Afghanistan Crisis Needs Unified Response from Diverse Powers
Professor MD Nalapat
It was a French philosopher who wrote that “we are never contemporaneous with the present”. The past lingers, even the distant past lingers in the frame, while the present is being considered. When tectonic changes take place in geopolitical plates that affect major changes, if policymakers allow conclusions valid in the past to affect the present, there will be trouble ahead.
It is a mystery as to why Moscow has so stubbornly remained in the minds of policymakers, as part of any solution to the situation in Afghanistan. From the 1970s in particular, the Kremlin was the most significant factor in the lack of success of Afghan moderates, to fashion a democratic state with perhaps a UK-style monarchy, technically at the apex of an elected government.
Repeated interventions by the USSR resulted in the downfall of the moderates and the temporary takeover of Soviet proxies in Kabul. These quislings soon began to fight each other, and the Soviet army was sent into the country to occupy it. This was a move reminiscent of the Czarist period and was resented and resisted by the Afghan people.
The US saw its chance at damaging the USSR and began under President Carter, a strategy of converting Afghanistan into a quagmire for the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, both the Carter and Reagan administrations handed over the keys of the fire brigade to Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-Haq.
Wary that Pashtun nationalists across both sides of the lapsed Durand Line would seek a unified Pashtun state (thereby fulfilling the wishes of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan), Zia persuaded the US to instead back Pashtun religious zealots. At the same time, both Carter and Reagan saw Wahhabism, as an effective antidote to the Khomeinism that had begun flowering in Iran in 1979, and prodded Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries to empower this variant of a faith, whose fundamental teachings are far removed from fanaticism.
This grievous error by the US followed the playbook of Britain, which had propped up Wahhabism much earlier to create Arab disaffection with the Turkish Caliphate. Rather than curb the impact on the global Shia community of Khomeinist impulses, the sponsored war by Saddam Hussein on Iran made those variant wings, even while the Wahhabi International was empowered by US policy, to become the dominant strand in several locations worldwide.
The roots of 9/11 are in the terms of Carter and Reagan, but the US is not a country that examines its past except through tinted lenses. A substantial section of the polity in the US still believes that slavery was a boon rather than a curse to those enslaved, and blocks teachings that prove the opposite to be true.
Until he abruptly betrayed, first the Kurds to their fate at the hands of neo-Wahhabi Erdogan, and compounded that error by betraying the Afghan people and its government by negotiating a surrender to the Taliban, President Trump had sought to reduce the influence of Wahhabism in the Middle East.
Amazingly, the Biden administration has thus far continued with such disastrous policies, even while it has succumbed to the influence of Wahhabi elements and turned its back on reformist rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who had shown commitment in the existential battle being waged in that region between the Wahhabis and those fighting to recover the modernity and moderation, that the holy text on which the Muslim faith is based on explicitly states.
From 1979 onwards, efforts were made to re-interpret the holy text in a Wahhabi direction, an effort that for over a century had the backing of first London and subsequently Washington, as has been pointed out by several in the Middle East, including the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
As for President Biden, he seems finally to have rid himself of at least some of the influence of the Wahhabi lobby while the conflict between Hamas in Gaza and Israel was ongoing this year, finally bringing himself to call the President of Egypt (who had arranged the cease-fire which ended the conflict, and for which the White House claimed credit). Thus far, he had refused to do so, thanks to the influence of religious supremacists in the US administration, who had looked on Biden as being a gullible tool in their game plan of turning back the counter-Wahhabi tide that is sweeping over so many Muslim-majority countries.
The Wahhabi International holds considerable sway over several leadership elements of both the Republican as well as the Democratic Party, and it is presumably this strand that was responsible for the sell out by President Donald J Trump to first Erdogan and later the Taliban, and the continuation of this disastrous policy by President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
Unless Biden awakens to the security threat to the US through a takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, his tacit “Mission Accomplished” claim of 2021, on ensuring that this tortured country will never again be a threat to the US homeland, will be found to be as hollow as the “Mission Accomplished” boast of President George W Bush in 2003, was shown by subsequent events to be.
Unless President Biden resets US policy on Afghanistan and fast, the error he made may come back to bite him even before the 2024 Presidential elections.
Such a reset needs him to work closely not with Pakistan but with India on Afghanistan, and through India with Iran. The Atlantic Alliance has been brilliant, at following the example set by Winston Churchill, after the 1939-45 war with Germany of writing its own history.
An example is Libya. Looking at texts and commentaries in the US or in the UK and France (the three that ensured the destruction of Libya as a functioning state), it would appear that the entire battle was between a tyrant (Muammar Gaddafi) and his people. Even his death, in which the intelligence services of a NATO member state played the keystone role, has been portrayed as entirely driven and guided by popular anger.
Had the US, France and the UK taken the precaution of reading some of the pamphlets written by several of those they backed with weapons, training and cash to finish off the admitted dictator and eccentric Gaddafi, they may have discovered that the reason for their hatred of Gaddafi was that he was not extreme enough for their tastes and that he was a lackey of the very powers that joined hands to finish him off.
