Afghanistan, Next Round

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Some questions and then more questions came my way about recent events in Afghanistan. My two cents put together in the piece.

Afghanistan – Next Round Afghan Style

Hamid Hussain

“However tall the mountain is, there is a road to the top of it”.   Afghan Proverb

United States and Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020.  The agreement was to pave the way for withdrawal of US troops and integration of Taliban in Afghan political system. The next step was exchange of 5000 Taliban and 1000 Afghan government prisoners.  This also proved to be the first hurdle.  Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insisted on linking prisoner release with cease fire.  Taliban rejected it and under US pressure, Ghani released few hundred Taliban prisoners.

In the deal with US, Taliban agreed not to threaten “security of US and its allies’.  Taliban defined only Europeans as ‘US allies.  Off course they don’t consider Afghan government as US ally therefore they continued to attack government forces. On the start of the Muslim holy months of Ramazan, Ghani asked again for a ceasefire.  Taliban representative in his response called this call ‘illogical’.  Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) also called for a ceasefire during negotiations between Taliban and Afghan government.  Taliban are not likely to agree to this.  They see attacks on Afghan security forces as a lever to extract more concessions. Taliban also want to calibrate its military operations to keep momentum of its cadres.  If they agree to a prolonged ceasefire and few months later need military operations, they may face difficulties in re-activating its own cadres.

Current violence in uneven geographically.  Violence has decreased in Taliban controlled areas in south and east and large cities.  In Taliban controlled areas, night raids by Afghan forces and air strikes by US forces and attacks by Taliban on government posts and convoys, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks and target killings was the main engine of violence.  Afghan forces have stopped operations in Taliban controlled areas resulting in marked reduction of violence.  In government controlled large cities, Taliban were attacking government and civilian targets.  They have markedly reduced these attacks that resulted in reduction of violence in large cities. In some parts of eastern Afghanistan, Daesh was responsible for most attacks.  An unlikely alliance of US, Afghan forces, Taliban and local militias confronted Daesh from all sides eliminating most pockets of Daesh that contributed to marked reduction of violence. In all these areas, with reduction of violence, general public feels somewhat secure with economic activity picking up in towns and rural areas.

Most violence is now concentrated in contested areas where Taliban and Afghan forces are trying to assert control.  Taliban want to expand the territory under their control to further strengthen their bargaining position. Some parts of Ghor, Ghazni, Badghis and Badakhshan have seen increased violence.

In Washington, a pause button is hit on all military and diplomatic ventures.  Diplomats and military leaders are grounded during Corona virus crisis.  The only exception is Afghanistan.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and even commander of US troops in Afghanistan General Austin Miller are shuttling between Kabul and Doha to keep Afghan project on track.  Khalilzad and Austin made a trip to Islamabad and met army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to get Pakistan’s help in influencing Taliban to keep violence low. Corona crisis and economic meltdown has weakened President Trump’s position for the upcoming election.  He wants to use withdrawal from Afghanistan as his big achievement.  This is the main reason that only Afghan file is open on diplomatic front.

Afghans are hard bargainers. Every negotiation round is painfully slow and contentious.  If prisoner release is facing so many hurdles then wait until negotiations start about political bargains.  This will be a multi layered process involving Taliban, different factions that are currently part of Afghan government, local tribal leaders and all those who are currently out of power.  Violence will be used at different stages by each group to advance its own interest and extract maximum concessions. In this battle, each Afghan party will also seek assistance from foreign backers.

“Community is not made by force”.   Afghan Proverb

Hamid Hussain

April 2020

Post-Script

Afghan Government Tussle:  Bargaining reminiscent of an old bazaar of Central Asia is going on between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.  Tentative agreement is that Abdullah will get forty percent of ministries and head the peace negotiations with Taliban.  Khalilzad is cajoling and Pompeo is carrying the stick.  Many details need to be hammered out but if this agreement goes through it will have its own set of repercussions.  Ghani and Abdullah will run their share of ministries as fiefdoms to reward their partisans.  If Abdullah becomes the head of the negotiation team that will make any meaningful negotiation very difficult.  Abdullah’s support is overwhelmingly non-Pushtun and he will not be able to give too much ground to Taliban as it will risk his own support base.

