For many around the world who consider the United States to be all powerful, the ignominious end to the war in Afghanistan, the harried withdrawal of US troops, and the swift takeover by the Taliban were shocking sights to behold. While horrifying images of Afghans desperately trying to flee the capital city of Kabul have gradually faded from the news cycle, many crucial questions still need to be answered. What was the 20-year war really about? How credible is the US claim that its withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of a larger foreign policy shift to focusing on the “China challenge”? What future lies ahead for the people of Afghanistan and the Taliban? And how are Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan, responding to the US withdrawal?
In Part I of this extended interview, TRNN contributor Radhika Desai and Melkulangara Bhadrakumar dissect the history and aftermath of the US war in Afghanistan.
In Part II of this extended interview, Desai and Bhadrakumar discuss the future of Afghanistan and how Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan are filling the geopolitical vacuum left by US withdrawal.
A former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for three decades, MK Bhadrakumar was stationed in the former Soviet Union as well as South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and Turkey. After retiring from his last post, he has been a prominent writer and analyst, focusing on India’s foreign policy as well as regional and global affairs, particularly relating to China, Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Transcript – Part I
Radhika Desai: After the two decades-long US occupation of Afghanistan, what lies ahead? Will Afghanistan descend into another chaotic breeding ground for terrorists, as alleged by many in the West? Or will it finally, rid of a corrupt and murderous occupation, be able to determine its destiny as many hope, if very cautiously? Hello, this is Radhika Desai for the Real News Network.
To a world used to considering the US an all-powerful power, its sudden and ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the equally swift collapse of the government and army it had propped up for decades, was stunning. Few doubt that these events will constitute a major milestone, and likely margin acceleration of the long, drawn out process of US decline.
No one watching the events as they have unfolded over the past months and more can doubt that they will have vast implications for Afghanistan, for the region, and for the world. There has already been a flood of commentary around the world offering different perspectives on key questions: Why did the US withdraw? How could the Taliban take over so swiftly and so bloodlessly? How could the US have occupied Afghanistan for 20 years, only to return it to the very forces it had fought so hard? How credible was the US claim that it was withdrawing from Afghanistan in order to concentrate on the China challenge, if the US presence in Afghanistan was a key piece of essentially creating problems for China, particularly given that Afghanistan borders on Xinjiang?
On September the 7th, after putting down a local revolt in the Panjshir Valley, the Taliban announced a new government, which many countries are ready to deal with. So now it is time to distill the wisdom of the debate and discussion so far on the US withdrawal and look to the future.
Where does Afghanistan go from here? What is the social character of the new government and state? What new relations and realities are emerging on the ground in Afghanistan? What new international alliances and equations are appearing? Particularly, how are Afghanistan’s neighbors, which include China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, not to mention the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement? How are all these entities relating to the new Taliban government?
Will they permit the US to re-enter Afghanistan, as important forces in the United States hope? If not, can the much talked about over-the-horizon capability the US claims actually work for its purposes? What is the effect of all this on India, which in recent decades has been trying to position itself as the US’s loyal servant in the region, particularly as its counterweight to China, not to mention India’s long standing rivalry with Pakistan?
With me to discuss all this is M. K. Bhadrakumar. It is no exaggeration to say that he’s one of the most qualified to speak on the matter. He was a career diplomat representing India in many of the countries of the region, and he’s one of the most widely read bloggers on foreign policy issues through his blog, Indian Punchline. Most recently, he has written a 20-part commentary on the evolving situation in Afghanistan.
M. K. Bhadrakumar was posted to the capitals of the former Soviet Union, and was head of the Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan division and Kashmir unit of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. After retiring from his last posting in Turkey nearly two decades ago, he has been a writer and columnist, and has contributed to Indian and foreign publications. He writes on India’s foreign policy, regional, and global affairs with a focus on China, Russia and Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. He currently divides his time between New Delhi and his hometown in South India. Welcome to The Real News Network, Bhadra.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Thank you, Radhika. It’s a pleasure. And it’s a great privilege to be interviewed by you, a great scholar I have always regarded and respected. Thank you.
Radhika Desai: Thank you very much. Bhadra, let’s begin with an overview of where the [last] couple of months have left the United States in Afghanistan. And once we’ve laid that groundwork, we’ll be ready to talk about the future of Afghanistan and the region as it is being remade, and what all that implies for the world order. So my first question to you is, what were the causes and the significance of the US withdrawal when all is said and done, if you were to give us a synoptic view of what it means and why it happened, please?
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: That’s great. It’s a long story in the sense that we must go back to the genesis of it, which is how the invasion of Afghanistan began. This was really an accidental war, in the sense that the New American Century, which was being planned at that time by the neocons in the US and senior officials in the Bush administration. They had in the crosshairs, actually, three other countries: that is Iran, Syria and Iraq. Not Afghanistan.
Then the 9/11 attacks came, and the Bush administration was so much on the defensive domestically, that it had to be seen as doing something. And that’s the beginning, that this intervention had originally to bribe or pay the Northern Alliance field commanders and warlords and get them to do the job to overthrow the Taliban regime. The fact of the matter is that the Taliban had sent overtures to the US, that on this week’s question of Osama bin Laden’s handing over, they were prepared to negotiate. That was an offer from Mullah Omar himself.
Similarly, on the part of the Northern Alliance, they had absolutely no intentions of seeking American intervention. The American intervention is something which the Bush administration decided. And when the first American aircraft landed with troops in Bagram Airport after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, which was achieved by the Northern Alliance, then foreign minister in the Northern Alliance government, Abdullah Abdullah, a very well-known name today, he protested. He said that the Americans came without the consent of the Afghan government.
