America, the Afghan Tragedy, and the Subcontinent
Four decades of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan have left South Asia transformed—and on the cusp of a realignment.
Most Americans see U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September as closing the book on two decades of U.S. military intervention. The subcontinent, however, can’t forget the War in Afghanistan began long before the United States’ most recent involvement. It also can’t forget that Washington’s choices during more than four decades of war in Afghanistan have had—and continue to have—many unfortunate and unintended consequences for the region. Although the planned withdrawal leaves Afghanistan’s future open, it could lead to the next set of broader geopolitical shifts in the region. There is now a glimmer of hope that a normalization of relations between India and Pakistan could be part of the regional rearrangement after the United States departs, potentially limiting some of the negative consequences that have flowed out of Afghanistan in the last four decades.
Nothing has changed modern South Asia more profoundly than the U.S. decision to mobilize and support a jihad against the Soviets following their occupation of Afghanistan, which lasted from 1979 to 1989. The products of that jihad, including al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, would storm the world at the turn of the 21st century. What began as a strategic mobilization of Islam’s zealous fringe against the Soviet Union in the 1980s backfired when the zealots turned their fury on the West in the 1990s, culminating in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. These attacks would compel the United States to return and—with NATO and other allies—take charge of Afghanistan.
There was much hope that U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan would help reverse at least some of the worst outcomes from the anti-Soviet jihad. The results are mixed. And as the United States leaves Afghanistan, the region will have to pick up the pieces—with or without continuing U.S. engagement in Kabul’s future. The United States could yet remain an important player in Afghanistan if Washington focuses on facilitating the emergence of local and regional balances of power in and around Afghanistan. Such a policy, should Washington pursue it, would lie somewhere between continuing the “forever war” in Afghanistan and abandoning the country completely, as in the aftermath of the Soviet retreat.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S.-supported insurgency against the Russian-backed regime in Kabul from the borderlands of Pakistan, and the U.S. intervention after Sept. 11 produced three lasting consequences for the subcontinent.
First was the injection of violent religious extremism into South Asian geopolitics. Although the subcontinent hosts nearly a third of the world’s Muslims, Islam and politics both remained moderate even after the violent partition of India along religious lines. All that began to change in the 1980s. The jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, backed by the United States and conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia, was hugely successful in bleeding the Soviet Union and forcing it to leave in 1989. But the jihad also sounded the death knell to any modernizing forces in Afghanistan, however small they were. In Pakistan, former President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq matched the external weaponization of Islam with the sweeping internal Islamization of Pakistan’s polity—through the military’s alliance with Islamist groups. The virus of religious zealotry would soon take hold of many Muslim communities across the rest of the subcontinent.
Developments in Afghanistan and the subcontinent in the 1980s were reinforced by two developments in the Middle East, both of which had taken place in 1979. One was the Iranian Revolution that ended the secular rule of the shah and energized political Islam around the world, including the subcontinent. The other was the seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque by Saudi insurgents, which led a panicked House of Saud to stop social modernization at home and direct its Islamist radicals outward. Afghanistan and the subcontinent were attractive destinations. And as Islam became radicalized, it also became more sectarian. In Pakistan, the divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims became deeper, reinforced by the broader sectarian and geopolitical schism in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Islamist radicalism also led to the countermobilization of other religions. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had launched itself as a party of Gandhian socialism in 1980, began a massive campaign to mobilize the Hindu community in the early 1990s. Similar shifts have unfolded in the Buddhist communities of Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Religion and contestations around it have loomed larger by the day since the late 1970s. The Taliban and other Islamists in the region are bound to celebrate the U.S. retreat as a triumph against the United States and the West. Whether the Taliban return to power or not—and whether through peaceful or violent means—the domestic political evolution of Afghanistan will be toward greater religious dominance over society. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army is having difficulties curbing violent excesses of Islamist groups, such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which has mounted massive street protests demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador on the issue of blasphemy. The Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan is likely to energize various Islamist groups in Pakistan and produce new transborder Islamist coalitions.
A second consequence of the Afghan war, and the United States’ long involvement in it, has been the growing tilt of Pakistan’s civil military relationship in favor of the army over the last four decades. Although the army did dominate Pakistan’s polity from the late 1950s, the 1973 constitution following the army’s disastrous defeat in East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh) in 1971 seemed to put civilians in command. Zia’s coup against then-President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and the latter’s hanging two years later drew widespread international condemnation, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 catapulted Zia from a political pariah into a valued ally of the West. Although there have been brief moments since then when the Pakistan Army stepped back, it would frequently intervene to oust civilian rulers. The army’s dominance over Pakistan’s polity expanded after the Sept. 11 attacks as it became a critical player in Washington’s new focus on Afghanistan and the so-called war on terror. Pakistan was declared a major non-NATO ally.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush did put pressure on former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to step down in 2007 as army chief, facilitate the return of exiled former President Benazir Bhutto, and hold free and fair elections. She was assassinated shortly after. The Obama administration and Democrats in U.S. Congress once again pushed for strengthening Pakistani democracy but to no avail. A succession of civilian governments could never regain full authority over national policies that became the preserve of the Pakistan Army. Whether on substantive policy or in diplomatic form, the United States and the West chose to engage the army chiefs on key issues relating to Pakistan. The army’s current hegemony over Pakistan is hardly masked by references to current arrangements as a “hybrid regime.”