That much is correct, as Gaddafi handed over his WMD stockpile to the members of NATO in 2003, just as Saddam Hussein in Iraq had destroyed (or shifted abroad) his own WMD stockpile in 1991, after the disaster in the subsequent war with the US, caused by his reckless and indefensible occupation in 1990 of his principal benefactor, the State of Kuwait.
Bashar Assad was the last individual to begin a process of destroying his WMD stockpile, beginning with chemical weapons, which soon afterwards appeared in several theatres and gave rise to charges that they were his, when in fact they had been handed over thanks to pressure from Moscow. Fortunately for him, unlike in the case of Libya, neither Russia nor Iran allowed the collapse of his regime and the termination of his life. After these examples, if any country (such as North Korea) hands over its WMD stockpile, to the very powers that have shown a propensity to intensify their attacks, on what they believe to be a defenceless entity, it would be because its entire leadership is ignorant of the history of the past three decades.
By its actions, the US, in particular, has brought down to an asymptote of zero, the chances for any country with significant WMD stockpiles, to hand them over to others unless defeated in war.
If the Taliban is securing additional territory in Afghanistan, through engineering the surrender of Afghan National Army troops, in the manner ISIS took over vast swathes of Iraq in 2014, the reason is lack of confidence in ANA elements about the sincerity of President Biden’s commitment to ensure that its 300,000 soldiers are adequately equipped to defeat Taliban forces. Thus far, they have not been given anywhere close to the equipment they need to fight a force that Biden dismissed as hardly a challenge.
Fortunately for the 46th US President, the White House press corps did not ask why if that were the case, 600,000 US troops and $2 trillion of expenditure, could not in 20 years finish them off. The litany of errors is long, and it is unlikely that any replay of what took place in the Pentagon Papers will ever get done, much though such a study is needed.
The US needs India and needs Iran as well, a country that can be left to India to bring on board. Given the animosity of the Wahhabis to the Shia, it is unlikely that the elected government in Tehran will seriously believe in the protestations of the friendship of GHQ Rawalpindi and the Erdogan administration in Ankara. The problem facing them is the Sino-Wahhabi alliance, and the fact that Washington has by its policy of seeking to strangle the Iranian economy, made that country dependent on China.
Unless there is a return to common sense in Washington, and in its European partners who committed to the JCPOA in 2015, such dependence is unlikely to get reduced to a point, where Tehran is free to act in concert with Delhi and through it with Washington, in ensuring that the elected government in Afghanistan is rescued from the Taliban and the territory captured by that entity begins to be rolled back.
Only Afghan troops are needed in Afghanistan, not US or Indian forces. But Washington needs to keep supply lines flowing and India needs to train the ANA. Much of the training is already imparted in India. The combat training given by NATO forces (which have been defeated by the Taliban), is worse than useless, it is counterproductive.
Unless the US and the EU are willing to fund the government in Kabul enough to ensure its salience, many times that amount will need to get spent in the future, once the Taliban take control as they did in 1996 with the backing of the Clinton administration, presumably influenced by Zalmay Khalilzad, who at that time appears to have been a lobbyist for Union Oil Company of California and Unocal Corporation (Unocal).
Securing Afghanistan from the Taliban is key to ensuring that GHQ Rawalpindi ceases to run the government in Pakistan, but comes under civilian control. If this does not take place (and General Secretary Xi is working assiduously to ensure that it does not), the meltdown of Pakistan will be the next problem the Indo-Pacific alliance will need to deal with.
Before that, they need to ensure that the Afghan people be rescued from falling once again into the darkness of fanaticism. India is essential in this, the US and Iran being the other countries needed. The stakes are global.
It may be noted that the Russian Federation has not been included, in the list of countries between which partnership is essential for success against the return of Afghanistan as a base from which international terror organisations launch attacks, the principal targets remaining the major countries in the Atlantic Alliance.
Owing significantly to policy errors that date back to the Clinton administration and which were continued under successive administrations, Russia under Putin, has gone on to form the Sino-Russian alliance together with Xi. To expect Moscow to play a role helpful, not to its PRC ally, but to the democracies is to continue to function as though the past era were still extant.
Delhi has been slow in grasping this reality and the consequences for India, especially when it is confronting the Sino-Pakistan alliance within the country and on its borders. It is not only Washington that needs to adjust from living in the past to the realities of the present. The same goes for Delhi as well.
The evolution of the situation in Afghanistan will in time convince even the romantics among policymakers in Delhi that tectonic shifts have occurred in global geopolitics, beginning in 1990 and continuing to the present. Unless an understanding of the need to adjust policies to meet the exigencies of the present with solutions, relevant to the contemporary situation dawns soon, the situation in Afghanistan may before long be what it became for the Soviet Union in the 1980s and to the US since 2003, a cauldron of chaos that would pose a danger even to those countries that believe they are far away and therefore safe.
The first step to cure is to diagnose the sources of the disease and devise ways of eliminating them. Within the Indo-Pacific, that role in the case of Afghanistan, falls mostly on President Biden and Prime Minister Modi.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com
Professor MD Nalapat is the Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, Manipal University, He is a strategic expert and his latest book, “Foreign Policy for India in the 21st Century”, will be brought out by the close of the year.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.
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