Afghanistan 2020 in Pursuit of Peace

Sub Title : The US Taliban deal offered a glimmer of hope but recent events belie that

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2020

Author : Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer, PVSM, AVSM

Page No. : 42

Category : Geostrategy

: July 28, 2020

An unfortunate convergence of geography and a multispectral conflict have kept Afghanistan aflame. The country has been afflicted by radical Islam terror for many a decade. The US Taliban deal offered a glimmer of hope but recent events belie that. The future in Afghanistan will be decided based on power and dominance. If the Afghan Government does not prove equal to the task the era of despair will continue for the hapless people

“…. a trial at arms, especially with an unfamiliar enemy, should never be accepted, without great deliberation….”  –Baron De Coucy, (Mahdia, Tunisia), 1390AD

The one place on earth where this advice should have been central, is Afghanistan. This graveyard of empires, in its recent play of hand has led to a scramble of foreign forces to leave, coupled with the grant of legitimacy to an extremist entity. Despite an elected president, and a rival turned wary partner, the power politics are largely to the exclusion of the legitimate Government.

The momentum of the recent developments, in this 40 years long saga, comes from the US-Taliban deal brokered in Doha on 29 Feb. This four-page agreement, with two non-disclosed appendices, far from being a peace agreement, is an agreement for withdrawal of the US and its allies. There is a Hope that subsequent political settlement between the parties within Afghanistan would ensue. It aims to satisfy the Taliban demand for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces. This the US has committed to do by 2021. These is no obligation for the Taliban to abjure violence, and more significantly no compulsions to enter inter Afghan talks subsequently. The veiled reference to the continuance of US presence, if conditions are not suitable in 2021, is spoken off, but does not form part of the agreement. Binding on the Taliban is the commitment that it will not give sanctuary to international terrorist organisations such as Al Qaida, ISIS, and will not allow its territory to be used for attacks on the US.

It leaves the populace, open to the storms of violence and ethno-political machinations. The Afghan state is left without the means or the instruments to ensure its writ. It grants legitimacy to the Taliban, and allows it to pursue capture of the State, with a recognition of its territorial control in the AFGHAN, PAKISTAN (AF-PAK) region. In such a situation, Hope is an expensive delusion.

With the High Council, for National Reconciliation, due to assemble, an overview of the centrifugal power play would be helpful.

An unfortunate convergence of geography, and a multispectral conflict, has kept the country aflame. The conflict bridges the dimensions of armed opposition groups, narcotics cartels, and the violence of long-standing local disputes. In a society fractured by ethnicity, political and clan allegiances, lack of an effective central authority, drives anarchy.

Central to the present scenario, are the compulsions and foot work of the principle players. Of these the Taliban, must have ‘pride of place’.

“… the west have the watches but we have the time”, said Ashoor a Taliban leader, a decade ago, today we can only affirm this view.  With a stranglehold in the AF-PAK border region an envious history of survival and tenacity, their politico military signature is unassailable. They are a grim reminder of the consequences of playing with powerful entities, for short term gains, when unable to control outcomes.

The Taliban borrowed a Salafist leaf from Jamal Al Afghani, a 19th century intellectual, but centred on Wahabism. This bridging, was done by the infamous, Ayman al Zawahiri.   Wahhabism formed an additional layer over the Deobandi school edicts extant in Afghanistan since the 1820s. The Taliban have chosen the most extreme interpretations, their version of Islam being particular to itself.

Essential to this non state actor’s pre-eminence today is the fact that, despite being battered and assaulted, they have remained undefeated. They have retained the initiative, enabling launch of strikes over a wide expanse.  The combination of a core geographic area, Pakistani dedicated constancy, and an inflexible politico-religious agenda, have put them on the high table. Narcotics, manpower, weapons and the commitment to violence, have secured their longevity. Today they are one of the most significant examples of the rise to legitimacy of a non-state actor.

The present US imperatives can be anchored to the transition plan put in place during the Presidency of Hamid Karzai. Infamously titled Inteqal, this five-phase plan for integration of the country under the elected President, left the most challenging, for the last. The eastern districts of Afghanistan, Taliban controlled were to be integrated in Phase 4 and 5. This of course never happened, since the Taliban were never defeated or circumscribed. Irrespective the US had already commenced drawdown under the Obama administration. The international forces of 48 nations numbered a total 1,32,500 in Jun 2011. The latest drawdown to 8600 troops, has just been executed, together with the closing down of five bases. As the US drawdown in its overseas deployments, from all theatres is afoot, its withdrawal in 2021, from Afghanistan will proceed. This is unlikely to be influenced by adverse Afghan security developments. Ironically the US Special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who was instrumental in attempting to cement Karzai’s rule in 2002, is today largely seized with Taliban sensibilities. America First, the economy, and a negation of its international responsibilities, characterises the US today. There is little space for the plight of Afghanistan, even less space for ownership of the consequences of intervention.

