When it comes to Afghanistan Maj Gen BK Sharma, AVSM, SM and Bar (Retd) Director, United Service Institution of India (USI) India’s oldest think tank established by the British in 1870 is one of the most knowledgeable persons in the Indian security establishment. He has firsthand knowledge about Afghanistan having extensively visited different parts of the country, and interacted with a cross-section of people.
The General Officer has been Defense Attaché in Indian Embassy in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and has presented academic papers on strategic affairs at several international seminars. Based on his vast experience he feels that whether we like it or not Taliban – is going to play a major role in the affairs of Afghanistan but it is still too early to predict a stable regime in Afghanistan. Excerpts from an interview with NEERAJ MAHAJAN:
If we look at the situation in Afghanistan first the Soviet Union and now the USA – virtually bled through their nose and were left with no option but to withdraw? Why do you think the mighty superpowers like the USA and USSR – had to eventually pull out of Afghanistan?
All these intervention forces did not entirely understand the topography, the porous terrain and the socio-cultural characteristics of Afghanistan’s population. They failed to understand the tribal and ethnic nature of its society divided into racial and clan loyalties and deep-rooted disdain for foreign interference … All these factors led to a long drawn out guerilla warfare. Britain was the first to enter Afghanistan in 1839 and was so badly routed that there was only one survivor. Eventually, they were compelled to leave after declaring Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians were the next to arrive and stayed for over a decade. Despite the best of the military forces the Russians too were forced to leave. Subsequently, the United States of America moved in without an exit strategy and is withdrawing now. Evidently, while the Afghans may seem to be divided internally they are not prepared to tolerate any foreign intervention.
With regards to America’s recent withdrawal – there was a combination of factors. Firstly right from the very beginning, their aim was not clear – as a result, they got bogged down badly. Curiously another reason for this was due to the flip-flop in the American strategy during the Obama era when he defined those timelines for US withdrawal at the most inopportune moment. This was followed by Trump’s inconsistent South Asia policy and now this accelerated withdrawal by Joe Biden without putting the factors in place for sustainable peace in Afghanistan. There was also a flawed assumption about the character and behaviour of the Taliban in the Doha dialogue.
The Americans thought that by cutting a deal with the Taliban they may be able to bring them on board but the Taliban were on a different trajectory. They just wanted to buy time, get the Americans out and then use the military option to force a solution in Afghanistan. Another factor that contributed to the present situation in Afghanistan is the game plan of other regional players who vouch for an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and Afghan controlled peace process in various international fora or regional groupings –but have all along been fighting a proxy war and adding to the mess and chaos in Afghanistan.
According to you what are the main reasons behind this seemingly long, unending and unwinnable war and lessons to be learnt for the future?
Fundamentally I would say that the Americans have got fatigued out in Afghanistan because their entire strategy was flawed and now they were looking for a dignified exit which is why they went for this unceremonious peace deal with the Taliban. The manner in which they have withdrawn from Bagram Airport which was till recently the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan does allude to certain Saigon type of moments reminiscent of the Vietnam debacle.
Recently former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying that — the U.S. has failed in its mission in Afghanistan. Do you agree with this hypothesis?
There is a lot of truth in what Hamid Karzai is saying. I would say that now we need to look at how the Afghans themselves are going to deal with the situation and what is going to be the role of the other external players particularly the immediate neighbours.
Do you agree with the presumption that the ultimate solution to the Afghan tangle would depend on the role played by various stakeholders like – Russia, China, Iran India, and Pakistan?
More than the external players — the internal dynamics of Afghanistan and traditional institutions like Loya Jirga or Wolesi Jirga will make or mar the prospect of lasting peace. I would say at this juncture the most critical player in the whole scenario is Pakistan which is the immediate neighbour of Afghanistan. Pakistan will have a great influence but then it also has its own limitations. Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan is India centric which is why they look at Indian soft-power presence as some kind of encirclement against Pakistan. Pakistani concerns about the territory of Afghanistan being used for cross border terrorism particularly by the Tarik-e-Taliban of Pakistan will play into their entire calculus. Presently they are facing a number of dilemmas and challenges. One of the challenges is the refugee influx, second is a spurt of violence by the Tarik-e-Taliban of Pakistan who seems to be having some kind of patronage from the Taliban. If they are able to fabricate a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan, they might have a window of opportunity for the extension of China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from Peshawar to Kabul and the Chinese come from the other side — across Wakhan Corridor and the two countries go for some kind of condominium with the reconstruction package being offered to a new dispensation in Afghanistan.
