In film ‘Kesari’ (2019) based on the famous Saragarhi battle fought in 1897, lead actor Akshay Kumar makes a statement of profound geopolitical importance that went unnoticed by the critics. Asked why the British Indian soldiers were defending an insignificant fortress on the Afghanistan border, the semi-literate havildar explains: our Queen (Victoria) does not want a king (Russia’s Czar) to reach the sea (Indian Ocean).
This “Great Game” — it remains so even now — is about who controls Afghanistan. To keep the Czar out, the British invaded it repeatedly, only to be beaten back. Russians invaded it in the last century but had to withdraw and the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. The Americans who encouraged Osama bin Laden, invaded it to chase him and to wage the “global war on terror” after 9/11. They are ending their longest war now, without even a fig-leaf of a victory.
There are echoes of Vietnam, but it promises to be more complicated for the US and everyone else. The Afghans are a resilient nation that can and most likely will fight the Taliban, with or without US’ assistance. Wired to fight, sadly, they will also fight among themselves.
While President Donald Trump may seek votes for “bringing the boys back home”, many Americans, especially in the military and intelligence community, also understand that complete disengagement from Afghanistan might not be as easy as walking away from Vietnam had proved to be.
Notice the game the US is playing within its own ambit. The Vietnam deal was signed by then Secretary of State, William Rogers. February’s Doha deal was not signed by Mike Pompeo, the present Secretary, but by Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s Afghan-American special envoy. Trump will get the credit for anything going right, but if they don’t, Khalilzad will be blamed.
Continuing chaos and violence are in-built. The US is leaving the place putting none in-charge, after seriously undermining the Ghani government it had been sustaining. It was kept out of the Doha deal. The US signed the deal directly with the Taliban who they fought and have virtually lost to. Call it surrender if you will, or acceptance of the ground reality.
Yet, America is controlling its withdrawal’s real meaning. Once again, the transition of power will be with Washington’s blessings. It will be bloody. One is reminded of how Afghanistan’s last Moscow-backed ruler, Dr Najibullah, was prevented from fleeing to India and eventually killed. President Ashraf Ghani’s fate, hopefully, will not be so gory. For, another wave of violence and bloodshed will soon be unleashed after the peace is executed.
The Taliban negotiators have repeatedly talked of Islamic Emirate that the US had opposed, but appears to have conceded going by the language used in the Doha pact. Clause 5 of Part Two of the agreement says that the Emirate/ Taliban “will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies to enter Afghanistan”. Considering that only governments perform those functions, the inference that the Emirate might even be recognised as legitimate by the US someday is obvious, says Ambassador Husain Haqqani, a US-based Pakistani scholar.
Taliban has conceded nothing in this largely one-sided deal. All it has committed is not allow its soil to be used to target American interests and to nurture terrorists. Who can verify this and how? The apprehension is that this peace deal may yield its waste (violence) before any produce: a peaceful and developing Afghanistan.
The Afghan polity is in turmoil and promises to remain so in the foreseeable future. There is no consensus within the Afghan government on talking to the Taliban; though there was a Jirga a few weeks earlier, the decision was thrust upon, than an evolutionary one. There are political differences within the top players – Ghani, his arch rival Abdullah Abdullah and Amrullah Saleh. Saleh escaped a third attempt on his life last week. There are also severe reservations within sections of the society – especially amongst the liberal, mainly women.
On the other side, one is not sure whether there is consensus within the Taliban in terms of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban. The Doha pact is with only one of the Taliban factions. It is likely that the hardliners will continue to fight.
Pakistan is facilitating the process, but is not part of the deal, and thus not responsible for its enforcement. Islamabad gets the role, on a platter, of playing the Big Brother to a landlocked and hapless Afghanistan.
Riding piggyback on Pakistan is its “iron brother” China that is already ignoring the elected Ghani government in Kabul and offering billions to the Taliban.
China is ready to play the region’s arbiter, keen to extend to Afghanistan the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It has on its side Russia and Iran. These erstwhile allies of India are happy to see the US quit for their own reasons, even as India emerges as America’s ally and strategic partner in the region.
Thus the new “Great Game” – call it Chapter 4 – has vastly changed parameters.
India is, yet again, without friends in Afghanistan. Broadly aligned to the Soviet Union, it lost when the latter withdrew. India had no friends among the victorious Mujahideen who were beholden to and manipulated by Pakistan. In the last 19 years, India re-invested in Afghan goodwill and contributed three billion dollars to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. It opposed Taliban who were and are nurtured by Pakistan. It’s advantage Pakistan.
Now that the US has embraced Taliban who are actually the victors, India has no friends, again. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s attending the Doha ceremony last week was really a last-ditch effort to stay in the picture.
The ‘Kesari’ story has a second part. “What are we (the Indians) doing here?” Akshay Kumar’s character is asked. The havildar says Indians are ‘baraatis’. “Our job is to perform Bhangra.”
India will have to do more than just ‘bhangra’ to stay relevant in Afghanistan. Amidst a heated border with China there are preparations of a likely two-front war that would involve a Pakistan-China combination, if nothing else, India will have to be vigilant against a likely spike in cross-border movements in Jammu and Kashmir that had marked the end of the Moscow-backed rule and advent of the Mujahideen in Kabul in the 1990s.