GAS OVER TAKING OIL
With the use of natural gas for power generation skyrocketing during last over one decade, the share of energy produced from gas has also significantly increased with gas now comprising about 35% of the fuel mix. This rapid escalation in the dependence on gas presents a new challenge. This has led to increasing the quest for the same and subsequent dominance of the market by world powers. The largest known gas reserves today are found in Iran, Russia, Qatar and Turkmenistan, in that order.
Turkmenistan, unlike the others, does not have a well-developed market and is an opportunity in the making. The gas reserves of Russia and Iran are out of the sphere of influence of the United States (US) and perhaps, that is why the American Energy Giants have a special interest in gaining access to this landlocked Central Asian country’s gas reserves. The geographical location of Afghanistan thus offers immense opportunity for the US to draw out gas reserves of landlocked Turkmenistan in Central Asia. Turkmenistan shares its border with Russia in the North, Afghanistan to the South East, Iran to the South and South West and Caspian Sea to the West.
MOST SIGNIFICANT CORRIDOR
Gas reserves of Turkmenistan have been on US radar since long. The US had four options to transport the gas. The first option was to transport through Russia, but that would have greatly enhanced Russia’s political and economic control over the Central Asian Republics. The second option was to lay a pipe through Iran, but that would have enriched a regime which the US was seeking to isolate. The third option was to route through China, but that would have been a much longer route and would have been prohibitively expensive. The fourth and the last option was to pump it through Afghanistan into Pakistan’s ports further on to the world market through the Arabian Sea.
In December 1997, the US chose the fourth option and not many would remember that the US had then invited the Taliban to Texas as US State Guest for the said pipeline talks. In fact, a year later in 1998, Dick Cheney, later Vice President of the US during the 2001 Afghan war, while serving as Chief Executive of a major oil company, had even remarked, ” I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian. But oil and gas are worthless until it is moved. The only route which makes both political and economic sense is through Afghanistan.” Perhaps, thus, Afghanistan and Pakistan became central to the US plan for an alternative to Russian and Iranian oil and gas.
US intent of drawing gas from this region, therefore, could have been successful only by laying pipeline either through Afghanistan into Baluchistan province of Pakistan on to the Arabian Sea or linking it through the existing Turkmenistan–Iran pipeline in the Northern Region of Iran going into Turkey and the rest of Europe. Each of the two options had its own problems. Going through Afghanistan into Pakistan and up to Gwadar Port, involved the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the other option of linking through the existing Turkmenistan–Iran pipeline involved dealing with a perceived hostile regime in Iran. Thus, the way forward was either through exerting pressure on the Iranian Government with an option of military conflict for a regime change or clearing Afghanistan of the Taliban. With the passage of time, China’s BRI Project coming up in Baluchistan going up to Gwadar Port since 2014, further added to the problem. Thus, the current unfolding strategy of the US in the Middle East can be seen through the combined prism of these two options.
THE BIG BANG DEAL
Finally, after 18 years of bitter conflict, the US and Taliban have signed a deal on 29 February 2020. This deal, followed by the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, has now opened the door to talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. The Taliban is expected to commence talks with various other Afghan groups including the Afghan Government in Kabul to ensure a permanent ceasefire and working out a road map to install a new government.
But the question now is, who is going to be the representative of Afghan Government at various International level organisations form the new Government in Kabul – the faction led by the incumbent Ashraf Ghani or the other one by Abdullah Abdullah? Both held separate swearing in ceremonies and claimed to have formed the Government. The ongoing dispute, therefore, renders the Afghan Government weak and divided at this crucial stage when the US is looking at withdrawing its troops post agreement with the Taliban. The Taliban is also expected to ensure that Afghan soil is not used by any group to threaten the security and other interests of the US and its allies. This may sound simple and straight forward, but is it going to be so? However, Pakistan somehow, appears to be upbeat and cheering up, perhaps because the ISI has close ties with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban.
