In both Syria and Afghanistan — the prime theatres of the American-led offensive against Islamic radicals triggered by 9/11 — a stalemate is setting in to the advantage of the ISIS and Taliban-Al Qaeda axis respectively, and this must cause concern to the democratic world in general and India in particular. This has unmistakably happened due to three developments. First, the “war on terror” that was launched on two premises failed on both the counts — the expectation that the “moderates” in the Muslim world would fight the radical extremists at home and the presumption that the liberal funding from the US would push forth the cause of democracy in the Islamic countries. Second, the burden of taking down the Islamic terrorists fell solely on the United States and made the “war” a project of diminishing returns for the latter, primarily because of Pakistan’s role on the Afghan front and the reappearance of the Cold War legacy in Syria that had made Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current President Bashar al-Assad, such a formidable opponent of the West and a friend of the erstwhile Soviet bloc.
In the present civil war in Syria only a section of the Muslims backed by the US are taking on President Bashar, while the ISIS continues to confront the Americans in pursuit of its goal of establishing a caliphate.
The third paradigm shift in relation to the “war on terror” — and this is the cumulative outcome of the first two factors — is the silent endorsement that Islamic radicals were enjoying on considerations of faith, across the Muslim world. The radicals are “revivalists” who carry the historical memory of the Wahhabi movement of the 19th century that was led by the Ulema — in the format of jihad — against the Western encroachment on Muslim lands. Their slogan is to revive the puritanical Islam of the “golden period” of the first four caliphs for restoring its glory. This gives them an acceptable place in the Islamic spectrum and leaves little ground for the rest of the Ummah to reject them. Pakistan is an example before the world of how a country, while pretending to be on board with the US-led international coalition against the new global terror, did not take on the Taliban entrenched in Khyber Pakhtunwa (KP) — from where it has been organising attacks in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Army’s total focus is on the “proxy war” launched against India using India-specific militant outfits under its control. Pakistan had taken advantage of the American soft-pedalling on this Pak-sponsored cross-border terrorism — making a distinction between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists”. Pakistan’s game is now exposed, and US President Donald Trump has suspended aid to that country, which unsurprisingly has led Prime Minister Imran Khan to publicly declare that Pakistan had committed a mistake in fighting “the American war”. The Pakistan Army is looking at Islamic militants of all shades as its strategic assets, and this is clearly in evidence in Afghanistan, where it is cleverly playing on Mr Trump’s impatience over the continuance of US troops in that country to position itself as a mediator between the US and the Taliban. It is Pakistan that had installed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996 under Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar. Left to themselves, Pakistan and the Taliban had no problem with each other.
Although the US and India are talking of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, Pakistan is looking for an outcome that would enable it to hold sway in Afghanistan and keep India out of the frame there. The latest Taliban attack on the training establishment of the Afghan security forces outside Kabul in which at least 125 personnel were killed signals the intrinsic inadequacy of Afghanistan to defend itself against the covert offensive of Islamic radicals. The “war on terror”seems to be tapering off — notwithstanding the induction of drones for intelligence-based elimination of terrorist leaders. The Taliban enjoys a tacit understanding with the Pakistan Army, which has sensed victory is in the offing. India could be in for an enhanced threat from the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt because of the ease with which the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence would be able to spread radicalisation in India and manoeuvre Al Qaeda-Taliban groups to target this country.
The geopolitical dimension of the “war on terror” worked for India so long as the presence of US troops in Afghanistan helped the process of reconstruction of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) and provided scope for India to contribute to that country’s development. As it is, the government of President Ashraf Ghani has its writ running only on just half of Afghanistan’s territory. China and Russia, for their own reasons, want to be on the Afghan table for peace negotiations — their wishful thinking is that a friendly Pakistan would be helpful in keeping the Muslim-dominated areas on their periphery free of Islamic extremism and radicalisation. They have not forgotten the importance of Afghanistan as the “geographical pivot of history” since the days of the Great Game. India had enthusiastically supported the US-led “war on terror” because it had seen how the Taliban regime of Afghanistan had apart from its historical animosity towards the West and the Shias, started taking out its wrath on the world of idolatrous people by destroying the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan.
It is in this backdrop that the declaration by the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalizad, on January 26 — at the end of his six-day talks with Taliban representatives at Doha — that the two sides were close to an agreement on a ceasefire by the Taliban in lieu of a phased withdrawal of American troops, is to be scrutinised carefully. The Taliban is yet to agree on talks with the Afghan government. The US has the comfort of distance which India does not have as far as the threat of Islamic extremism is concerned, and Pakistan’s designs of fishing in India’s domestic politics on the issue of the alleged “insecurity” of the Muslim minority here gives an added dimension to the threat to our internal security. A multi-pronged strategy must be worked out without delay, of which countering radicalisation on our own soil is a matter of the utmost priority. Mr Khalizad had recently met Mr Ashraf Ghani after visiting China, the UAE and India for furthering the process of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace negotiations involving the Taliban.
The test for the US special envoy is now to bring around the Pakistan Army to play its part in restoring democracy in war-torn Afghanistan. This is a tall order, to say the least. A half-baked formula of bringing Islamic radicals into the “national mainstream” will only serve the interest of Pakistan and not decrease India’s security concerns. India can’t do anything about this except to prepare for the possible emergence of a hostile Pak-Afghan region in the near future.