Geopolitics – Afghanistan and Agalega

By Jan Arden

Our limited geo-punditry at national and governing levels should not prevent us from asking some questions on complex issues to which there may be only fluid answers at this stage. The planetary consequences of the US debacle in Afghanistan has been amply covered in these columns, last Friday, in Anil Madan’s wide-ranging perspective. We can recall a few bare facts again before considering some of the implications in our region and for our sovereign state.

The Indian Ocean is now at the heart of global geopolitics. Pic- Quartz India

  1. a) The mostly Pashtun Taliban on either side of the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, widely suspected to be harboured clients of the former’s secret services, as was the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, holed up at Abbottabad garrison town, have reaped a lightning speed triumph in the botched US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  2. b) What was the remote North-West frontier and the treacherous Hindu Kush region through which aliens invaded north India, even the British empire at its heyday found difficult to control and administer other than through buying a fidgety loyalty of clan and tribal warlords, guarding their traditions in the barren mountains and rugged terrain where only poppy thrives it seems. Both the former USSR and the USA could have learned something from the British military and colonial historians and avoided themselves costly misadventures, huge face loss, and the current intense disquiet of US allies that both China and Russia look to exploit.
  3. c) Taliban leadership has, since its take-over, been keen to convince the watching world, international aid groups and their own scared population that the harsh and obscurantist rule they imposed in their last stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, is a thing of the past. That has yet to be demonstrated and translated in ground realities as various ethnic and religious minorities flee the ravaged country and women already face the violence and nastiness of perverts and local vigilante Taliban groups. The last time the group ran the country, women were banned from education, most work and nearly all aspects of public life.
  4. d) A peaceful march gathered several dozen women this Saturday in Herat, western Afghanistan, demanding that their rights to work, education and participation in public affairs not be trampled upon. “We won’t be silent anymore,” said one activist in frail defiance as the marchers were unceremoniously roughed up and beaten by a Taliban group. That may be an isolated incident while Talibans of the older variety are yet to be retrained to think and act differently by the new leadership, but the scary uncertainties over human and women rights hang in the air.
  5. e) Equally dicey is the nagging question whether the vague Taliban assurances given in the Trump Doha agreement will hold any water and prevent Afghanistan from turning into a convenient terror-breeding centre, first against its own minorities (Shias, Balochs, etc), then progressively against outside “designated” enemies. The Taliban 2.0 has already released thousands of jailed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) and other terror commanders. The TTP, with renewed confidence, has this Sunday already claimed paternity for a violent suicide bomber attack in Quetta market, a regional Shia centre which admittedly has seen decades of chronic violence but the trend is alarming for the stability of the whole of South East Asia, even putting at risk the massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan.
  6. f) No strategic or geo-political analyst can foretell the evolution of the situation with regard to the rights of women and ethnic minorities or evaluate the risks that the Taliban 2.0 leadership, despite official promises of inclusive government, again morph into a regime reminiscent of the dark ages. Whether these vulnerable segments receive more than lip-service support and amicable pressure from immediate neighbours like Pakistan or Iran, from the bordering underbelly of the former USSR, like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and other Turkmens or from more distant but still influential Gulf states and the Saudi kingdom, remains debatable.
  7. g) However, many knowledgeable US security analysts believe the US military establishment has acknowledged for some years now the quasi-impossibility for the US, either alone or in uneasy partnership with western NATO allies or the cautious Saudis, to win the proclaimed “war on terror” launched in the aftermath of the spectacular attack on the US Twin Towers in 2001. The ineffectual memorandum signed by former President Trump in 2020 and the precipitous exit in August 2021 under President Joe Biden, were then maybe pathetic but the inevitable concluding paragraphs of a twenty-year story of US diplomatic and military failures in the Middle East region spanning Iraq and Syria to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That informed analytical narrative of the evolving nature of the “Pax Americana” in the Middle East and the acknowledged phasing out of the US-led “war on terror”, is associated with some important postulates, with definite implications for our region.

  1. i) The first relatively obvious one, is the US military establishment’s recognized futility of trying to impose external and western worldviews through stooges or puppet regimes with no support and grounding in the population beyond the capital and its vicinities. In the Cold War era, Vietnam was supposed to be the indispensable holding card to prevent the domino card theory in the “war against communism”. That politico-military graveyard of simplistic US assumptions and their ghastly failures has come and gone after immense costs on all sides. Exit from the afghan nightmare is a rather similar sequel to the “war on terror” where US forces had neither a believable rationale nor an achievable end in sight.
  2. ii) The second tenet of that analytical school is that eradication of terror outfits that hang low amidst the indigenous population benefiting from shelter and covert assistance, not to mention outside secret funding, is virtually impossible. That was the whole philosophy anyway behind US, Saudi and Pakistani funding, arming and conjoining of forces to help Talibans 1.0 successfully kick the Russian foreigners out of Afghanistan. The evolution of US military thought would be then akin to containment or accepting “manageable levels of terrorism” on the global, regional and sub-regional scenes except when these directly threaten US interests. Many capitals throughout south-Asia and Africa, traditional allies of the West or exposed to al-Qaeda or ISIS variants, will be pondering hard on exactly how much is “manageable” and what US support they can bank on.

iii) The third postulate is that the US naval and military needs the disentanglement from irritating failed ventures to refocus energies and resources on the real threat posed by the only country that can challenge US world dominance, if not already then certainly over the next twenty years. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council on a par with the US and Russia, and its economic, military, naval, diplomatic and geo-political clout has been amply displayed. It is gearing up for its next level, where eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the US or its Western allies on the high seas or for resource-rich territories can no longer be excluded.

This fundamental shift has implications for our region, if only because the refocus of US military thinking would add critical weight to the necessity of Diego as a substantive part of the Bahrain-Djibouti-Diego triangle for the US naval fleet in its future deterrence of Chinese adventurism in the Indian Ocean. Whatever resolutions may be passed in the UN or elsewhere, real-politics clearly indicate that both the US and the UK will give short thrift to any ill-advised Mauritian initiatives on the issue of Diego, with unforeseeable consequences on various fronts.

Secondly, we have no national interests to entrench or consolidate by taking sides in the upcoming cooperation and confrontation era between the US and its allies and China, nor should we unless we are forced to. Several powers have their commercial and naval fleet patrolling and ferrying the Indian Ocean without incurring snide and negative reporting from Al Jazeera or other networks, except when it concerns India, which anyway partners France and the US generally in Indian Ocean maritime security. Should the PM be right that there has been no land lease, no military base, and that the port and jetty developments at Agalega will remain under our control at PMO, we are fortunate that India, despite the Covid crisis, has funded and is conducting such a strategic development we could never afford on our own at Agalega, one that will immensely benefit our own sovereign interests in our economic zone.

* Published in print edition on 7 September 2021

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