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Why Strategies of Stakeholders in Afghanistan Failing Against Taliban?

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Taliban is increasingly gaining ground in Afghanistan, on daily basis, for considerable period. US may have declared ending its military mission in Afghanistan as “Mission Accomplished on ‘Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT)”, but in reality, its embarrassing exit will continue to haunt its reputation for a long time. With Taliban gaining territory every passing day, simultaneously imposing horrifying restrictions on captured territory as ‘Islamic traditions’ it indicates transition of GWOT into global resurgence of terror, in collusion with Pakistan. While all regional stakeholders are concerned, but watching helplessly, it is evident the strategy adopted by Taliban, assisted by Pakistan has done better than that of others, so far, unless a positive mid-course correction takes place to turn the tides. A critical analysis of strategies of each of the stakeholder is necessary to infer future possibilities.

Why US lost GWOT in Afghanistan? 

US supported by multinational forces entered GWOT, post 9/11 incident, with an aim to dislodge Taliban Regime, which sheltered al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded execution of the barbarous terrorist act in New York.  Their military aim encompassed ensuring that no terror group in Afghanistan becomes strong enough to hit their mainland again, besides eliminating Osama Bin Laden and some other terrorist leaders. Peace and Development in Afghanistan was an expected side-effect, not their main aim. To execute it, US had to depend on Pakistan for logistics chain, intelligence and boots on ground, despite full knowledge of Pakistan’s support to Taliban and other terror groups, having gainfully used services of ISI and Pakistan Army against erstwhile USSR.   

As per principles of war, had US stuck to its aim and exited after dislodging Taliban Regime, reinstating a democratically elected Government in place, eliminating Osama Bin Laden, marginalising al-Qaeda and other terror groups, it would have been a graceful exit. It stretched its aim to impractical limit, of eliminating Taliban and other Islamic terror outfits from Afghan soil, least realising that the military power by itself can’t eliminate Wahabi ideology. Finding only military solution to problem of religious fundamentalism was a strategic misjudgement. This shifted achievement of the aim of multinational forces (MNF), beyond their culmination point, operationally.

MNF was of fighting from urban bases, through technology and airpower could not eliminate Taliban from rural areas. People are centre of gravity in such operations; hence one innocent kill in collateral damage of airstrikes can lead to birth of many terrorist, strengthening ideology of fundamentalists. Battle fatigue and political considerations steered the desire of MNF to pull out. In exuberance to do so, sham peace negotiations of US with Taliban (which turned out to be an exit deal) was the next error committed by US. It legitimised Taliban as political entity from terrorist status; which led to a tired US military, fighting defensive battle against a resurged, legalised Taliban for a safe exit. 

US consistently underplayed Pakistan’s support to Sunni terrorists in the region, making it a major beneficiary of monetary help and military hardware. It is to the credit of Pakistan that it lured US to extract maximum, by encashing their expertise in terrorism, and finally helped US in defeating itself in GWOT. Now after 20 years of war, losing 2400 soldiers, more than $3 trillion, US and MNF have also lost the strategic space, bases in Pakistan, amounting to a walkover in Af-Pak region. A threat by US, not to recognise Taliban, if it takes over Afghanistan by force, forming Quad with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, some drone strikes and evacuating informers are weak responses to mitigate embarrassment indicating its helplessness.   

Is Strategy Adopted by Taliban Superior?  

A battle hardened Taliban having learnt some lessons after losing war against MNF, managed to survive in rural areas with full support of Pakistan, hosting some of their leaders in safe sanctuaries in their country, despite claiming to fight for US and MNF. When the MNF crossed their culmination point, Taliban with Pakistan’s support started to gain ground in rural areas. Taliban encashed on the combat fatigue of US forces and its political ramifications, encouraged US Administration to talk, establishing its legitimacy as an essential actor. Pakistan’s mediation in this exercise favoured Taliban and not US, although the optics was differently narrated. Thus a rejuvenated Taliban was fighting a tired US Forces, operating from their bases avoiding rough terrain and infantry dominated operations, relying more on technology and firepower, which has serious limitations in type of terrain in area of operation. The air and drone strikes proved inadequate to prevent growing influence of Taliban. This triggered a race for strategic space in that region, with almost every neighbour (Russia, Pakistan, China through Pakistan, Iran and Qatar) organising peace talks between various stakeholders, primarily to suit their own interests.

With US Taliban Peace Deal signed and US withdrawal in progress, Taliban gained maximum strategic advantage by consolidating occupation of rural areas and then increasingly capturing various border districts to takeover crossings of Afghanistan with other countries to isolate Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), which have numerical superiority, but are based in urban areas, having defensive mindset. With few military gains the strategic momentum of Taliban has improved and initiative is on their side. This has increased the pace of capturing territory, while their political and diplomatic wing continues with sham talks.

Taliban also encashed on urgency of US Forces to exit, by putting up demands like release of 5000 prisoners, which Afghanistan Government had to agree under US pressure. This in effect increased the numbers of fighters of Taliban. In the meantime Pakistan, increasingly under pressure from FATF, diverted over 10,000 terrorist to fight alongside Afghan Taliban, besides some professional guidance from Pakistan Army and ISI, and occasional air support. Taliban is now in a position to insert itself between important towns to isolate ANDSF, struggling with low morale, due to some surrenders.  

Taliban’s strategic aim is to get into power structure on their terms, without fighting any elections, by putting maximum pressure on negotiating table, after capturing maximum territory. That is why they are continuing with talks and offensive simultaneously. Taliban is aware that with Sharia Law tag it can never win an election (which it terms as non-Islamic governance model of West). It may not be keen to seize power by Force due to fear of being isolated, which will make it difficult for them to govern, giving rise to forces countering them within. They are aware that they don’t have mass people’s support, who have got used to democracy in last 20 years. Taliban thus finds talks and offensive simultaneously, as their best option for political solution in their favour.

All promises of Taliban leaders that it is moderate Taliban 2021 capable of meeting people’s aspirations, stand junked as ‘Shariah Law’ like curbs back in place in Taliban controlled areas. Men lose freedom to shave & smoke, forced to wear turban, women lose freedom to moving out without male companion and most disgusting is listing of single girls between 15 to 45 years, to be married to Taliban fighters as reward. Even if Taliban leaders pose moderate, their fighters will not let the leaders settle down for anything but Shariah Law.

What is Going Wrong with ANDSF Strategy?

ANDSF in numbers are two to three times more than Taliban fighters, but are low in morale, suffering a defensive mindset.  They are not venturing out of urban areas and trying to halt Taliban with less potent air power which Americans had. Over last 20 years they went into a syndrome of overdependence on foreign forces and foreign aid. The Afghan Government with fractured mandate and various groups eyeing to share power, weakened the homogeneity, as an effective establishment to govern. In military strategy, a defender can never win, but can at best delay the defeat. Operationally ANDSF are making same mistake as MNF made by trying to win by airpower and defending bases, thus leaving the initiative with Taliban. If ANDSF fights with offensive mindset, sound strategy, small gains can improve sagging morale, which can change the tide against Taliban.

China; A wild Card Entry!

Chinese strategic interest in Afghanistan includes, connectivity projects to Iran by extending CPEC to get warm water access, fill the strategic space vacated by USA and exploit mineral and other resources of Afghanistan, including share of narcotics  trade.

China, with initial hesitancy of not becoming the third power (after USSR and USA) to suffer “Graveyard of Empires” seems to have made an unprecedented move of recognising, engaging and striking a deal with Taliban by inviting its high power delegation to Tianjin, ignoring the Government of the day in Afghanistan. China hopes that it will be able to secure its security and economic interests with Taliban, which is promising no support to ETIM and inviting their investments, thus opening the window for economic exploitation, in a haste for recognition. It is interesting to see that Islamic Emirate, posing to champion Islamic cause are getting sold out to ignore atrocities to Uyghurs for the sake of power and money, or it’s a sham promise to get recognition.

This is a dangerous honeymoon, because neither Taliban is homogenous, nor Chinese have support of local population and there are many groups like ISKP, which may not buy the offer of China to ignore atrocities in Xinjiang. Taliban itself has ETIM cadres fighting for them including some commanders, who are unlikely to compromise, although they don’t mind making a sham promise for the sake of seeking international legitimacy. China may thus find that it may be much more risky to operate any transport corridor in Afghanistan, than doing so in Pakistan, where a politicised Army is involved in sustaining it with little success. Chinese however have learnt a lesson out of Russian and US debacle, therefore, despite their strategic interest they haven’t invested any large amount in Afghanistan so far, nor are they likely to do so, unless they are very sure of the viability of the next government.   

Pakistan’s Double Game: Unprecedented Opportunities and Concerns!

Pakistan’s strategic aim has always been to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan by enforcing Durand Line over friendly or weak government in Kabul, and edge out other players from Afghanistan. It has been uncomfortable with Indian presence for developmental work in Afghanistan and growing closeness between USA and India to an extent that it was propagating an unsalable narrative that India is trying to surround it from three sides. Its nexus with Taliban is quite old and its assistance to it was one of the causes of US failure in Afghanistan, as it managed to play a double game with US and Taliban. It was also an opportunity for Pakistan to send out large number of terrorists to fight alongside Afghan Taliban, whom it wanted to relocate to avoid FATF fallouts, to preserve what it terms them as their ‘Strategic assets’ to be used elsewhere later.

The opportunity is also marred with some serious concerns. Taliban in power never compromised on Durand Line and their stance in future is likely to be similar. Taliban also has many groups within including TTP, which will also get stronger to strike Pakistan, as power of Taliban grows. Innumerable refugees outflow along with some inimical terror groups is also a concern. Pakistan’s strategy of joining hands with Taliban, dumping Ghani’s Government and luring China in this strategic space has gone off well so far. It has also been successful in edging India out of Afghanistan, to some extent, with its terrorists incrementally damaging Indian built assets.  

Other Stakeholders!

All other stake holders are concerned with likelihood of export of terrorism, but are gravely short of options and leverages, as no one is keen to put boots on ground, knowing fully well that no foreign recipe of peace in Afghanistan has worked in past, nor will it work in future. Russia is concerned about export of terrorism in CAR states, where it assumes a priority right due to historical connect of USSR. It is however in no mood to burn its fingers again by any direct intervention. CAR countries are strengthening their military forces along borders to minimise export of terrorism into their countries and handle upcoming unprecedented refugee crisis, if Taliban comes to power.

The Indian Discomfort!

India has always been emphasising on Afghan led, Afghan owned, Afghan controlled, elected, democratic government and has invested tremendous amount of goodwill in people of Afghanistan and Ghani’s Government through large amount of development projects, and capacity building of various institutions, with a cumulative sunk cost of $3 billion, more than any other country in the region. India suffers from a major handicap that despite being a legal neighbour of Afghanistan, it doesn’t physically hold the common border, thus has no direct land route. This reduces the capability of India to directly influence outcomes in Afghanistan; hence it was never taken seriously by other stakeholders even during talks.

All effort by India are being made indirectly, through diplomacy and capacity building of institutions including ANDSF. The historical engagements with Taliban in past have not been positive, in the backdrop of Kandahar hijacking or Indian support to Northern Alliance; hence if Taliban comes to power it is unlikely to prioritise Indian interest over Pakistan. The Indian strategic interest include connectivity projects to CAR through Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan and prevention of export of terrorism. In this context, if Taliban comes to power, India will have to do business with Government of the day. It was known that Afghanistan was never stable in last few decades; hence Indian planners need to rethink if investment of $3 billion in an unstable country was worth the effort or otherwise.  

What Next?        

There is a need to boost the morale of Afghan Forces, with air support, military assets and maintenance of its existing damaged air assets. An offensive mindset, and sound military strategy can turn the tide in ANDSF favour. They need to focus on recapturing border crossings, utilise other non-state actors also in engaging Taliban to weaken blockades with guerrilla tactics. There is a need to create a viable countervailing force within Afghanistan, as Taliban suffers a weakness of poor population support and lesser numbers. There is a need for US to rein Pakistan in adding strength to Taliban through overt/covert means, for the sake of innocent people ladies and children of Afghanistan. History may not excuse global community, silently witnessing a democratic society being plunged into stone age governance, functioning on religious fundamentalism mode, ready to export terrorism globally.

