It is not for India to clean up the mess being left behind by the US in Afghanistan

Pakistan has a lot more to lose as US and allies withdraw from Afghanistan but what are the stakes for India as the civil war between the Afghan Taliban and Afghan army intensifies?

US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan began in May and is expected to be completed before September
US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan began in May and is expected to be completed before September

Mohan Guruswamy

Till the PLA woke us up and Covid-19 knocked us down, Indian diplomats, professional and self-styled, were arguing for an active Indian policy in Afghanistan, suggesting if problems in that historically uncontrollable country were not controlled they would spill over into India.

This is quite nonsensical. India doesn’t have a border with Afghanistan. India has Pakistan as its buffer. If that Afghan situation were to boil over, it will spill out mostly into Pakistan.

No one country has played a more deleterious role in unleashing chaos in Afghanistan as Pakistan, and it is only Pakistan, because of its unique history and geography, that can still play an active role in Afghanistan. We must never forget that half the Pashtun nation lives in Pakistan. And to understand what is Afghanistan we only have to recall the words of Afghanistan’s great poet, Khushal Khan Khattak:

Son, one word I have for thee,

Fear no one and no one you flee.

Pull out your sword and slay any one,

That says Pashtun and Afghan are not one.

Arabs know this and so do Romans

Afghans are Pashtuns, Pashtuns are Afghans.”

Afghanistan emerged as a country-of-sorts in the mid-18th century, when Ahmad Khan, later Ahmad Shah, leader of the Abdali contingent in the Persian army of Nadir Shah, carved out a buffer zone between Persia and a crumbling Mughal empire in the Indian subcontinent.

This later evolved into a buffer zone between Czarist Russia and British India. As a consequence of the May 1879 Treaty of Gandamak after the Second Afghan War, Britain had taken control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This treaty also gave Britain control over traditional Pashtun territory west of the Indus including Peshawar and the Khyber Pass.

After the Panjdeh incident, a joint Anglo-Russian boundary commission, without any Afghan participation, fixed the Afghan border with Turkestan, which was the whole of Russian Central Asia, now Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Thus, as a consequence of the competition between Britain and Russia, a new country, the Afghanistan we know today, was created to serve as the buffer.

(Left) Mullah Baradar & (right) Taliban fighters
(Left) Mullah Baradar & (right) Taliban fighters

USA’s National Intelligence Council’s 2008 report “Global Trends 2025” has this to say about Pakistan’s prospects: “The future of Pakistan is a wild card in considering the trajectory of neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and tribal areas probably will continue to be poorly governed and the source or supporter of cross-border instability.

In due course a broader coalescence of Pashtun tribes is likely to emerge and act together to erase the Durand Line, maximizing Pashtun space at the expense of the Punjabis in Pakistan and the Tajiks and others in Afghanistan.” If this comes to be, should it worry India too much?

Now let’s take a reality check on the Afghan situation.

With a population of about 39 million and growing at 2.33% pa, it has a GDP of $19 billion placing it among the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 173 out of 177 in the world HDI rankings. But what this GDP is made up should cause us sleepless nights. Almost 45% of the GDP is due to grants from USA and allies, Saudi Arabia and some from even countries like India.

Since 2002, the USA has deployed about $150 billion on non-military aid to Afghanistan, but during the same period it has also spent about $900 billion on military operations in Afghanistan, which really means mainly on itself. Afghanistan’s own revenues account for less than 10% of its GDP.

Quite clearly without this continued burn rate of western aid Afghanistan’s GDP will undergo a massive contraction, something few countries can emerge from without irrevocably and irretrievably changing. Just not to fall off the treadmill Afghanistan needs an annual grant-in-aid package of about $15 billion. Military operations will cost much more.

The other numbers in Afghanistan are equally distressing. In 2015 Afghanistan produced close to 7000 tons of opium and converted almost 670 tons of heroin. Afghanistan now produces 87% of the world’s heroin. Other estimates suggest that Afghanistan accounts for 92% of the world’s non-pharma grade opiates.

In the Taliban period the total area under opium cultivation was just 30 sq. kms. During the ISAF occupation this increased to about 285 sq.kms. The pressure to cultivate opium is huge. Opium earns about $16000 per h.a while wheat just fetches about $1600 per h.a.

The total value of “legal’ exports from Afghanistan are estimated to be about $776 million accounting for around 20% of GDP. Afghanistan’s main exports are: carpets and rugs (45%); dried fruits (31%) and medicinal plants (12%). Its main export partners are: Pakistan (48%), India (19%) and Russia (9%). Afghanistan now imports almost ten times that which leaves it with a trade deficit of $5.8 billion. This further underscores its dependence on grants-in-aid.

But its situation is not entirely without any hope. For a mountainous and mostly desert country, Afghanistan has a fairly large available arable acreage. It has 8 million hectares of it, but right now exploits only 1.6 million. It also has sufficient water resources, but its rivers mostly flow into the Indus and Pakistan does not allow Afghanistan, either by direct pressure or more unorthodox means, to develop these resources for agriculture.

Fruit and vegetable production was in excess of $800 million last year, and contribute hugely to its exports. The scope for expanding this is great, but Pakistan’s water aggressiveness needs to be curbed to benefit Afghanistan.

To be able to prosecute the war against the Taliban and also grow at a useful rate to meet the demands of its fast-growing population, Afghanistan needs about $2 billion a month. In 1992 after the Russians precipitously pulled out of Afghanistan, it took a dole of $300 million from Russia to enable the Najibullah government hold on. A month after it was stopped, the Najibullah government collapsed.

In 1841 William McNaughten sent a message to the Governor General in Calcutta that read, “What can you do with a kingdom whose revenues are only Rs.15 lakhs a year?” Now it has revenue of about only $2.6 billion and grants help it to barely stay afloat.

When the West pulls out and the money spigots run dry, what will happen to Pakistan?

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