“Wanna fight no more, no more, no more!”

Wounded soldiers in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, in October 2007.

[Bloodied US troops — in retreat from Afghanistan]

The Americans have thrown in the towel; its military will soon slink out of Afghanistan. US President Joe Biden, over-riding Pentagon’s objections, announced the evening before the pull-out of all American troops from the “endless” Afghan war by September 11 because, he explained, “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.” This is how the punitive US intervention to avenge the 9/11 attacks on the twin Trade Towers in New York closes, as ignobly as America’s cutting and running from Syria, Iraq and still earlier from Vietnam. And no amount of dressing up this fact by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his sudden dash to Kabul — “the partnership is changing…[it] is enduring” — will hide the truth of a beaten America and its military hightailing it out of Afghanistan.

It proves once again that the US does not have the staying power to prosecute long wars, that once engaged, the mounting deaths of American soldiers (some 2,500 to-date) and escalating costs (well in excess of $ 1.2 trillion over 20 years) of fighting a difficult war in distant battlefield begin taking their toll. All it needs is a highly motivated and resilient foe, strong of will even if minimally armed — as are the Afghan Taliban and earlier as were the Viet Cong, to slowly suck the spirit out of the armed intruders. And notwithstanding the ultra-advanced weaponry and battlefield support systems of the US expeditionary military in Afghanistan, the US forces — Washington lately realized — simply don’t have it in them to defeat the Afghan Taliban. Hence, Biden’s scoot option.So much for the reliability in crisis of the US as partner and ally! This is a warning to Asian states and to Prime Minister Modi, NSA Ajit Doval, S Jaishankar and his crowd in MEA and the Indian military brass seeking solidification of the American connection.

However, it was the leader of the opposition, Republican senator Mitch McConnell who accurately described the situation in Afghanistan post-Biden’s decision. “We’re to help our [Taliban] adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks”, he said, “by gift wrapping the country, and handing it right back to them.”

It is likely the Taliban will assume the reins of government in Kabul. But it is also a possibility that such a denouement may not obtain anytime soon for several reasons. The Uzbek group controlling northern Afghanistan under the warlord, Colonel Abdul Rashid Dostum, with a private army of some 40,000 Uzbeks, has never liked the Taliban and will not accept their writ. Also the area that was once the foremost Afghan guerilla leader the late Ahmed Shah Massoud’s home ground — the Panjsher Valley — is where the ethnic Tajik Afghans reside and where the Taliban don’t hold sway. Both the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic provinces of Afghanistan, on the other hand, support the present regime of President Ashraf Ghani — Delhi’s longtime partner. Then there are the shifting interests of four other players in the Afghan mix — Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran and India.

From the time of the Soviet occupation, Pakistan was the US umbilical that materially sustained the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Russians; which mujahideen of Pashtun stock then signed on with the Taliban led by the one-eyed Mullah Omar, until it was forcefully overthrown by the US. Thereupon the Taliban returned to what they were best at doing — waging an asymmetric war, now against the American military in the new millennium. The problem for Pakistan is that the backwash from this episode led to the “Kalashnikov culture” with attendant availability of small arms and ammo seeped into Pakistani Punjab and into tribal areas in Waziristan, etc recently “pacified” by the army. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) emerged from these elements and has attained a certain critical mass, with its influence spreading farther and deeper in the countryside.

TTP’s activity has paralleled the rapid growth of the even more reactionary Islamist group — the Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which the Imran Khan government outlawed April 13 — perhaps at Pakistan Army’s prompting. This after the Imran dispensation had conceded many TLP demands, including one that won’t be realized — cessation of diplomatic relations with France for its anti-Muslim measures (banning hijab, etc.). The ban on this outfit resulted in its cadres assaulting leaders, organizing ‘chakka jams’ and shutting down most cities a day later (April 14). But the larger official intent was to prevent TLP from undertaking its threatened Long March on Islamabad to impose targeted mass pressure on the government to meet still more problematic demands.

As usually happens in such circumstances, the tendency will be for outlier, ideologically disparate, outfits such as TTP and TLP arrayed against the Pakistani state, to forge tactical and logistics links to assist each other in realizing their slightly different agendas. Then there are fellow travellers in this extremist-Islamic bloc in Pakistan, such as Lashkar-E-Taiba/Pasban-E-Ahle Hadis and Jaish-E-Mohammed/Tahrik-E-Furqan, which are militant on the Kashmir issue and on the frontlines of the anti-India front, but are being held back by Islamabad which does not want these groups to precipitate terrorist incidents in J&K that, besides pushing India and Pakistan into another cycle of mutual recrimination and possibly low level hostilities, will once again drag Pakistan to the brink, tipping the country from the ‘Grey List’ into the UN Financial Action Task Force’s ‘Black List’. This will automatically trigger lethal sanctions and sink Pakistan economically for good. The direction in which this is headed was signalled by the UK government two days back, for the first time, including Pakistan in a list of 16 states identified as assisting terrorists.