If left to Afghan people, civil war will continue and Taliban even if in power, will also face unprecedented cycle of instability from angry population resenting Sharia law and rival groups in Afghanistan and within Taliban. Various tribes and terror groups will ensure that no single entity or  foreign player gets that strategic space exclusively. It is unlikely that China-Pakistan will find it easy to exploit the situation amidst expected instability. This will certainly have a telling effect on regional and global security situation, as Af-Pak Region will become the largest breeding ground for terrorism, with some of the terror groups again becoming strong enough to strike US, EU, China, India or CAR. Afghanistan seems to be heading for a situation where in different areas will be under influence of different entities, leaving helpless population in the hands of fundamentalists.

The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.

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The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day

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Whenever great powers have tried to make Afghanistan a colony, they have always been defeated. British imperialism and its “civilising mission” towards backward (and therefore terrorist) populations – a mission equal to that of the time when Great Britain established itself as the first drug pusher to the Chinese Empire with the two opium wars of 1839-1842; 1856-1860: an action that was terrorist at the best.

The Russian Empire and its exporting the orthodox faith and the values of the Tsar towards the barbaric (and therefore terrorist) Afghans. The Soviet Union and its attempt to impose secularisation on Muslim (and therefore terrorist) Afghans in the period 1979-1991. The United States of America that thought it could create parties, democracy, Coke, miniskirts, as well as gambling and pleasure houses by bombing the Afghan terrorists tout-court.

In this article I will try to explain why Afghanistan won 4-0, and in 1919 – thanks to its rulers’ wise skills – was one of the only six actual independent Asian States (Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen), so that at least the barroom experts – who, by their nature, believe that History is just a fairy tale like that of Cinderella and stepmother with evil sisters – reflect on the nonsense we read and hear every day in the press and in the media.

In his book I luoghi della Storia (Rizzoli, Milan 2000), former Ambassador Sergio Romano wrote on page 196: “The Afghans spent a good part of the nineteenth century playing a diplomatic and military game with the great powers – the so-called “Great Game” – the main rule of which was to use the Russians against the Brits and the Brits against the Russians”.

In the days when geopolitics was a forbidden subject and the word was forbidden, in the history textbooks of secondary schools it seemed that the United States of America and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had fallen from the sky as large as they were on the atlases. I still remember that in the dialogues between professors and high school students, it was stated that the two powers could not be called colonial, since they had something messianic and redeeming in themselves (therefore anti-terrorist).

It was only thanks to western movies that the young people of the time understood how the thirteen Lutheran colonies had extended westwards into lands that we were led to believe had been inhabited by savage villains to be exterminated (hence terrorists) and by uncivilised Spaniards, as Catholics, to be defeated. Moreover, we did not dare to study Russia’s expansion eastwards and southwards, at the risk that the high school students – unprepared, pure and enthusiastic – would understand that the homeland of socialism had no different assumptions from all other imperialisms.

Sometimes the students heard about the great game or, in Russian, the tournament of shadows (turniry teney). What was the great game? Today it is mostly remembered as the epic of freedom of the unconquered Afghans, but in reality its solution meant the alliance between Russia and Great Britain, which lasted at least until the eve of the Cold War. A key position that is sometimes too overlooked, and not only in scientific and classical textbooks, but also in many essays by self-proclaimed experts.

British aversion to the Russian Empire – apart from the “necessary” anti-Napoleonic alliances in the Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Coalitions – dated back to the 17th century and worsened considerably in the 19th century. Although Russian exports of grain, natural fibres and other agricultural crops were made to Great Britain – because the Russian landowners were well disposed to good relations with the Brits in order to better market those products abroad – there were no political improvements. The opposition came more from Great Britain than from Russia.

Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1825-55) – in the late 1830s, during his trip to Great Britain in 1842, and later in 1850-52, i.e. just before the Crimean War (1853-56) – often tried to bring about normalisation, but due to British suspicions and doubts (the Russians were considered to be terrorists) this did not occur.

What worried the Foreign Office – created in March 1782 – was Russia’s fast march eastwards, southwards and south-westwards. Great Britain could feel Russian breath on it from the three sides of India. The Russian goals with regard to Turkey, the successes in Trancaucasia and the Persian goals, not to mention the colonisation of Central Asia, initiated by the aforementioned Tsar Nicholas I, and conducted vigorously by his successor Alexander II (1818-1855-81), were – for Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomats and generals – a blatant and threatening intimidation of India’s “pearl”.

