Northern Alliance headquarters, Chah-E-Ab, Afghanistan, August 2001
As dawn broke in the foothills of the south-western Pamir mountain range, I could discern the distant blue sliver of the Oxus River that separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan and more particularly is the outermost extremity that had to be crossed before invading the Indian subcontinent. From my Aryan forefathers to Alexander the Great to Babur, all had to cross the Oxus then the Hindu Kush Mountain range before arriving at the Khyber Pass, the gateway to India. I was seated behind the Afghan-Tajik pilot in a Mi-8 helicopter paid for by the government of India but operated by the then Northern Alliance. Our helicopter had taken off from an airbase at Farkhor operated by the Northern Alliance and it was here at the Indian Army Medical Corps-run base hospital that Ahmad Shah Massoud was to breathe his last on September 9th, 2001.That was my first sighting of Afghanistan. In fact, the day before while bidding us farewell at a lunch of chilled Heineken, chicken tikka and naan in a safehouse in Dushanbe, the then wily and resourceful RAW station chief in Dushanbe let slip that we were the first batch of a handful of Indians to get into Afghanistan after quite a while.
Twenty years ago in August 2001, my crew and I were en route to meet Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud who was the solitary pillar of resistance against the Taliban then led by Mullah Omar and backed by Pakistan. Massoud was ensconced in his “wolf’s lair” in the Panjshir Valley. From the Soviet invasion in 1979 till 2001, Massoud and his force of Panjshiri-Tajiks had kept both the mighty Soviet Union and later the resourceful Pakistanis from invading and dominating the Panjshir Valley. Both the famed Soviet Spetsnaz and the widely publicised Pakistani ISI Special Forces had failed miserably over 22 years to penetrate the Panjshir and defeat Massoud.
After Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao singularly betrayed Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah in 1992 that led to the latter’s public castration and hanging, the emergence of the Taliban created during 1994-95 by then Pakistani Interior Minister General Naserullah Babar led to a rethink on Rao’s part. He sanctioned an outreach to the Northern Alliance, which reached a milestone in 1997 when then Joint Secretary in the MEA, Vivek Katju, flew to the Panjshir Valley with a list of “goodies” that India could provide Massoud in his war against Pakistan.
A year later in 2002, I travelled to Turkmenistan and drove from Ashgabat to the vast unexploited natural gas field at Dauletabad close to the Turkmenistan-Iran-Afghanistan tri-junction. This has natural gas reserves of close to 50 trillion cubic feet. Apart from sale to Iran, the only way that this vast gas field could be exploited was if its gas could be transported via a pipeline running through Afghanistan to India and China. Not far from this field is the Galkynysh field with a potential gas deposit of 14 trillion cubic metres.
I returned to Afghanistan in the spring of 2003. Among many others, I spent time with Colonel Roger King from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Bagram, who made no bones about stating that the enemy was really Pakistan. Colonel King participated in Operation Anaconda against the ISI-led Taliban stragglers in 2002. In 2005, I again visited Afghanistan and took a helicopter ride to the Panjshir Valley courtesy of General Bismillah Khan, the then Afghan army chief, to pay my respects to the martyred Massoud at his grave which had become a shrine. In 2005 itself, there was widespread insecurity about the longevity of the US commitment to an Afghanistan safe from Pakistan’s predations.
Thus, the US defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2021 after 20 years is a tribute to the tenacity of the ISI and the resultant inability of the US to contain and subdue Pakistan. This failure, despite the 5,000-odd coalition deaths and the tens of thousands of physically disabled and mentally troubled coalition soldiers suffering from PTSD, will historically be remembered as the US not having a stomach for a real fight with the actual nuclear-armed enemy—Pakistan.
Pakistan has paid for its low-intensity 20-year proxy war against the US by selling Afghanistan’s locally harvested opium crop. The UN estimates that in 2020 the area under opium cultivation in Afghanistan was 224,000 hectares providing a potential average output of 6,300 tonnes valued on the street in North American prices of $50,000 per kg at $30 billion. Even if the ISI were to have distributed a third of this that would handsomely fund its annual budget of war and dislocation as well as provide handsome dividends to General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his cronies. This is not to say that the Panjshiri Tajiks do not have access to a part of this pie. They did and do and they have also been adequately armed by the US.
American society has been traumatised by the Afghan war. The US has small consolation in the fact that it virtually dominates global air space through its satellite grid and vast drone fleet and can deploy them to attack targets in Afghanistan whenever needed. The critical error it has made is to vacate Afghanistan and its staggering opium revenues to its existential enemy, namely China, and its tenacious proxy Pakistan. Like the British used the Indian army against China from 1839 to 1939 to prop up its opium business, the Chinese have used the Pakistan state against the US and Britain. Some may call it poetic justice.
China’s interest in Afghanistan is for a throughway to both Iranian and Turkmen natural gas. As soon as the present government of President Ashraf Ghani collapses, the country will lapse into civil war and probable four-way division into a pro-Pakistan Pashtun part, a Tajik part, an Uzbek part and a Hazara-populated Shia part. The Tajik part will be led by young Ahmed Massoud, ably supported by his consigliore, the redoubtable Amarullah Saleh who is currently vice president of Afghanistan.
However, the Chinese are poised to step in as the moneyed peacemaker and as a first step will want to expedite construction of both a highway and rail link from Peshawar to Kabul. These rail and road links would then be extended to Tehran and Ashgabat and the gas fields of Dauletabad and Galkynysh among others. This would provide multiple land transportation options for the Chinese to ship Middle East oil and gas to Xinjiang bypassing its current vulnerability and dependence on the straits of Hormuz and Malacca respectively.
And in all likelihood, the Taliban-led Pashtun breakaway part will become the Sino-Pak nexus’ new university of jihad from which new recruits will infiltrate into all parts of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Chinese also have a fervent desire to take over the distribution of Afghan opium and flood it in India. This is their ultimate revenge for our role in their “century of humiliation”. While all these developments are happening in our neighbourhood, we shall be left wringing our hands as our current leadership only believes in the battle for internal political dominance and not much else. Their unwillingness to live by the rules of a pluralistic polity has polarised our faction-ridden society by opening up old faultlines, to a point of almost no return. Nobody realises that the enemy is not within but on the outside.