“Courage among civilized peoples consists in a readiness to sacrifice oneself for the political community.”        G.W. Hegel

Taliban:  After conclusion of agreement with United States, there was some ripple within Taliban ranks on two planes.  One related to jockeying for power that resulted in removal of some members of Taliban’s Doha office.  Second related to some rank and file who were charged up to fight the ‘infidel’ and now told to hold attacks on the ‘infidel’ but continue to kill fellow Afghans. To placate these fellows one senior Taliban commander gave some hardline narrative suggesting that Taliban will not negotiate with Afghan government but looking to replace it ushering in new era of Taliban 2.0 that will be a bit moderate and tolerate few things not allowed in 1990s. It will be very difficult for Taliban leadership to accept a power sharing agreement in present set up.  If US pulls out then next step will be marked reduction of US financial assistance.  In this environment, government will become more dysfunctional from fights for dwindling resources and corruption.  Taliban will wait for that moment to expand territorial control.  They will need more coercion of the population as they have the guns but not the gold that does the magic of defections from the other camp.

“I will say this much for the nobility: that tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious”.     Mark Twain

Neighbors:  Pakistan’s main interest is to have some semblance of stability in Afghanistan while working to decrease Indian influence.  This is due to apprehension that a strong Indian presence in Afghanistan will keep its western border destabilized.   It wants that Taliban become part of the new set up that will help reduce Indian influence.  Islamabad does not want another round of civil war or outright Taliban take over as it will worsen Pakistan predicament. It will face refugee crisis and financial burden and worsen country’s regional and international position.  India’s main concern is that return of Taliban in any capacity risks use of Afghan territory against Indian interests.  Delhi has the bad memory of 1990s when Afghanistan was used to fuel Kashmir insurgency.  Current BJP government is not in a mood for engagement.  It wants to keep Pakistan off balance hoping that faced with myriad of problems Pakistan will not be in any position to re-activate insurgency card in Kashmir.  If Afghanistan descends into chaos after American withdrawal or Taliban capture large chunk of territory, it will be very difficult for India to maintain large influence.  Keeping in mind this worst case scenario, India has been trying for over a decade to establish a military base in Tajikistan.  This effort is not successful in view of Chinese and Russian interests.  A Chinese paramilitary contingent is secretly operating in southeastern Tajikistan in the panhandle bordering Wakhan corridor to prevent return of Uighur militants in Xinjiang.  The largest Russian troop presence outside Russia is in Tajikistan.  Russia considers Central Asia as its backyard and not willing to allow combat presence of other countries.  India is currently using Ayni and Farkhor airbases in Tajikistan for transporting non-military supplies to Afghanistan.  It has no combat assets stationed in Tajikistan.  If things deteriorate then India can strengthen its position in northern Afghanistan.  In this Iran is a partner as interests of both countries converge in Afghanistan. If Russia joins this ensemble then India may be able to convince Russia to allow use of Tajikistan bases for military purposes.  The only sane approach is a détente between India and Pakistan as chaos in Afghanistan is against the interests of both countries.  If both parties understand this fundamental reality then they can control their gut reactions and avoid adding fuel to the fire.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent; but it takes a touch of genius and lots of courage to move something in the opposite direction.”                Albert Einstein

United States: A speedy drawdown before elections is President Trump’s main objective.  If he is re-elected, then political compulsion will be removed, and he may decide to keep some American assets in Afghanistan as surely it is not likely that Afghan government and Taliban can reach a deal in the next 1-2 years. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the election, then we may see revisit of current policy.  The key factor will be economic aftermath of Corona pandemic.  If US economy is in deep recession then it will be very hard for Biden to sell to American public increased American military and economic commitment to Afghanistan.  Biden has been involved in Afghanistan as Vice President and he held the view that Pakistan was much more important than Afghanistan and he expressed this to then Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  He may give more role to Pakistan for policing the badlands.  Unless things completely meltdown, it is likely that Washington will keep air and intelligence assets in Afghanistan.  The security of these assets can be contracted to private security companies.  In this scenario, Kurdish model can be adopted.  The line will be drawn along Hindu Kush range. Taliban will be allowed to play in the south and east while non-Pushtuns organized, armed and provided intelligence and air cover to keep their area free of Taliban encroachment.

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”  Samuel P. Huntington

Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

01 May 2020

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21 Replies to “Afghanistan, Next Round”

  1. The Indian scenario is very optimistic IMHO.

    China’s influence in C-Asia (especially Tajikistan) is much higher. There has also been reports that when it comes to choosing b/w China and India, Russia would side with the former. Also India-Iran partnership and their mutual concern for Taliban is overblown. Iran seems more concerned of US troops than Taliban. All in all, China seems to be the swing power and if Taliban don’t do any funny business vis-v Ughurs, pretty sure they have no issues on backing Taliban.

    India’s best bet is the current Afghan Govt, which it hopes once the dust settles down, will resist a total Taliban takeover. But mostly its powerless to strengthen the Govt.. Also too much credit is given to India’s ability to keep Pakistan “off balance”. India’s maneuvers in Kashmir, nor Pakistan ability to ferment insurgency, directly dependent on issues in Afghanistan. These things have taken a life its own, and both India and Pakistan responses are now on autopilot. Both sides are much better placed than they were in the 90s to play their cards.

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    1. @Saurav
      I never understand why do Pakistani generals play with fire? This is gambling in the name of geostrategic moves. Taliban in Afghanistan is bad for Pakistan and they should know it better than anyone with so many refugees and imported violence. Everyone with any stakes in this game including Taliban knows Pakistan is duplicitous and two faced. In the best case scenario they can control Taliban for what 10 years, 20 years ? Then what? These savages will hurt Pakistan.

      Indians of my generation absolutely hate Pakistani state, especially after the 2008 attacks, why are they risking a similar hate myth amongst Afghans? Live and let live, these over-smart moves carry a real cost, supposed allies and real opponents are also not suckers, these snakes will bite back.

      As for India, I think we should focus all aid on more ICMR scholarships. Poach talent from Afghanistan to stay/teach/research primarily in India and create goodwill in the eventual rulers. Whoever wins students educated in India should be the only ones capable of ruling.

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      1. Agree.
        I know foreign policy is complex subject. But it would be great if India engages in building goodwill as you said and keeps interference in political systems to minimum.

        The more you try to correct the situation from your own perspective the more things will come back to bite you later!

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      2. Pakistani generals play with fire because they feel they can contain it. Yes some of their plays go awry, but that’s the nature of the game.They think they can control Taliban because they had control over them during the late 90s. And who knows in a decade it might revert back.

        Also like everything India-Afghan “friendship” is overrated. No amount of aid, Bollywood, scholarship or cricket can change a lot. There is no real depth in it. I would say the goodwill right now is sort of maximum you can get with soft power diplomacy. Its just so happens that the current Govt in Afghan is pre-disposed 2wards India because their opponents are backed by Pakistan. The situation can flip once the opponents are in power.

        To give u an example, see the current state of India-Nepal relationship. And (unlike any other country) we share an open border with Nepal, and still the situation has come to this.

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  2. It is quite possible the US, Russia and China would be in Great Depression in the next 2 or 3 years , not willing part with dough for Afghanistan. And if the COVID whose future us unpredictable cuts a swathe through AfPak, all parties would be sick and tired of any round of violence.

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    1. It is quite possible the US, Russia and China would be in Great Depression in the next 2 or 3 years , not willing part with dough for Afghanistan.

      Dont rule out China, they have been getting prepared for the last 10 years.

      —–
      I guess China has been reading the type of authors on ZeroHedge and similar non mainstream views of the economy.

      A article about China preparing for this financial/economic collapse since 2010. They are doing much by the American book, the Great Depression book. Unhappily the US is not learning from its own history.

      For China, this is not just any economic crash. It is one the country’s leaders have steeled against for more than a decade.
      “After a big crisis, what is redistributed is not merely wealth within a country, but the relative power of all nations,” wrote China’s chief economic architect Liu He.

      In recent weeks, president Xi Jinping has launched a construction campaign akin to that seen in America in response to the Great Depression, while touting poverty relief and investment in advanced technology to help boost both the output of coronavirus-hit factories and consumer spending.

      This time, China has announced it will see the crisis through with infrastructure construction, a more stable if slower method. Mr Xi recently warned that houses were for living, not for speculation.

      https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/coronavirus-china-economy-recession-plan-xi-jinping-communist-party-a9500876.html?

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      1. They are smart, hopefully they will have lessons for Indians to learn and prepare for the next crisis.

        But new housing projects are unreasonable, but who knows they might pull it off like the other unfeasible stuff they have pulled off all over the globe.

        https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Cover-Story/China-s-housing-glut-casts-pall-over-the-economy

        Something has to give, their steel output has not been sustainable for years now it will be a lesson for us(Indians) how they manage, manipulate and keep these industries afloat.

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      2. China has followed the same polices as the US and other countries – i.e. liberal loans by Chinese banks esp for Infrastructure and housing projects. Loans by Chinese banks have gone up by more than 500% over the 8 years.

        This is what Atif Mian, the Pakistani economiost in yale says

        https://twitter.com/AtifRMian/status/1256469396140306434

        ——————————The chickens have come home to roost.

        China’s lending to some of the most fragile countries was poorly structured and often not in the best interest of recipient countries.

        I will spell out the issues
        The timing of BRI was driven by Chinese self-interest: a country with massive surplus savings, needed new places to invest post-2008 as US could no longer receive as much as before.

        So China turned to weak countries that it had influence over.
        The weak country leaders saw this as an opportunity to quickly show case some “flashy projects”.

        There was no due process. For example, Chinese State-owned enterprises (SOEs) were both lenders and contractors – a situation rife for over-invoicing to boost Chinese returns.
        Investments were often in areas that largely serviced domestic consumption or non-tradable sectors.

        With little productivity gain for export sector, payback was going to be extremely hard

        Plus loans were denominated in dollars – world’s hardest currency in times of trouble.
        There was little to no due diligence on the side of borrowing countries.

        For example, no analysis of how external shocks might create a financial doom loop for indebted countries.

        To make matters much worse, local currency was artificially appreciated while borrowing in $
        Meanwhile if someone asked a genuine question, they were labeled “non-patriotic”, or worse.

        It is of no surprise then that these loans are creating massive trouble now.

        The whole deal was almost designed to collapse- if it were not Covid, it would have been something else.
        There was a win-win alternative.

        Instead of just exporting capital and it’s SOEs, China could have engaged in technology transfer and strengthening domestic institutions in developing countries.

        China could have helped others adopt the “Chinese model” of growt
        For developing countries, the lesson is simple: you cannot import growth, and you cannot borrow your way out of poverty.

        Invest in your own people and institutions, and develop your own capacities first.
        ——————————————–

        BTW, Atif Mian is an Ahmedi , so it is easy for Pakistan govt and pakistanis (most of them) to rubbish his ideas as untrustworthy

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        1. What do economists mean when they say
          ‘technology transfer’ ?
          How exactly do they think technology is going to be transferred? This gets thrown about with regards to:

          1) Israeli farming innovations in India. Do people expect Israel to just hand over hard earned technology (code, algorithms, hardware plans, regulatory innovations, process innovation) to Indian agricultural institutes? Because the general ideas are already out there it is the specific implementation related nitty-gritty that is IP(and physically)-protected, giving away that for free is akin to giving away (a lot of) money for free considering how few funded projects succeed. If not then what exactly are poor countries looking for ? They can already read research papers, they can visit Israeli institutes and get an idea of what works, they can employ modellers/statisticians/domain-experts and figure it out on their own if they wanted to. But economists keep BS-ing about technology-transfer.

