Book review — Afghanistan Post-2014: Power Configurations and Evolving Trajectories

A comprehensive volume that throws light on Afghanistan’s polity in a period characterised by the declining presence of US-led combat forces.

[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Seminar Magazine’s July 2016 edition]

Afghanistan Post-2014: Power Configurations and Evolving Trajectories
Editors: Rajen Harshe and Dhananjay Tripathi
Publisher: Routledge India, 2016
Pages: 244
Price: INR 895

‘The Americans have all the watches and we have all the time” — a striking quote attributed to the Taliban leadership (page 93), sets the tone for this collection of essays: a study of the precarious state that Afghanistan finds itself in after the US-led NATO coalition decided to substantially reduce its presence in Afghanistan starting 2014.

Recent events give credence to the Taliban’s long-haul strategy. It now appears that the Taliban has indeed used their abundant time to consolidate. The result is a repeated occurrence of some of the deadliest attacks in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s short history. First, Taliban succeeded in occupying the northern city of Kunduz in September 2015 for fifteen days, in what was the first takeover of a major Afghan city since 2001. And then in April 2016, as part of their latest spring offensive, the Taliban executed a deadly suicide bombing in the heart of the capital Kabul, killing as many as 64 people.

Make no mistake, these instances are unprecedented because they pose a foundational threat to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. A weakened security apparatus in the face of an ascendent Taliban means that it will be tougher than ever before for the young state to maintain its monopoly over violence in the Afghan country. It is thus not surprising that Nicholas Haysom, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan said that for 2016, “survival will be an achievement for the National Unity Government.” Such fears were reflected internally as well. In a speech made in the Afghan Parliament, President Ghani warned that the nation would have six tough months of war and killing ahead of it and asked them to be united and support the security forces.

Given this critical juncture that Afghanistan finds itself at, a collection of essays “concerned with the trajectories of the course of developments in Afghanistan after ceasing of combat operations by US-led NATO forces” merits special attention. Afghanistan Post-2014 is one such work that attempts to answer the following questions: will the drawdown of troops push Afghanistan into the throes of political instability? What will be the nature of a state which is based on reconciliation with Taliban? And finally, what role do the international actors involved in Afghanistan play in the current scenario?

Though the book is essentially an academic exercise in understanding the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, the crisp editing makes it consumable even for a general reader who is curious about the political struggle playing out in Afghanistan. The language is accessible and wherever political science frameworks or International Relations (IR) theory is used, the reader is introduced to the concept gently by the authors.

A word of caution for the readers, though: though the book was first published in 2016, most chapters appear to have been written in 2014 or 2015 and have not been updated since. Thus, the readers (and this reviewer), with the benefit of hindsight, will find themselves genuinely disappointed with a few predictions in the book that were falsified in the interim period between composition and publication.

Editors Rajen Harshe and Dhananjay5 Tripathi are academics at the South Asian University’s Department of International Relations. They have brought together an extremely diverse range of views on Afghanistan: from Germany to Russia to India with the objective of searching and delineating pathways of the likely course of development in post-2014 Afghanistan.

In the introduction, the editors hail the “resilience” of Afghanistan. At the same time, they concede that while Afghanistan has steadfastly hung on to its freedom and independence over the last two centuries, the people of Afghanistan have invariably paid a high price in terms of loss of lives and property. This paradox highlights that self-determination has not translated to better life outcomes in Afghanistan. In fact, what we see there is self-rule combined with periods of illiberal authoritarianism. Tracing Afghanistan’s history from 1979 to 2001, the editors believe that Afghanistan was transformed into an epicentre of terrorism due to a triangular association between the Taliban regime, Pakistan and terrorist outfits such as Al-Qaeda.

In the first chapter, Rajan Harshe situates the Afghanistan problem in the context of globalisation. He places the blame of Afghanistan’s various vexing problems such as the Durand Line dispute, Soviet and US interventions, and finally the advent of global terror on globalisation. He believes that organisations like Al-Qaeda are an “anti-thesis” of the US-led imperialism in the form of globalisation. This reviewer is of the opinion that the causality for such claims remains weak — associating globalisation as a cause of terrorism would need much stronger evidence than is provided in the chapter.

Siddharth Mallavarapu’s chapter The many lives of Afghanistan makes an important point: one needs to dispel stereotypes on Afghanistan that represent the country as a combustible grouping of warmongering tribes. To do so, the author advocates bringing together three important disciplines: IR history, endogenous IR theory, and fiction writing based out of Afghanistan, such as the works of Khaled Hosseini and Atiq Rahimi. Mallavarapu masterfully breaks down what each of these fields has to contribute to the understanding of Afghanistan, making it the most interesting chapter in this collection.

Omar Sadr’s chapter makes the point that none of the conventional approaches for international conflict resolution have been useful in Afghanistan. Mechanisms such as hegemonic stability, balance of power and managerial role of the Great Powers have all failed in Afghanistan. The author instead advocates that peace can be brought about only when all the states involved institutionalise non-violent methods of dispute settlement. This approach has gained currency: processes such as Heart of Asia and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) tried exactly this, but have thus far been unable in making Taliban and Pakistan shun violence.

Sadr also highlights the importance of trade routes in enmeshing states with each other, leading to subsidence of violence. However, Afghanistan’s problem has been that it remains overly enmeshed with Pakistan for trade and sea access. Attempts to link Afghanistan to the silk route through Central Asia and to the Persian Gulf through Chabahar are efforts that will go a long way in reducing Afghanistan’s coupling with Pakistan while enmeshing it with the other states in the region.

While the first section of the book dwells on theoretical aspects, the second section deals with instrumental issues directly related to the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. This section is of particular importance in the current situation — the hopes of peace through talks have died and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) will now be responsible for upholding the flailing republic.

Jayant Singh in his insightful chapter reviews the role of ANSF, once a lynchpin of the US and NATO strategy for a successful political outcome post-2014. Mirwais Balkhi lists the negative externalities that Afghanistan’s fall will have on the NATO countries, arguing for a closer NATO-Afghan partnership eventually leading to Afghanistan becoming a member of the NATO. Though an interesting viewpoint, such a scenario remains highly unlikely given that the US is now convinced about decreasing its role in Afghanistan.

The last section of the book throws up this interesting question: Without the military presence which underwrote the non-military involvement of many countries such as India and Iran, how will the various international actors in Afghanistan react?

Sandra Destradi’s chapter throws light on one such actor that hardly finds a mention while discussing Afghanistan. Germany, one of the main players of the international coalition in Afghanistan can potentially decide to continue its support to ANDSF. The author however feels that Germany will mirror the trajectory of US involvement and is unlikely to take the initiative on security matters in Afghanistan because of its pacifist foreign policy tradition.

Russia’s viewpoint is important for the current situation in Afghanistan. Russia is concerned that a return of the Taliban will fuel narcotics trafficking, which kills 50,000 Russians every year. It is also worried that Islamic fundamentalism could spill over and create tensions in Central Asia. Nikolay Gudalov in his chapter on the Russian perspective reckons that Russia is open to a partnership with other countries in order to stall the return of Taliban. There’s possibly a window of opportunity for reinvigorating the resistance alliance between India, Russia and the other Central Asian countries that opposed Taliban in the period 1996–2001.

Shaji S analyses the Indian position in the backdrop of NATO withdrawal. He believes that Pakistan’s national interests in Afghanistan will be served best with a Taliban takeover of Kabul. Such a situation will inturn be the worst case scenario for India. This claim needs further analysis. There are indications that Pakistan might prefer Taliban control only along the Durand Line, allowing Pakistan to keep the Taliban in check this time around. At the same time, India should consider talking with other players apart from the National Unity Government (NUG) to secure its interests. In his conclusion, the author makes a judicious recommendation: India has to balance both soft power and hard power elements in its approach towards Afghanistan in the near future while aligning with countries which have convergence of interest with India. One way to implement this would be for India to be in every forum that discusses the future of Afghanistan. With the Obama presidency in its last year, the US is likely to be more conservative on Afghan policy. Afghan air power can be bolstered by transferring some of our obsolete assets like the MiG 21s and bombers in the Indian inventory.

Finally, Stephen Kingah and Arpita Basu are optimistic that SAARC could prove to be the platform to deal with the security problems in Afghanistan. However, this reviewer is of the opinion that SAARC is a weak institution, inadequately empowered to deal with problems as complex as Afghanistan. Rather, a better approach would be to bring together countries that think alike on Afghanistan.

Overall, the book does a good job of covering the post-2014 scenarios in Afghanistan. The strength of the book is the simple writing and excellent editing. Some critical parts remain unexplored, however. For instance, what made dissatisfied groups in Nangarhar raise the flag of Islamic State (IS)? What was the relationship of that group with Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)? Answers to such questions would have provided an insight into the power equations between warring groups. A chapter each elucidating the US and Pakistan’s perspective on a post-2014 Afghanistan would have also been immensely useful.

Nevertheless, the prospect of warlordism returning to Afghanistan is no longer a distant possibility. With the State’s authority receding, and with groups such as the Haqqani Network and Taliban combining their forces, Afghanistan truly fighting for survival. In the worst case, it might again end up in the hands of warlords, like we saw after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. After all, Afghanistan has time and again stood true to the aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”