Though the US expresses hope that Afghanistan will get stabilised once all groups including the Taliban and the Government in Kabul come to a permanent settlement through talks, but the majority do not feel so due to the presence of Islamic State (ISIS) resulting in incalculable future scenarios. The ISIS has already claimed responsibility for the blast carried out during the oath ceremony of the two leading Presidential candidates. ISIS has been very active in Afghanistan since 2014 and many former Taliban fighters have pledged allegiance to the black flag of the caliphate. ISIS virtually took control of complete Nangarhar Province leading to a number of violent clashes between them and the Taliban. ISIS is known to be having no dearth of weapons. Russia and its allies including Iran have routinely been accusing the US of inadvertently or deliberately backing ISIS, though the US has denied the accusation of having any such collusion. The prevailing feeling of fear is, perhaps, vindicated by the US too, expressing the need to keep a watch post withdrawal of US troops, by maintaining counter-terrorism units in Afghanistan essentially to ensure that attacks like Al Qaeda’s strikes of 2001 are not repeated.
It is believed that once the Taliban and the Government in Kabul finally come to a settlement, then at least six thousand prisoners will be released. Out of these, five thousand would be from the Taliban who have been in custody of the Kabul Government and the balance would be the security personnel in the custody of Taliban. Can anyone guarantee that these five thousand Taliban prisoners on being released, will be rehabilitated by Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban?
Though the Kabul Government has categorically said that no more private military troops will be hired, but in the backdrop of continued ISIS existence over so many years, it is natural to believe that when the US soldiers withdraw, they may be replaced by American Private Military contractors, like Academia, for guarding US interests.
Having settled with the Taliban, ‘ the larger interests’ of US as part of next step, maybe now looking at creating a safe and friendly space for extending the much-awaited US gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Taliban controlled Afghanistan and further on to Baluchistan which is now an important cog in the Chinese BRI project in Pakistan, linking it to the warm waters of the Arabian sea through Gwadar Port. The current revival of the Baluch freedom movement is detrimental to the interest of China and therefore, an all-out effort by Pakistan army is being made to crush the uprising.
The US-Taliban deal followed by committed withdrawal of the US Military from Afghanistan, is being seen as a major success in Pakistan and a reason for celebration. Is the Government of Pakistan really so naïve to be unable to analyse and foresee the negative fallout of this deal engulfing their own country or have they been misled into believing some illusive dream?
Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan, the others being Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, covering almost three thousand five hundred square km and 43 percent of the total area, but having only five percent of the total population of Pakistan. Strategically and geopolitically, by virtue of its location, Baluchistan provides access to the energy-rich regions of Central Asian countries. It also has vast deposits of natural resources such as coal, oil, copper, gold, lead, zinc etc. However, the people of Baluchistan have always felt marginalised, exploited and suppressed at the hands of the Pakistani state. In addition, the CPEC project through Baluchistan has also reinforced a sense of fear in the locals of getting further marginalised by the increasing presence and settlement of Chinese. In the recent past, a few attacks have taken place on Chinese workers where many lives have been lost. After the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the movement had significantly slowed down, but since the year 2018, the resurgence of strong and organised Baluch guerrillas is visible. Baluch Liberation Front and Baluch Liberation Army have recommenced armed struggle against Pakistan with renewed vigour putting immense pressure on already stretched out Pakistan Military. The brazen attack on the Chinese Consulate in Baluchistan, killing of Pakistani labourers and Chinese engineers working on the CPEC project, attack on Zaveri Pearl Continental, a five-star hotel in the port city of Gwadar and killing of Pakistan Naval and Coast Guard personnel on Markan Coastal Highway are few examples of a clear indication of the growing ability of Baluch freedom fighters to take it up to further dangerous levels in the near future.
Pashtuns, the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan mostly confined to North-Western part of the country, have always been bearing the brunt of ‘war on terror’ launched by the Pakistan Military post US invasion of Afghanistan. Many innocents lost their lives instead of the intended terrorists and this led to the rise of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). A mass movement led by a charismatic young leader in Manzoor Pashteen gathered storm against the Pakistan Government to seek justice for the innocents killed by the military and their tacit collusion with terrorists. But instead of addressing their grievances, the Pakistan Government chose to crack down on them and even the media went silent on the atrocities committed by the military. Today, the movement has gathered a lot of strength and is likely to go out of control. The movement today has taken a separatist nationalist turn and seeks greater autonomy as a ‘Pashtun state’. The presence of ISIS militants along the Pakhtun-Afghanistan border will only make matters worse for the Pakistan Government in not too distant a future.
Gilgit Baltistan is also witnessing a new wave of separatist movement gaining ground in the region resulting in a number of deadly attacks and loss of lives. The Nanga Parbat attack undoubtedly underscored the region’s vulnerability to future attacks. Shias have always felt discriminated against and marginalised. The unopposed rise of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a clear signal of escalation of worsening situation and weakening of the Pakistan Military in times ahead. Interestingly, Gilgit Baltistan, from where the CPEC enters Pakistan, is connected to the restive Chinese Xinjiang Autonomous Region as also with Kashmir.