          Same question about Pharmaceuticals, Aerospace and Railways. Does India expect to get handed the design for Rafales? French have spent maybe upward of $90-100 billion explicitly just on Rafales (not including the cost of running national institutes, labs, facilities, HR) , that’s about ~ $400 million per plane produced so far. Indians want to beg our way into getting (mostly privately owned) technology on top of bargaining for price. It just doesn’t work that way. No one is giving away any IP. One of my professors here recounted his time as an expert witness in a court hearing on a dispute between two major oil prospecting companies (maybe Anadarko and Conoco idk). One was suing the other because they said one of their engineers who defected stole and used a groundbreaking piece of IP for the rival. The ‘ground breaking’ research tool was just a fancy least square method for regression! It was taught to me as a first year undergrad in India. If they can not part with such trivial shit guess how much technology would anyone ever give away.

          2) In pharmaceuticals, despite all the talk about generic drugs and decades of research the fact remains WE SUCK at making any new drugs. Nothing good (or bad) ever comes out of our labs and whatever talent doesn’t immigrate to the US wastes away (eg https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sujoy_K._Guha best professor I ever had in India ,IIT All India Rank-2, Btech, MS, PhD and MBBS father of Indian biomedical engineering).

          Economists should stop BS-ing, there is never going to be technology transfer. It doesn’t work like that, either you stand on your own feet or you crawl, no one is ever giving you a crutch to help with walking.

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          1. For Atif Mian to ” technology transfer and strengthening domestic institutions in developing countries.” is expecting pigs to fly. The PRC model may be “people and development oriented” within China but outside China it is intensely nationalistic and no different from British or US imperialism in it’s heyday. China has dozens of projects , large infrastructure projects, around the world , it is all made with the ruling cliques in different countries and nothing to do with “development” . It is to do with spending their dollar and capital surpluses for maximum returns , like any good old capitalist.

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        2. I have read Atif Mian and he clearly is brilliant. I wish we could manage to poach a few non Republic of India diasporan-Indian guys like Atif Mian, Salman Rashid, even very own Omar Ali, Razib Khan to India. They could contribute so much to India’s educational/social scene and might actually feel quite at home both personally and professionally (at the very least in terms of influence they can exert over people, which in some sense is the ‘real power’) compared to say America.

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        3. It is to do with spending their dollar and capital surpluses for maximum returns , like any good old capitalist.

          China is expecting dollar collapse or hyper inflation. Even the possibility of US default on debt.

          So they are converting into hard assets, projects all over the world and gold.

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          1. Well what you mean by project is land. But taking ur example forward, what good are the projects if they are not producing much economic value to alteast payback for Chinese?

            For example with Hambantota, the Chinese got the 99 year lease, what exactly would that achieve for the Chinese, apart from its strategic (a fungible concept) or military base. But still it doesn’t fix the original issue, will the port generate enough economic activity to payback the money incurred, whether its run by the Chinese or Sri Lankans. Your thoughts?

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          2. Well what you mean by project is land. But taking ur example forward, what good are the projects if they are not producing much economic value to at least payback for Chinese?
            Saurav

            How do you hedge ssuming you see the possibility of US treasuries, defaulting, or loosing value because of hyperinflation. Vijay Van and I saw it, obviously the Chinese saw it too. It was a possibility now it is a probability. Added the US Treasuries pay almost nothing in interest (not going into yield etc).

            So now think Chinese have invested in non income generating land. Then maybe US treasuries loose a lot of value. The Chinese have land, which they used UST* to buy/invest .

            Sell and if they get the original value, breaking even. If more a profit. Depending how less, loss compared to holing even devalued UST.
            This way China is not having all their UST in one basket of risk. They have diversified the risk.

            *China declares holding UST. Maybe they took out loan from US/UK bank using UST as collateral (UST was considered good as gold). There are many ways that you can get someone else to hold the baby. Above my paygrade.