Iran has never been comfortable with the Sunni-Wahabi-Deobandi ideology taking roots in Afghanistan. That is why they had supported Northern Alliance but now that the Americans have exited, Iran’s main concern is going to be this Wahabi-Deobandi encirclement. They do not want a strong Taliban hence will favour a power-sharing arrangement in which Ismailis and Hazaras get their legitimate role. So you would see a major reset and recalibration of Iran’s strategy in Afghanistan.
China has an 80 km long border with Afghanistan along Wakhan Corridor. Its principle concern has been East Turkestan Islamic Movement (a separatist outfit waging an insurgency in Xinjiang, China) setting up bases in Northern Afghanistan. So they have extracted certain assurances from the Taliban and even from the present regime. If tomorrow some kind of power-sharing arrangement is put in place, they would vie for extension of BRI by extending their CPEC into Afghanistan from one side and from Belt and Road prongs of Central Asia into Afghanistan from the Northern side. They have also invested about 3 billion dollars in Copper minefields, and are trying to prospect oil in the Amu Darya … Afghanistan has natural resources worth about 3 trillion dollars so together with Pakistan, China will try to invest in these strategic mineral resources and extract them to their benefits.
Russia has also suffered from the Talibanisation of Afghanistan in the past. There has been a history of militancy movements of Central Asia and Caucasus based in Afghanistan. Now with the US exit their main concerns today are – expansion of the Daish Islamic state into Central Asian Republics particularly in Ferghana Valley and Rashit valley and the drug menace which is affecting the Russians in a big way. That is the challenge that Russia is facing. But for the moment I think they will use a hedging strategy and play a role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan- post the power-sharing arrangement if any.
Do you support the presumption that whether we like it or not Taliban is going to be a force to reckon with?
Yes, I do support that view because they have been able to regroup and emerge as a very formidable force 20 years after they were routed in 1996. There are presently about 20 odd groups that are loosely called Taliban with the Haqqani network as the major group. They have changed in some ways from their crude former image. They have a profound ideology of Nizam-e-Mustafa or Sharia and are pitching for an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They are not in a great hurry and have adopted a maximalist position. Presently more than 50% of Afghan territory particularly the countryside is under their control. They have also seized the borders with the neighbouring countries so that they could control the trade. But they have a long way to go before they are able to enter the provincial capitals. Presently they have strangulated some of these provincial capitals… they have severed some of the road arteries connecting them. They want to dominate and create a new dispensation that is Taliban dominant. But even if that does not happen as far as I am able to visualize they will be de-facto rulers of Southern and Eastern Provinces of Afghanistan and have the patronage of Pakistan. No matter which way you put it, they are going to be a major force to reckon with in the future of Afghanistan.
Do you agree with the view that violence in Afghanistan is bound to have an impact on India as well?
Yes, in the past it has impacted us. During the Taliban regime, there was a spurt in the infiltration of foreign terrorists in Kashmir. Even now if Pakistan manages to gain control over the new Taliban dominant regime in Afghanistan then there is a risk to our mission, our projects and our people. Post Balakot some of these terrorist groups were moved under the tutelage of the Haqqani network in the Southern and Eastern provinces so these territories may become a safe haven for some Kashmir centric groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-i-Mohammad, and Al-Qaeda as well as promote missions like Ghazwa-e-Hind (jihad/holy war against India in which Muslim warriors will conquer the Indian sub-continent after defeating the Hindus in battle).
It has been alleged Pakistan was clandestinely involved in the “creation” of the Taliban. Pakistan army and ISI provided financial, logistical and military support to the Taliban. The then Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen Pervez Musharraf –– sent thousands of regular Pakistani Frontier Corps personnel to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was such a closely guarded secret that even their families did not know that they were fighting in Afghanistan– till their bodies reached home. Pakistan was one of the only three countries in the world that recognized the Taliban regime in the 90s.