Sindh too, like Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is yearning to secure freedom from Pakistani occupation due to prolonged political tyranny and exploitation. Though the movement initially began in 1948 and peaked in 1972 with demand for total independence, but lacking external support, the movement got contained by the Pakistan Military. Besides suppression of the Sindhi identity and language, the Pakistan government has also imposed a ban on all cultural celebrations within the province. People from other minority religions such as Hindus, Ahmadis and Christians are also facing religious persecution and being forced to convert or move out of the country. Close on the heels of the growing demand for freedom in other provinces, it will not be out of place to anticipate that Sindhudesh Liberation Army too will come into action in the near future.
THE INEVITABLE FALLOUT
Pakistan must bear in mind that US withdrawal post-signing of US-Taliban peace accord, has actually not solved any existing problem. It has rather left open a Pandora’s box of troubles for both Islamabad and the Kabul Government. Pakistan is already bleeding internally from several thousand cuts. The public image of the Pakistan Army too has hit a new low in the eyes of the masses. They are seen as consuming bulk of the national resources and at the same time, woefully incapable of defending the country from intruders. Within the Army itself, soldiers are getting sceptical and wary of taking action against coreligionists who are believed to be fighting for Islam. While instances of junior officers questioning the prudence, judgement and integrity of senior officers are coming to light, the reason for action taken against a fourth-generation military officer Brigadier Ali Khan undoubtedly indicates sipping in of radicalisation in the forces.
Pakistan is a poverty-stricken country where over 70 percent of the population lives in villages without the basic amenities of life. They are bereft of shelter, sanitation, drinking water, food and clothing. While the population of Pakistan continues to grow at a rapid rate, literacy rate is decreasing resulting in increasing unemployment. Pakistan having already availed of IMF bailout twelve times since 1980, Imran Khan is now running from pillar to post seeking bailout for the thirteenth time. Pakistan is facing a serious economic crisis on the back of insurmountable fiscal deficit and nil growth. The economy of Pakistan has totally crumbled as also communication barriers and societal divide have increased manifold to dangerous proportions. The Pakistan Government and the Military are known to be dominated by the Pakistani Punjabis who are the most despised lot in Pakistan as of today. In their effort to impose a uniform identity post-independence, the Pakistani Punjabis have tried to crush provincial identities, their unique culture and rich traditions which has led to a sense of lack of identity in Pakistan society torn by ethnic and sectarian divides. All this will now help ISIS to gain ground with the separatist organisations of the troubled provinces drawing parallel with what happened in case of Syria.
The ISIS growing in space and strength, aided by the internal strife of Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunwa, Gilgit Baltistan and Sindh is a distinct possibility. The five thousand Taliban prisoners, if not absorbed in Afghanistan Military or suitably rehabilitated on being released, will find an easy and lucrative employment with the ISIS considering their training, battle experience and indoctrination. ISIS already has three districts of Afghanistan under their full control besides strong foothold in other parts of Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan province.
So, what is there for Pakistan to cheer about the US-Taliban deal? Rather, it only sounds the bugle of Pakistan getting divided on ethnic lines and failing to exist as a Nation in the not so distant future. Iran too, will not remain unaffected in case Baluchistan becomes an independent nation as this will lead to the demand for Greater Baluchistan involving the Balochis of Iran. Also, with repeated attacks on the Hazaras, someday, Iran may intervene to protect the rights of Shia minorities as they have in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon only to add further fuel to the ongoing feud within Pakistan.
Interestingly, not long ago, the Indian Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh while speaking at a Seminar on 22 September 2019 in Patna on Abrogation of Article 370 in J&K, had very clearly said, “You can see they’re already getting discouraged. Pak PM comes to PoK and says ‘countrymen don’t go to India-Pak border’. I said it’s good because if they do, they’ll not be able to go back to Pakistan. They should not commit the mistake of repeating 1965 and 1971.” He further added saying that “If they (Pak) repeat it, then they should think what will become of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir…Human rights violations are committed against Balochs and Pashtuns there. If it continues, no power will be able to protect Pakistan from getting further divided into pieces.”
Today’s prevailing scenario undoubtedly sounds the bell which our Defence Minister had very unequivocally sounded six months ago.
TIME TO RECALIBRATE
Since Pakistan is on a self-destruct mode, India needs to work on a long-term military strategy both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pulling out of the US troops from Afghanistan and in all probability, replacing them with American Private Military contractor, will be a new reality. Though a decision for not committing of the Indian Armed Forces in Afghanistan had been taken as part of the policy, however, there is a need to enter the vacated space through alternative means and start influencing the outcome. While opening an embassy in Djibouti is a bold strategic initiative, India may also consider raising Private Military Companies through big corporate houses who have huge business investments and assets abroad to protect and let it be contracted by the US to augment their Private Military Troops. Indian Private Military Companies could also be employed to protect Indian assets not only in Afghanistan, but also in other troubled countries of the Middle East and some parts of Africa as well. It must be noted that Private Military Companies have been hired by China to build and operate internment camps in Xinjiang region affected by Uighur Muslims.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, the time to act is Right Now. India must keep a very close watch on all the separatist movements gaining ground in Pakistan and recalibrate its military strategy for the Western border. Exploiting Pakistan’s fault lines under the prevailing circumstances, India must deploy her military might accordingly to strike at the vulnerabilities on short notice at a place and time of own choosing. India also has to prepare herself to rigidly guard against the likely massive influx of refugees from a disintegrating Pakistan so as to not repeat the history of 1971. This is where the recently amended Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 will become relevant in giving the Indian Government a statutory footing in deftly handling the likely refugee influx from the anticipated Afghan-Pakistan crisis.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
ISIS gaining ground in the aftermath of the US troop withdrawal, will rush to control the production and trading of opium. India by virtue of being geographically connected with the so called ‘the Golden Crescent,’ comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, will become the easy destination and further transit route for smuggling through land and maritime routes. Thus, Indian public if hooked to the menace of opiates, may end up being the largest source of financing for the burgeoning Islamic State in the Afghan -Pakistan border regions.
ISIS has also talked about creating a separate province in India. Recently Sawt ul Hind an ISIS digital publication carried stories on Delhi riots with a clear intention of provoking Muslim sentiments not only in India but across the Islamic world. Earlier also, plenty of fake news and videos had come up provoking Kashmiris and drumming up international support against India.
There is no guarantee that the Taliban will honour the peace deal signed with the US. Other players such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran will be able to help in establishing a stable Government in Kabul. Thus, a chaotic phase is in the offing which will undoubtedly engulf Pakistan completely. India cannot remain unaffected unless India not only comes down heavily on drug mafias and destroys both the darknet trading platform and the likes of ‘tukde tukde’ gang operating within the country to create a divide, but also prepare for a full-scale military intervention on the Western border if the situation so demands.
India has been on a constant watch of every development and movement taking place in Afghanistan since a long time. And this is amply demonstrated when one recalls what the then Home Minister and now Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh had told a delegation of US-India Strategic Dialogue way back in January 2015. He had then said, “New Delhi was keenly observing the developments in Afghanistan as the situation in the troubled nation has security ramifications for the region, particularly India.” Thus, India’s vision has always been clear without an iota of ambiguity.
India, therefore, must now consider that participation through offering Private Military Companies would also meet in a way, a long-standing demand of the US for the presence of the Indian military in Afghanistan. This would also serve as an opportunity to exploit opening up of the Indian Defence market for supplying weapons and military equipment to this large private army enterprise, likely to be effectively employed by nations across the globe. This market will give a substantial push to the Indian Military Industrial Complexes, thereby enhancing the nation’s economic growth. India also has no dearth of well-trained retired personnel from the armed forces, armed police, special forces and other civil agencies to pick from and gainfully utilised.
To sum up, it would sound apt to quote at this stage what the Indian Foreign Minister Shri S Jaishankar, while addressing a conference by the Centre for Policy Research on 02 March 2020 said, “In a world which is fractured with polarised debates, India is willing to step up to the plate and play a larger role.” Therefore, the time has now come for India to step out and make her presence felt in the global power play, leveraging every instrument of power at her disposal ranging from natural geographical dominance, global presence of Indian diaspora, soft power of Bollywood, a growing strong economy, military might and nuanced diplomacy.
(This aticle has been written by Lt Gen Abhay Krishna, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, (Retd) Former Army Commander of Central Command, Eastern Command and South Western Command.