India’s new government will face a rapidly changing and dangerous challenge in Afghanistan, similar in some ways to the crisis in the late 1980s, when the Soviets withdrew from Kabul. The Pakistani ‘deep state’ then and now wants to make Afghanistan a puppet satellite regime, an outcome contrary to Indian interests.
As planned, the American and Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan is well underway. All combat forces will be gone by the year’s end. Press reports indicate counter-terrorist and intelligence capabilities have already been significantly reduced.
There has not been a lethal drone attack from Afghan bases inside Pakistan in over four months.
Like Moscow in 1989, Washington in 2014 hopes it has built an Afghan army and state that can survive without foreign boots on the ground to help it defeat an insurrection. It’s a strategic gamble but it’s the option US President Barack Obama chose in 2009. It took five years to get the Afghan army ready to fight alone, now we will see if it manages or fails.
Of course, today’s Afghan government is democratically elected and a run-off will probably make Abdullah Abdullah the next president this summer.
The first round election this spring had an unprecedented turnout. In contrast, the Soviet-backed regime in 1979 was put in power by a series of communist coups orchestrated by Moscow and the KGB and had no legitimacy.
The United Nations backs the Nato mission in Afghanistan today and endorses the elected government. In the 1980s the UN condemned the Soviet invasion and the Soviet client state in Kabul.
The generals, who run the Pakistani army and the ISI, are the one constant in the two eras. Their deep state uses the Afghan Taliban, including Mullah Omar, and the Haqqani network today just like their predecessors used the Mujahideen in the 1980s.
The ISI is the guiding hand and the quartermaster for a proxy war today as it was a quarter century ago. Zia-ul-Haq is long dead but his spirit lingers.
Pakistan’s civilian governments have little or no authority over the deep state.
Like Benazir Bhutto in 1989, Nawaz Sharif is not in charge of the Afghan portfolio. Sharif also knows the serious risks of crossing the generals, especially while the Musharraf trial is unresolved. Sharif will let the generals and ISI call the shots in Afghanistan.
The deep state tried hard to disrupt the Afghan election and it successfully intimidated most foreign observers.
But the ISI underestimated the Afghan people’s desire for freedom. Abdullah Abdullah is the ISI’s worst nightmare, a 21st Century Ahmad Shah Masoud, an Afghan leader who would not take orders from Rawalpindi. He is likely to sign the bilateral security agreement this summer and retain a limited residual American and Nato military presence in Afghanistan.
Since the first round of the election reliable Press reports suggest the military commander of the Afghan Taliban has been sacked for failing to disrupt the vote. A new military commander has been selected known for his very close ties to the ISI. The Pakistani generals want their proxy to perform better and they can be very brutal with their ally when it fails to achieve.
The self-proclaimed ‘Commander of the Faithful’ who runs the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, is a shadowy recluse who is never seen in public and very rarely even by his own supporters.
Omar was trained by the ISI in its camps along the Durand Line in the 1980s during the war with the Soviets. He lost an eye in battle with the Russians and was hospitalised in Pakistan.
In the 1990s, Pakistan sent thousands of advisors and experts to help his Taliban army conquer the country. Without ISI help the Taliban would never have seized most of Afghanistan.
The ISI arranged Mullah Omar’s first meeting with Osama bin Laden in 1998 and midwifed the alliance between the Taliban and al Qaeda.
After the fall of Kabul and Kandahar in 2001, Mullah Omar fled to Quetta. There he masterminded the return of the Afghan Taliban.
His critical partner was General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, first as director general of the ISI and then as chief of army staff. Kayani played the key role of providing the Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, training facilities, weapons and help in fund raising in Pakistan and the Gulf states.
Kayani also oversaw the Taliban’s strategy for wearing down Nato’s will to fight, with guerrilla war in the rural areas and spectacular terror attacks in Kabul on foreign embassies and hotels.
Omar has stayed in hiding for a decade now. He is probably in an ISI safe house where his Pakistani minders can control his actions and access to him. Al Qaeda leaders still formally acknowledge him as the commander of the faithful but they also say he now lives in the “land of the dirty”, a clever play on words since Pakistan is the “land of the pure”.
Look for a major ISI-backed Taliban offensive in 2015, if not earlier, to defeat the Afghan army, at least in the Pashtun south and east. Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadists will join the effort.
The generals have been waiting for years to reduce Afghanistan to their sphere of influence. This is their best chance while Abdullah is still consolidating his grip.
India backed the losing side in 1989. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi stuck with Moscow and its communist warlord Najibullah until the bitter end. In 1992 India’s Afghan policy collapsed. Najibullah missed his escape flight to New Delhi and the Taliban killed him in 1996.
Today’s India is a much stronger State with the resources and capabilities to do much more than a quarter century ago. Narendra Modi inherits strong ties to the post-9/11 Afghan government.
India also has very different relations with America today than 25 years ago, their partnership should be a key part of meeting the challenge of the deep state in Kabul. India will face many foreign policy challenges ahead but the Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan will be one of the most immediate and difficult.
Bruce Riedel is director, Brookings Institution Intelligence Project. The views expressed by the author are personal.