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The great game in Afghanistan

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi |

Afghanistan’s geo-strategic importance is well established. It borders nations of the Central Asian Republics (CAR), Iran, Pakistan and China. Iran and Turkmenistan (part of CAR) have the second and third largest reserves of natural gas, which the West seeks to tap. Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and fierce tribal loyalties ensured that it was never completely subdued by any power. Among those who tried were Alexander the Great, Britain, Russia and the US. Afghanistan thus gained the moniker ‘graveyard of empires’.
The US entered the country to avenge 9/11. The defeat of the Taliban under the aegis of a US-led offensive was thought to be a turning point for the country. However, it was not to be. The Taliban received support and sanctuary in Pakistan and continued to battle the US-led coalition. Despite having remained ensconced for over 15 years, the US still cannot claim victory and withdraw with honour. Unable to defeat the Taliban and knowing success is unlikely with financial costs burgeoning, it planned a tactical withdrawal. It presently maintains a force with a larger training element and limited operational role.
The US’ relationship with Pakistan since its entry into Afghanistan has witnessed ups and downs. Perceptions in the US vary from continuing to engage Pakistan in the hope that it would ultimately curb the Haqqani network and the Taliban, to employing economic and diplomatic leverage to compel it to act.
Pakistan on the other hand has always considered Afghanistan as its backyard and resented any Indian involvement there. Further, with an anti-Pak government in Kabul, its strategic leverage cannot exist. None of the US strategies have so far worked. Both terror groups still possess safe sanctuaries and get support from the ‘deep state’. Recently a group of US think tanks strongly recommended that the US administration be more firm with Pakistan, if it wishes to witness a sense of peace in the region.
The war in West Asia led to the expansion of the ISIS into Afghanistan. It began enhancing its cadre strength by inducting disgruntled members of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) and nationals returning from Syria belonging to CAR and Russia. To further complicate the issue, Taliban declared war on the ISIS. This decision compelled powers in the region to change their perception and consider the Taliban as the lesser of the two evils, simply because it remains focused only on Afghanistan, without any territorial ambitions, and counters the ISIS. Individual national interests of major powers have begun to dominate the security situation in Afghanistan.
Russia, Pakistan and China, formed an alliance and held discussions on Afghanistan’s future, ignoring the nation itself and other stake holders. They preferred supporting the Taliban to the extent of even considering removing some of its leaders from the UN’s designated list of terrorists. Their latest conference in Moscow included India, Iran and Afghanistan, ignoring the US, which continues to operate in the country. The conference aimed at seeking options to counter the ISIS threat. Of the group of six, four (China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran) consider Taliban as the lesser evil and are in parleys with them. Such interference in Afghanistan has converted it into the latest international playground.
Afghanistan and the US have no option but to battle both Taliban and ISIS to ensure survival of the nation state. Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran are willing to let Taliban control part of the country or be a part of the government so long as it keeps ISIS at bay. For India, Taliban is the larger threat, as it has Pakistan’s support. Further, it would never permit India to play a dominant role in the country. India is presently secure from the ISIS threat with Pakistan remaining a buffer state.
For Russia, ISIS expansion in Afghanistan, if unchecked, would threaten it and CAR countries as there are Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik and Kazakh fighters operating as part of it. History is also known to repeat itself. Russia was compelled to withdraw from Afghanistan because of support provided to the Taliban and al Qaida by the US and Pakistan. Presently by supporting the Taliban, possibly even with weapons, it highlights a similar bleak future for the US.
China is concerned with the presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fighters in the ISIS, who could enhance the ongoing militancy in Xinjiang province. Thus, it is willing to support the Taliban, if it continues to oppose the presence of the ISIS. Iran has its own reasons for supporting the Taliban. It is insecure with an ISIS build up close to its borders and keen to counter US presence in the region. Playing a strategic game, it supports Kabul with development funds as also the Taliban, thus ensuring whichever government occupies the seat in Kabul, it would remain Iran friendly. Simplistically put, individual perceptions dominate the Afghan scenario.
The West, India and Afghanistan would never support this initiative as it goes against their principles. Europe is facing the brunt of Afghan refugees and adhering to this concept would only enhance their problems and increase internal differences. Therefore, the thinking of this grouping is doomed to fail in the international fora. However, nothing can prevent individual nations from continuing their parleys with the Taliban for securing their own national interests.
The sudden interference in internal matters of Afghanistan by powerful nations would only embolden Pakistan to continue with its support to the Haqqani network and the Taliban. It would also justify their policy of ‘good versus bad terror’ groups. Further, as the 2017 summer offensive of the Taliban is expected to get underway in coming months, it would be Pakistan’s population that would face the brunt.
It is now upto the Trump administration to adopt a firm policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan as also reach an agreement with Russia to ensure the degradation of the Taliban first and ISIS later. It has been decades since the Afghan turmoil began and it is time for the nation to witness a semblance of peace and stability.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)