In the north-west of the Indian subcontinent the British possessions bordered on the Thar desert and on Sindh (the Indus River delta) which constituted a Muslim State under leaders residing at Haidarābād, conquered by the Brits in 1843. To the north-east of Sindh, the Punjab region had been amalgamated into a strong State by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji (1780-1801-39) who, as a simple Governor of Lahore (Lâhau) on behalf of the Afghan Emir, Zaman Shah Durrani (1770-93-1800-†44), had succeeded not only in becoming independent, but also in extending his power over Kashmir and Pīshāwar, creating the Sikh Empire in 1801, which was overthrown by Great Britain during the I (1845-46) and II (1848-49) Anglo-Sikh wars; the region became what is known as the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the North-West Frontier Province).

Given the British expansion into the neighbouring States of Afghanistan and Persia, Russia’s influence was trying to creep in; hence the Brits were paying close attention to what was happening on the border of the great Northern “neighbour”.

Russia had long been aiming to make its way to India through Western Turkestan, but that steppe region was inhabited by the Kyrgyz in the north-east and the Turks (Turkmen) in the south-west.

After unsuccessful attempts at peaceful penetration, the Russian Governor of Orenburg, Gen. Vasilij Alekseevič Perovskij (1794-1857), prepared an expedition against Chiva: it involved crossing about a thousand kilometres of desert and was thought to be easier to make during the winter. The expedition left from Orenburg in November 1839, but the cold killed so many men and camels that the Commander had to give up the venture and turn back (spring 1840). For a long time, the Russians did not attempt any more military infiltrations there.

In Persia, instead, Russian influence was strongly felt: Tsar Alexander II pushed the Shah, Naser al-Din Qajar (1831-48-96), to undertake an enterprise against the city of Herāt (which dominated the passage from Persia and Western Turkestan into India): it had detached itself from Afghanistan and had been a separate State since 1824. The Persian expedition began in the autumn of 1837: Herāt resisted strenuously, so much so that in the summer of 1838 the Shah had to renounce the siege and accept Britain’s mediation for peace with the sovereign of that city. That diplomatic move was therefore also detrimental to the influence of St. Petersburg. Even the first relations established by Russia with the Emir of Afghanistan did not lead to any result.

In those years, Russia was busy quelling the insurrections of the mountain populations in the Caucasus, where the exploits of the alleged Italian sheikh, Mansur Ushurma (Giambattista Boetti, 1743-98), in the service of the Chechen cause, still echoed.

Through two treaties concluded with Persia (1828) and Turkey (1829), Russia had become the master of the region; however, it found an obstinate resistance from the local populations that still persists today.

The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was one of the most important military conflicts of the great game and one of the worst British defeats in the region. The Brits had started an expedition to Afghanistan to overthrow Emir Dost Mohammad (1793-1826-39, 42-63), the first of the Barakzai dynasty, and replace him with the last of the Durrani dynasty, Ayub Shah (17??-1819-23, †37), who had been dethroned in 1823, but he renounced. Not wanting to cross the Sikh country in order not to arouse mistrust among the Sikhs, the British entered Baluchistan, occupied the capital (Qalat), then penetrated into Afghanistan and advanced without encountering serious resistance as far as Kabul, where on August 7, 1839 they installed their own puppet, Shuja Shah (1785-1842), formerly Emir from 1803 to 1809.

Dost Mohammad was caught and sent to Calcutta. A the beginning of 1841, however, one of his sons – Sher Ali – aroused the Afghans’ rebellion. The military commander, Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone (b. 1782), got permission to leave with 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 non-combatants to return to India. In the mountain passes near Kabul, however, the expedition was taken by surprise and annihilated (January 1842). The commander died as prisoner of the Afghans (on April 23).

The Brits obviously wanted revenge: they sent other troops that, in September of the same year, reconquered Kabul: this time the Brits – intimidated – did not deem it advisable to remain there. Convinced they had reaffirmed a certain prestige, they withdrew and, since the Emir they protected had died on April 5, 1842, they agreed – helplessly – to Dost Mohammad’s return to the throne. He conquered Herāt forever for Afghanistan.

