All eyes on Afghanistan

US pullout will lead to a race for natural resources, with China as the most active player

All eyes on Afghanistan

FLOWING OUT: A recent American study has indicated that the war in Afghanistan has cost the US treasury a mind-boggling $2.26 trillion. Reuters

G Parthasarathy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

US President Joe Biden announced on February 14 that all American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11. This would bring to an end the longest war in US history whose roots were laid two decades earlier. On September 11, 2001, US cities were subjected to four coordinated attacks, masterminded by the Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, operating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. As many as 2,977 Americans died. The attacks led to the most prolonged US military operations ever. US commandos killed Osama in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. He was living at a virtual stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s military academy. American diplomacy was so confused and inept that rather than censuring and sanctioning Pakistan, successive US Presidents acted as virtual apologists for the Pakistan army.

The Afghanistan government would require financial assistance from the US and its allies, together with military supplies and air support, to survive.

A recent American study has indicated that the war in Afghanistan has cost the US treasury a mind-boggling $2.26 trillion and resulted in 2.41 lakh people killed, including 2,372 US military personnel. Thanks to Pakistan’s omnipresent ISI, the Afghan conflict also saw the emergence of closer ties between the ISI, the Taliban, and Afghanistan-based Pakistani terrorist groups operating against India. These included the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. These links will inevitably continue. The Taliban, after all, treated the hijackers of IC 814 like heroes, as India surrendered ignominiously, releasing terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar.

Contrary to popular belief, Afghanistan is not a monolithic country. The country has 14 distinct ethnic and linguistic denominations, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Balochis, Turkmen and Uzbeks. Pashtuns, who constitute 40.9% of the population, are mainly in southern Afghanistan. The Tajiks, constituting 37-39%, live in northern Afghanistan bordering Central Asia. The Durand Line drawn arbitrarily by the British is not accepted as an international border by Afghan Pashtuns, who believe Afghanistan’s borders extend to the Indus near Attock in Pakistan. The main question posed today is, why is there so much interest, and, indeed, rivalry among China, the US, Russia, the EU, Pakistan and others to have a finger in the Afghan pie?

A major reason for this extraordinary external interest of these powers in Afghanistan is that it is a goldmine of mineral and material resources. The country’s high-quality emeralds, rubies, etc., have long excited the international gemstone market. The United States Geological Survey has concluded that Afghanistan may hold 60 million metric tonnes of copper, 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore, 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth elements, and veins of aluminum, gold, silver, etc. From the point of view of mining tycoons, these resources are there for the picking. The US withdrawal will lead to a race for access to Afghanistan’s natural resources, with China as the most active participant.

Pakistan is obsessed with using Afghanistan for ‘strategic depth’ to promote terrorism in India. In the days before the 9/11 US intervention, the ‘strategic depth’ that Pakistan received in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was the availability of training camps for its jihadi groups. In days after US intervention, the Taliban provided facilities for Pakistan-based groups to attack Indian consulates in Herat and Jalalabad. The Indian embassy in Kabul has been under constant threat of attacks. Indian engineers and professional staff working on development projects in Afghanistan face similar threats.

With the passage of time, the Taliban will seek to obtain dominant control of territory. The Taliban and other ISI protégés, like the Haqqani network, could overrun significant parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. New Delhi needs to make a careful assessment on whether it would be feasible, or desirable, to join others in providing weapons and equipment, including air power, to the Afghan armed forces.

A major feature of Indian involvement in the Afghan conflict, prior to US intervention, was India’s close ties with Iran and Tajikistan, which were transit points for Indian military and relief assistance to the Afghan resistance, known as the Northern Alliance. Tajik war hero Ahmed Shah Masood then led the resistance. Iran has sectarian and ethnic aversions for the Taliban, though it presently seems to have opted to proceed cautiously. Iran can intervene when the Taliban seeks to take control of non-Pashtun, or Shia-dominated areas in Afghanistan’s provinces bordering Iran, or Central Asian Republics like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

At the same time, the Russians who backed the Northern Alliance prior to the American invasion, now appear to be singing a different tune by backing the Taliban. One wonders how the Russians will respond to concerns in their erstwhile Soviet Republics in Central Asia about the Taliban reaching their borders. Trends on these issues need to be analysed and acted on. New Delhi should undertake detailed discussions not only with the Afghan government, but also major regional leaders in Afghanistan on how to proceed in the coming months. An odd development one faces is that the Afghan ‘peace process’ treats the Afghanistan government and the Taliban on a virtually equal footing. Little thought seems to have been given on how to politically deal with the Taliban, which has the support of only a section of Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. It is, however, unlikely that the Taliban can prevail over the Afghan national army across the entire Pashtun heartland.

The Afghan government would require financial assistance from the US and its allies, together with military supplies and air support, to survive. Given past American policies, one can never be sure of assistance, particularly air support from the US, in the future. India would have to keep in touch with a wide cross-section of Afghan political leaders as the resistance to a Taliban takeover would be strong and widespread. It would, however, be prudent to retain contacts with sections of the Taliban. Pakistan will, in the long run, face territorial and other claims by any government in Afghanistan which is sensitive to Pashtun aspirations.

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