To add to this roiling mess are the ongoing activities of freedom fighters in Balochistan and the stirrings of rebellion among the minority shia community who suffer the sharp end of sunni hate, and have had enough. This especially involves the Hazaras and other shia communities who constitute a majority in Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan, where public protests against Pakistan’s sunni excesses have mobilized the local people, and which condition of popular alienation the Imran government and the Pakistan army are in mortal dread of.

Russia intiated its own forum to achieve peace in Pakistan, the one that left out India. Moscow’s interest is in seeing that Taliban form the government in Kabul, because of the belief that this is the only way to contain and limit this menace to Afghanistan. Russians have always feared that should the US military remain in Afghanistan, some of the Taliban fighters who are driven out will begin reaching the Caucasus region and once there will radicalize Russia’s southern tier. China too sides with Russia in that it too is afraid of the Taliban influencing the restive Uyghur population of Xinjiang. Beijing rather trusts Pakistan to continue to manipulate the Taliban factions and to tamp down on this danger. The strategic interests of Iran, on the other hand, in several aspects, overlap India’s interests and those of the Ghani government, and of the Uzbek and Tajik groups — in that Tehran doesn’t want an extremist sunni regime ensconced in Kabul and, if it is somehow installed, then Iran will be inclined to do whatever is necessary to undermine it. This makes for a shared Indo-Iranian interest and for Delhi to begin preparing at a minimuman an arms pipeline, as in the past, to these opposition groups.

That leaves India with a menu of options — not all of them clearcut or without risk. Depending on whether the secret UAE-facilitated back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan delivers a modicum of peace, meaning that Islamabad conveys it is reconciled to the Constitutional change of status for Kashmir, etc., Delhi can callibrate its moral and material support for the Ghani government, strengthen its old links to the Tajik and Uzbek factions, provide such covert help to TTP and Baloch fighters as furthers India’s national interest, and cooperate with Tehran in propping up the Ghani government for as long as it lasts, and then to upkeep an all-effort insurgency against the Taliban faction that assumes control in Kabul.

In this context CDS General Bipin Rawat’s worrying yesterday about the US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan creating “a vacuum” hints at the Indian government’s diffidence in dealing with an unfolding situation where India has lost none of its cards. This view is in contrast to his counterpart Pakistan COAS General QJ Bajwa’s “welcoming” US military pullout. Whatever the Modi regime thinks is lost with the US militarily out of the picture, Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad need to be made to appreciate that India — if it plays its cards right and that’s a big if considering Delhi increasingly takes its cues from Washington — has the power to be, if not the decisive actor, then a spoiler in any political arrangement in Afghanistan that doesn’t take India’s interests fully into account.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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19 Responses to “Wanna fight no more, no more, no more!”

  1. krishna soni says:

    Respected Sir @Professor Karnad,Sir you had mentioned about every regional player interests in Afghanistan,but Turkey is also looking to play a role in afghanistan peace talks and is hosting a 10 day peace talks from april 24 in istanbul,what are turkey’s interests in afghanistan.

    • Turkey has marginal role, if that.

      • San Mann says:

        The last time that Afghanistan was in play (ie. prior to US invasion), Erdogan was not yet there on the Turkish political scene. Now that Erdogan is there, he may yet cast his own shadow on Afghanistan, even from afar. As we’ve seen, Turkish forces have shown up in Libya to influence events there. They are also carrying out activities on Syrian soil. It’s entirely possible that Turkey may seek to revive its interests in the Far East as well, since that too was once under the Ottoman sphere of influence.

  2. krishna soni says:

    Respected Sir @Professor Karnad,Sir In 2015, Seychelles and India signed an agreement for constructing and operating joint military facility on the Island. A coast surveillance radar system built by support from India became operational in 2016. A revised agreement was signed in 2018 and the Seychelles President has endorsed its ratification. The Government of India has also stated that this was a joint project on the request of the Seychelles government and would be jointly managed by both countries.India plans to invest $550 million in building the facility.Recently, the deal for an Indian military base in Seychelles was declared as ‘dead’ by the Island’s opposition party. The leader of the opposition also clearly stated that this was the end of the ‘assumption agreement’ and no further discussions on India’s military base were on the agenda.
    Sir according to you are there any measures by which India can have a military base in Seychelles.
    You had mentioned in your book’ why India is not a great power yet’ that foreign naval bases are important for India to become a great power.

    • India has presence in Seychelles with a radar station, etc.