Now, you can imagine the situation. And the Russians actually landed an aircraft at that time in Bagram. And there was a face off, and the Russians then discreetly took away their aircraft from there. So this is the backdrop. You see, after getting into this, they saw that so easily they achieved the overthrow of the Taliban regime. And then immediately after that, this actually went to the back burner. That is after they had removed the Northern Alliance government against its wishes, by getting the help from other countries to persuade them to step down. That is including Iran, including Zarif himself, former foreign minister Zarif who was at the Bonn Conference at that time, to persuade the Northern Alliance not to create a ruckus over this. Step aside. Let the Americans put somebody that they are comfortable with. And that’s how Karzai came.
And at that time giving way to Karzai before the president of the Northern Alliance government, Burhanuddin Rabbani in fact, made a statement, which I still recall. He said that, “I hope that this is the last time in the history of our country that a foreigner will dictate who should be the ruler.” So the feelings were running high. Immediately after this much was achieved in putting a puppet or whatever you call it, a surrogate or someone in power in Kabul, then the Americans turned to their real agenda, which was to go after Iraq.
As I mentioned to you, the New American Century project where the American hegemony would be consolidated through the 21st century, it was beginning with these chapters. The three regime changes in these three countries. So the Iraq invasion. Totally, we all know that in very contrived fashion, it began like this. The ease with which the regime was overthrown, the Americans are all confident that [it’s] mission accomplished, as Bush announced immediately after the overthrow of Saddam.
But then that’s where the trouble began. The resistance grew, and the Americans got into a quagmire there, and much destruction and killings followed. And millions of people were displaced refugees and all that. And the entire thing took an entirely very different complexion. They got bogged down in Iraq, finally leading to their eviction from Iraq, because the parliament decided that the Americans must leave. That’s how they left. They didn’t leave on their own accord. [crosstalk 00:10:09] of Iraq I guess in Barack Obama’s time.
Now you see, their plan for Syria is already effort before the Iraq invasion, because they had originally wanted Syria because… Why Syria? Syria is very important because it affects Israel’s security directly. And for Israel to have total dominance over the Levant and [for] the annexation of Golan to be formalized, Syria had to be weak and destroyed. So you see, Syria was the priority, but they went for Iraq. There again, they got the confidence, but they got bogged down.
And when bogged down, Assad is not such a simple character… Not Assad, his father, was not a simple character. He made things difficult. And he made sure… Let me put it like this, he made sure that the Americans wouldn’t leave Iraq in a conceivable future. [yes 00:11:13] He assisted the opposition forces, in other words. Ensured that the Americans were bled in Iraq. Iran initially supported the intervention in the sense, or rather increased intervention, in so far as getting rid of Saddam was an old dream for the Iranians. After the Iran-Iraq war, the bitterness was still there, in their mind. So they were applauding and encouraging the overthrow of the regime.
But then after that, naturally, once they introduced this democratic government, democratic process and all that, the empowerment of the shares began. And naturally, the Iran became the most influential power [crosstalk] in that country. And then they got locked into a conflict with the Americans there. So the friction began, rather. They didn’t really confront the Americans or anything, but friction began there. So for all these reasons, they got bogged down in Iraq. Iran was spared. And then Syria was spared. But Syria is a different story. Then Arab Spring came. And it took a very different thing. American got a window of opportunity to intervene in Syria in there.
So you see, the point I made in the beginning was, let me resume from there, that this is not free plan. So from 2003 onward, they paid very little attention. Let me bring in also a factual detail, which is extremely important to recall, which is that at that point in time in 2002, immediately after the overthrow, in fact, one year after the overthrow, the Taliban made an overture to Karzai that they would like to get to the mainstream politics in Afghanistan. And they would like to work like a political party, and the Americans spurned the overture from the Taliban. And then the Taliban retreated, and then they started recouping, and the rest is history.
So you see, by the time the Americans came out of Iraq, really bruised, and the whole backdrop was very complicated by that time already, Barack Obama came. His presidency came. And his presidency, Barack Obama, also as a candidate had argued for ending this war. But then the so-called deep state, that is the Pentagon, the CIA, and including Hillary Clinton. At that time, the power alignments were such that she was with the CIA and the Pentagon and so on at that time. Bob Woodward’s book narrates this in some detail.
Paradoxically, the only person who opposed at that time was Joe Biden, when the proposal for this surge came up before Obama. The book narrates that at one time, after going to the church on a Sunday morning, Biden was feeling so disturbed that he went to Obama in the White House on a Sunday morning, to tell Obama to have a one-to-one with him. To tell him that this is a very wrong decision, have a surge because then you are actually going into a war, which is going to be through your presidency. You will not be able to wind it up. This is a war that cannot be won.
Radhika Desai: Yes. Absolutely.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Therefore, the first reason and the foremost reason, I would actually put like this, that Biden came with the determination. Now, you know well enough and better than me that Obama was an outsider in terms of the US establishment in the Beltway. He had very little familiarity with foreign affairs. But Biden is an enormously experienced man. And also, he’s been there. Throughout his adulthood, he was in the middle of it, the power play in the Beltway, and he knows how the system works. And he also knew how to get his decisions implemented.
He took this decision and many reports came in New York Times and other papers also at that time, that he overruled the advice of these people from the Pentagon and the CIA and so on. And he decided that this withdrawal must be implemented. So you see, I put Biden as the first factor there for this withdrawal from… Now, he didn’t do anything other than what Trump wanted. But Trump was again an outsider. And now, very few decisions he wanted to take, including starting from improvement of relations with Russia, he couldn’t proceed with that. They were being derailed by the deep state in the US.
