Recent weeks have seen a turn of events in the Middle East that is likely to have significant effects on the strategic picture emerging in the Af-Pak region specifically and the new Great Game in general. These are being discussed in muted terms in strategic discussions in New Delhi without much clarity or consensus.
The sudden upsurge of violence in Iraq, in the Fallujah and Ramadi tribal strongholds, has seen the return of al-Qaeda to seek its place in the sun in areas where it had been effectively neutralised or evicted by US and Iraqi forces. Obviously, with this message to the West about its survivability, al-Qaeda also appears to be spreading itself to gain an expanded footprint in areas beyond Syria, lest its effectiveness be questioned within its rank and file.
The expanded footprint in Africa does not satisfy its ambitions and would probably be seen as just a temporary hold out. Fallujah and Ramadi in the Anbar area are symbols of radical resurgence, a message to the world about what could be expected in Afghanistan after the ISAF drawdown and eventual pull-out. How seriously should this be taken by those analysing the post-ISAF scenario in the Af-Pak region?
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Three aspects impinge on the events in Iraq. One, the internal Shia-Sunni discord within Islam in the Middle East is now reaching serious proportions. The rising power of the Hezbollah and the nascent improvement of US-Iran relations are possibly being viewed as the strengthening of Shia Islam. Two, the failure of the Arab Spring and the hopes it sparked creates a psychological space that needs to be filled.
If liberalism could not find place, then its replacement must be the radical ideology of one of the segments of Islam. Three, declining interest of the US in the affairs of the Middle East is leaving Israel freer to pro-actively confront its foes; its power cannot be allowed to proliferate. In the light of these, has al-Qaeda acted prematurely and revealed its possible intent and capability of what it can do in Afghanistan once it is vacated by foreign forces? Is this, therefore, an inadvertent message that the Western powers must factor in while assessing what post withdrawal Afghanistan may look like?
The US, while being convinced about the necessity to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, would probably have to look at this turn of events more seriously. A trillion dollars each invested in Iraq and Afghanistan must give the US and its allies the payoffs of security and influence in these crucial regions. The strong Israeli presence in the Middle East and the balance the Iran-Saudi antipathy provides may worry the US less about the immediate future there. However, such a balance of influence is not available in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be expected to be a reliable ally, given its own internal struggle with radicalism and anti-Americanism.
While India could be expected to play a proactive role to secure its interests, its physical and geographical displacement and lack of direct communication links would be a major dampener unless some very bold decisions are taken by the new government in power after May 2014. With the Pakistan army’s continuing conflict with the Pakistani Taliban on the one hand and backroom linkages with the Afghan Taliban on the other, the situation remains utterly diffused and unclear.
In the light of the above situation, what other factors should the US consider before taking decisions on its future strategy? A timebound drawdown and withdrawal plan was always being looked upon sceptically and any pragmatic observer would have surmised that this was only a guideline. Afghanistan cannot be looked upon in isolation and a super/big power would have to examine the linkages that the region has with other neighbouring regions.
The issue of radical Islam, its apparent resurgence in the Middle East and the portents that it holds of further spread into Central Asia, will need serious consideration for US interests. In the light of this, the assumption of fading US interest in West Asia may be an incorrect surmise. Perhaps too much is being read into the apparent cooling of US-Saudi Arabia relations and the emerging energy transformation from basic hydrocarbons to shale gas. We also need to factor in the position of China and the interests it continues to have in Afghanistan. Without going into details, China’s interests are linked to the mineral potential of Afghanistan, its proximity to the emerging energy and trade infrastructure that China is pursuing to short-circuit its long lines of communication to its east coast and the apparent worry it has about the possibility of creeping radicalism into its sensitive Xinjiang area.
For the US to take its final decisions, it needs to also view the survivability of post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Conflicting views are being expressed by the Afghan people themselves. Western educated and upper crust Afghans are confident about the future and the ability to withstand pressure from the Taliban and other radicals and continue on the path of nation-building on the western model; grounded and earthier representatives project scepticism but yet feel they will muddle through; the Afghan National Army (ANA) holds the key to stability because its survival as a military entity will be crucial.
The ANA is well-manned quantitatively and has gained much confidence in recent months while undertaking independent operations, albeit with heavy casualties. Military analysts allude to the confidence of any armed force if it can fight and absorb casualties without a dent on morale and command and control. However, it needs to be remembered that the ANA is seeking lethal military equipment that all supporters are reluctant to promise due to the inherent fear that the equipment could fall into Taliban hands due to desertions or defeat on the battlefield. In the light of this indecision, the effectiveness of the ANA may remain suspect and observers may continue to dedicate its recent success to the psychological advantage of ISAF presence on Afghan soil.
It may be early yet to assess the fallout of the Ukraine stand-off on other strategic interests of the US. Putin’s ability to wrest the advantage for the second time after the row over Syria could have its effects. The US may then be even more reluctant to be seen in withdrawal from a strategic region of the new Great Game.
Overall, it is unlikely that US interests will be served by a drawdown and withdrawal on planned lines. Events in the Middle East, which probably did not find much significance in earlier assessments, may well emerge as issues of prime concern. This could add another page to the considerations of the Bilateral Security Accord the US seeks with the Karzai government. The improving US economy may be another aspect that has not been factored in so far; a trillion dollars down the drain without commensurate security may demand a few billion more for a better reassurance. The Iran factor is as yet premature for consideration but with the apparent positive direction that Iran appears to be moving in, this could well be another factor that could alter perceptions and force the US to rethink to give itself more time for greater clarity.
With factors old and new and the emerging realities of a dangerous situation in the Middle East, belief in an imminent abandoning of Afghanistan by the western world led by the US may well be diluted as we progress into this year of uncertainty. 2014 promises to be a strategic analyst’s delight.
The writer is a Lt Gen (retd) of the Indian Army, is a senior fellow of the Delhi Policy Group and visiting fellow of the Vivekanand International Foundation