The Afghanistan Quagmire: Pakistan Left With No Good Options

The Afghanistan Quagmire: Pakistan Left With No Good Options
Afghanistan now exists in a strategic vacuum - big powers like the United States, Russia and China have written it off as a strategic priority. Americans attach a tactical military value to Afghanistan with a not so covert agenda of preventing international terrorism from taking roots in its territory. For this end, they would not mind if they get any bases in Afghanistan’s proximity.

Gone are the days when American liberal internationalists wanted to create viable democratic political institutions in Afghanistan, with generous inflows of cash from American coffers. China has shown some interests in developing mineral resources in the country. But nothing that could be described as consistent political-strategic interests. Russians have learnt from their mistakes in Afghanistan, and they continued to attach military value to it till the time American forces were present. This compelled the Russians to hobnob with the Taliban as they were giving a tough time to American forces. Besides Russian assurance to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) that it was ready to assist them if Afghanistan or the groups present there pose any tangible threats.

This situation also coincides with a dwindling strategic importance for Pakistan as well - the prime beneficiary of the Afghan miracle. The Pakistani state received billions of dollars in military, economic and financial assistance from Washington and Arab Sheikhdoms on account of its proximity to Afghanistan and on account its role in the Afghanistan conflict. We supported Afghan groups against the Soviets, we assisted the Taliban in the Afghan civil war and lastly, we assisted the Americans in the invasion of Afghanistan after ditching (only partly) our ally, the Taliban, in 2001.

There are no chances that Afghanistan will not destabilize again - the chances are that soon Afghan violence will spill over into neighboring countries, especially Pakistan. But there is little chance any of the big powers including China, Russia and the United States will intervene militarily in Afghanistan or put the war-torn country back on their strategic agenda.

What will Pakistan do in case Afghanistan once again plunges into major instability? Afghanistan doesn’t have any modern government to tackle the problems it will face in case the Taliban regime collapses. The last winter was like hell for the Afghan on account of food shortages, and it was not any government structure that helped the people, it was the United Nations which airlifted food supplies from across the world to provide for the needs of hungry Afghans.

Those that project the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul as a victory and a consequence of the Afghan people’s thirst for freedom from American occupation are dabbling with absurdity. There is no dearth of self-described strategists in Islamabad as well who celebrate the fact that the Americans are gone, the Afghans are free and Pakistan is even freer to shape the future of the region and Afghanistan according to its whims.

In short, in the minds of these strategic thinkers, the fact that no big power will ever turn towards Afghanistan now is a good omen for the region. I heard one such Pakistani thinker expressing the fear that Americans might think about a return to the region. They might want bases in the region, she feared. Hilarious.

Ever since Afghanistan became a modern state, there have been questions abound over its economic and financial viability. It has never been able to muster enough resources to meet all its expenses that the newly formed state machinery incurred since the start of 20th century. Three big powers—Russia, Britain and the United States - financed the Afghan state to avoid trouble of one or the other kind. The lawless expanse that is Afghanistan was a source of trouble for big powers and in the words of many credible historians, this was the prime reason for the establishment of the modern Afghan state.

The British wanted to give a semblance of stability to this lawless expanse and created it as a buffer between its colonial territory in India and the vast Russian empire which was expanding into Central Asia in the 18th century. During the Cold War, Afghanistan’s importance for the erstwhile Soviet Union and its rival power, the United States of America, was beyond any reasonable doubt. There are still some historians and commentators who claim that Soviet leadership decided to intervene militarily in Afghanistan in December 1979 after they received reports that some factions of the Afghan Communist party, the notorious PDPA, was hobnobbing with American CIA and this situation could lead to the Americans making inroads into Afghanistan. This would, the Russians feared, lead to the unravelling of the Communist Revolution in Afghanistan.

They hurriedly took control of Afghanistan to prevent the country from landing into the arms of the American CIA. They miserably failed, leaving behind Afghanistan in the grip of anarchy. This was followed by 12 years of civil war, and during this period international terror organizations entrenched themselves in Afghanistan. After the Bush administration became convinced that there was no way to get the Taliban to relinquish their support for al-Qaeda, they sent in the troops. American spent two decades in Afghanistan trying to fulfil the promise to build viable governance structures. They also failed miserably, and when they quit Afghanistan they left behind a country in the grip of anarchy, even worse than what it was when they had first arrived.

Never for a day in its history that Afghanistan has existed as a state, it could meet its financial expenses out of its own resources. First, the British subsidized the Afghan state’s finances, then came the Soviets and then the Americans. For the Russians in 1979, Afghanistan was important strategically because it was a gateway to the Muslim world. A stepping stone to get access to the warm waters of Arabian Sea through the coastal areas of Balochistan. For the Americans in 2001, Afghanistan was important strategically because trouble in this land could destabilize Pakistan - a nuclear armed nation bordering Afghanistan.

In America’s calculus, Pakistan’s destabilization could potentially destabilize the whole of South Asia. Plus, Afghanistan could prove to be a hub of international terrorism and Islamic militancy that could potentially threaten mainland America with even more terror attacks. What exactly has changed in the region that Americans have decided to lay Afghanistan off its policy concerns?

According to Pakistani officials, the Americans are not ready to cooperate with the Taliban regime despite repeated entreaties by Pakistani diplomats that instability in Afghanistan could be destabilizing for the whole region. Russians completely wrote off Afghanistan as an area of any strategic importance long ago. They see Afghanistan from the prism of Central Asian security and have reportedly offered countries like Tajikistan military assistance if the Afghan Taliban or any other terror group based in Afghanistan pose any threat to Central Asian states. They still fear the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan’s northern and eastern parts. But in all of this, they see it as a minor military problem for which they are not ready to allocate any meaningful strategic resources.

Questions must be asked over Pakistan’s ability to cope with the situation developing on its western borders on its own without any outside assistance, both financial and military. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is out of control, and the Afghan Taliban are not ready to withdraw their support for them. Pakistan is in search of the right kind of financial backers, and strategic and political supporters to go after the TTP with full force.

Therefore, for Pakistan’s military and strategic planners, a situation where they are deprived of partnership with a powerful American military in Afghanistan is not good news.

Suppose that the Pakistan military goes after the TTP with its full might, and even launches strikes against TTP hideouts deep inside Afghanistan - as suggested by some Pakistani officials – the impacts are completely unknown.

It is not easy to distinguish between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban’s cadre at the grassroot level. There is no way we can predict how the grassroot of Afghan Taliban will react when the Pakistani military will crush TTP on Pakistani territory. What will become of the international border in such a situation?

“Go America go” might be a good slogan for a domestic political rally in Pakistan. But practically it means Afghans dying from hunger due to food shortages in brutally cold winters. It also means that the Pakistan military will be left all alone to deal with the forces of international terrorism on its own without any outside financial and military assistance, and that too, in a situation where the country is about to declare default.

Our brave armchair strategists’ vision for a strategically independent region is simply devoid of any thinking on the economics of the situation our region is confronted with.

Political and military subservience sure is a terrible thing, but bankruptcy and hunger are no better.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.