      • krishna soni says:

        Respected Sir @Professor Karnad ,I agree that we had a radar station there,but my question is how to revive the deal for a FULL Indian military base in Seychelles,which is facing stiff opposition there by the island’s natives,please correct me if I am facts are wrong.

  3. Marco A Ciaccia says:

    Sir I know there are some maoist factions historically active in Afghanistan and I wonder whether they take some directives by Peking, or China anyway is deemed to manipulate them. It would be interesting also to frame their ethnic balance, and btw do you know if they are dominantly Hazara?

    • May be not Hazaras, but shia are in majority in Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan.

      • San Mann says:

        Prof Karnad, I feel the best solution is to have a North Afghanistan and a South Afghanistan, just as there are North & South Yemen, North & South Korea, etc.

        South Afghanistan would be the Pashtun-dominated portion, which is where Pakistan and its Taliban hold the most influence. North Afghanistan would be the parts dominated by the Tajiks, Uzbeks & Hazaras. Transfer of the Pashtuns in Kunduz over to the south would allow for a clean partition of Afghanistan into northern and southern halves.

        Pakistan can then rule over South Afghanistan using its Taliban proxies, who will in turn extend their tentacles into Pakistan’s Pashtun-populated northern lands. The Durand Line would naturally get dissolved as part of that process, and the Pashtuns would prove to be too large for Pakistan to swallow, resulting in the exit of the Pashtun areas from Pakistan entirely.

  4. Amit says:

    I’ve been thinking about the Indian response on Iran especially with US threats to India on CAATSA. India should tell the US that if it imposes CAATSA then India will ignore the sanctions on Iran and restart trade with Iran and complete the north south transport corridor ASAP. This will have multiple benefits for India – cheaper oil, give Iran a choice apart from China and reduce Chinese influence, surround Pakistan and put pressure on them to manage the Taliban (like you say there is some overlap in interests), open up a route to trade with Russia and give them a reason to build relations with India apart from military sales, give the central Asian states an alternative to China, and support Afghanistan economically through increased trade routes.

    Negatives would be a hit in relations with the US and perhaps Israel. But this could be a tit for tat if the US puts pressure due to CAATSA or human rights. But it’s high time India did something in Central Asia as for too long now it has been at the receiving end. In fact India should do this with or without CAATSA. India succumbed to Trump pressure on Iran and this has given China an opening there.

  5. Muhammad Aryan [Across the Radcliffe Line] says:

    Greetings Mr. Karnad,

    ***||| The strategic interests of Iran, on the other hand, in several aspects, overlaps India’s interests and those of the Ghani government, and of the Uzbek and Tajik groups — in that Tehran doesn’t want an extremist sunni regime ensconced in Kabul and, if it is somehow installed, then Iran will be inclined to do whatever is necessary to undermine it. This makes for a shared Indo-Iranian interest and for Delhi…. |||***

    Sir, Iran hosted a high-powered Taliban delegation 3 months ago. It was a significant signal from Tehran. As far as Iran is concerned, the bigger concern is the trans-national Daesh and continued US military/mercenary (Black Water) ​presence on its eastern frontier. And Iranians, perhaps, come to the conclusion that Taliban would be able to check both the menaces. Now, whether the IRGC was also on board, only time will tell.

    ***||| Delhi can calibrate its moral and material support for the Ghani government, strengthen its old links to the Tajik and Uzbek factions, provide such covert help to TTP and Baloch fighters as furthers India’s national interest, and cooperate with Tehran in propping up the Ghani government… |||***

    Sir, India’s ties with Iran will deteriorate if it decides to actively interfere in Pakistani Baluchistan. The neighbouring province of Sistan-Baluchistan is saturated with anti-Iranian terrorist groups. Any destabilization on the Pakistani side will surely embolden terrorist elements operating against Iran. Intelligence cooperation between Islamabad and Tehran helped the latter crush Sunni terrorist insurgents like Abdolmalek Rigi. Tehran would not want to spoil this delicate security relationship.

    Lastly, Islamabad has diversified its investment portfolio across the Durand line. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov’s visit to Pakistan last month was among other things meant to signal Afghan Uzbek factions as Tashkent hold immense leverage over Abdur Rashid Dostum and his clique. Kamilov himself is no small fish. His stature within the Uzbek power structure is immense, perhaps, more than President Shavkat.

    In a nutshell, it may not necessarily be 90’s all over again.


    • Muhammad Aryan@ — There’s much in what you say.

      • Sankar says:

        Not clear about what you imply here.

        At the time of partition (1946), Baluchistan wanted to join the newly forming. Indian Union. But the Indian political leadership did not go for it since there would be no land connection – it would have required a corridor. Then West Pakistan could get also a corridor to its Eastern Wing, a proposal India wanted to reject.

        Hence ever since the birth of Pakistan “independence” has been a legitimate demand by the Balochis, a headache for the (West) Pakistanis. Political movement by the Balochis started to swell up. Pak in the early days brought that under control by sending their General Tikka Khan who “slaughtered” the locals and came to be known as the “Butcher of Baluchistan”.

        In short, this political history cannot be simply dismissed as “anti-Iranian terrorist groups” or even as “… destabilization on the Pakistani side …”.

        And that history has a ‘poetic’ similarity with the “Mukti Bahini” of the Bengalis for their freedom fight against the West Pakistanis. In fact, in the early days of the 1970s when Gen Yahya Khan failed to control the freedom demand in the East, he appointed the same General Tikka Khan as the Martial Law administrator in Dacca to achieve the same result as in Baluchistan. Gen Tikka went on with the same spree of “slaughter” but it backfired ultimately with the birth of Bangladesh!

        Balochis are not anti-Hindus, they have protected to my knowledge, as much as they could the relics of Hindu civilization in their territory against the rabid attacks by the Pak State policy.

        As far as Iran comes into play, remember that the Shah of Iran was supplying Pak with Starfighters (F104) during the 1965 war. Iran drives its own state interest and so must India, no holds barred and no love lost.

        Furthermore, re Durand line, again the Pathans in NWFP wanted to form a “confederation” with the Indian Union in the early days of independence of the British Raj. Their leaderships, Badshah Khan (the Frontier Gandhi), Wali Khan and others regularly visited Delhi to take up their case. I do not know why that petered out. So there is a historical basis to the present-day political struggle in that part of the world.

    • Amit says:

      Interesting data points. So what you are saying is that Pakistan has more leverage now in north Afghanistan and Balochistan than in the nineties. However, that still does not reduce India’s attractiveness to Iran. If India shows some courage against the US on Iran, it could change a lot of dynamics in Central Asia.


    What seems clear that India’s prime interest is primarily to keep Pakistan down and keep China out as per as Afghanistan is concerned.

    I do not think that we do have similar leverage compared to previous decades when it comes to Baluchistan. Remember India could send help to Baloch militants by using Afghan soil and a anti-Pakistan government in Afghanistan. But now in changed circumstances that Afghan government may not be willing to risk antagonism from Pakistan(as well as Iran, Russia , central Asian countries and China) by hosting Baloch (and TTP) militants in places like Kandahar and Kabul.

    After all the Afghan government knows very well that it needs a peace deal with the Taliban for survival of the post-2001 regime and only Pakistan can convince the Taliban to cut a deal with the present post-2001 regime in Kabul. So the Afghan government is unlikely to antagonize Pakistan very much for it’s own survival instincts. Strong advise from Iran, Russia, Central Asian states and China (alongside some Dollars from China) will also incentivize the Kabul government to not toe the Indian line on Pakistan as it used to do in the past.

    Following things support my viewpoint. Past few months have seen assassinations of prominent Baluch (and TTP) militants in places like Kandahar and Kabul in broad daylight. Remember Aslam Baluch the numero uno of Baloch millitancy was assasinated in a bombing in Kandahar just months after an attack by his personally trained group on the Chinese consulate in Karachi.

    Another event which went unnoticed recently was that the Indian consulates bordering Pakistan in Jalalabad were closed by the MEA and without given any clear reason. This also shows that we are losing our assets in order to control events in Baluchistan like we used to do in the past.

    Also as we can observe that the Baluch millitants are neither as ideologically committed like the Indian Maoists nor they are as hard working resourceful as Hezbollah to continue fighting against the Pakistani state. In all likelihood apart from orchestrating some very high-profile attacks , the leaders of these groups like Brahmdag Bugti and Karima Baluch are likely to seek shelter and peaceful , secure life in places like Delhi and Western capitals in coming years.

    I believe these above events clearly show that India does not have as much leverage when it comes to Baluchistan compared to years gone by.

    I would love your expert views on these by Mr Karnad.

  7. sendmyjunk says:

    Post 11 Sept ‘21, after the move-out of the US Army, the Gani government will collapse. India and the US will have to deal with Taliban in Kabul, who are tough nuts.

    Regarding Indian trade and influence in Central Asia, I have made a few trips there. Russia, the US, China, and Saudi Arabia have been working very hard since 1999 for trade and influence. India has very little to offer compared them. Besides, what strategic interests do we have there.


    Can’t we engage with Taliban directly? Won’t Taliban, if they have a grip on power, need to build Afghanistan? Can’t then India profit on its already established infrastructure capabilities ? Is it always necessary to reach Taliban through Pakistan?

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