the reality is that they [the Taliban] do not see any need to compromise. As mentioned above, they see themselves as the victors of another jihad against the US, and do not see any need to change their ideology or principles of governance. It is understood that they have made it clear that they will not accept the current Constitution of the country, and that their fidelity to Islamic principles of governance remains as strong as it was before 2001, when they were driven out of Kabul.
7. In this, they can count on the support of the Pakistan army and the ISI. Even the western officials well disposed towards Pakistan and the ISI have been forced to acknowledge that several of the terrorist groups have close links with the ISI, and indeed receive close support from that organisation. Some of the information released under the Freedom of Information in the US also confirms that this has been the assessment of the US Embassy in Islamabad since at least the mid-2000's, and particularly since around 2007.
8. It is also clear that the second premise - that the Afghan armed forces are ready to face any contingency - is erroneous too. The record of fighting shows mixed results, and there are numerous cases of defections and of Taliban attacks on supposedly well-guarded places in Afghanistan. At best, the conclusion would be that the situation is stalemated. Once the back-up of the western forces, specially the communications and intelligence back-up, is removed, the battle will become more tilted in favour of the Taliban. Add to this the thrust that the ISI will certainly make post-2014, and the balance of forces looks decidedly wobbly. It is also noteworthy that the total number of the ANSF has been scaled back from the initial 350.000 to 230,000, a significant reduction.
9. The third argument is similalry open to question. Afghanistan was on the road to modernisation and moderation in the 1960's under King Zahir Shah, even if the change was confined to a narrow segment at the top. But this was true then of all of South Asia, if not of all of Asia. It was further thrust into change under the PDPA, which, for all its many faults, brought about equality of the sexes, and tried to make many of the changes in the educational system towards greater secularism that are also taking place now. All these were reversed under the Taliban in the late 1990’s, despite almost universal condemnation around the world. What this summary narration shows is that such changes as we see today can also be reversed.
10. It is important to bear in mind that the Taliban are not just virulently opposed to these changes, changes that are welcome in the rest of South Asia, and indeed all over the world. They are equally opposed to the idea of democracy. To them, it matters not at all whether the people of Afghanistan want these trends to be consolidated or not. They have their Islamic principles - as they see them, as they correctly see them - and the fact that the women of the country or the non-Pashtun majority do not want any reversal will be of little moment if they can prevail by violent means. They will seek to impose their rule and their will by force, and the rest of the world, those that are concerned about the country, will need to factor this in. There may be some who will dispute the assertion that the Taliban correctly interpret Islam. Perhaps an example would help clarify: the destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues in 2001. This act was rightly condemned throughout the world; and yet, it was in line with the Koranic injunction against depiction of the human form, and more so against the deification of any God other than Allah.
11. Beyond peradventure, the most negative role will be that of Pakistan, and it is here that the western narrative is most egregiously wrong. To say that it is self-serving to believe that Pakistan has turned over a new leaf as regards sponsorship of terrorism would be correct, though it serves even the western interests only in the short term. Recent developments in both Pakistan itself and the US have shown that not much has changed as far as the growth of the terror machine is concerned, and that the US in particular remains one of its targets. Certainly, the west is doing itself no good in trying to portray Pakistan and its army as having changed. Yes, they have refrained from stepping into the political process - for now at any rate - but the daunting economic and political problems would suggest that they realise that grabbing power would only cause them to lose whatever little legitimacy they still enjoy in society. For it is clear that no institution can address these problems, and those who have tried have only seen their reputations destroyed. Nevertheless, there are limits to how far it will allow the country to sink. The new Government will face a severe test as it tries to address these problems and ensure the stability of Pakistan. The coming months will also test the army and the restraint it has so far shown.
12. A look at how Pakistan has conducted its policies in the past is instructive. It signed the Geneva Accords in 1988, which committed all countries to refrain from interfering in Afghanistan. It did the same right through the 1990's, and one of the reliable sources has even published the text of the order of Benazir Bhutto prohibiting any interference in the internal dispensation in Afghanistan. Here is the text of Bhutto’s instructions in 1996, on the eve of the Taliban sweep into Kabul:
“Let the dust settle where it will in Afghanistan. Let the Afghans sort out the Afghans. Our policy is that there should be no outside interference and that policy should be maintained. We claim we have no favourites to anyone who will listen. Let us live up to our own words.”
The Pakistani diplomat who makes this revelation was her adviser on foreign affairs in her Secretariat in 1996 and ends with this observation:
Needless to say, it was like spitting in the wind. Her directions were observed, not mostly, but entirely, in the breach. [Emphasis added].
13. Further, it has been revealed by the Afghans that the Pakistanis have continued to insist that the former must not allow any Indian influence to remain in the country if it is to come to any understanding with Pakistan. This certainly raises legitimate doubts about how much of a change has come about in the strategic thinking of the Pakistani security establishment.
14. Finally, one other argument needs to be disposed of. This is the plea that Pakistan itself frequently makes, to the effect that it is doing its best to contain the terrorists, but that the situation is one that even the army cannot completely control. This may be true with regard to positive control – in the sense that Pakistan cannot instruct the terrorists which targets to hit and when. Such micro-control over the tanzeems is not complete. However, what is near complete is Pakistani negative control – in the sense that the army and the ISI can stop any activity that they do not approve of. Examples are the Uighurs and the Kurds. Although the former, in particular, have tried to use Pakistani soil against China, they have been effectively blocked from doing so. Twice it has happened that violent acts in Xinjiang have been traced back to Pakistan, once in the mid-1990’s and once in 2010. And both times, Pakistani military and political leaders have been at pains to reassure China that it will not be allowed to continue – and they have delivered. When they want to stop the violence, they can do so.
