India wary as Afghans discuss interim govt – Part 1

India’s NSA Ajit Doval (L) met chairman of Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah (R), New Delhi, October 5, 2020

The visit to New Delhi by Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation in Afghanistan, becomes an event of major importance for a variety of reasons, the most significant being its real potential for a profound reset of India’s Afghan policies in the wake of the peace process currently under way in Doha. 

Abdullah came to a Delhi just ten days after a high profile visit to Islamabad, which was his first trip to the Pakistani capital in 12 years. As Ahmed Shah Massoud’s close aide, Abdullah kept a careful distance from Pakistan all through the period of the Afghan ‘jihad’ against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. India knew him from the early 1990s soon after the Mujahideen takeover in Kabul. 

As an Afghan nationalist with a democratic temper and staunchly secular values, Abdullah endeared himself to India (and the western world) as someone in the vanguard of the forces of modernity in Afghanistan with a cosmopolitan outlook that is truly rare in the subcontinent. 

Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of the Pakistani establishment with its zero sum mindset, Abdullah had for long carried the stigma of being India’s friend. They ignored him as a marginal player while going full throttle ahead with their Taliban project until the importance of being Abdullah began dawning upon the Pakistani spies and diplomats, as the talk began gaining momentum that the US is seeking an exit route to end the war and “indigenise” the geopolitical war. Pakistan soon began cultivating Abdullah as someone they have to reckon with. 

Meanwhile, Abdullah also grew in stature and his steady transformation as a mature, pragmatic politician and national figure became a compelling reality. All of that explains the exceptional warmth, courtesy and eagerness with which Islamabad extended a red carpet welcome to Abdullah, far beyond the call of protocol. 

Indeed, it is no secret that Abdullah has come to spearhead the “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled” peace process from the Kabul side with the strong backing from Washington. Frankly, it was the Brookings Institution (wired into the US security establishment) that first mooted the idea that Abdullah was just what the doctor would prescribe to the Afghan patient. A Brookings essay authored by its president John Allen wrote in May,

“Abdullah is an excellent choice to lead such a broader team representing Afghan political leaders, parties, Afghan women, and civil society. As noted, he has worked with former President Karzai—himself an important player in all of this—but also been an opponent to Karzai. He has worked with, and campaigned against, Ghani. He has served his country as foreign minister. He has helped his country survive two contentious previous presidential elections. And his mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage makes him a natural unifying figure, as well. Importantly, Abdullah is deeply respected in the United States and around the world.” 

The prime consideration for the US establishment was that Abdullah could be trusted not to torpedo the peace process and to instead steer it in a direction that accommodated American interests while the troop withdrawal would commence sooner or later. 

To be sure, as the talks in Doha tiptoe toward a defining moment in the coming days with the likelihood of an understanding on reduction in violence being reached, linked to possible new power-sharing arrangement in Kabul, the Indian establishment is expecting the rise and rise of Abdullah’s stature on the Afghan political landscape. 

Abdullah’s success in (apparently) winning Pakistani trust and confidence must have made an impression on the Taliban too and may become the determining factor in his leadership role in any interim power-sharing arrangement that takes shape in Kabul. 

But there is a caveat. The incumbent president Asharf Ghani must first agree to make way and walk into the sunset, which is easier said than done. 

Strategic contraction 

Ghani’s sudden dash to Doha on 5th October — even as Abdullah was heading for Delhi — suggests that the clever politician has a sixth sense admonishing him that the ground beneath his feet is shifting. Ghani hoped to meet the Qatari hosts and his delegation conducting the peace talks in Doha but not the Taliban who wouldn’t talk to him. 

Ghani draws support from sections of the US military and security establishment that are resentful of President Trump’s plans to get rid of America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan. As can be imagined, various interest groups are at play who mushroomed as war profiteers, got addicted to the war booty, and would rather have the gravy train run for as long as possible. 

Besides, the influential cold war lobby in the Washington Beltway isn’t yet done with Russia. Above all, the seething rivalry with China too dictates that the US retains its military bases in Afghanistan. The current turmoil in Kyrgyzstan will only strengthen the resolve of the cold war lobby in the US establishment. 

Significantly, a noted Chinese analyst linked to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wrote recently that there is not a chance that the US would troops from Afghanistan and that the ultimate agenda is to gain control of the Wakhan Corridor. Li Yun, a researcher at the Institute of Foreign Military Research of the Department of War Research, PLA Academy of Military Sciences, gave the following analysis:

“The most direct reason why the US signed a peace agreement with the Taliban this year (election year) is for Trump’s campaign. But the most fundamental reason for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is the strategic contraction caused by the decline of US power… 

“The impact of the US withdrawal on the situation in Afghanistan depends on the US withdrawal plan. The first option is for the US to fulfill its promise and completely withdraw its troops… (But) the Taliban is likely to completely control Afghanistan. This is tantamount to declaring that the United States has once again gone through the failure of Vietnam War and confirmed the decline of the United States. This is what the only superpower today does not want to face. 

“The second option is the Syrian model, in which the United States retains control of only a few key areas. From the geopolitical point of view, for the US, the most critical area in Afghanistan is the Wakhan Corridor. However, the corridor is extremely small and surrounded by China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

“The third option is a limited withdrawal of troops to maintain the existence of the pro-American regime… Although this plan will continue to put Afghanistan in a state of division and turmoil, it will help the US to continue to control Afghanistan in the context of strategic contraction.

“In comparison, the US is more likely to adopt the third option. At the same time, the US strategic contraction in Afghanistan will not be affected by the (US) election results. This is because the implementation of strategic contraction in Afghanistan is determined by the US strength and national interests, and is the established policy of both parties.” 

Put differently, Ghani has a great deal of residual influence within the US strategic circles, although he is kept at arm’s length by the Trump administration and Trump personally. 

Most certainly, Abdullah would earnestly hope that when the time comes, which is fast nearing, Delhi would play a constructive role in breaking the impasse in his troubled relationship with Ghani. But the Indian readout said that PM Modi merely “reiterated India’s commitment towards sustainable peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and welcomed efforts towards a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan.”