Russia did not just stand by and watch and asserted its power in the Far East. In the years 1854-58 – despite its engagement in the Crimean war: the first real act of the great game, as Britain had to defend the Ottoman Empire from Sarmatian aspirations of conquest – it had established, with a series of expeditions, its jurisdiction over the province of Amur, through the Treaty of Aigun – labelled as the unequal treaty as it was imposed on China – on May 28, 1858. Shortly afterwards the fleet arrived at Tien-Tsin (Tianjin), forced China into another treaty on June 26-27, thus obtaining the opening of ports for trade, and the permanence of a Russian embassy in Peking. Moreover, in Central Asia, Russia renewed its attempts to advance against the khanates of Buchara and Kokand (Qo’qon), and had once again led the Shah of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Qajar (1853-96-1907), to try again the enterprise of Herāt (1856), which had caused again the British intervention (Anglo-Persian War, 1856-57) that ended with Persia’s recognition of the independence of the aforementioned city. The Anglo-Russian rivalry thus continued to be one of the essential problems of Central Asia, for the additional reason that Russia gradually expanded into West Turkestan, Buchara and Chiva between 1867 and 1873.

After the Russian conquests in West Turkestan, Dost Mohammad’ son and successor, Sher Ali (1825-63-66, 68-79), came under the influence of the neighbouring power, which was trying to penetrate the area to the detriment of Britain. On July 22, 1878 St Petersburg sent a mission. The Emir repelled a similar British mission at the Khyber Pass in September 1878, thus triggering the start of the war. The Brits soon opened hostilities, invading the country with 40,000 soldiers

 from three different points.

The Emir went into exile in Mazār-i-Sharīf, leaving his son Mohammad Yaqub (1849-79-80, †1914) as heir. He signed the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country.

Once the British First Resident, the Italian Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari (b. 1841) went to Kabul, he was assassinated there on September 3, 1879. British troops organised a second expedition and occupied the capital. They did not trust the Emir and raised a nephew of Dost Mohammed, Abdur Rahman (1840/44-80-1901), to power on May 31, 1880. He pledged to have no political relations except with Britain.

The former Emir, Mohammad Yaqub, took up arms and severely defeated the Brits at Maiwand on July 27, 1880, with the help of the Afghan heroine Malalai Anaa (1861-80), who rallied the Pashtun troops against the attackers. On September 1 of the same year Mohammad Yaqub was defeated and put to flight by Gen. Frederick Roberts (1832-1914) in the Battle of Kandahâr, which ended the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

This brought Afghanistan permanently under British influence, which was secured by the construction of a railway from the Indus River to the Afghan city of Kandahâr. Since the railway passed through Beluchistan, it was definitively annexed to British India. In 1880, Russia began the construction of the Transcaspian Railway, which alarmed the Brits who extended the section of their “railroad” to Herāt.

It was only with the accession to the throne of Imānullāh (1892-1919-29, †60), on February 28, 1919 (Shah from 1926), that Afghanistan took its foreign policy away from Great Britain through the Third Anglo-Afghan War (6 May-8 August 1919), by which the Afghans finally threw the Brits out of the picture (Treaty of Râwalpindî of August 8, 1919, amended on November 22, 1921).

As early as 1907, the Russian government had declared it considered Afghanistan to be outside its sphere of influence, and pledged not to send any agents there, as well as to consult the British government about its relations with that country.

Indeed, Britain soon gave up direct control of the country, given the fierce fighting spirit of its people, who had humiliated it many times, and contented itself with guarding and keeping the north-west Indian border under control.

In reality, the great game has never ended. As Spartacus Alfredo Puttini stated (La Russia di Putin sulla scacchiera, in “Eurasia”, A. IX, No. 1, January-March 2012, pp. 129-147), upon his coming to power Vladimir Putin found himself grappling with a difficult legacy. Gorbachev’s policy of katastroika had dealt a lethal blow to the Soviet and later Russian colossus.

Within a few years, Russia had embarked on a unilateral disarmament that led, at first, to its withdrawal from Afghanistan and then from Central and Eastern Europe. While the State was heading for collapse and the economy was being disrupted, it was the very periphery of the Soviet Union that was catching fire due to separatist movements promptly subsidised by those who – in the great game – replaced the Brits. Massive US aid to the heroic anti-Soviet patriots, who were later branded as terrorists.