Trump also finally gave up because he had the decision, but it was never implemented. So now, why did Biden do this before? That is what we have to firstly understand. Biden clearly understood and the military people were also honest enough to admit it, that this is not a war which can be won. Biden was forceful enough to then address this question, that if this is a war which cannot be won, then what is the point in fighting it for one more year? It will become four more years. It’ll become 10 more years. “Are you going to be within sight of victory?” They say, “No, sir. It’s not possible. This has to be a political settlement.” “So if it is a political settlement, what’s the point in doing that?”
Then comes the other attendant questions about the enormous amount of money that is going into it. This is also very relevant here because this has become a trillion dollar war, and so much money is going in. And that kind of money, when it appears suddenly in a very poor country with hardly any absorption capacity, it spawns corruption. So all this is a vicious circle. And corruption means, an incredible level, it is there. And this affects the war, this affects the [yes] morale of the military.
You come to a situation where the ordinary soldiers don’t get their salary for three months, six months, because the officers just pocket the money. It’s unbelievable. How do they support their families? They sell their weapons in the market, and much of it goes to the Taliban [crosstalk].
Radhika Desai: Yeah. If I may resume, I think what you’re doing is, on the one hand, you are pointing out that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of a larger picture of failure in the region, on the part of the United States. And on the other hand, you’ve also pointed out that in all of these countries, and certainly in Afghanistan, there was always resentment about having a puppet government foisted upon them, one that did not represent them properly, and so on. And of course, as you now point out, the very manner in which the war was conducted, gave rise to a corrupt government, a corrupt army, which then evaporated in the face of the Taliban takeover, so perhaps…
This is one of the reasons why there was a swift and bloodless takeover. So now, if we may move to the second question that I have, which is given what we know of the Taliban, how can we expect them to rule in the coming months and years? What social interest should they represent? Of course, they represent the resentment at a puppet foreign government, et cetera. But what else do they represent?
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: They represent the Pashtuns. And when you say Afghan, actually most Afghanistan people will admit it, when you say Afghan, you actually mean Pashtun. They are interchangeable words in the Afghan context. So you see the centrality of the Pashtun in the power calculus is a historical reality. So what we have seen now through this period of the war is actually an aberration. The targets who formed something like 25 to 26% of the population, they became the ruling elite. And the last phase of the war I’m narrating to you, the officer corps in the army, they’re all Tajiks, and they’re fighting the Pashtun. And now Pashtuns are close to 45 to 50% of the population. Virtually, this is an empowerment for the Pashtun.
I used an expression in a recent writing. It’s no nationalism. So to answer your question, this certainly gives great impetus. When you see demonstrations in Kabul, many people do not understand that over time, Kabul became a Tajiks city. Whereas the hinterland in the south, where the teeming millions of Pashtuns live, they never really mattered. Occasionally, it will come in the discourses in the country. Even in newspapers, I used to see sometimes this surfacing of the strong feeling. So this undercurrent, and I don’t think that the Northern Alliance people would ever be able to have an appeal. Or rather, than non-Taliban people will ever be able to have an appeal in that way, in the Pashtun constituency that the Taliban has. This is a very important thing.
Radhika Desai: [crosstalk] Mm-hmm (affirmative). Go ahead. No. Please go ahead.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: The second point is, you know that despite all these aberrations during their first term of ruling the country, the fact is they give stability, order. Of course, they resulted to extreme measures, but they gave primacy to human security. Ironically, I can’t put it in any other way. The lawlessness in Afghanistan, Taliban came itself as a reaction to the lawlessness of the Mujahideen period. So you see, even today, you’ll find odd interviews coming from the interior in American papers. New York Times had a fascinating dispatch, from somewhere in the countryside in rural Afghanistan, about four or five days ago, a long essay on that.
A man took the trouble to go there, to see how those people are looking. They were actually quite pleased that there is at least certain predictability about life, because when you speak about human security, it is raw. It’s really a matter of, you don’t know whether you’re going to be alive tomorrow, and sadly, all know everything is at stake there. That way, there is a certain kind of instability which is a number second factor.
The important thing that we need to talk about is their weaknesses. One is that they don’t have a… I cannot put it differently, a managerial cadre. Now, I have dealt with them. I have been familiar with them during their first time as rulers in the second half of the 1990s. At that time, virtually, Pakistanis went there and were running the government. The military was having a fairly good officer content from the Pakistani military services [crosstalk]. And even in the running of the ministries in Kabul or in the provinces, Pakistani civil servants or retired people were officiating.
So you see, the dearth of talent, this is where I think the Americans have done a dastardly thing, by this brain drain. They should never have done. This kind of a brain drain, it is getting this kind of people when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the Soviet Union collapsed from those countries where this social formation was high. But it’s a different matter to bleed a country like Afghanistan, because its margin is so little. So the best and the brightest when they call from there, there’s nothing. It’s like a husk, that country. This is really a major thing. Then secondly, the problem they have is that they’re flat broke. They’ve inherited a treasury, which has got no money.
Radhika Desai: That’s right. The way the Americans emptied it.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Yeah. Americans, Ghani, everyone. They just took away all the money. So how do you run a country without any kind of money? And then the little bit money that they had in the American banks, immediately overnight they froze their account. They don’t have access to that money. Otherwise, it’s something like about 9 billion dollars would have been available with them, that they took away. Then they impose sanctions immediately. And they have told the World Bank and IMF and all that to just suspend all programs there.
So the challenge facing them is how do they run the country? And then you look at the kind of vengeance that they had. Two days, 48 hours or 24 hours before vacating Kabul airport, there’s so many civilian aircraft parked there, they just went and destroyed all of them. They destroyed all the equipment in the airport.
