A lot of government/media misdirection going on concerning Afghanistan.
I read the tea leaves over at Asia Times in a piece on Ashraf Ghani’s public lovefest with Nadendra Modi at the “Heart of Asia” conference. Pakistan and China were there, but got precious little “heart”.
The piece is titled “The hole at the Heart of Asia”.
To go beyond the Afghanistan/India link-up covered at AT, here’s my big picture take.
The US is drawing down in Afghanistan.
When the Soviets drew down in Afghanistan, this is what happened to their Kabul client:
Embarrassing. To be avoided.
So the Obama administration is doing all it can to ensure the continued survival and viability of the Ghani administration in Kabul.
Even though the Taliban is feeling its oats and doing pretty well.
What I see happening:
Determined media management to poor-mouth the Taliban’s prospects to keep Western donors/allies on board with the Ghani government. Worth noting: Afghanistan is not just an American show; it’s a NATO/Atlanticist project. Connoisseurs of the magnificent Atlanticist propaganda campaign in Syria will recognize the usual suspects at work.
The Guardian, as noted in my Asia Times piece, ran a story that excessive civilian casualties inflicted by the Taliban were causing traditional donors to shy away. Message/hopeful prophecy: Taliban running out of money! On the ropes!
The Guardian spin was disavowed by the alleged source. Oops.
But Human Rights Watch picked up the “excessive civilian casualties” theme to try to deny the Taliban public relations traction for its own gambit: posing as noble protectors of Afghanistan’s national infrastructure and vital investment (including the big Chinese copper mine).
Encourage Taliban division and disarray through targeted assassination, most notably by the drone strike that killed Taliban head Mullah Mansoor inside Pakistan in May. This was supposed to build on the discombobulating factor of the tardy acknowledgment of the death of Mullah Omar and diminished authority of any successor, and encourage factional infighting and chaos within the Taliban. Haven’t seen a lot of that, though. Apparently, the new guy who runs the Taliban is a careful and capable guy.
Try to lure selected militant factions and warlords into the Kabul government to isolate and weaken the Taliban hardliners.
The big win here was getting buy-in from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most notorious pirate and warlord in Afghanistan’s recent history. He was granted amnesty in a peace deal. I expect in addition to the usual patriotic/political enticements, considerable treasure was provided by the United States to bring Hekmatyar around.
Since US and Iran apparently tag teamed to deprive Hekmatyar of his previous nest egg—rumored to be $72 million—after the 2002 invasion put America in the Afghan saddle—interested to speculate what Hekmatyar considers a safe store of value nowadays. Cash? Gold? Bitcoin?
Hekmatyar has apparently not emerged from hiding yet to enjoy his new status. Cagy guy.
One of the more sinister elements is the emergence of ISIS just when the US needs it the most as a threat to the Taliban. I see a similar dynamic in the Philippines, where Duterte is now dealing with a nasty Moro splinter group that has declared its allegiance to ISIS. A recent discussion of Taliban strategy included this paragraph:
The recently signed peace accord of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hizb e Islami, with Afghan government has many connotations for the war theatre in Afghanistan. The former has already announced to support IS against Taliban in 2015. The accord will make anti-Taliban coalition strong to put extra pressure on Taliban insurgent fighters for a settlement with pro-Afghan forces.
[Update: Many thanks to bernard of Moon Of Alabama for pointing me to this fascinating in-depth piece from Afghanistan Analysts Network on how Afghanistan sheltered anti-Taliban/anti-Pakistan government & anti-ISI TTP militants even after they allied with the IS Caliphate in May 2015. So Afghanistan was also a practitioner of the time-honored practice of using disgruntled militants to attack other militants but, perhaps under US pressure, turned on them in July 2015 two months after they pledged allegiance to IS. I would expect the Afghan (and US) governments will still be in the hunt for useful assets to pressure the Taliban--like Hekmatyar!--but they better not hang out the ISIS shingle. CH 12-8-2016]
A full-court press on Pakistan to dial back support for the Taliban, weaken it, and exacerbate the divisions and infighting the US hopes to provoke. This involves an ostentatious anti-Pakistan tilt and the and the old standby: threatening Islamabad.
Recall that Richard Armitage famously promised to bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if it didn’t get with the anti-Taliban program after 9/11.
However, since this year the US is on its way out of Afghanistan instead of on the way in, a new heavy is needed to deliver the message.
I suspect in 2016 it’s “Stop supporting the Taliban or we greenlight India to unleash hell in every corner of Pakistan”. As I point out in my AT article, there are ample opportunities for mischief, given the shaky state of Pakistan central government rule in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, the retaliatory escalation across the Kashmir Line of Control, unrest in the Tribal Areas and Patunkwa. You name it, Pakistan’s got it.
