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Explaining AfPak to a 14-year old

Last evening as I was trying to explain to my 14-year old why a possible US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be bad for India, I realised how hopeless the US case for continued involvement in Afghanistan looked.

In a statement that sounded pretty unconvincing, David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to President Obama said:

We have a different situation in Afghanistan. It is actually the place…where the folks who attacked us on 9/11 are holed up and plotting against us still…

It’s a threat that still exists. We have to deal with it and so it’s a wholly different situation. That’s a problem that still exists

To the average American on the street (and – for that matter – the average European on the street), it does not look like that…The war in Afghanistan is no doubt, against some “bad guys” but a lot of “our boys” are getting killed. Sure it is meant to protect us but, wait when was the last terrorist attack again?

Those guys have learnt their lesson…they will not mess with us again…so why don’t we just get our boys back home?

These are the words that policy planners don’t want to hear but I think they are being said…and repeated…by too many people.

I suspect somewhere, somehow this message must have got relayed back to President Obama.

Now regardless of whether withdrawal from Afghanistan is a good strategy or a bad strategy (from a US point of view), one thing is obvious…A war-torn nation at India’s doorstep (almost) cannot be good news – especially as our dear neighbour will try and do all it can to win the Afghans back into its “sphere of influence”.

How? By offering legitimacy and support to the new/”reformed” Taliban that will most likely fill the vacuum that will arise (given the “popularity” of the Karzai administration). In doing this “good deed” and for shouldering the “burden” of maintaining peace in the region, our dear neighbour can expect a lot of support and aid from a grateful nation (perhaps nations).

Which would have been all well and good except that much of that support and “aid” is going to find its way into all sorts of wrong things* which I dare not tell my daughter about – and will free up our dear neighbour to resume their “activities” by our common fence, now that the other one is (at least temporarily) fixed.

What activities, Dad? and why can’t we discuss this with our dear neighbour?, my daughter asks.

I tell her that it is good to discuss fences with neighbours but what do you do when they keep throwing their junk across to your side…and keep sending their kids to ruin your flower beds and pets to poo on your lawn?

You complain!, she said.

And what it they disregard your complaints and persist with their unsocial conduct? I ask.

Well, thats too bad, Dad…but I guess life moves on.

Indeed it does.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that this is more – far more – complicated than that.

And I wonder, how exactly do I explain to my daughter why a possible US withdrawal from Afghanistan is very very bad news for India?

Related Posts:

The “Raja-Mandala” approach to containing Pakistan

A strategic response to terror – “Balkanization” of Pakistan?

Also read: The case for including India in the AfPak strategy

* Here is Hon Foreign Minister S M Krishna talking about aid to Pakistan ending up in wrong places:

We have always been cautioning our friends, the United States, that please, please for heaven’s sake make sure that the aid you are giving to Pakistan is not directed and misappropriated to be used against India, a friend of yours


September 24th, 2009 Posted by | Current Affairs, Geo-Strategic Issues (incl. Nuclear, Oil, Energy), Global Terrorism, India & Its Neighbours, Pakistan related, Politics and Governance, Politics and Governance in India, Terrorism in India | 23 comments


  1. I am in the favour of parties who are asking to pull out from Afghanistan. I can’t see the young blood dying every few days for the sake of peace in the country where peace has no meaning and is not going to be achieved by sacrificing young boys. Its time to find some other way. I also think let middle age or over soldiers be sent on this mission but not so young.

    When ever I see pictures of young soldiers in the age of 25 to 35 in newspaper my heart cries. I strongly feel that young boys(soldiers) are precious and does not deserve this. please save them.

    Comment by Indian | September 24, 2009

  2. “And I wonder, how exactly do I explain to my daughter why a possible US withdrawal from Afghanistan is very very bad news for India?”
    The question is not only why the withdrawal is a problem, but rather when this will happen and its repercussions.

    Comment by Dirt Digger | September 24, 2009

  3. @ Indian: I am not sure at all that we are prepared for an eventual US pull-out from Afghanistan.


    The question is not only why the withdrawal is a problem, but rather when this will happen and its repercussions.
    Exactly DD. Sadly the Indian policy establishment does not seem to share the sense of urgency.