Radhika Desai: Yes, that’s right.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Indeed, this is clearly to make it horribly difficult for these people to settle in. So this is the problem.
Radhika Desai: And so, I mean, what you’re also saying is that the Americans are in a very important respect, the architects of the unfolding humanitarian disaster that is already being talked about in Afghanistan, with the government deprived of funds, and it sanctioned and so on. Just one other question about the character of this government. Practically every country and certainly all the countries with important stakes in the region, like China, and Russia, and wherever. They have all been saying that the Taliban should create an inclusive government.
And it’s very clear from the September 7 government that was announced that it is certainly… While there are a couple of non-Pashtuns in there, it’s not particularly inclusive. So can you comment a little bit on that. And also, given how much the issue of women plays in the West, particularly, the issue of Afghan women and their future. Maybe, you can comment a little bit on that in terms of what we should expect from the Taliban government and why?
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: It’s a complex issue. Because unless you relate their behavior to their flow of history, and their traditions, we will not be able to understand it. Because I don’t know if you came across this about two, three weeks ago, there was a wonderful essay in The New Yorker magazine by Anand Gopal. I don’t know the name is familiar to you.
Radhika Desai: No.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: He’s got a fantastic book he had written in 2015. I always thought that he was one of the best chroniclers of the Afghan war. Anand Gopal, I think he was working for Washington Post at the time. He wrote an essay and the title itself, I don’t need to explain what it must be containing you can figure out, The Other Afghan Women. That’s the title of the–
Radhika Desai: Very important. Yes.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: And that speaks volumes, that title. That the Afghanistan, that these people… Starting from Madeleine Albright, down to present day when we speak about the women. They are the English speaking women, the urban women, who’ve been probably educated even in the West, a number of them. And who are active in the social circles in Kabul, westernized lifestyles. So these are the women that we are talking about. When you go to the interior, you come across–And I have traveled extensively in that country–Where you come across in a very different reality. It’s a traditional society.
It’s a traditional society where a woman doesn’t mind that she’s sequestered from men. And if her husband, and her brothers and father, they don’t allow her to interact freely with men. And she goes to the seclusion of the home when outsiders come, and she doesn’t move out. These are social norms. Even I’m very sure that there is so much of difference even between South India and North India. Our societies are all transforming. And a lot of tension is building up also because nowadays in this age, the transformation is so rapid and the time is becoming compressed. So a lot of disjointed things taking place even in India today as a result of that. So this is a matter which is directly linked to social formation.
Now, this is where even the communist government faltered. They tried to modernize at breakneck speed and the country wasn’t ready. And the traditional society disobeyed, and then the Mujahideen came out of that to organize the resistance. So you see, Taliban therefore, cannot be expected to have behavioral norms that you would in Canada or I in India would think as a civilized way of life. Maybe, our civilized way of life is not civilized enough even for you. But [laughs] it clearly shows that it’s a related matter.
Radhika Desai: Yes.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: This is the important thing to understand. But having said that, I genuinely feel that they are different today. Because I have seen them, I have talked to them, I have interacted with them in the 1990s. You mentioned about my career track, as the head of the Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran division. Before that I was there also in Kabul, looking after the embassy for a while. I know the country very well, and I’ve dealt with them for something like 15, 20 years while on foreign service.
The Taliban that I have known in the 1990s are not the Taliban that I am seeing today. I can tell you that. Therefore, the statements that they have made about their willingness to have a more inclusive government. To take that point first, that is something which has not been tested so far. I will take them for their word when they say that this is an interim government. And this is an interim government because they had to have some kind of a government because the country was just falling apart. To hold it together, that there is banking possible, their schools are reopening, health clinics are reopening et cetera. They needed ministries to start functioning. So they put together an interim government.
So you see, the jury is still out on that [yes 00:32:35]. And this small beginning they have made is not very insignificant, because one is a man from Puncher as their commerce minister, with cabinet rank. He’s not a Taliban, he’s just a normal civilian [inaudible] from Puncher Valley. They are looking for this. And I read an interview by Hamid Karzai with the Iranian media about four, five days ago. And I get a feeling that he’s working hard on this, and he is constantly in touch with the Taliban.
And he seemed already taking a different view of them as open to ideas, and are acutely conscious of their inadequacies, and are very unhappy with the state of affairs today. So there is no triumphalism in them, in other words. It’s a very interesting interview. And Karzai is a very honest man in this respect, that he stayed back there at taking enormous risk and preferred to be sharing the grief and joy of his people when all this began, and the Taliban stormed the city and Ghani ran away from there. So the jury is, in my opinion, still out.
Now, as far as schooling and all is concerned, they have already said that they are going to allow girls to go to school. But this is where you come to the traditions and so on. Now, you cannot expect co-education to happen. Can you imagine in my childhood in that part of India, which is one of the best developed socially in the country, co-education was unheard of. I studied in a school which is just boys’s school. My wife studied in a school, which is just a girls’s school. And I’m talking about the 1960s. So society is changed, now it is possible. You go to the same school. My granddaughter goes to a school, an American school where there are children, are only Indians, others, boys, et cetera, et cetera.
Taliban has said that they are going to change, and they are going to allow the girls to go to school. I read somewhere that maybe an announcement is due tomorrow on this issue, by this weekend. Now, a number of professions that women have been allowed to resume immediately, for instance, health, where they are desperately needed there, their services. They all been actually ordered to return for work. So you see, all those things are there. In course of time…
After all, you must understand that. And you are a scholar on Russian history. I told somebody recently this, that they’ve been there for one month, how long did Lenin take in similar conditions? Over three years to consolidate [yes 00:35:45] his revolution. So we are actually putting a tall order in, and doing this stop taking in one month’s time. My opinion is very unkind. Give them some time, they will do it. And with all the handicaps that they have also, we need to factor in that, that they just don’t have the money, they don’t have the expertise, all these things count.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. And I also think that of course, there is the Iran model where women are not participating in the upper echelons of the government or anything. But, if you look at the statistics on women’s education, fertility, et cetera, they match any of the first world countries statistics. So in that sense, women’s current situation is a complex affair in countries like Iran and so on. But that’s really great. I think as you write it, new government has just taken power, the jury is still out. What’s more? They themselves have said it’s an interim government, we expect things to change. So that’s really good. Now, I have just a couple more questions on this part of our interview on the US and Afghan countries.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Can I interrupt you for a minute?
Radhika Desai: Sure. Of course.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: One very important factor here is that in the 1990s, they were in the clutches of the Saudis. The Saudis were funding them, and they were eating out of the Saudi hands. And the Saudis introduced into the paradigm, huge doses of Wahhabism. [Yes 00:37:19] Now, after the overthrow, sitting in the wilderness, pondering over their future, these Talibs understood that that was their undoing. In fact, that is what took them to Osama bin Laden.
Radhika Desai: Fascinating. Yes.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Today, they have dissociated themselves. Why the international media is underplaying this, I do not understand. When they announced that for inauguration of their government, they wanted certain countries to be present. So [inaudible] Saudi Arabia and the Emirates didn’t figure that.
Radhika Desai: Very interesting.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: And very top man, [Kurkova 00:38:00], gave an interview, in fact, to the Iranian television. I saw that. It’s a fascinating interview. He there underscored that in the recent years, we have not even visited Saudi Arabia. So they have actually analyzed, and they have understood where they went horribly wrong, that they became the captives of this sort of a bizarre ideology.
Radhika Desai: Correct.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: And they are actually, today… I’m watching it very closely. Copying many characteristics of the regime in Iran. Now you see, this is a personal moment, but copying. The Islam that is there in Afghanistan is traditional Islam. It’s not fanatical. It is Sufi Islam, and that they’re mystical and that kind of thing. So you see, these people are immersed in the traditional Afghan Islam. Therefore, I assess that the 1990s was a horrible mistake that they committed, which they realized and they have retracted. So their performance will need to be weighed-in afresh, now at this point in time. For this reason, that they are no longer in the clutches of the Saudis and in the shadows of the Wahhabism.
Radhika Desai: Very interesting. Now, just a couple more questions before we leave the matter of US and Afghanistan. So, the US claims that they withdrew from Afghanistan in order to concentrate on dealing with the China challenge. But surely, withdrawing from Afghanistan makes them less capable of dealing with the China challenge, at least as far as they’re concerned. Because while they have been an occupying force in Afghanistan, certainly encouraging the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, for example, in fomenting problems in Xinjiang, et cetera.
So, how do you think this withdrawal is going to affect the US-China equation? And on a more technical level, do you think that this so called over-the-horizon capability that they think that they are going to maintain in order to continue to be a player in Afghan affairs is going to work?
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: This is a discussion really about American intentions. We analyzed partly the factors that were there for the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But through this period of the negotiations, peace talks in Doha between the United States, Khalilzad, and the Taliban representatives. What the Americans were actually wanting to extract out of the Taliban was a matrix of understanding. Where a rather open-ended American intelligence, military presence in Afghanistan would be feasible, would be allowed by the Taliban.
So what the Americans were doing is that, instead of a horribly expensive war like this, costing billions of dollars, they would cut down the expenses and the agenda against China can still continue. Because it is going to be transferred to another plane. How did this Islamic State came about there? The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, they have all said… Hamid Karzai was the first one to mention that he had been getting reports in the night, that unmarked helicopters were dropping people in remote regions of Afghanistan.
And then the Russians, and the Iranians have a very good intelligence system, so do the Russians in Iraq and Syria. And they spotted that American aircraft were airlifting the Islamic State fighters out of Syria, and they were being taken to Afghanistan. And then they were being deployed to different places, different pockets.
Radhika Desai: So you mean this is the origin of the ISIS Khorasan?
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: ISIS is a hydra-headed beast. Now, ISIS has many kinds of elements have come into it. After all, it’s a composite movement of radical Islamists from Central Asia, from North Caucasus, from Xinjiang, even from Western countries, even from India to some extent, and Arab countries and so on. It is not that it is a monolithic movement. In other words, in the name of the Islamic State, a lot of other people are also operating in Afghanistan today. There are other terrorist groups also operating there.
What I’m saying is there is a core group there of battle-hardened veterans, Islamic State fighters who were defeated, who lost there, who have had full training, and who have had their baptism under fire. They are the ones who are coming. And they are the ones also who migrated from this region to Syria, that is from Central Asian countries, North Caucasus, Xinjiang and so on. For instance, that Uyghurs, there are a few hundred Uyghurs, militants who have come there.
So the American strategy was that if they can have a fast, straight intelligence set up there, and they can have a small viable force of special forces operating there with their cover, they can do wonders in terms of their real agenda. Which is in terms of destabilizing Central Asia, destabilizing Chechnya and other places.
Biden mentioned Chechnya again day before yesterday, in his speech in the United Nations General Assembly. These things are still bothering them apparently. China borders Afghanistan, and Wakhan Corridor is a very difficult terrain. And according to reports, which I have seen, China has also openly begun discussing this. The Trump administration removed the Uyghurs, the so called ETIM, Eastern Turkestan movement, from the blacklist. So they’re no longer–
Radhika Desai: Of terrorists.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: …terrorists. So there is nothing preventing legally the Americans from hobnobbing with them. That is the meaning of it. And the Chinese have asked the Americans, but why don’t you actually classify them as terrorists? Why this double standard? That is because they have use for these people as geopolitical tools.
