Amidst the expected wholesale turnovers in governments in South Asia, Pakistan has been first off the block, voting the opposition Muslim League (Nawaz) party to power. The ruling Congress-led coalition government here could topple next. But it is the future of Afghanistan after the 2014 elections that is the most intriguing.
If an independent-minded regime hewing generally to the Karzai-ian brand of representative government emerges with the so-called “1400 Movement” taking wing, it will be evidence that the decade-long campaign by the United States to graft democracy on a traditional tribal polity has succeeded, albeit after a fashion. (“1400” is the year 1984 in the Islamic calendar, and the movement with this designation refers to the democratically-inclined tribal groups and parties who hope to win next year’s general elections.)
While the success of the Karzai regime may be judged by the fact of its survival, it provided nothing more than a veneer of representative government. The unchanged underlying reality since the 1960s when the demand for the locally-grown poppy rocketed with the surging market in Western societies for opiates, and the tribal leaders qua warlords turned to opium farming to increase their earnings manifold, is that Afghanistan is a full-blown narco-state. The monies from the trade in opium farmed in 12 of the 34 Afghan provinces led by Helmand, Farah, and Kandahar in the southwest is the lifeblood of the national economy.
The size of the Afghan narcotics trade may be judged by a 2006 estimate of the total proceeds from it at British retail prices touching $124.4 billion; some seven years on that value may have at least doubled — to a staggering $250 billion. Authoritative data reveal that Afghan opium constitutes 80 per cent of the world production and in 2012 increased by 18 per cent over the previous year despite over 9,000 hectares being subjected to UN-supervised eradication measures, and as much as forty-fold in the last decade. With this scale of monies to be made, the Quetta Shura headed by the deposed Afghan Taliban chief, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, has been fiercely protective of the opium economy, extracting hefty zakat from farmers, traders, and processors alike with sharply rising imposts (in percentage terms) depending on whether the end-product is morphine base or heroin crystal. The reason why Indian development projects have remained largely unmolested by the Taliban is because schemes such as the Delaram-Ziranj highway, for instance, help in transportation of the opium to the Iran border, where a chain of processing centres convert it to morphine and heroin for international consumption.
The Shura, moreover, shrewdly employs the excess opium agricultural labour as Taliban fighters and, with a leavening of armed cadres from foreign outfits, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, conducts effective guerrilla operations. Except there is no religious bent to the Taliban that periodic delivery of satchels of money cannot overcome. This is the Afghan way, and has always been. In the event, Mullah Omar and the patchwork of tribes he leads are each jointly and singly susceptible to the lucre. What’s in play is an old extortion game — if you pay your interests are safe. In the context, the Taliban’s fight against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is typical blood sport. With drone attacks on the Taliban command nodules, which compensated for the weaknesses in the fighting power of the ANSF that will surface with the revised drone usage policy announced by US president Barack Obama on May 23, its situation is bound to worsen.
Karzai has turned to India to balance Pakistan and fill the vacuum created by a departing America. Hence, he asked for howitzers, 105mm guns, Mi-16 helicopters with spares and service support as mark of Indian military engagement and interest. But, as is usual, New Delhi is hesitating, unsure whether such arms aid will spur Pakistan’s fears of a consolidating Indian military presence in Afghanistan and imperil the rapprochement promised by the incoming Nawaz Sharif government. But not responding to Kabul’s request will rob India of the opportunity to increase leverage with the Afghan government, and extend its support with amenable Pashtun tribes beyond the traditionally strong links with the “Northern Alliance” of Tajiks and Uzbeks under General Abdul Rashid Dostum. It will help India carve out a role for itself in the larger game afoot in Afghanistan with China entering the fray in strength.
New Delhi’s calculation that restraint in arming the ANSF may cut Nawaz some slack with the Pakistan army can be countered by the fact that GHQ, Rawalpindi, is unlikely to be mollified by such Indian gestures considering it has keyed all along on the supposed intelligence activity out of the Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Herat ringing outer Afghanistan that Pakistanis allege involves cultivating even the Afghan Taliban and making life difficult for the Pakistan army fighting them in Waziristan, besides firing up the Baluch insurgency with monetary and material help. In this respect, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a confidante of Mullah Omar, said revealingly on an Indian TV channel that as far as the Afghan Taliban are concerned “there’s no difference between India and Pakistan”.
Because the Pakistan army’s main concern is with the RAW role on the Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan, and considering that New Delhi is unlikely to close down its 40-year old consulates to please the ISI, the possibility that India’s holding back arms supplies to Karzai will influence Islamabad is slight. If Karzai’s demand for arms is not met, India could end up with less traction in Kabul, fewer options in the region, and little goodwill in Pakistan.
The politics of Afghanistan revolves around the tribal chiefs — the balance of power between them deciding the way Kabul tilts. India’s core interests are to protect its traditional presence, mining concessions in the resource-rich Hajigak region, and physical access to Central Asia from Iran’s Chabahar port through Afghanistan. To achieve these aims will require keeping the ruling cabal-of-the-day (even if it’s the Taliban) happy, and buying off the warlords in the business opium and off fighting each other, the Afghan government, and foreign forces.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com