By C Christine Fair
Feb 01, 2019
For nine years, Washington has pursued
talks with the Afghan Taliban to end a war that began on October 7, 2001. This
week, Zalmay Khalilzad, Donald Trump’s special envoy for ending the war, told
The New York Times that after six days of talks in Qatar, American negotiators
and Taliban agreed on “a draft of the framework” for some future accord.
Washington is considering a complete
withdrawal of US-led forces in exchange for the Taliban committing to direct
talks with Afghan government for a ceasefire. The New York Times anointed the
framework as the “biggest tangible step towards ending a war that has cost tens
of thousands of lives and profoundly changed American foreign policy”. It seems
as if many observers, in rank cupidity, are mistaking a framework for a US exit
with a deal to bring to peace in Afghanistan while believing the Taliban can or
will fulfil their promises.
According to Khalilzad, the Taliban
committed to preventing Afghanistan from being a base for terrorists. A Taliban
official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the BBC that both sides
agreed to form separate working groups on: a time frame for the withdrawal of US-led
forces and a commitment from the Taliban to prevent al Qaeda from using
Afghanistan as a base.
While Washington wants the Taliban to
negotiate a ceasefire with the Afghan government directly, they are disinclined
to do so because they dismiss the government as an American puppet. The
afore-noted Taliban official said they are conferring with their leadership the
demand to negotiate a ceasefire with Kabul. He, however, did not believe the
deal would depend on either direct negotiations or the ceasefire.
Zalmay Khalilzad at the Afghan peace talks.
Twitter @US4AfghanPeaceZalmay Khalilzad at the Afghan peace talks. Twitter
It's difficult to tell where American
credulity ends and mendacity begins. Washington knows it lacks the will to
muster a military victory though the US armed forces have sustained the canard
that Trump’s “policy” is producing battlefield wins. Washington has tried to
convince the Taliban that they cannot win either. This is absurd and the
Taliban, as well as their Pakistani patrons, know it.
The Taliban need not govern or defeat the
Afghan and American-led forces. They merely need to preclude the Afghan
government from exercising hegemony of violence.
Wizened observers know the Taliban have the
upper hand for several reasons: they are going nowhere, they know the Americans
want out at any cost, and the stakes in Afghanistan for their Pakistani dullahs
are high as Kabul has forged relations with its near and far neighbours,
including India, to diminish Islamabad’s coercive power.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, responding
to the news from Khalilzad, said, “We are committed to ensuring peace…But there
are values which are non-negotiable, for example national unity, national
sovereignty, territorial integrity, a powerful and competent central government
basic rights of the citizens of the country.”
In contrast, the Taliban have insisted upon
an interim power-sharing agreement without contesting elections, instituting
Islamic law, dispensing with much of the constitution and reversing gains in
The Americans seem more than willing to
sell out the Afghans, despite the enormous loss of life and expenditures.
Arm-chair Afghan analysts ridiculed sceptics, arguing that a commitment to keep
al Qaeda from operating in Afghanistan has never been on the table.
While this is technically true, it is not
that it could not have been. After the 9/11 attacks, President Pervez Musharraf
dispatched his ISI chief, Lt Gen Mahmud Ahmed, to persuade the Taliban to give
up Osama bin Laden to a Muslim country. However, Ahmed told the Taliban to hold
out. Musharraf sacked him and the Americans invaded Afghanistan on October 7.
While we will never know if a different outcome could have been secured with
another negotiator, we know that the Americans were never committed to
resourcing this war for an ensemble of reasons that changed over time.
Defeat, most importantly, was a foregone
conclusion when Washington went to war with Pakistan as its key partner. It was
like hiring an arsonist to put out the fires he continually starts. Pakistan
was always the centre of gravity of this conflict yet the Americans could never
find a way of countenancing this reality.
With the Americans dead set to withdraw,
it’s clear that Washington, once again, will serve up Afghanistan to Pakistan
on a platter. With the Afghan security forces struggling and American military
and financial support likely to evaporate, the government faces a serious
challenge. And this is exactly the opportunity Pakistan has been waiting for.
The All-New Great Game
By C Christine Fair
Piles of second-hand motorcycles headed to
the bowels of Afghanistan, serpentine queues of brightly painted trucks,
petrol-filled jerrycans piled up by the roadside: there’s nothing to show that
this is among the world’s most dangerous roads. But, the India-built
Delaram-Zaranj highway in Afghanistan has the potential to change the strategic
map of the region and the fight to develop it is at the heart of a
geo-strategic struggle for influence between India and Pakistan.