So the withdrawal from Afghanistan is not going to lead to any improvement in their relations. In fact, the Chinese have categorically said that no piecemeal selective engagement or cooperation is conceivable with the United States, so long as it pursues its hostile policies towards China and interfere in China’s internal affairs. And knowing the Chinese, I’m sure, this is the bottom line. They are not going to [inaudible] Taiwan and all this coming to it. So if the relationship is very difficult and it is only going to get more tense.
Radhika Desai: So what you’re saying, Bhadra, is that the United States intends to, and is capable of, having some sort of presence in Afghanistan? Which they will use to continue to be a thorn in the side of China, and Russia, and the Central Asian States and so on?
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Yeah. And Iran.
Radhika Desai: And Iran.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Now the expectation was that either Pakistan or the Taliban themselves directly would agree to a low-profile American presence in Afghanistan. But then this was not to be. Then the plan B was to organize a presence in Afghanistan’s auto radius, that is in the Central Asian region, or Pakistan, or India included, et cetera. Now, the Russians and the Chinese put their foot down and said, “No way in Central Asia.” So no Central Asian country agreed to give a facility for American presence there. Pakistan just said that after we have gone through, it’s just out of the question. And India, I don’t know why they did not announce this, but they should announce this, that they should… Why this ambivalence [inaudible] was necessary at all. It is probably too, as a psychological pressure on Pakistan. I don’t know.
But I think it’ll be very stupid on the part of India to be part of this. And it’s not in the Indian DNA, I don’t see that that is going to work. So then what happens? Then the nearest is Qatar. So how do you conduct an operation, when a ground situation develops and via satellite and all that you can beam in the information back. Somebody takes the decision. And where is the general sitting, in Florida. And from Florida, he immediately orders. It’s [inaudible] to leave from Qatar. It takes a few hours to reach there. Now, this is not how you’re going to fight terrorism.
So, the whole plan unraveled. And some of this bitterness is showing in this random destruction of equipment in Kabul airport and all that. They’ve left with a lot of bitterness and humiliation. Leaving at midnight from out of Bagram, fearing that there might be demonstrations against them from Afghan people. This is the kind of atmosphere in which they have left. So coming back, therefore, I think is going to be problematic.
Radhika Desai: Right. So this over-the-horizon capacity is more a myth–
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: I think it is unrealistic. I think it is a bit swan but in fact, a direct presence and they have quoted that idea. But the Taliban said very, very bluntly, that they will not countenance any kind of foreign presence on their soil. And if any operations are to be undertaken, it should be undertaken by them. And that demand is that foreigners should make the demand on them to undertake this for security reasons, and they will handle it.
So this being the state of play, a return is out of the question. And in any case, having left that place, I can be 100% sure that the Russians and the Chinese are not going to allow the Americans to come back there, nor are the Iranians is going to. So you see, this is out of the way. But to answer your question, this is not going to improve relations between the United States and China, because many other factors are at work there.
Radhika Desai: Well, thank you so much. On that note, I think we will bring this interview to an end but I’m sure we will be having lots of opportunities to talk to you again. So thank you very much.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Thank you, Radhika. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to discuss with someone who would respond.
Transcript – Part 2
Radhika Desai: Let me begin this part of our interview by essentially saying that one of the key issues for these powers like China, like Russia, is that Afghanistan should no longer be a place where from which terrorism is exported. And they have extracted, the reason they’re dealing with the Taliban government, is that the Taliban government has promised them that this will not happen. So can you begin from there? And then comment on exactly how China and Russia in particular, and the SCO, are relating to the Taliban government and where you think this relationship will go in the future.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Radhika, what you have said is the commonality. Now, the point is each of these protagonists, China, Russia, Iran, they also have specific interests in Afghanistan. And one interesting feature is, from what I have analyzed, those interests are not grating against each other. Which allows these countries, these regional states, to function together in a matrix where they have common interests and that their common interests can be effectively pursued. So you see, this has given impetus to this new forum of the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The foreign ministers of these countries have already had one meeting, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. The next meeting will be hosted by Iran. And now, you had the special envoys of Russia, China, and Pakistan who went to Kabul and had meeting with the Taliban government leadership on Monday. So again, a regional processes there.
So you see, Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a regional organization. So you see, the withdrawal of the American troops, it is led to a regional initiative in a genuine sense. Now, what is it, their interests? As I mentioned, there are specific interests. The specific interest is under the zero rubric of tourism, the Russians have a serious problem with regard to North Caucasus. They mention a threat to Central Asia, but they do not admit that the situation is that they have a problem, they have a great worry. And the first government of the Taliban had actually recognized the Chechen Republic, and they had diplomatic relations with the Chechen rebel government at that time. So it was from that time that the Russians legislated the Taliban as a terrorist group, which is still in the statutes.
I saw some statements, literature coming out from them. The emirate of North Caucasus, this is an umbrella organization of the radical Islamist movements of the Northern Caucasus region: Ingushetia, Chechnya, all those places together. Now they have very warmly welcomed. So you see the Russians’s worry is that number one, that this will radiate radical energy, and it’ll sooner or later reach there. And there are people from those regions in Afghanistan today, working shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban, these groups, and they were part of the insurgency there. So you see, the Taliban cannot besoothe them all so very easily. So this is a very worrying thing.