Yes. It is very well documented. There is a mountain of evidence of Pakistan’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Even now Afghanistan’s Vice President Amrullah Saleh and President Ashraf Ghani made those statements that 10,000 militia entered from Pakistan and are threatening to attack Afghan nationals as well defence and security forces in their recapture of Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing — an economic lifeline for southern Afghanistan. These are all facts. Pakistan has a very big hand. Some of its ex-servicemen are involved in Afghanistan. But I would say that a civil war-like situation or violent takeover of Kabul may not be to the liking of Pakistanis because a very strong Taliban may develop a mind of their own. Already there are indicators to that effect. Even if the Taliban come to power they will face a lot of resistance and there would be heightened violence in Afghanistan. If that happens it would dampen the prospects of Pakistan-China condominium
Obviously, Pakistan would want to checkmate India’s influence in Afghanistan and install a Taliban dominated regime in Kabul. Do you think a violent takeover of Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest? Does Pakistan have the capacity to shape the post-American outcome in Afghanistan?
It is not in their interest entirely because what will happen is that the fighting will continue. Even within the Taliban, there are factions that have disdain for Pakistan. Haqqani network is the only proxy force that has very close relations but there are other Taliban factions who have been badly handled, like for instance Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar a co-founder of the Taliban and who was jailed in Pakistan. Similarly, many other Taliban leaders have been blackmailed and their families have been living in Afghanistan as refugees. Likewise, both Pashtun and non-Pashtun elite have a lot of disdain for Pakistani leadership and there is a huge mistrust among the common public against Pakistan’s designs and its activities. Therefore on the whole I think if Pakistan does not emerge as a sober, trustworthy and responsible stakeholder; it is not going to be accepted by the people of Afghanistan.
In the present scenario, what are the chances of a stable government and enduring peace in Afghanistan?
I think at the moment the way the conflict is raging there it is very premature to predict the future. There is not even one indicator which is indicating a stable and sustainable government in Afghanistan. There are so many problems there – like politico-ethnic polarization, the problem between the Afghan national defence security forces and Taliban who have been fighting each other for the last 20 years. How they are going to reconstruct, and reorganize this entire force as well as disarm and demobilize the armed cadres – there is nobody who has a vision on Afghanistan. What vision the Taliban have enunciated, what is their domestic policy, what is their foreign policy? If you go by the dictum that we want to create an Islamic emirate it would be an oddity in the international system. There is no typical Sharia-based society today, anywhere in the world. All these factors do not point out at all towards a peaceful and stable government in Afghanistan in the near future.
Does the Taliban represent Afghanistan as a whole and also do the people of Afghanistan hate the Taliban?
They do not represent the people of Afghanistan at all. I visited several cities of Afghanistan in the pre-corona days… there is so much disdain and hatred for the Taliban. You know the militant cadres of Taliban today are anything from 75,000 to 80,000. Then they have embedded militias in the society and their strength is about 1, 50,000. On the whole, their entire strength may be close to two lakh— two lakh plus. The Afghan defence security forces are much larger in number. If you go by any surveys that were undertaken by the Afghans themselves or by foreigners 80% of the people of Afghanistan are in favour of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and for democracy. Given their history of human rights violations and atrocities against women and minorities, it is hardly surprising that their popularity is nix. If they were very popular why were they routed when they were in power from 1996-2001? Their behaviour has not changed. Whichever area they have been able to recapture and bring the population under control they issue dictates like women between 15-45 should get married to mujahideen. They imposed the burkha system and imposed restrictions on the movement of women. They do not permit anyone to play music, and all the men have to wear skull caps and support a beard. The people of Afghanistan have never liked them in the past and I don’t think anyone will like them after they have tasted democracy for 20 years.
In short, can we say that the people of Afghanistan hate the Taliban?
Yes on the whole they don’t like the Taliban but what happens is that people who are in the countryside wherever Taliban have been able to come and the government penetration is not there due to fighting they have no other choice but to make some of the statements in favour of Taliban. That is part of the Taliban’s media strategy. They have become extremely media savvy, they have their own internet, websites, social media sites and videos -so it’s all fabricated whatever statements you hear from people from areas that have come under control. That does not reflect the ground realities or the majority public sentiment.