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          3. Saurav
            For example with Hambantota, the Chinese got the 99 year lease, what exactly would that achieve for the Chinese, apart from its strategic (a fungible concept) or military base. But still it doesn’t fix the original issue, will the port generate enough economic activity to payback the money incurred, whether its run by the Chinese or Sri Lankans. Your thoughts?

            The SL govt still has to pay the loan. The money was like a lease payment, which the past govt used for other payments. The lease now means, China owns 70% of the Port operations, i.e. 70% profits to China. (It was a horrible deal by an incompetent govt that was hostile to China).

            Hambanthota is/was planned to compete with Singapore (and Rajapakse consituency). Bunkering facilities, Free Trade Zone Industrial city, Airport the works.
            Hambantota Port in 2016 made a revenue of US$11.81 million and incurred expenses of US$10 million as direct and administrative costs to report an operating profit of just US$1.81 million (wiki). Three phases, the first finished. Assuming shipping picks up, the Port can compete with Singapore. At the very least Chinese shipping with Chinese Goods and Oil from Mid East will get concessionary rates for Bunkering etc.

            No losses for China.

            https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-hambantota-port-deal-myths-and-realities/

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          4. I don’t think Hambanthota will pick up anytime soon (next 10 years). The reason for Colombo port’s success were:

            1) Massive growth of India’s foreign trade (a fact sometimes not acknowledged enough by Sri-Lankan officials who wrap it up by saying ‘region’ is growing and we are the best port in the ‘region’).

            1a) Colombo is by far the most efficiently run and capable trans-shipment port with access to India.

            Hambanthota faces competition from Colombo and upcoming (fingers-crossed) Adani’s trans-shipment ports in Kerala/TN. It was just one of those things that China can afford to do to prick and confuse India.

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          5. Bhimrao
            1) Massive growth of India’s foreign trade (a fact sometimes not acknowledged enough by Sri-Lankan officials who wrap it up by saying ‘region’ is growing and we are the best port in the ‘region’).

            1a) Colombo is by far the most efficiently run and capable trans-shipment port with access to India.

            No question Colombo (or even Hambantota) is best for
            a) ships from West/Mid East to Eastern India
            b) Ships from East (Vietnam/China) to Western India.

            Hambanthota was not built for that trade. It was built to compete with Singapore.
            eg:
            a) Mid East Oil to China
            b) China Exports to Mid East and Europe.

            Just the ships with goods from/to China is good business (like goods to/from India and Colombo Port)

            Possibly 10 years, not a very long time for big projects

            Even the NYC world trade center took about 9 years to be completely rented.
            World Trade Center itself was not rented out completely until after 1979 and then only because the complex’s subsidy by the Port Authority made rents charged for its office space cheaper than those for comparable space in other buildings.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Trade_Center_(1973%E2%80%932001)#Criticism

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          6. Singapore can be taken on but would take really talented people. It’s port like it’s airlines is no joke and runs on the resolve of Singaporean people. Lee Kuan Yew, used to joke about competition from Indonesian and Malaysian ports and how well Singapore’s port extinguishes such dreams.

            Godspeed! Sri Lanka.

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          7. Bhimrao
            Singapore can be taken on but would take really talented people. It’s port like it’s airlines is no joke and runs on the resolve of Singaporean people. Lee Kuan Yew, used to joke about competition from Indonesian and Malaysian ports

            I think you are forgetting, Hambantota is pretty much Chinese. The Chinese are going to favor their Cargo container ships.

            The other Covid is wreaking trouble among Singapore workers. Workers are no longer Singaporean. Its Indian and Bangaladeshi 20% of Singapores population.
            https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

            Events seem to be turning in Sri Lankas favor. If Sri Lanka does not grab these opportunities, they have to blame themselves.

            Nothing is guaranteed, and nothing is permanent.

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  3. i fell the best bet for india is to support a non pashtun nothern alliance as they had done earlier.
    also try to take balochistan to a higher level of irritation to pak.

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