A small detail is very important here, in the sense that you know that with the Central Asian countries, Russia has a visa-free regime. That is, if a fellow crosses the border into Central Asia, he can travel all the way into Russia and there’s no stopping him. There’s no border check, nothing. And it’s quite difficult to reintroduce the visa regimes and border controls and so on now, at short notice like that. So, the Russians want this border control to be very strict. There want to stop the refugee flow, therefore, because the refugees will inevitably have a fair complement of radical elements.
So these are specific interests. And then, the stability of the Central Asian region is very important because Russia is a provider of security for the Central Asian region. So these factors come into it. I don’t think so much that the Islamic regime in Russia feels perturbed by an Islamic regime in Afghanistan. I don’t think that’s the point. The security paradigm is very important for the Russians there. And then of course, the American persons and the American intentions and all this kind of thing, they will be vigilant about it.
But now that is become a thing of the past, and we will only want to see that the Americans don’t come back to that region there. We have no clash of interest, therefore, with the other neighboring countries. Yeah. China, when it comes to that, is more or less the same situation, China’s case, because China’s number one concern is about the security of Xinjiang. And there again, there is no clash of interest with any other country. It is their national security interest. It’s not that their security interests are in jeopardy, but it’s like a toothache. If these kind of people start engaging in terrorism and so on in Xinjiang, where the situation is very calm as of now, after many years of turbulence, it worries the Chinese, therefore. Then, China has an added interest in terms of Belt and Road.
Radhika Desai: Correct.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Belt and Road is a very important project for them. And this Belt and Road projects, these roads and rail links and so on, will be running through a country which is completely outside the sphere of American influence. So that is particularly fascinating for them, in terms of their so-called Malacca Dilemma, where it’s a choke point controlled by the Americans where 90% of their trade is passing through that choke point. So they can diversify links to Europe, links to Africa, links to Middle East and so on. So that’s really important.
Then, they have written very candidly that they are interested in the fact that Afghanistan has vast reserves of minerals [inaudible]
Radhika Desai: Including rare-earth minerals.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Rare earth–Lithium and so on–Which is now necessary for electric cars and chip making and all that. All that is there, it has got probably one of the biggest reserves in the world, so anywhere between $1 to $3 trillion [inaudible]. First survey was done by the Soviets, and during their occupation time the Americans got hold of that survey, and the Pentagon had another task force working on it, and found that the results are much bigger than what the Russians had thought.
Radhika Desai: Had reported.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Yeah. So that is why I say it’s between $1 to $3 trillion.
So, this is very important for the Chinese. Next door this is coming. And this can be linked to so many other activities like investment in Afghanistan: economic development of Afghanistan, overall stabilization of Afghanistan, creating interdependency with the new regime that is coming to power, goodwill, all that stems out of this. So none of this really speaking is cutting the vital interest of any country. That if you want to have a geopolitical struggle against this, by all means, you go ahead. But in terms of core interest it’s not grating against anyone’s interests.
Iran’s number one is that Iran wants a stable Afghanistan, because Iran, unlike Russia, China, Iran is a stakeholder in the stability, social stability of Afghanistan–
Radhika Desai: And it is home to millions of Afghan refugees.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Yes, there’s something like about 45 million ethnic groups, that is Tajiks plus Hazaras, with whom Iran has cultural affinity. And the language that is spoken by the Afghan elite is Dari, which is an offshoot of Persian.
Radhika Desai: Persian.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: So this is in their sphere of influence, historically. So the cultural ties are very strong and their affinity is very much felt in the blood. So, Iran, it is very important when we all speak about inclusive government, but in my estimation, the one country and the only country in the world which really means it is Iran. That is, they want these people to be accommodated in the government. And that is–
Radhika Desai: Very interesting.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: …very important for Iran because it is also creates for Iran goodwill and leverage.
Number two, border security, because cross border terrorism is a fact of life. And Saudi-supported, American-supported, Israeli-supported terrorist groups have operated out of that region to bleed Iran. That is another one. Then drug trafficking. It’s a major problem because the drugs used to flow through Northern Afghanistan to Turkey, to Europe. Now they want this to be stopped. And they feel that they have a congruence of interest with the Taliban on that score. So all these factors are there. And then let me not overlook this, that a stable Afghanistan gives them also much better access to China, through a rail link, for instance, from which is pretty much in their mind, rail link connecting Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, will take them straight into the Chinese border–
Radhika Desai: Absolutely.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: [inaudible] It’s very important for them, and Iran has a great desire to be part of, to be a hub, in fact of the DRA.
Radhika Desai: Yeah.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: [inaudible] So these are the things there.
Radhika Desai: Your knowledge is so encyclopedic. We could talk for several more hours, but I feel that I should draw this interview to a conclusion by just one final question. And we’ll probably come back to you for more as the situation evolves. So, and I’m skipping over many other questions I have, because as I said, you have answered so fully and wonderfully. So I’m going to compress my final set of questions into just really one, which is the India-Pakistan situation of which you are, you know so much. How has the India-Pakistan relation been affected, and of course the Kashmir issue, been affected by the United States withdrawal? If you can conclude our interview with some reflections on that, that would be great.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: India actually… Actually, then we’ll be concluding on a sad note. Because personally, I’m very sad about this. Having handled this desk for so many years and having contributed to Indian policy making. I think we went wrong. We made serious mistakes. The time when I was there in the foreign office, the thinking was that India-Pakistan relations–I was the head, as you know, of the Pakistan division–The India-Pakistan relationship is so very complicated that we should not try to add to it. That as it is, it is bad. And therefore do not use, in other words, Afghanistan, as a turf or a template of the India-Pakistan tensions.
