The last time the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, 26 years ago, India’s historical presence in Afghanistan was forced to abruptly end
Conventional wisdom has it that America’s decision to end its military presence in Afghanistan signals total victory for Pakistan’s artful generals and disaster for the Afghan government and its allies, particularly India. However, this might not necessarily be the actual long-term denouement.
To begin with, the US withdrawal decision was inevitable and sensible. For, there was no favourable end state in sight for the United States. US President Joe Biden did well to announce the formal end to the 20-year- old “Afghan War”. All US combatants are to leave Afghanistan by September 9, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on America in 2001.
The generals in Rawalpindi are gloating over what is generally being viewed as America’s worst military defeat. The US invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago with the aim of annihilating the terrorist organisation Al Qaeda and driving out its Pakistan-backed ally, the Taliban.
Al Qaeda was pretty much decimated, and the Taliban fled to safe havens inside their mentor’s backyard while remnants of the Pakistan Army were allowed an honourable exit. For a while, in the initial years, it had appeared that the US military campaign had done wildly well.
Smug officials and legislators in Washington drew up ambitious plans to install a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. A former CIA contact, Hamid Karzai, was pulled out from hiding and installed as President in Kabul. Thereafter things started going downhill.
What the powers in Washington had not reckoned with was the tenacity of the generals in Pakistan’s military headquarters at Rawalpindi. The generals were cowed down by their “friends” and mentors in Washington but would not abandon their dream of making Afghanistan a part of their strategic backyard.
The generals publicly cringed and whined before their American masters but secretly worked against them, reviving the Taliban, arming and training them and fielding even more vicious groups like the notorious Haqqani network to target Americans.
Rawalpindi rightly calculated that Washington could not win a war of attrition spread over decades. The Americans bled in the Afghan badlands, their convoys came under regular attack within Pakistan, assassins trained by Rawalpindi’s dirty tricks department regularly eliminated troublesome Afghans, especially the military types, and remorseless Pathans raised in Pakistan’s madrasas routinely blew themselves up in the roads and bazars of Afghan towns and cities, taking down innumerable civilians with them.
Gradually the Taliban and their murderous allies gained the upper hand while the Americans and their Nato allies retreated. That there could be no satisfactory endgame for the United States had dawned upon American Presidents a long time ago. Former US President Donald Trump vowed to bring back all US troops from Afghanistan but had prevaricated and ultimately thrown up his hands. For all military experts agreed that any US military withdrawal would enable the Taliban backed by the Pakistan Army to quickly bring the present Afghan regime to its knees and undo the sacrifices of thousands of US servicemen.
President Biden though is determined not to go down that route and the September 9 deadline seems to be hard and final. The Stars and Stripes will be lowered over the dusty Afghan landscape for the last time on that day. Strategic experts in India are worried. And for good reason too. The last time the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, some 26 years ago, India’s historical presence in Afghanistan was forced to abruptly end. Almost overnight, Indian diplomats and others had to flee in specially chartered flights, leaving behind a grand embassy building that was later to be converted to an ammunition dump by the victorious Taliban forces.
This time too there is no guarantee that India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan will not end with the anticipated victory of the Taliban. Pakistan’s generals, who own and control the Taliban, want more than anything else to forcefully and completely eject all Indian presence from Afghanistan. If the Indians are allowed to remain, it will at best be a token presence.
This is a stated objective and Rawalpindi’s generals have even complained about the humanitarian and development work carried out in that country by the Indian government. With Afghanistan out of bounds for Indians, the generals hope they will convert that country into their backyard for military and terrorist activities much of which would be directed against India.
However, such a favourable outcome could well elude the generals this time. For global strategic equations are changing, and the primary focus of the Western powers has moved away from the Middle East which has been their principal obsession since the end of the Second World War.
The importance of oil in global geopolitics and economics compelled the Western powers to evolve a strategy to maintain dominance over the Middle East and deny its enemies influence or unfettered access to this region. With the diminishing importance of oil and the concomitant rise of an assertive China, the focus of the Western powers has shifted.
Pakistan, which was a lynchpin in Western strategic calculation, has lost its previous importance. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will free Washington from the last of its dependencies on Islamabad. This will presage profound changes.
Coupled with this is the gradual and inevitable shrinking of Saudi Arabian influence and cash reserves. Riyadh too today can no longer afford to write blank cheques for Islamabad as it did in the past.
As a result, Pakistan is bound to face increased economic difficulties as it consumes more and more of its limited resources to keep the fighting going in Afghanistan and on the borders with India. This is one reason why Islamabad today seeks a temporary truce at the Line of Control in Kashmir. Constant fighting is a costly business and Pakistan is gradually but inevitably sliding into bankruptcy.
These developments will very shortly completely push Islamabad into the deep pockets of its “all-weather friend” Beijing, which already views Pakistan as a vassal state. Pakistan’s generals might continue to dream of turning Afghanistan into a vassal state but they might not have realised that as a vassal themselves, the real power in Afghanistan will be China. Beijing will decide what kind of regime it wants in Afghanistan and from all indications it is clear they have no desire to witness the free run of the highly radicalised Islamists in that country.
Pakistan internally too is not exactly a picture of serenity or economic health. There is a heavy price to pay for sponsoring egregious violence. Pakistan’s generals may raise their glasses to celebrate their victory in Afghanistan, but those glasses might well turn out to be empty.