The 215km-road, also known as Route 606,
links Zaranj, the capital of Afghanistan’s Nimruz province that borders Iran,
to Delaram, a transport hub that connects to the Kandahar–Herat Highway.
I recently visited Zaranj and travelled the
road built by India. I wanted to assess the infrastructural capacity and
traffic through this border crossing. The border town integral to the highway’s
success already strains from the shipments coming from the Iranian port city of
Bandar Abbas. While Chabahar, a deep-sea port India is building in southeast
Iran, offers the prospect to transform Zaranj, there is much work to be done.
On Route 606
What I found in Zaranj surprised my
interlocutors in Kabul, many of whom were under the impression that the
crossing is under-utilised. Far from it. This dusty town was a busy hub and at
full capacity even though little traffic is coming in from Chabahar -- most of
the vehicles are from Bandar Abbas.
If India hopes the road to be an
alternative to Pakistan’s warm water routes, New Delhi should consider helping
Afghanistan augment the infrastructure. For one thing, the bridge that links
the two countries is too narrow for two-way traffic. It takes interminably long
for a single truck to make the crossing.
Trucks are stacked up along the
Zaranj-Delaram highway, making it difficult for regular traffic. Trucks may
have to queue up for up to two months, clogging the narrow road.
The customs and border facilities struggle
with the operational tempo as do the counter-narcotics forces. Large amounts of
precursor materials that convert opium to lucrative narcotics such as heroin
pass through Zaranj but police lack detection devices.
As I spent two days in Zaranj speaking to
drivers, businessmen and an array of officials, I could not imagine how this
crossing could bear more traffic.
Once in Iran, Afghan truckers report a bevy
of woes, beginning with usurious visa charges, extortion, and inadequate quotas
of petrol to make the journey. Truckers told me that they feel as if they have
no advocates. Everyone said they wish the border could be open all day, every
day. They, however, claim the Iranians demure for various reasons. Truckers
entering Afghanistan must countenance the Taliban as well as corrupt police officials.
The Big Picture
In 2003, India and Iran signed the
so-called “Road Map to Strategic Cooperation”. The centrepiece was the
collaboration on the Chabahar port. India is also a stakeholder in the
so-called North-South Corridor on which goods will move from India to Chabahar,
pass through Iran via rail or road then onward to the Caspian and northern
Because Pakistan has denied India access to
its soil, for New Delhi, Chabahar is a needed byway to Iran, Afghanistan and
beyond. Moreover, it is 171km from Gwadar, the port China is building on
Pakistan’s Makran coast as a part of the so-called “China Pakistan Economic
In 2005, India also began work on the
ambitious Route 606. Built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) at a cost of
Rs 600 Crore, it was a constant irritant for Pakistan for various reasons.
First, is the nature of BRO itself, whose
website explains it is “committed to meeting the strategic need of (India’s)
Second, Islamabad understood that the route
would reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for access to warm waters.
Islamabad has used Kabul’s reliance on Pakistan as a tool of economic arbitrage
and to preclude India from having ground access to Afghanistan.
Third, Nimruz borders Balochistan, where Pakistan
accuses India of interfering in collusion with Afghanistan. Fourth, it is yet
another visible symbol of India’s presence in a country that Pakistan seeks to
render into a vassal of Rawalpindi, the home of Pakistan’s opprobrious army.
Given Pakistan’s control over the Taliban
and other murderous organisations such as the Haqqani network, the road came
under constant attack during construction and after it was handed over to
Afghans in January 2009, by which time six Indians, including a BRO driver and
four Indo-Tibetan Border Police men, and 129 Afghans were murdered. This road
was to be the shortest route to move products between Afghanistan and Iranian
India retrenched from the project after the
UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, ceding space to China.
In 2015, under President Barack Obama, China, France, Germany, Russia, the
United Kingdom and the US along with the European Union forged a historic deal
with Tehran to limit its ability to develop nuclear weapons, bringing Iran back
into the comity of nations. The so-called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of
Action (JCPOA) cleared the path for India to re-engage in Chabahar.
India resumed work on the port with
The Shadow Of Trump
Late 2018, the fate of Zaranj and Chabahar
was in a limbo again, contingent upon the whims of the maladroit US President
When he assumed the presidency in January
2017, he began eviscerating the accomplishments of Obama. In May 2018, Trump
withdrew from JCPOA and threatened sanctions against anyone dealing with Iran.
This disquieted India for several reasons.
First, India imports more than 80% of its crude, of which about 10% comes from
Iran. Indian refiners prefer Iranian crude due to better pricing and terms.