Now this, we made a departure in the 1990s, second half of the 1990s. And this took us to the Northern Alliance to those tribes. When I first actually went and contacted the mujahideen groups in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, I went through the archives. Radhika, you will not believe we had so little material on the Northern Tribes of Afghanistan. I wanted to study them before meeting Massoud and so on. I was the first Indian to meet Massoud. And I was going into Panjshir at that time incognito without any kind of thing, we had no embassy there. And these are people who were fed and supported by the Pakistanis. So they were not in talking terms with us. So for the first conversation, when we went there, I needed to know with whom I am going to talk to. So I sifted through the archives to study, and I saw that, because why? Because India’s interests, we inherited the British legacy. That is, Afghanistan in terms of India’s frontline, Kazakhstan [00:13:58] onward, that is where the British wanted to save Imperial India, British India from the Russians.
Radhika Desai: Correct.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: So the border buffer was Afghanistan. And there, the southern part of Afghanistan actually was where the defense line was, which materialized as a different line and so on and so forth.
Radhika Desai: Correct.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: So, the historical flow has been only with the Southern Tribes. Then they got involved in the Northern Tribes, so you can see the absurdity of it, and people who had no sense of history created the sort of distortions in the Indian policy. We had no common interest with those Northern Tribes for whom the gravitational pull is always towards directly [crosstalk], Central Asia, Iran and so on. So, therefore this became a template of India-Pakistan tensions, whereas it didn’t have to be. Now, I’ve been trying to tell the people here also in writings, right from the beginning, all through these 20 years I’ve been writing on this, that we have to understand Pakistan’s compulsions because the Durand Line question has not been resolved.
And can you imagine any country with some 2,400 kilometers of border, which is open, where people can come and go? So they have a very acute security situation. So into that, we have created a narrative that Pakistan is trying to create strategic depth in Afghanistan and so on and we got worked up. And so, if someone has a problem with Pakistan, we’ll immediately invite him for a cup of tea. It went to the sort of mindset, a zero sum mindset. But frankly, therefore, to come the present day, the withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan is not detrimental to India’s interests. I don’t see it at all that way. It can be detrimental only for this reason: That it leads to the ascendancy of Pakistan’s influence in Kabul.
Now, if you are able to understand this ascendancy as something which is very natural in the flow of things, being a neighboring country with ethnic similarities, common history, culture, and so on and so forth, I don’t know why we should feel upset about it and we should think that it is detrimental to our interests. Afghans are basically very friendly towards India and you know [inaudible 00:16:37] that [crosstalk] it’s there. So, no amount of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan can erase that.
And therefore, I would’ve actually liked an Indian policy which is constructive, positive, which is to create bridges of friendship with the people there and assist that country, because India has this certain type of developmental experience. From zero or ground zero, we have come up to this point in a matter of 70 years, a level, a type of experience which Western countries cannot give. So, we have a relevance there and Afghans like it to come and, for their capacity building, to come to Indian education institutions, stay in our hostels and all that. So, we should have actually focused on that instead of this Great Game.
But you know, it is such a heady potion, that if you consume one ounce of it, you get inebriated and then you go on this track of the geopolitical struggle. We should have, in my opinion… The short point is, we should have focused on geoeconomics. Because this would have been useful for India’s development also, because the symbiotic relationship with Afghanistan is possible considering its resources, its development needs, and the complementarity with India. And it could have been a gateway for India to Central Asia also. So I think the–
Radhika Desai: But this would involve also settling, having a more understanding relationship with Pakistan, as you rightly pointed out.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: That understanding is not going to develop now because it is a template of India’s domestic politics. So, a normalization with Pakistan, there is a fundamental contradiction, a normalization with Pakistan, I think will be undercutting the alchemy or dissolving the alchemy of the Hindu through ideology.
Radhika Desai: Exactly.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: So if you see what I’m driving at, I don’t see a normalization possible in the present circumstances in this region. But if normalization still takes place, then Afghanistan can be, I don’t know, it’ll be day dreaming if I were to go on that track. I don’t see that normalization taking place. And the zero sum mindset I think is continuing very much there. I get tons of hate mail when I write about it, that India should have a different approach towards Afghanistan. Nobody was accepting it. Nobody was wanting to believe it, when I said that Taliban is going to come to power there. Last one, two years, I have been saying this repeatedly and we must prepare for it. Nobody would believe it when I said that there is not the ghost of a chance for a resistance against the Taliban after they came to power in August past month in Kabul, everyone here was in jubilation that Panjshir is up in arms. But you really want to, have to have a reality check, Indians. I think this is–
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. No, I entirely agree. I think that India is itself, essentially backed itself into a corner from which it can only lose in the present context. So, absolutely. And your judgment, I mean, you said you are going to end on a sad note, but I think the bright part is that there are people like you who are presenting a different perspective and one hopes that eventually–
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: Let me give a certain silver lining to this–
Radhika Desai: Absolutely, please.
Bhadrakumar Melkulangara: [inaudible] The fact of the matter is that some of these things that I have been writing about have also been appearing in shapes of policy. Like for example, we have had a profound rethink towards Iran. And not in terms of working against Pakistan or in terms of conspiring to create an anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan or anything, but in terms of a meaningful relationship with a country in the neighborhood, which also is similar to India in the kind of passion that it has for its strategic autonomy and independent foreign policy. So if that develops, I think a number of things will follow out of that in the sense that we will be distancing ourselves from the Western approaches to Afghanistan. And we’ll be looking at these things in terms of our interests. Even the attitude towards Afghanistan can change if very cordial, close working relationships are resumed with Iran.
Radhika Desai: Iran, yes. Well, thank you so much. On that note, I think we will bring this interview to end, but I’m sure we will be having lots of opportunities to talk to you again. So thank you very much.