The Likely Scenario
15. A look into the probable future would suggest then, that there may well be an understanding reached between the US/Afghanistan on the one hand and the Taliban on the other not to upset the status quo represented by the Constitution [except as provided by the Constitution itself] and the social order. There may even be a commitment, unlikely but possible, to break with their terrorist past, but there is a problem here. It lies in the asymmetry between the commitments that the West will give – to pull out of all combat operations – and the counter-commitments of the Taliban. If the latter were to choose to break their undertakings, they could quite easily do so. For them, reversing course would not be difficult. On the other hand, once the West pulls out of combat operations, it would be well-nigh impossible for them to reverse course.
16. And this brings in the old issue that all the countries concerned have been grappling with: the absence of any mechanism for dealing with violations of the undertakings given by the different actors – on non-interference, and on abjuring terrorism. In seeking such a mechanism, it would be prudent to avoid organisations of a regional nature, such as SAARC or SCO. They have a different orientation, and there are too many mutual rivalries between individual members for these to work well. The UN could conceivably play such a role, but its processes are too cumbersome and subject to the pulls and pressures that are well-known for it to function effectively. A UN peace-keeping force would be a solution, but there appears to be no appetite among any of the members to set up such a force.
17. Of course, the ideal would be if the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] could do the job themselves. The experience of the Najibullah government suggests that it can be done. However, the USSR supplied $3 billion annually to the PDPA government after the withdrawal was completed in 1989. Once the USSR itself disappeared in 1992, the new Russia, under Yeltsin, ended this payment, and the government collapsed by April that same year. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the ANSF do not have the numbers or the financial and materiel back-up to play a similar role. Their target numbers have been reduced to approximately 230,000 from the earlier 352,000, as mentioned above and the financial backing is only partly assured as of now.
18. This suggests that the US [and its allies] should try and ensure post-2014 stability by leaving behind a sufficient number and profile of troops who can provide the necessary back-up. Within the US, there seems to be a difference on how to deal with the post-2014 situation. Politics are clearly pushing in the direction of minimising the role and the risk of further casualties for their young men and women – entirely understandable, of course. But there are also commitments being made to Afghanistan not to abandon it and to continue to prevent it from collapsing into chaos. There is the Strategic Partnership agreement, which has a very strong security clause. Since there has been some doubt expressed on this, it is worth reproducing the relevant article in full:
“Recognizing that the stability of Afghanistan would contribute to the development and stability of South-Central Asia, the United States affirms that it shall regard with grave concern any external aggression against Afghanistan. Were this to occur, the Parties shall hold consultations on an urgent basis to develop and implement an appropriate response, including, as may be mutually determined, political, economic, or military measures, in accordance with their respective constitutional procedures [emphasis added.]”
19. The US has also declared Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. While the implications of all these commitments remain to be tested and clarified in the crucible of practical deeds, it is clear that there is some willingness on the part of the US to ensure that stability is maintained in the period after the withdrawal.
Implications for India and China
20. This line of thinking in the US deserves to be supported by all those countries that have vital stakes in the outcome. This includes India and China. Unfortunately, neither is doing much in this direction, though they have committed to help economically. This is not good enough. It would be important for the Chinese leadership to remember that the Taliban, and the Islamic Emirate they ruled, had given shelter to the Uighur separatists in the late 1990’s. Whatever the Taliban representatives may say today, there is no change in their ideology or determination to revert to the days and ways of the Emirate.
21. India, of course, has a different kind of problem to surmount. It is well aware of the danger that the Taliban represent, and has no illusions regarding the intimations of change of heart among them. Its basic problem is access: it can access Afghanistan only through Pakistan or Iran. Pakistan has set its face against any access to India, and this is further evidence that their thinking on India has not changed. Further, Pakistan has shown that it will play politics with transit issues, and has repeatedly held up NATO supplies to and from Afghanistan. There is one further point that needs to be made about Pakistan: the new Government has stated its intention to rein in the extremists, but it faces very serious challenges, and its past record on terrorism is shaky at best. It was under Nawaz Sharif in the early 1990’s that Pakistan was placed on the watch-list of state sponsors of terrorism by the US. The economic and social difficulties are such that, if not handled effectively, the country may continue its slide into becoming a failed state. Should that happen, the entire situation will need to be assessed for its implications.
22. As far as Iran is concerned, there has been relentless pressure from the US and some other countries to have nothing to do with that country. In an ideal world, India would disregard this pressure in its own security interests, but that must wait for a change in government in New Delhi. In the Afghan context, Iran offers the only access to India, and this will be bound to come into play in the fullness of time. Iran is itself due to elect a new President later this year, and that may also bring about changes in its role in the region.
23. This, then, is the assessment of the present situation in and around Afghanistan. There are no easy answers to the likely challenges that will emerge after 2014. The principal point is that the Taliban and its sponsors – the Pakistan army and the ISI – will chance their arm once the western presence is drawn down. It will be essential to prevent a take-over as happened in 1995-96, and the key will be in containing the ambitions of Islamabad and, more importantly, of Rawalpindi.