Foreign Affairs. Geopolitics. National Security.

Retaining Relevance in Afghan Imbroglio

Lt Gen KJ Singh (Retd)
Mon, 02 Aug 2021   |  Reading Time: 7 minutes

Retaining Relevance in Afghan Imbroglio

Lt Gen KJ Singh (Retd)

Afghanistan is in turmoil, Taliban, combined with assorted desperate factions is battling Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), in violent struggle, to take over coveted and pivotal geo-strategic space. The salience is drawn from its “buffer state” location on confluence of Han, Persian, Turkish (Xinjiang and Turkmenistan), Arabic, Central Asian (connected to Russian) and Indian civilizations.

British after unsuccessful forays were forced to endure this unruly territory, as autonomous bulwark against Soviets. In the great game in 80s, western backed Mujahideen were pitted against Soviets, in proxy war, finally driving Russians out. Yet, another edition of great game, witnessed Americans edging out Taliban, in Global War on Terror (GWOT), targeting Al-Qaeda and later ISIS, after 9/11 attack in 2001.

The turbulent frontier has always defied conventional governance parameters and norms, with assortment of autonomous tribal ethnicities. Af-Pak region, astride Durand line, has been traditionally administered through seven autonomous agencies like Waziristan, Bajaur and tribal assemblies or Shuras of tribes like Mehsuds. These Shuras hold ‘Loya-Jirgahs’, grand assemblies entailing tortuous and lengthy confabulations, ending with ‘khap’ type of diktats. The codified traditions and edicts like ‘Pashtunwali’, override all other laws including Sharia and Hadith.

Outwardly, seeming united, Taliban is in effect, complex conglomeration of disparate groups like TTP.  Many are described with appendages of Shura that they owe allegiance to, like Quetta, Peshawar, Jalalabad etc. The fractious nature of Afghan society is best summed up in the famous words of noted scholar Ahmed Rashid, after a Loya-Jirgha, “Afghans have only agreed to disagree amongst themselves”.

In the current context, Taliban factions have consensus on getting rid-off Americans and western forces as also recently anointed, President Ashraf Ghani. Atmosphere after recent American exit from Baghram base is accompanied by a sense of euphoria, of once again forcing out another external power. The tally now includes UK, USSR and USA with pertinent question, will China be the next one, provided it decides to intervene with PLA?

US forces are finally pulling out from Afghanistan, after two decades. Many describe it as sort of abandonment, after having sunk more than $2.26 trillion and losing 2442 Braveheart’s, 800 private security contractors. In addition, toll includes 1144 soldiers of 36 nation ISAF (NATO) coalition, 72 journalists and 444 aid workers of NGOs. Ironically, British with enviable tradition of Commonwealth War Graves Commission is unable to give appropriate honour to its 450 Braveheart’s in Afghanistan.

Soviet Union lost 14,400 soldiers in the decade of 1979-89, in American organised, Saudi allies funded, Pakistan orchestrated, Fassadi (packaged and justified as Jihadi), Taliban executed mayhem.  Afghan casualties at most conservative scale were approximately 70,000 odd combatants of various militias, 47,000 civilians, 10 million refugees, including internally displaced populace.

Americans had some justification for initial intervention.  It could be termed over reach but lost the plot in execution. General Dave Miller, former head of Army Training and Doctrine Command, most aptly remarked. “Believe me it’s lot easier to invade a country than to leave it in an ordinary manner.”

Taliban was created through contrived midwifery, wherein Mujahideen (religious fighters) were given semblance of respectability. Mujahideen having acquired considerable notoriety in civil war, ISI chose to fix it, by inducting Madrasa graduates, with more acceptable name of Talibs (students in Pushto).

Taliban 1.0 was bunch of compliant, self-obsessed fighters lead by late Mohammed ‘Mullah’ Omar, willing to dance to ISI’s tunes. He chose to usurp Mehdi like powers for himself by wearing Prophet’s spiritual cloak of Khirka-e-mubarak, at Kandhar. This act borrowed from Sufi mystical practices, itself doesn’t meet Wahabbi or Salafi criteria. They rose like phoenix in 1994 and after consolidation in 1996, ruled till 2001. ISI’s puppetry often drew light hearted comment that Taliban were functioning in effect, more like Shagirdan (followers).

Taliban 2.0 in comparison comprises more politically aware and confident leaders. They are likely to be more autonomous. Pakistan has been most surprisingly trusted once again, to exercise its influence on Taliban, to salvage some sort of face-saving exit for USA. Having assessed altered dynamics, Pakistan has already reiterated that it is only a facilitator and not the guarantor in peace process. Is Pakistan looking for risk mitigation before another spell of civil war?

The proposed solution seeks to avoid unilateral, ‘winner takes it all’ solution, in favour of Taliban. It promotes inclusive solution giving due representation to all segments of society. Western world wants fair share for women in education and employment. It also hopes that new regime will not allow resurgence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. In essence, it doesn’t want re-establishment of Emirate of Taliban.

It is important to remember that Pashtuns constitute roughly 40% share, followed by Tajiks-25%, Hazaras-10% and many other smaller tribes- Uzbeks, Nuristanis etc. North-South fault-line exists from times of late Ahmed Shah Masood (Lion of Panjshir) and Rashid Dostum. This apart, Herat province bordering Iran, under Ismail Khan is also arrayed against Pashtuns.  Taliban has taken care to induct non-Pashtuns and Haji Furqan, an Uighur key commander, who lead the recent offensive in North. It is learnt that China wants his role to be circumscribed. In this age of hypocrisy, it is likely that Taliban will follow Pakistan and jettison Uighurs and Ummah (Islamic brotherhood).

Taliban in psy-war offensive, aided by Pakistan has been proclaiming that it has gained control of 85% territory, key border crossings and major districts. Reliable demographic experts opine that 75% population is currently huddled into cities, with 25%, in Kabul capital region alone. It will be more appropriate to accept that Taliban retains contested and shifting control, in 45-50% area, over 25-30% populace and one-third of 421 districts. Key districts still remain under government authority.

The real control on Afghanistan is through its population centres- Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, strategic communications and border check posts. USA despite reservations has agreed to allow Turkey, part of NATO mission, to guard Kabul air-port, providing air-head for diplomatic presence, vital for peace process. Turkish Forces have the wherewithal and expertise to execute this mission. It is very likely that Turkey may develop leverage and stake in peace process, though currently Taliban doesn’t approve their presence.

Pakistan aided Taliban propaganda has triggered waves of migration and exodus. It is important to remember that conflicts in Afghanistan are characterized less by fair play and more in terms of shifting loyalties, treachery and Bakshish (bribery) combined with propaganda. ANSF with approximately 3.5 lakh strength has been limited to Counter Insurgency force format. It’s officer cadre and junior leadership trained by India has shown remarkable resilience and is currently contesting complete Taliban take over.

Pakistan’s insistence and Indian reticence has resulted in ANSF being devoid of air power, guns and tanks.   India has provided only eight refurbished MI-35 gun-ships but could have done much more. America’s promised ‘over the horizon’ air support remains critical for ANSF, as evidenced in recent Kandahar raid and in Balkh, where Taliban suffered considerable casualties.

The challenge for USA is to generate actionable intelligence and find suitable base, preferably in proximity, for such operations. The option of Shamsi base in Baluchistan (on lease with UAE for hunting) is no longer feasible, as lease has expired. This apart, Chinese presence in Gwadar and hostile public sentiment precludes it. USA is looking at options for bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, though the latter with pro-Soviet tilt is less likely. Russia has scheduled exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces as part of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at Harb-Maidon training ground, close to Afghan border from 05 to 10 Aug. The underlying message is that every one wants a stake in the great game.

The Doha peace process is making slow progress. Concurrently, Russia with USA and China has activated troika, which has been extended by inviting Pakistan. Some analysts including Soviet FM, Sergey Lavrov have mooted the idea of   inclusion of Iran and India in extended troika.  Surprisingly, Zamir Kabulov, designated representative, countered this with his dampener, “India can’t join because – it has no real influence with the Taliban.” This is strange, for Taliban barely represents 45%.   Pakistan and Ghani regime are constantly sniping at each other and Islamabad enjoys very little trust, amongst non-Pashtun ethnicities.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, leading Doha delegation is assiduously creating facade to garner better acceptability. Taliban realises that to manage Afghanistan, they need external funding and support for economy, employment and reconstruction. Once again Pakistan has facilitated connection for China. In early 70s, it was Kissinger and Nixon, who were the conduits to Beijing. This time, it was Mullah Baradar to Timjin. Ready assurances have been given to China on curtailing activities of ETIM, security for Chinese economic activities, like Aynak copper mines and peace in Xinjiang.  Sources indicate that Taliban is willing to give similar guarantees to India for Kashmir.

Objectively analysing, assurances on security, women empowerment and inclusive solution are like manifesto promises. Once, new regime is installed, it may become a game of competitive Salafism, leading to revival of Khorasan, ISIS and even ETIM. These trends were seen in attacks on Sikhs and their shrines.  Taliban denied their role, leaving ISIS as the most likely culprit. China needs to learn appropriate lessons from recent casualties of nine engineers at Dasu despite funding two light special security divisions (34 and 44), tasked for protection of CPEC assets and work force.

Analysts are waiting to unravel the Chinese enigma and riddles. Firstly, will China show real commitment and put boots on ground? Second option is, will Beijing utilise combination of out sourcing to Pakistan and buy its way out through funding? Most countries want China to get bogged down in Afghanistan, as logical sequel in its aggressive rising China policy. However, China is likely to prefer second option, of relying on Pakistan and leveraging its deep pockets. Like all historical misadventures, these are in all probability are likely to back-fire, in unscrupulous killing fields of Afghanistan. The question is how soon?

Indian prime concerns are- protection of infrastructure assets created; safe-guarding interests of our traditional allies (Northern Alliance) and retaining goodwill generated through education, assistance in health and equipment serviceability. India has twin macro challenges of maintaining discreet channels with Taliban, yet building capability to provide aid to friends. India needs to retain its traditional domain awareness through intelligence networks in the region.

Concurrently, India should seek to convince CAR nations to allow India to join their efforts, in providing regional security. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where medical and other assistance teams were stationed at Ayani are most relevant. Revival or partnership in such endeavors can be major enablers for us. India also needs to work with both Soviet Union and USA to seek participation in their regional initiatives.  One such recently announced endeavor is US promoted, ‘Afghan Quad’ with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

While India shouldn’t put boots on grounds, yet it should build its relevance through astute diplomacy and net-working with all players. It will be in India’s interests to contribute whole-heartedly towards an inclusive and tolerant regime in Kabul.



Lt Gen KJ Singh, PVSM, AVSM & Bar, is former Western Army Commander and is currently the State Information Commissioner. He holds Maharaja Ranjit Singh Chair in Panjab University. He has had a stint as Advisor to CM and is a member of UT Advisory Council.


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Ravinder Venkataraman

Aug 10, 2021
Highly informative. Thank You Sir🙏🏽


Aug 03, 2021
Dealing with Afghanistan requires better understanding of Afghan history, Afghan National psyche, and geopoltics of the region. Study of statistics and current events does not help. Afghans as a nation have always been uniting to fight an external aggressor. Left to themselves they are ready to destroy themselves. Feuds are the most common phenomenon amongst afghans both at individual level and tribal levels No one has been able to rule Afghans other than by bribing them, not even Mighty Mughals. Ahmed Shah Durrani whenever he came down for campaign India he had to rush back to save his throne. Leave Afghanistan to its own designs. They will soon start destroying each other .Even if Taliban gains power, in about a decades time it will have enough factions within and. they will be at each others throat. Unlikely, but if they are able to control internal factions within a few years they will have created large no of enemies for themselvesi in the traditional Afghan manner. The great game can be won by bribing weaker faction to fight the stronger one Meddle in their affairs with force and they will unite.UK , USSR, and US have learned it the hard way.


Aug 03, 2021
It would be in India’s interests to start aggressive manoeuvres on its borders with Pakistan. In such a scenario, the Pakistani army will have to split its resources in order to defend its eastern and western borders thus ensuring a substantial reduction in its ability to support the Afghan Taliban. This will give the ANSF an excellent opportunity to push the Afghan Taliban back into Pakistan. The resulting instability inside Pakistan will definitely have a major impact on CPEC & BRI. Additionally, an international ‘peacekeeping’ force comprising of troops from India, Malaysia, Japan & Taiwan can be sent to Afghanistan in order to protect the country from Chinese & Pakistani misadventures. I’m sure that the US diplomatic might can ensure the formation of such a force. This will put the brakes on Chinese hegemonic ambitions in West & Central Asia and at the same time, given the massive instability inside Pakistan and its crumbling economy, India will have an ideal opportunity to take over POK especially given the fact that there are very strong Anti-Pakistan sentiments prevailing amongst the Kashmiri residents of POK.

Col Dilip Sharma

Aug 03, 2021
A very comprehensive article, Sir. If I may add my two bits. Afghan natural resources & its location, have been and are the fruit for the endeavors of history & all future adventures. Revelation of Geological studies that lead to such expensive adventures can shed more light on the worth of these endeavors in history & in future. These goals can and will be best extracted and put to use only by an administration that is acceptable to all across all divides local, foreign as well as, for or opposing sides, till then these goals will remain elusive and contested. Taliban, ISIS and all other proxies, supported by lesser or major powers will remain transient for years or decades & the gainers will remain the corporates who can toggle between Taliban or other proxies, as well as the Governments in power. Indian approach is on track, as all infrastructure & development existing, survived or destroyed, is and will remain edifices of Indian intent that can only be classified as the most pious in any culture and definitely in minds of all the sensible populations including the mothers & sisters of all transient like the Taliban, ISIS or any fanatic factions who hold sway in Afghanistan. Thanks for initiating this thought. Regards, Col Dilip Sharma (Retired)

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan

Aug 03, 2021
A very well articulated piece. My take on the issue is that India is a very important piece of this very complex jigsaw puzzle. China with a 76 km shared border and Russia with no physical border are bulldozing their way through. Pakistan is very happy with the way things are panning out. However, they are ignorant that China would never put boots on the ground. Pakistan is being nurtured for the same purpose. Pakistan has been runner boy for great powers for a long time and maybe they don't mind it for few dollars as you said in Bakshish. In my assessment things would implode, it is just a matter of time.

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