Although the army’s dominance over Pakistan’s polity appears solid, its mastery over Islamist movements and Islamist groups looks less assured today. As Islamist forces like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan become stronger, the army’s ability to control them is weakening. It will be a profoundly ironic outcome if the civilians who may finally push the military back into the barracks were Islamist groups. But a more likely outcome in the near term could be the army’s growing political accommodation of Islamists. This could put the Pakistan Army at even greater odds with its traditional friends in the world and hard pressed to deliver economic benefits to the country’s long-suffering people. With a stagnating economy that is only one-tenth the size of India’s, Pakistan’s prospects do not look too good for the near term.
A third consequence of U.S. policies on Afghanistan since 1979 was the sharpening conflict between India and Pakistan, including the introduction of nuclear weapons, a persistent sub-conventional war in Kashmir, and widening of the bilateral conflict to include Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program began to mature in the late 1970s, the Carter administration imposed sanctions on Pakistan in April 1979 but quickly withdrew them after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of that year. Both the Carter and Reagan administrations perhaps had no choice but to put the nuclear question on the back burner as they sought Zia’s cooperation in Afghanistan. Although India had done a nuclear test in 1974, New Delhi had desisted from embarking on a serious nuclear weapons program. But by the late 1980s, in response to Pakistan’s bomb, India was putting together its own nuclear arsenal. Since then, nuclear weapons have formed an important element of South Asian geopolitics.
Instead of viewing its nuclear weapons as a deterrent and insurance policy against New Delhi, Pakistan turned them into a source of impunity to pursue cross-border terrorism in India using various jihadi groups. In response to major terror incidents in India, New Delhi felt compelled to threaten escalating conflict. An effort by Musharraf to change the territorial status quo in Kashmir during 1999 saw India fight a limited conventional war to regain territory occupied by Pakistani forces. In all these crises, the United States and United Kingdom intervened diplomatically to calm things down and facilitate a peace process that focused on ending the Kashmir conflict and normalizing bilateral relations.
But as the partition generation, with its memories of a more peaceful and harmonious world, dies out on both sides, generating domestic support for peace has become harder. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his part, is trying to change the terms of engagement—as set in the nuclear era—by responding with military vigor to terror attacks, altering the domestic legal status of Indian-administered Kashmir, and refusing to be cowed down by fear of escalation to the nuclear level. New Delhi has also mobilized considerable international pressure against Pakistan to stop supporting cross-border terror in India.
When Afghanistan became a major arena of conflict in 1979, India was inevitably drawn into it. Anxious about Pakistan turning Afghanistan into a strategic reservoir of anti-India militancy, India began to strengthen its support to Kabul during the era of Soviet occupation. In the late 1990s, New Delhi joined forces with Iran and Russia to support an anti-Taliban coalition; after Sept. 11, it actively contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction under the shadow of stability produced by U.S. military presence. As India’s interests and stakes in Afghanistan grew in recent decades, it has also offered some military assistance to Kabul. But New Delhi’s role in Afghanistan is circumscribed by the absence of a physical border. The notion of a symmetric Indian competition with Pakistan—which shares a long border and overlapping Pashtun communities with Afghanistan—is popular but has never been true. India’s role and impact in Afghanistan are indeed secondary to those of Pakistan. This could be an advantage if New Delhi finds the right coalition partners to strengthen Afghanistan vis-a-vis Pakistan.
A closer look, however, suggests normalization of relations with Islamabad has always been a higher priority for New Delhi than continuing a perennial confrontation with Pakistan in Afghanistan. Getting the Pakistan Army to settle the Kashmir question on a reasonable basis and end cross-border terror, however, has not been easy either for New Delhi or Washington.
But there is a glimmer of hope as Pakistan debates the much-needed shift to economic stability and growth, which will be difficult—if not impossible—to achieve without peace with its neighbors. That debate is by no means settled in Pakistan. Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s recent call to rethink Pakistan’s national security posture along these lines has met public resistance. Indian-Pakistani normalization would help end, or at least pause, the prolonged internal division in the heartland of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, making it a lot easier for both New Delhi and Islamabad to confront other security challenges, moderate religious extremism, and promote regional economic integration. Above all, if the heartland of the subcontinent was finally at peace with itself, it would be a powerful counter to potential negative forces radiating out of Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.
A United States that unburdens itself from the task of controlling Afghanistan—with its dependence in that mission on Pakistan—could find itself with more options to support the subcontinent’s evolution in a more positive direction. Past U.S. missteps and the apparent intractability of the Indian-Pakistani conflict might make that look like an impossible hope. But a radically altered regional environment has opened space for some creative thinking about subcontinent geopolitics.
C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja