The graveyard nation | Book review: ‘The Comrades and the Mullahs’ by Stanly Johny & Ananth Krishnan

Afghanistan might be out of focus presently, but its tragedy remains monumental.

the comrades and the mullahs
In recent months there have been welcome additions to the Afghanistan book-shelf and the volume under review burnishes the existing literature in a commendable manner.

Afghanistan and the shambolic US withdrawal from that war-ravaged country dominated the global news cycle and collective consciousness in August 2021, even as yet another beleaguered superpower wearily acknowledged that the rugged Afghan nation was indeed a ‘graveyard of empire’.

However, Afghanistan has receded from public memory and the focus now is on the tragic war in Ukraine, and this pattern is in keeping with the nature of the abiding global geopolitical rhythm—the Pavlovian power compulsion that shapes the security policies and strategic orientation of major powers.

In recent months there have been welcome additions to the Afghanistan book-shelf and the volume under review burnishes the existing literature in a commendable manner. It is relatively comprehensive in its temporal sweep and opens with an exhausted William Brydon—the lone survivor of the Anglo-Afghan war of 1842—staggering into Kabul on horseback and in its panoramic sweep, the book includes events as recent as late 2021.

The authors are accomplished journalists and thus the book has a brisk pace, which combines succinct summaries of various phases of the Afghan story as it were and splices the narrative with the kind of detail that a good reporter brings to a news story.

The rationale for embarking on this book is linked to the Great Game that major powers engage in. Noting that in the 19th century, Afghanistan was caught between the British and Russian empires and in the next century between the USA and the (now former) Soviet Union, the authors posit: “What will the twenty-first century rivalry between the US and China—the most important geopolitical contest of our times—mean for Afghanistan? Attempting to unravel this question was what prompted us to write this book.”

In 10 pithy chapters, it is a swift canter—from ‘America in Afghanistan’ in the late 1970’s to the ‘Iron Brothers’ – China and Pakistan of the current period who are now poised to mould the future of the Afghans under Taliban rule. The concluding chapter is a reflection on ‘the View from India’ and this is almost 45 years of Afghanistan’s tumultuous history compressed into about 220 pages. Extensively referenced, the end notes span 44 pages and the index is a fullsome 16 pages, due diligence for which the publisher is to be commended.

The first four chapters elucidate the American part of the book—the Jimmy Carter to Joe Biden trajectory and the subtext is about the biggest strategic blunder of the USA—the feckless post 9/11 lurch into the GWOT (global war on terrorism) and the heavy price paid by the American taxpayer and US-led NATO troops. In a tragically ironic sequence of events influenced by colossal strategic myopia and hubris whose contours and consequences are yet to be fully revealed and appreciated—the US bombed Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban; and 20 years later, in August 2021 the US military hastily withdrew from Kabul and allowed the Taliban to come back to power.

However, the Taliban now face a challenge from the Islamic State—Khorasan (IS-K) and in an important assertion, the authors add that “While the Taliban have started to rule Afghanistan, it would appear that the IS-K now want to be the new Taliban.” This import-laden line comes at the end of chapter 4 and it is a pity that this analytical strand with its complex intra-Islamist jihadi terror lattice is not examined in greater detail.

The later part of the book is devoted to the beginning of what could be the new Great Game triggered by the entry of China into the Afghan calculus— where the ‘comrade meets the mullah’. Reviewing the drivers of China’s strategic approach to regional geopolitics as manifest in the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), the authors suggest that access to external resources and “exporting excess Chinese capacity were two principal motivations of the BRI” and the third element was ‘security’. Expert opinion (Andrew Small) has been marshalled to indicate that for China “Afghanistan remains largely a land of threats, real, potential and imagined, rather than one of opportunities.” And the authors conclude that Beijing under President Xi Jinping is ‘betting on the Taliban’.

India’s predicament with the return of the Taliban to Kabul in August 2021 is addressed in the last chapter and it is a swift survey that brings to light some dramatic detail. The joint secretary of the MEA looking after East Europe was woken up late at night by the Soviet ambassador on December 27, 1979 to inform Delhi about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. India was going through its own domestic political turbulence and the response of then prime minister Charan Singh, who had just been voted out of power, was that Moscow’s action was ‘unacceptable’.

Afghanistan, in keeping with its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empire’, was the trigger that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War after the ill-advised invasion of December 1979. Recounting the inability of Delhi in 1992 (with PM Narasimha Rao at the helm) to enable then Afghan president Najibullah to seek asylum in India—the authors opine that this incident “demonstrated the limited options India faced in a changing Afghanistan and its (India’s) shrinking influence”.

Almost three decades later, Delhi is in a similar situation—that of limited influence in relation to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The nagging question that lingers is whether India could have handled its ties with Kabul in a more astute and proactive manner or this is a reflection of India’s strategic culture.

The authors conclude on a melancholy note, highlighting the tragic reality that great power competition has had “disastrous consequences” for Afghanistan and that the only constant factor has been “the continued suffering of the Afghan people. That is the tragedy of Afghanistan”. Alas.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

The Comrades and the Mullahs: China, Afghanistan and the New Asian Geopolitics
Stanly Johny & Ananth Krishnan
Pp 276, Rs 599

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