In a short time the real collapse occurred and the ‘new’ Russia found itself geopolitically shrunken and morally and materially prostrated by the great looting made by the pro-Western oligarchs in the shadow of the Yeltsin Presidency.

To the west, the country had returned to the borders of the 17th century; to the south, it had lost Southern Caucasus and valuable Central Asia, where the new great game was soon to begin. In other words, the process of disruption would not stop, and would infect the Russian Federation itself: Chechnya had engaged in a furious war of secession that threatened to spread like wildfire to the whole of Northern Caucasus and, in the long run, called into question the very survival of the Russian State divided into autonomous entities.

This was followed by the phenomenon of “orangism” in 2003-2005 (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan): the various caricatures of oxymoronic “liberal” revolutions aimed at moving certain governments away from Russia’s influence.

Ultimately, the central power had been undermined on all sides by the policy of Yeltsin and his clan, aimed at granting extensive autonomy to the regions of the Federation. Public property, the glue of State authority and the instrument of its concrete activity to guide and orient the nation, had been sold off. Over time, Putin put things right, and the rest is condensed into the restoration choices of the plebiscitary vote in his favour.

In the end Afghanistan also saw the US failure, which I have examined in previous articles.

The Asian sense of freedom is summed up in the expulsion of foreign aggressors from their own homelands and territories. Someone should start to understand this.

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The Post-US Withdrawal Afghanistan: India, China and the ‘English Diplomacy’

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The recent developments in Afghanistan, the impatient Tri-axis and the emphatic India at SCO, with the ‘English Diplomacy’ at display that tends to blunt the Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea mark a new power interplay in the world politics. It also shows why the US went for AUKUS and how it wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Afghanistan has turned out to be the most incandescent point of world politics today deflecting the eyes from the South China Sea and Gaza Strip. What is more startling is the indifferent attitude United States has shown to the other stakeholders in the war torn state. While Brexit appears to have created fissure in the European Union the AUKUS effects further marginalisation of France and India against the US-British and QUAD understandings. The vacuum that US have created in Afghanistan has invited several actors willing to expand their energy access to central Asia and Afghanistan provides an important bridge in between. The TAPI economics (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) and huge Indian investments are endangered by the Afghan security question and make it imminent for India to stay in Afghanistan as a reckoning force.

The Taliban and the Troika

While the Russo-Chinese and Pakistani engagement with the Taliban’s takeover was visible the US exit has invited the wrath of other stakeholders like India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India is significantly affected because of its huge investments of over 3 billion dollars over two decades in Afghanistan that would become target of the orthodox retrogressive Taliban regime. The government of India’s stand on Afghanistan is that an ‘Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past 19 years. India supports a united, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan. India is deeply concerned about the increase in violence and targeted killings in Afghanistan. India has called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire’(MEA).

However, the takeover by Taliban that endangers India’s strategic and capital interests has made it pro-active in the state. Probably for the first time in Afghan history, India has shown aggressive tones against the militant government which may create problem for Kashmir in the longer run. The Pakistani air force’s engagement over the Panjashir assault by Taliban has unravelled the larger plans of destabilisation in South Asia.

In the meantime China has unequivocally expressed its willingness, as was expected to work with Taliban. The visit of Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar who also heads the office of Taliban at Doha, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, on July 28, 2021. The visit followed the Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Kureshi’s visit to Beijing and unravelled how the two states have been supporting the Talibani cause. Although, China has its own perceptions about Xinjiang and Mr. Wang even told the Taliban “to draw a line” between the group and terror organisations, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has carried out attacks in Xinjiang. Russia too has shown interest in Taliban and it didn’t plan to evacuate its embassy at Kabul. Its foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said that Russia will carefully see how responsibly they (Taliban) govern the country in the near future. And based on the results, the Russian leadership will draw the necessary conclusions.