Second, Chabahar, where India is developing
three berths, would also have come under the sanctions. India is also building
a rail link from Chabahar to the Afghan border. Not only would the snap-back
sanctions restrained India’s strategic goals, they would have also undermined
the viability of the port.
Under the US law, Washington could exempt
sanctions for activities that “provide reconstruction assistance for or further
the economic development of Afghanistan”. Many analysts, including this author,
strenuously argued that India should stand its ground and push for relief.
India prevailed. The Trump administration
offered New Delhi a waiver on both oil imports and Chabahar, including the
planned rail link. It was a huge relief not only for India but also for
If Afghanistan is to get the most from this
border crossing, it will have to dedicate more resources to clean up
corruption, enhance security and work with Iran to make life easier for the
While the twin problems of corruption and
insecurity perdure throughout Afghanistan, Kabul should prioritise the Zaranj
crossing, which has the potential to transform this dusty little outpost with
few opportunities other than trucking and hocking smuggled fuel.
India, which enjoys good relations with
Iran and Afghanistan, is well positioned to help. In doing so, India will
advance its strategic interests in the region while continuing to provide the
value-added projects that have endeared Indians to Afghans.
A new way forward?
In September 2018, the Trump administration
foisted upon the region yet another special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, with the
hope that he could secure a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and conclude
the 17-year war in Afghanistan. Scholars of South Asia were sceptical: few
people are as loathed and distrusted by all sides as Khalilzad, who was in
India as part of a two-week tour of the region early January 2019. Khalilzad’s
mission seemed pointless given Trump’s announcement in December that he would
withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Why would the Taliban negotiate an end when
they need not defeat the Americans and their Afghan allies? The Taliban only
need to keep fighting to demonstrate that the Americans and Afghans cannot
defeat them. This is the definition of an insurgent’s victory.
Why would Pakistan allow the Taliban to sue
for peace unless that peace means Afghanistan’s capitulation to Pakistan? Would
Afghans— who loathe Pakistan for the decades of devastation it has wrought —
ever agree to such peace terms?
And, why would the Taliban or their backers
in Rawalpindi care about Khalilzad’s efforts when Trump is talking withdrawal?
Whether or not the American Tweet State and
Deep State agree on Afghanistan, it should be clear to all that Afghanistan
needs a new way forward and I contend Chabahar—and Indian investment there—is
central to this new future.
Contemporary Afghanistan is not the
Afghanistan of 2001. Today, Afghanistan is connected to railheads with Iran,
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These rail heads are key to helping Afghanistan
get its valuable resources out of the ground and to the markets.
Afghanistan was once dependent on Pakistan,
it no longer is. Between 2012 and 2016, Afghan imports from Iran totalled $1.3
billion against $1.2 billion from Pakistan and $1.1 billion from China. During
the period, Pakistan was the largest destination for Afghan exports with $283
million of goods, India was right behind with $230 million, a figure that is
expected to rise as Chabahar comes online.
Over the last year, India has shipped about
110,000 metric tons of wheat and 2,000 tons of pulses to Afghanistan through
Chabahar. If Afghanistan can improve political and trade ties with its
neighbours, it can cut down dependence on Pakistan. Once independent of its
murderous neighbour, Afghanistan will be in a greater position to extract
This does not mean that Afghanistan will be
peaceful. Far from it. Pakistan will work assiduously to undermine these
efforts. But it does allow Afghanistan to move forward, while strategically
isolating Pakistan that is not terribly dissimilar from the decisions that
India has made.
New Delhi has understood that Pakistan will
continue to kill Indians. However, every Indian leader since the 1999 Kargil
war has known that the country has much to gain by avoiding a war with
Pakistan. The strategic restraint has paid off: India’s economic growth has
enabled it to invest in defence modernisation, to diminish the immiseration of
its masses, and diversify its portfolio of strategic alliances.
This has not been cost free: every year,
Pakistan’s proxies murder dozens of Indians. In contrast, three Indians die
every 10 minutes in road accidents. In 2017 alone, 147,913 persons died, many
times more than the lives lost in all of India’s wars with Pakistan, including
Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir.
Even in Afghanistan, a war zone, 5,000
civilians were killed in road accidents in 2017 against 3,438 left dead by
anti-government forces or in friendly fire. My intention is not to trivialise
either kind of death rather to put them into perspective and to argue that
progress can continue on some fronts even though Pakistan remains committed to
murdering citizens of both countries.
C Christine Fair has authored the books Fighting to the End: The Pakistan
Army’s Way of War and In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba