President Obama has essentially told the world that the American Military will begin its withdrawal from Afghanistan sometime in or after 2011. Clearly the date is subject to change based on circumstances. But even more clearly, the decision to leave Afghanistan seems firm.
This is new news. Many readers may not be aware that when America toppled the Taleban regime in 2001, India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh told a visiting American senior official that America would stay in Afghanistan for at least 50 years. The American Official did not disagree.
So we have no doubt that President Obama’s announcement not only surprised the region but, more importantly, it accelerated development of plans and tactics for the region post America’s withdrawal.
In this article, we provide our views of what is likely to come after America’s withdrawal. Our projections are likely to be very different than those found in mainstream Print or TV media.
We remind readers that we have been in this situation before. In June 2008, we wrote our first article describing the military tensions between China & India. That article was triggered by a comment by a celebrity thinker and that is why our article was titled Dr. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale – Is his ignorance symptomatic of Global Investors? Since then, we have written other articles on this subject, the most recent being our October 2009 article titled A Period of India-China Tension – Now a Mainstream View. This article described views on this topic from the Wall Street Journal & the Council of Foreign Relations, views that we began writing about year and half ago.
Will our projections below be proved correct or get adopted by mainstream media? Time will tell.
Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet (“Af-Kash-Bet”) – A Macro View
Most celebrity thinkers in America express the opinion that America has very little at stake in Afghanistan. At best, they are likely to say that the more important job at hand is to protect Pakistan from becoming a failed state with nuclear weapons. Tom Friedman of the New York Times is perhaps the most rational of the celebrity thinkers of this school. We think these celebrities labor under a wrong and a highly dangerous misconception.
The same thinkers consider Kashmir to be a problem between India and Pakistan, which it is. But they do not seem to understand its relationship to Afghanistan.
Tibet to these thinkers is a completely separate and totally segregated issue that is relevant only from a Dalai Lama perspective.
Our own view is that Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet have been linked geographically, politically, administratively through out history. Once America withdraws from Afghanistan, the conflicts in these three regions will rapidly blend into one intricate and dangerous struggle for Supremacy of the Top of The World.
The title of this article has been drawn from the excellent book by Eric Margolis titled War at the top of the world: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet. This book was first published in 1999 and then again in 2002 to reflect the post 9/11 world. Apparently there is a 2007 edition that we have not read. The best parts of this book are the chapters on how China, India & Russia look at this integrated region and their strengths & weaknesses. Unfortunately, Margolis does not have a historical perspective of the relationships between these Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet.
In the Buddhist era, these three regions were often ruled by a single ruler, the most celebrated ruler being Emperor Kanishka of the Kushan Period (about 300 years after Alexander).
More recently, during the Sikh Era of Ranjit Singh (early 1800s), the Sikh Confederacy of Panjab fought wars with China’s Qing Dynasty for control of Tibet, Kashmir & Afghanistan. After two wars, the two antagonists agreed to split up the region. Sikhs kept Kashmir and Afghanistan while Qing Dynasty kept Tibet. Then around 1900, the British-Indian Army took control of South Afghanistan, Kashmir and made Tibet its protectorate under Dalai Lama’s rule.
Control of South Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet remained under the British Indian Army until 1947. After the partition of India, South Afghanistan was given to Pakistan, Kashmir was de facto partitioned in the 1947 war between Pakistan & India and in late 1950s, the Chinese Army walked in to annex Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled to India, where he resides to this day.
Today, this entire region is beset with intense border disputes between China & India as well as Pakistan & India (see map below). India faces a two-pronged dispute with Pakistan & China who have formed a strategic alliance. The Aksai Chin area (light brown area) used to be a part of India’s Kashmir. The Chinese Army annexed Aksai Chin in the early 1960s and obtained a land bridge between Chinese Tibet and Pakistan occupied Kashmir across the Karakorum Pass. To monitor this border, Indian Army mounted an airborne operation in the 1980s to occupy the Siachen Glacier (small white strip). Pakistan has ceded a critical piece of its occupied territory to China (red shaded area).
This situation was manageable as long as Pakistan was an effective state, capable of being held responsible for its actions.
Light green in NorthWest – Northern Areas of Gilgit Agency – Pakistani control,
Area shaded in red above Northern Areas – ceded by Pakistan to China
Yellow in the middle – India’s Jammu & Kashmir,
Small white strip in Top Right corner of light green Northern Area – Siachen Glacier – occupied by Indian Army
Light Brown area in NorthEast – Aksai Chin occupied by China
Dark Grey in East – Tibet occupied by China
Dark Grey in Top Right – Afghanistan
New Strategic Forays & Intensifying Tensions
History will likely conclude that the brilliant terrorist attack on Mumbai by Pakistani terrorists was a major turning point for the Af-Kash-Bet region. This was an act of war by a non-governmental organization like the 9/11 attack on New York. Just as the 9/11 attack was supported by the Taleban regime, the 26/11 Mumbai attack was supported by the Pakistani regime. But unlike America, India had very few good options to damage the rogue Pakistani Army-ISI elements.
The best short-term and long-term option for India was to enter Afghanistan and create a second front for Pakistan. After all, Afghanistan has been an ally-enemy of New Delhi for 3000-4000 years. This Indian initiative was welcomed by Afghanistan because it was peaceful and economic. India is today the second larges
t donor-investor in Afghanistan and its aid is popular among the Afghans. Besides, the soft Indian power of Bollywood & Cricket is already pervasive in Afghanistan.
The prospect of a substantial Indian presence in Afghanistan petrifies the Pakistani Army. They fear being encircled by India and slowly balkanized via India’s potential support from Afghanistan for Pakistan’s Pashtun and Baluch minorities. The Pashtun area occupied by Pakistan (called North West Frontier Province) has been claimed by Afghanistan as Afghan territory. India’s diplomatic support and physical support for this territory from Afghanistan could lead to a further breakup of Pakistan or so they believe.
The major weakness of India’s foray into Afghanistan is Pakistan’s occupation of the Northern Area of Kashmir (light green area on the map above). Without this territory, India does not have land access into Afghanistan.
So Pakistan has begun inviting China into its Northern Area, also called the Gilgit agency after Gilgit, the major town in the area. So far, China is building power plants and a railway. China plans a major rail link between Gilgit and Kashgar, the main center in China’s Xinjiang province. This railway could enable Chinese Army to pour into the Northern Area, thus encircling Indian Kashmir from Tibet in the east and from Gilgit in the west & north.
More importantly, the entry of Chinese Army into the Northern Area of Kashmir will provide China a broad land access into Afghanistan, a major strategic advantage for China and an unmitigated disaster for India.
The presence of American military forces in Afghanistan limits these initiatives and prevents the situation from getting out of control. Remember the last war in Kashmir was in 1999. Pakistan lost this Kargil War and this loss led Musharraf to topple the civilian rule and establish a military dictatorship in Pakistan. Two years later, American military entered Afghanistan. America’s conflict in Afghanistan has dominated this region since then.
If this complexity is not enough for you, consider the new role Turkey has chosen for itself. Turkey is harking back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. In those days, Turkish influence was fairly strong in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It was a period when Indian Muslim sardars and warlords would invent a Turkish ancestry to label themselves “Turki”. Turkey is now getting involved in Afghanistan and believes that it can play a mediation role in the Pashtun Taleban and Pakistani Panjabi ethnic struggle.
Post American Withdrawal from Afghanistan
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will create a large vacuum in the region. Geostrategy like nature abhors a vacuum and we already see activities from Pakistan, India & China to fill this vacuum. Large scale military operations were not feasible 50 years ago because of terrain and logistics. Not so today.
China and India have invested very heavily in military infrastructure including forward airbases and troop transport aircraft. China has built excellent rail and road links to be able to move troops quickly. India has completed its own rail link in Kashmir. India has also reopened airbases along the border between Indian Ladakh and Chinese Tibet. Pakistan has heavily fortified the line of control in Kashmir to prevent a land campaign by India.
Unfortunately, Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state despite American presence and aid. The withdrawal of American forces will lead to an escalating conflict between the Pakistani Taleban and Pakistani Government. Pakistan will badly need a major patron who could provide financial and military aid. There is only one such patron around, China.
In our opinion, China could offer Pakistan a very large amount of long term funding in exchange for ceding the Northern Area of Kashmir to China. The Chinese Army could then “legally” enter the Northern Area and occupy it. This will enable China to exert its influence on the new “government” in neighboring Afghanistan. As China has done with Sri Lanka, Myanmar & to a smaller extent in Bangladesh, China will provide a great deal of financial aid to the new Afghan regime and offer military support in exchange for strong influence & semi-vassal status.
Thus, except for a small part of Indian Kashmir, China will control the bulk of Af-Kash-Bet region and gain control of the Top of The World. According to Edmund Wong of the New York Times, China’s leaders want the boundaries of today’s China to be those of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) at its height. The Qing Empire was defeated in its campaign to capture Kashmir. What could be sweeter to Chinese leadership than to annex the bulk of Kashmir, control Afghanistan and make modern China greater than the Qing Dynasty empire? All this could be achieved by monetary and diplomatic negotiations with Pakistan.
China could then keep India hounded and on the defensive by funding & supporting the Pakistani Army in its terrorist attacks on India.
In our opinion, either India will forced to send its military into Pakistani-occupied Kashmir to prevent the Chinese Army from entering Kashmir or accept a vastly diminished global profile as a subordinate nation to China.
Parallels to Pre World War I Europe
The situation we describe reminds us of Europe before World War I. This, of course, is an extension of the analogy developed by Niall Ferguson, the Harvard-Oxford professor. He has compared today’s China to Kaisar Wilhelm’s Germany, then a new ascendant power in Europe.
You have China trying to remake itself as the modern Qing Empire. You have Turkey getting reinvolved in Afghanistan as the modern successor of the Ottoman Empire. In an astonishingly stupid move, the Obama political advisors have invited both China & Turkey to become more involved in Afghanistan. Listen, folks! Focus on Chicago style politics at home and leave foreign policy to Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates.
In this WW I analogy, what is India? France or the Austro-Hungarian regime? We do not know the answer. But we do know that this situation is fraught with enormous danger. It is also similar to World War I because, in our opinion, neither the China-Pakistan axis nor India is likely to win a decisive victory. It will be a long drawn battle out in an inhospitable and heavily fortified terrain, unless of course one of the players plays the tactical nuclear card.
What could be the trigger? The analogy to the assassination of Duke Ferdinand might well be an assassination of a Pakistani General by the Taleban, the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into Taleban hands or a terrorist attack against India with a small nuke.
It is our sincere hope that our projections prove to be misguided or utterly wrong. Nothing would please us more. But as analysts, we have to consider scenarios that could actually occur. We feel that the scenario we describe could certainly develop into a frightening reality.
This is why we fervently hope that the Obama Mission in Afghanistan succeeds in making both Afghanistan & Pakistan stable entities. Because, if President Obama decides to leave Afghanistan without achieving this aim, then our scenario is likely to occur in some form within a few years of America’s withdrawal.
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