    Comment by B Shantanu | September 25, 2009

  4. I am also in favour of US pull outof Afghanistan..it isn’t solving any purpose..peace can be taught by peace ful means not the other way round

    Comment by Toon India | September 25, 2009

  5. @ Toon India

    peace can be taught by peaceful means not the other way round.

    Exactly the reason why Emperor Ashoka had the largest army standing especially after a slaughter of the kalinga army.


    Comment by sridhar krishna | September 25, 2009

  6. Good one Sridhar!!

    Comment by B Shantanu | September 26, 2009

  7. Americans should realize that there is no such thing as permanent cure for advanced cancer. Just as Indian Army can withdraw from Kashmir only to hand over the State to fundamentalists, Americans can withdraw from Afghanistan only to hand it back to Taliban and Al-Quaida.

    Comment by Mahendra | September 26, 2009

  8. Obama’s war:

    Shantanu, This was aired today. Worth watching.

    New Yorker writer Steve Coll summarizes: “This could not be a more complicated war. If you think about it, the United States is essentially waging a war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban.”

    Comment by kk | October 14, 2009

  9. Thanks KK…will have a look

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 14, 2009

  10. Do read Acorn on Hitting Indian targets to hurt American strength. The conclusion reads:

    There you have, expressed succinctly and lucidly, why the United States and India are fighting the same war. The Obama administration is demonstrating strategic folly by failing to contemplate the damage to its geopolitical interests and those of its allies by demonstrating a lack of will to win in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi partly believes that Afghanistan is “America’s war” and lacks the political imagination to strengthen the military component of its presence in Afghanistan. If there was any doubt that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan & Pakistan will re-escalate the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir, Mr Kashmiri has laid it to rest.

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 15, 2009

  11. This is tricky business. Whether we like it or not, one fine day US will pack its bags and leave Afghanistan. That fine day Jihadis will look for new locations (Mainland Pakistan, Kashmir, Central Asia, Africa etc). So whether we like it or not, we have to fight them. It is – “fighting them over there, not here” it a more truer sense!

    Also you may notice that Pakistan is a much bloodier and welcome place for jihadis now than late eighties or early nineties when these resources where free from fighting the Russian-war-commitment. Just look at the rise of master conspiracy theorist Zaid Hamid inside Pakistan recently.

    Point is: Luckily for India, Jihadis now have a wider network and more causes to commit their allegiance, not just Kashmir. Still, Kashmir will get its share.

    Central Asia: Central Asia Sounds Alarm on Islamic Radicalism
    Conversations with History: Ahmed Rashid on UC Berkeleys conversations on history series.

    Comment by kk | October 15, 2009

  12. The Jihadi-express in its current form has just started in last 20 yrs and is far from running its course. Supply of arms does not seem to be an issue. Even if US funds to Pakistan dry up in the long run, oil money may keep these agile networks alive. They have many place to hide and prosper (Afghanistan, North Africa etc).

    Real unknown in short term (50-100 yrs) is what route Pakistan will take. How will Pakistan look like 50-100 yrs from now? Thats will answer what effects this will have on India.

    On the longer term, I guess the humanity will fight more for resources than (water) so rules of the game will change. My only hope is that we humans become rational and realize the futility of war-mongering and taste the sweetness of shared peaceful co-existence. Barring a miracle, history has ample evidence to suggest that it is just my wishful thinking. :(

    Can anybody point me to any reasonable near term predictions on future of Pakistan? I’m curious.

    Comment by kk | October 15, 2009

  13. Tackling extremism
    By Maajid Nawaz

    It was sad evidence to the fact that British citizens continue to export Islamism to Pakistan, along with playing a crucial role in exporting the ideology to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, Mauritius, India, Egypt and Denmark. Only when the governments of Britain and Pakistan wake up to take responsibility for the rot on their doorsteps will we ever be able to reverse these trends. …

    Comment by kk | October 25, 2009

  14. This is a *must read* piece on Afghanistan: The US Challenge in Afghanistan by George Friedman and Reva Bhalla

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 31, 2009

  15. From a comment on an FP article: Kashmir is not the cause of anything, but rather is a symptom of the malaise.

    That malaise is the Pakistani military establishment’s addiction to the use of jihadists as policy tools.


    Separately, a good read: “Key to stabilizing Afghanistan does not lie through Kashmir”

    Comment by B Shantanu | November 19, 2009

  16. A US pullout from Afghanistan presently would be a total disaster for India .The Taliban and other Islamic extremists would see this as a great victory and then together with the official jehadi army being the Pakistan army would be totally focused on Kashmir and the rest of India . Even now Islamic terrorists are being pushed across the border and have killed Indian people and Indian soldiers .26/11 and many other terrorist attacks before and after have been going even with the presence of foreign armies in Pakistan and Afghanistan .So just imagine what would happen if US military coalition pulled out ? Even the Chinese are breathing down India’s neck So for now India has a breathing space to upgrade its military and other security forces to become eventually one of the most powerful armies in the world if it has to survive as a nation.

    Comment by Arjun | November 19, 2009

  17. A counter-view from Col Hariharan on why India should avoid getting militarily involved in Afghanistan

    Comment by B Shantanu | January 9, 2010

  18. My worst fears may be coming true…

    Kanchan Gupta in America legitimising Taliban!: “…India should be worried — very, very worried — about the US-sponsored attempt to legitimise the Taliban and thereby instal Pakistan’s proxy regime in Kabul.”

    Comment by B Shantanu | January 31, 2010

  19. India ! What India ? A non-nation, a people with no sense of common nationhood ! Is it surprising there is no real patriotism . In which case what national interest ? Pakistan is a failed state. India has working institutions at all, working after a fashion. Wit no common feelings binding them, India will again be divided and rules. It will fall victim to foreign marauders – first commercial, later religious and social. Hindu India ? Any future ? I woder.

    Comment by R. Viswanathan | February 1, 2010

  20. MUST READ: Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole by Thomas M. Johnson and M. Chris Mason

    Excerpts (emphasis mine):

    …In reality, this battle — the largest in Afghanistan since 2001 — is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress. In reporting it, the media has gulped down the whole bottle of “drink me” and shrunk to journalistic insignificance. In South Vietnam, an operational area smaller than RC South, the United States and its allies had over 2 million men under arms, including more than half a million Americans, the million-man Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), 75,000 coalition troops, the Vietnamese Regional Forces and Popular Forces (known as “Ruff-Puffs”), the South Vietnamese police, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) and other militias — and lost.

    Yet the media is breathlessly regurgitating Pentagon pronouncements that we have “turned the corner” and “reversed the momentum” in Afghanistan with fewer than 45,000 men under arms in all of RC South (including the Afghan army and police) by fighting for a month to secure a single hamlet. Last year this would have been déjà vu of the “five o’clock follies” of the Vietnam War. Now it feels more like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “How can we have more success,” Alice might ask, “when we haven’t had any yet?”

    …The military and political madness of the AfPak Wonderland has entered a new chapter of folly with the detention of a few Taliban mullahs in Pakistan, most notably Mullah Baradar, once the military strategist of the Quetta Shura, the primary Taliban leadership council headed by Mullah Omar. Like the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Alice in Wonderland, this has the Washington establishment dancing the whacked-out Lobster-Quadrille: Instant Afghanistan experts at the White House and pundits at august Beltway institutions like the Brookings Institution are absurdly calling the detentions a “sea change” in Pakistani behavior.

    In fact, it is no such thing. Pakistan has not abandoned overnight its 50-year worship of the totem of “strategic depth,” its cornerstone belief that it must control Afghanistan, or its marriage to the Taliban, and anyone who believes that is indulging in magical thinking. What has happened is, in fact, a purge by Taliban hard-liners of men perceived to be insufficiently reliable, either ethnically or politically, or both.

    …In other words, the Quetta Shura has used the ISI, its loyal and steadfast patron, to take out its trash. Those few mullahs suspected of being amenable to discussions with the infidel enemy and thus ideologically impure have now been removed from the jihad. This is not cooperation against the Taliban by an allied state; it is collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state. Pakistan is in fact following its own perceived strategic interests, which do not coincide with those of the United States. Pakistan has masterfully plied the Western establishment with an LSD-laced “drink me” cocktail of its own, convincing everyone that it is a frail and fragile Humpty-Dumpty that must not be pushed too hard, lest the nuclear egg fall off the wall. This is nonsense. In fact, what is needed against Pakistan’s military leaders is a lever more powerful than “strategic depth” to force them into compliance and make them stop sheltering al Qaeda, destabilizing Afghanistan, and killing hundreds of Americans by proxy.

    Comment by B Shantanu | March 3, 2010

  21. Excerpts from Them and US by Shekhar Gupta:

    …Facts would point to the latter option. We would be erring gravely if we see in Holbrooke’s uncharacteristic near-apology a vindication of India’s rising power and stature. It is, on the other hand, indicative of the rise of a new, weak and further weakening America.
    This weakening is underlined by both his initial statement, and his quick retreat. Here is how.

    The note of irritation in his initial statement was caused not so much by any arrogant claim of better information from the ground as by irritation with India on the part of somebody representing a power that is increasingly short of ideas and options — and losing both influence and the will to exercise it.

    Obama’s “I will send more troops but will withdraw by a deadline” approach has weakened the American position in the region gravely and not just the Taliban but even the Pakistanis are smelling victory.

    …Smelling success, the Pakistanis have become so bold as to again openly talk of their need for Afghanistan, for the strategic depth they always dream of vis-à-vis India. Their protestations over the “activities” of Indian missions in Afghanistan have increased and the Americans are now showing less and less conviction in countering that charge.

    …This week’s developments, seen together with the increasing Pakistani confidence that they have the Americans (and maybe even the Indians) exactly where they want them, shows that Obama’s America no longer has either the confidence, or the spine, of a superpower. Further, this declining America needs help from both our immediate adversaries, China and Pakistan, in different ways, but equally desperately. One must continue to fund its deficit, and the other must bail it out of the Afghan quicksand.

    Both China and Pakistan have already responded to this remarkable turnaround by hardening their respective postures towards India in their own different ways. The Chinese shifted the goalposts on border negotiations earlier, and now the Pakistanis are resiling even from the vague ideas discussed in the Musharraf era to settle Kashmir.

    …The time has therefore come for us to shift gears, to readjust the viewfinder and re-set the strategic GPS. We will find ourselves on our own in the roughest of neighbourhoods eventually. But with American will weakening so much that even Holbrooke is losing his style, this could come to pass sooner than we imagined.

    Comment by B Shantanu | March 6, 2010

  22. From Hafiz Saeed’s interview in India Today:
    Q. What do you hope to achieve with the rallies against the US?

    A. A cut in nato supplies will compel the US-led nato forces to flee from Afghanistan soon. And this will ultimately help the Mujahideen to revert their attention to India-held Kashmir. Let me tell you, a full-scale armed jihad will begin soon in Kashmir after American forces withdraw from Afghanistan. The freedom movement in Kashmir will also gain momentum following the withdrawal of nato troops from Afghanistan. I’m sure India will face a tough time as the Mujahideen revert their attention to Kashmir.

    Just as I feared in my post above…

    Comment by B Shantanu | April 16, 2012

  23. Good one by Nitin…Why Pakistan interferes in Afghanistan:
    ..Pakistan’s real motive in seeking to dominate Afghanistan is the fear of its own dismemberment. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamabad’s main agenda was to prevent Kabul-supported Pashtun and Baloch nationalism from escalating into full-blown movements for independence. The strength of Pashtun nationalism and Kabul’s rejection of the Durand Line (which continues to this day) create deep insecurities in Islamabad, causing it both to bolster Islamism as an ideological counter, sponsor political instability in Afghanistan and attempt to install a friendly regime there.

    The narrative that most people accept—that Pakistan’s sponsorship of the mujahideen was a response to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—is factually incorrect. [Rizwan Hussain’s Pakistan and the Emergence of Islamic Militancy in Afghanistan has a good account of this]

    The Pakistani establishment fears that a strong independent Afghanistan—like the one that existed up to the mid-1970s—will pursue an irredentist agenda, claiming the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. People in the tribal regions of Pakistan have only a tenuous association with the Pakistani state, and even for people in the so-called ‘settled areas’ of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, age-old Pashtun solidarity is often stronger than allegiance to a geopolitical entity called Pakistan. Afghanistan can well decide to support the insurgency in Balochistan to weaken Pakistan enough. Therefore, Pakistani strategists can see an existential threat in a strong, independent Afghanistan.

    They can’t, however, state this as the official reason, because to do so would be admit the hollowness of the idea of Pakistan. That’s why fantastic notions of strategic depth, pre-empting strategic encirclement or building a Central Asian caliphate come in useful.

    Comment by B Shantanu | May 25, 2012

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