Ghani’s tongue-bath for India was very much part of this initiative.
These five elements are the fun, easy parts.
The hard part is handling the People’s Republic of China. Especially since the United States has rather cavalierly decided that India is the solution to all its South Asian woes: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chinese penetration.
Despite Ghani’s overt leap into Modi’s arms, China is still a big part of the Afghanistan equation, both through its backing of Pakistan and its direct involvement in Afghan security and economic development issues.
So Ghani would like to calibrate the policy so he’s not facing a hostile China across the border. And the United States and India are trying to get the PRC to join them in pressuring Pakistan.
Trouble is, I think the toothpaste’s out of the tube. By now the PRC regards Modi as fundamentally hostile to the Chinese project in Pakistan, indeed any significant Chinese presence in South Asia. The PRC probably gives less weight to official Indian government handjobs and pays more attention to India’s current interest in playing the Tibetan and Uyghur separatist cards.
It also probably regards Modi as fundamentally hostile to the continued viability of Pakistan. The Western commentariat blithely ignores Modi’s irredentist attitude toward Pakistan, but the core belief of the RSS and the BJP is that Partition was a crime against Mother India (Bharat Mata) and a treasonous capitulation to the Muslim minority, and Pakistan, more than a failed state, lacks the legitimacy or right to survival of a genuine nation.
So the PRC will resist an expanded role for India in Afghanistan (which would take away the famous Pakistani “strategic depth” and expose it to the Indian threat from both east and west) and is unlikely to decisively support the call for Pakistan to cut off the Taliban—its key strategic asset and, now, bulwark against Indian influence, in Afghanistan.
At the same time, I doubt Modi lacks the suicidal impulses displayed by the Soviet Union and the United States, and will not decisively and overtly intervene in Afghanistan to buttress its preferred regime in Kabul. Another thing that the Western commentariat rather amusingly chooses to ignore is the rather absurd picture of a non-neighboring Hindu state—one presided, moreover, by the notorious alleged enabler of an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002—presenting itself as the natural ally of Islamic and Turkic Afghanistan.
So, I doubt that the Taliban will be weakened enough to come into the Afghan government on Ghani’s terms, or that the Taliban will strengthen sufficiently to force itself into Kabul on its terms.
In other words, my prediction is for more bloody muddling in Afghanistan as the Taliban and Ghani and Pakistan and India and the PRC jostle for advantage.
In my opinion, Afghanistan remains the most likely venue for the first major piece of Chinese military power projection since the 1979 Vietnam invasion. If the security situation genuinely degrades—or if the PRC decides India is gaining too much of an upper hand and an Afghan security crisis needs to be fomented to justify an injection of PRC power—I wouldn’t be too surprised if some kind of PLA military presence materialized in northern Afghanistan.
Nobody in their right mind wants to put troops into Afghanistan. But the PRC will, in my opinion, if it feels it has to in order to bring decisive force to bear where needed to keep a lid on things in Xinjiang.
To me, however, the current wild card is India.
If Modi decides that the US anti-Pakistan tilt is a rapidly wasting asset—Trump’s notorious phone call with Pakistan’s Sharif probably range some major alarm bells in New Delhi—he may be tempted to escalate his anti-Pakistan campaign and do as much damage as he can before the US tries to restrain India.
I would like to conclude this piece with the following observation.
In response to its declining strategic advantage, the United States has decided to abandon its position as balancer and restrainer of regional powers. India and Japan are being encouraged to act as regional hegemons with US backing in order to restrain China in return for participating in Asian security initiatives dear to America’s heart (the “pivot”; the stabilization of Afghanistan).
In bad news for the United States, both India and Japan are not obedient clients in the US “principled international order”. They are now revisionist powers, i.e. they reject the US World War II victor/lawgiver narrative for Asia in favor of one centered on Japan as an Asian leader and decolonizer and independent India as a victory over Atlanticist imperialism. They will exploit US backing to the hilt, but deference to US policy will be increasingly “honored in the breach” as they say in Shakespeare-land.
In other words:
WE HAVE GIVEN THE INITIATIVE IN ASIAN POLICY TO RISING REGIONAL HEGEMONS WHO ARE EQUALLY OPPOSED TO US AS WELL AS CHINESE DOMINATION.
In my opinion, this US gambit will be remembered as the ruinous miscalculation that 86'd the US position in Asia.
So it's worth the screaming-font treatment.
“Asia run by Asians” is probably a good thing. But probably not a good thing for US dreams of its “Pacific Century”.