The little Indo-Russian engagements over Afghanistan have minimised the scope of cooperation over the decades now. Although, Russia has been trying to follow a balancing policy between India and Pakistan yet its leanings towards the latter is manifest from its recent policies. “The extent of Russia-Pakistan coordination broadened in 2016, as Russia, China, and Pakistan created a trilateral format to discuss stabilizing Afghanistan and counterterrorism strategy. In December 2016, Russia, China, and Pakistan held talks on combating Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which were widely criticized in the U.S. for excluding the Afghan government.” (Ramani). The deliberate neglect of Afghan government and Indian role reveals the neo-Russian policy in South Asia that de-hyphenates India and Pakistan and sees Pakistan through the lens of BRI and at the cost of North-South Corridor. The Chinese and Russian belief that by supporting Taliban they will secure security for their disturbed territories and escape from terrorism appears to be unrealistic keeping in view the Taliban’s characteristics which are chameleon like i.e. political, organizational and jihadi at the same time looking for appropriate opportunities.

Is it the Post-Brexit Plan?

The Brexit ensures a better space for Britain; at least this is what Brits believe, in international politics following the future US overseas projects. However, it for sure annoys some of its serious allies with the new takes. The announcement of the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact, a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific to contain China is an important step in this direction. The Brexit and the US-withdrawal seen together mark a shift in US policy perception of Asia that aims at Asia Pacific more as compared to Central Asia. It has not only betrayed India in Afghanistan but also France through AUKUS which sees an end to its multibillion dollar deal with Australia. France now shows a stronger commitment to support India in its moves against Taliban and Pakistan’s interventions.

President Macron recalled French ambassadors for consultations after the AUKUS meet that dropped France deliberately from the major maritime security deal. The French anguish is not about its absence in the deal by the Canberra, Washington and London but being an allied nation, its neglect in the secret deal. “The announcement ended a deal worth $37bn (£27bn) that France had signed with Australia in 2016 to build 12 conventional submarines. China meanwhile accused the three powers involved in the pact of having a “Cold War mentality”(Schofield 2021). It also reminds one of the Roosevelt’s efforts at truncating French arms in Asia, especially in Indo-China and the consequent sequence of betrayals by the US. AUKUS also symbolises the ‘English diplomacy’ of the English speaking states just like the Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Started around 1946 the member countries are parties to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence. Recently there have been voices for taking India, Japan and South Korea also into its fold to strengthen the contain China job.

The Wildered QUAD

While the first ever in-person QUAD summit approaches near, the announcement of AUKUS shows haze that prevails over the US decision making. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga meet at the White House for the summit on September 24, 2021. This follows the virtual meet held in March 2021. How apposite it would be to declare a maritime deal at a time when the QUAD meet is about to take place with the same motives and plans, notwithstanding the fact that QUAD has a wider platform for discussion like climate change, cyberspace, pandemic and Indo-Pacific. Is there an uncertainty over the realisation of QUAD? However, AUKUS  unravels the US intentions of first line preferences and second line associates in its future projects that will further marginalise its allies like France, Germany and many other states in future.

SCO

At SCO meet at Dushanbe India has unequivocally announced its view of the situation that takes Taliban as a challenge to peace and development in Afghanistan and South Asia. Prime Minister Modi remarked that the first issue is that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and this happened without negotiation. This raises questions on the prospects of recognition of the new system. Women, minorities and different groups have not been given due representation. He also insisted on the crucial role that UN can play in Afghanistan. India’s investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar and the International North-South Corridor along with TAPI are central to its argument on the recent developments in Afghanistan. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar had also remarked in July 2021 that the landlocked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with the huge market of India and the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past and that the world must not let the new generation of Afghans down (Hindustan Times). The Indian message is clear and received huge support at Dushanbe and India is poised to play a greater role in Afghanistan, where the US and Russia have failed miserably.

The Internal Dynamics

The internal dynamics in Afghanistan presage a government by uncertainty in the coming months as Sirajudin Haqqani of Pak supported Haqqani network, captures Mulla Baradar, the man who settled the deal with US at Doha. It appears from the Pakistani backed government of Haqqani that Baradar has been dumped for his commitment for inclusive government expected to be pro-west against the Sino-Pakistan expectations. The US reluctance to remain engaged in the troubled region marks a shift in US foreign policy but the exclusion of its allies from Indo-Pacific plan are bound to bring new engagements in world power politics. While US dumped Afghans France and Israel appear as new hopes for Indian led moves against the undemocratic terrorist forces in Afghanistan.

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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