Tokyo summer Olympics got off to somewhat hesitant start, under the looming shadow of obstinate pandemic. Media attention, however, is divided, focused on another round in the never-ending great game, unfolding in the killing fields of Afghanistan.
It also brings back fading memories of Moscow Olympics of July 1980, ironically boycotted by United States of America and 64 other nations, protesting against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Americans are finally pulling out of Afghanistan, after two decades. This, after having sunk more than $2.26 trillion and losing 2,442 Bravehearts, 800 private security contractors, 1,144 soldiers of 36 nation (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) NATO-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition, 72 journalists and 444 aid workers.
The tally doesn’t include 14,400 Soviet soldiers, lost in decade of 1979-89, in American organised, Saudi funded, Pakistan orchestrated, Fassad (legitimised as Jehad), Taliban executed mayhem. Afghan casualties at most conservative scale, approximate 70,000 combatants, 47,000 civilians, 10 million refugees, including the internally displaced.
Notwithstanding colossal losses, there is very little to show on targeted parameters of democracy, tolerance, women’s rights and social harmony. History will rank it along with Vietnam among worst, failed interventions, reflective of limits of coping with hybrid warfare.
Gen Dave Miller, former head of Army Training and Doctrine Command with formidable combat experience, most aptly remarked on American predicament, “Because, believe me it’s lot easier to invade a country than to leave it in an ordinary manner.”
The US exited Baghram, leaving Pakistan in charge, to manage the transition. ISI has already realised the changed dynamics of coping up with Taliban 2.0 that is much more autonomous and politically savvy.
In comparison, Taliban 1.0, which ruled from 1996 to 2001, was naive and compliant bunch of war lords, dancing to ISI tunes. Consequently, Pakistan has clarified that it is only a facilitator and by no means the guarantor.
The US, at the behest of European Union, and overlooking frosty relations, has pragmatically allowed Turkey to guard Kabul airport. The air-head is critical for continued diplomatic presence and over watch.
Doha deliberations, to operationalise November 20, 2020 agreement, are making slow, torturous headway. Concurrently, Russia has launched extended troika with USA, China and Pakistan, to facilitate acceptable resolution. Desperation to retain control and stake is such that America has instituted connectivity focused formulation, ‘Afghan-Quad’ with USA, Uzbekistan, Pakistan besides Kabul. Meanwhile, Russia has scheduled exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces at Harb-Maidon training ground from August 5 to August10.
India’s role and participation is being circumscribed by Pakistan and even Soviets, on flimsy grounds. Mercifully, there is some belated realisation, articulated by Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, Russia’s foreign affairs minister, suggesting inclusion of Iran and India in troika. However, Zamir Kabulov, designated interlocutor, remarked that, “India can’t join because it has no real influence with the Taliban.” This is strange, for Taliban barely represents 50-odd %of populace. On the other hand, Pakistan seems to be at loggerheads with current regime and enjoys very little trust, among non-Pashtun ethnicities.
Taliban has managed to create a facade to garner better acceptability. It realises that it cannot survive without outside support, specially funding, for reconstruction. Hence, guarantee has been given to China on curtailing activities of ETIM, for peace in Xinjiang. Sources indicate that Taliban is willing to give similar assurance to India for Kashmir.
Realistically appraising, in Afghan imbroglio with multiple factions and militias, such guarantees have no real credibility. Within Taliban, besides Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan, there are multiple Shuras. Hopefully, Chinese will learn appropriate lessons from slaying of nine engineers at Dasu hydel project, despite specially raised and China–Pakistan Economic Corridor funded, 34 and 44 Special Security Divisions, for protection.
Away from Doha, in the graveyard of multiple empires (British, Russian and American), dynamics are likely to be conditioned by competitive fundamentalism, internecine tribal skirmishes, narco-terrorism and of course buying out of war lords through ‘bakshish’ (gratification). Education and women’s rights, are hardly on agenda.
The world with bated breath waits for Chinese reactions. Options are direct intervention — alternatively, rely on Pakistan midwifery or, buy her way out. Despite recent aggressive manifestations, China is unlikely to commit boots on ground.
There are no easy answers, while Taliban is in ascendancy mode, yet there are possibilities. These include, ideally, participative resolution; second, winner (possibly Taliban) dictated solution; third, prolonged civil war.
Except for Pakistan and to some extent China, most prefer inclusive peace. Currently, China has taken moralistic, even-handed posture, proclaiming zero tolerance for terrorism. The current heightened psychological warfare with Taliban touting capture of 85% territory has to be objectively evaluated.
Approximately, 75% Afghan populace is currently huddled into cities, with 25%, in Kabul region alone. It will be more appropriate to say Taliban retains loose and contested control, in 45-50% area, 25-30% populace and one-third of 421 districts.
Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with approximately 3.5 lakh strength, though limited to Counter Insurgency Force format, stands in the way of complete Taliban take over. ANSF was denied air power, artillery and tanks, primarily due to Pakistan insistence, though India has provided eight refurbished MI-35 gunships. America’s promised ‘over the horizon’ support remains critical for ANSF, as evidenced in recent Kandahar raid.
In sum, Indian priorities should be: first forge ties with Taliban in discreet manner. Second, convince Taliban and tribal bodies (jirgahs) to spare Indian built infrastructure from wanton destruction. Third, retain goodwill through scholarships and training. Fourth, safeguard interests of traditional allies — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Ismailis and Hazaras.
Though currently relegated to margins of peace process, India should remain invested and leverage emerging opportunities, reworking ties with Iran, CAR, Russia and synergising with the US rear guard actions. Retaining relevance entails astute, quiet diplomacy and patience.