Pakistan feverishly hopes that by facilitating the Taliban, they would have appeased the one element that can give stability to its western borders. To this end the concept of Pakistani Strategic space needs focus. It is not a static formulation, solely locked in with the Indian imperatives. Their fears are heavily accentuated by the history of Afghan claims over all Pashtun areas and Baluchistan. They view the region with the potential of giving oxygen to any irredentism in Pakistan. Years of Pakistani Army operations in the AF-PAK region, have given rise to a restful and dissatisfied populace. Its fears also derive from India gaining strategic space. As stated by Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, India is a spoiler in Afghanistan and has no security role there.  Indian humanitarian and infrastructure focussed approach in Afghanistan is resented.

The Pak establishment has a sinister hand in the Afghan whirlpool. The 11th report of the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, has stated that there may be up to 6000 Pakistani nationals fighting with the terror groups in Afghanistan. Distributed over the LET, JEM, Tehreek e Taliban (TTP). They are active over the provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan. While the LET and JEM can be expected to march to the Pakistani drum the TTP is another story. The AF-PAK region also provides sanctuary and operational space to the Haqqani network, and the Hizb-e-Islami, whose veteran leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, presides over a trafficking and narcotics network in Nuristan and Kunar provinces.  Both of these entities apart from terror, have the control over the cross-border smuggling and movement of cargos.

TTP with its clear anti Pakistan focus also operates from the region injecting permanent instability into Pakistan’s western border. Despite being subjected to a ruthless campaign by the Pakistani armed forces, supported by Artillery and Air, it has displayed proverbial tenacity.  Moving out of the Waziristan territories in Pakistan, it operates from Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s play with fire has ensured an ungovernable and anarchic AF-PAK region, with the maximum insecurity to itself. To this must be added the ever-increasing cross border container trade of luxury goods from Karachi and Gwadar, through the region to the CIS states. An enormous quantity flows into the black market and some of it is even routed back to Pakistan.

All this to some degree explains the Pak desperation to have a captive Geo Political entity on its Western border. They are hoping to contain these Fires with the Taliban, and their primacy in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban themselves are masters of Fire.

As the first meeting of the High Council for National Reconciliation, is impending, the Government and the Taliban have still not been able to complete the prisoner swap which was a prelude. President Ghani supported by Abdullah Abdullah, have withheld 600 of the most dangerous out of the scheduled 5000 releases. The Taliban have stepped up attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces, with focus on Kunduz province, and control over highways out of Kabul. Despite effective attacks by the newly formed Afghan National Army Special Operations Command supported by air, Taliban suicide attacks have increased. One bloody week in June alone accounted for 222 Taliban attacks with 422 Afghan casualties. The attacks are also directed on minorities, religious clerics, and scholars, as also daylight attacks on hospitals with slaughter of women patients.

As a preparation for the negotiations, the 20 member Taliban team is seeing changes, with a move to induct hardliners. On 20 July the son of Mullah Omar, (Taliban founder), Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob was appointed the head of the Military Wing. The three other members appointed to the team include the Taliban Chief Justice and the erstwhile Chief Justice (both inflexible on Sharia law). A Pak protégé, Amir Khan Muttagi as a result has been side-lined. Taliban moves and offensives seem to have an eye on an uncompromising approach during negotiations, together with crucial control of critical territory. It is also evident that they are testing the US limits.

In perspective, when the world rallied to the support of the newly elected Afghan Government in 2002, unhindered support was the call of the day for this nascent state. Out of area machinations and priorities, left the country with no viable institutions. No State can exercise governance without sovereignty, the need of the hour was for an effective Army and Police. In 7 to 10 years this was possible. From conception to execution the Afghan National Army, was never equipped to guard its territory or extend Afghan Governmental writ. This force was conceived and raised without heavy weapons, without air, and no manoeuvre or staying power. It is a tribute to its fighting qualities and commitment, that it remains today the most respected institution in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Police, on the other hand due to the ineffective nature of the State, has been allowed to decay and is considered by the populace a cesspool of corruption and extortion. Due to this, neither governance nor security has been delivered. The Afghans did not fail, the international community with its higher wisdom and Pakistan with its pernicious and insidious agenda set up the failure.

In 2002 the average Afghan had hope, in 2020 not even the first requirement of security has been achieved. The future portends a fractured country for a considerable period. Degeneration into civil war could occur. Meanwhile a large part of the populace will exist in the milieu of the middle ages, under Taliban control.

It is interesting that the US, post Afghanistan and Syria, has assimilated what it has labelled as Counter Terrorism pitfalls. These need to be avoided. Significant among them are the following;

  • Angering of the local population.
  • The picking up of untimely and counterproductive fights and engagements.
  • Neglecting the vital role of diplomacy and a supportive foreign policy.
  • Over aggressive Counter Terrorism Operations, that fuel other conflicts.
  • Defining of the enemy too broadly.
  • In focus on Counter Terrorism Operations, neglecting the overall peace process.

Some of our conclusions should flow from the fact that, in a socio culturally and politically fragmented environment, a cohesive insurgency has been successful. In fact, the world confronted a far more dangerous situation in the Daish Islamic Caliphate. In the final orchestration however, Daish, lost all contiguous support and faced destruction. In the case of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s insecurities and ambitions never allowed the Afghan state to be stable and viable. Politico military history of the world instructs us that in conflictual situations, till definitive military outcomes are achieved, there is little diplomacy can accomplish.

Intervention in Afghanistan began with the Global War on Terror on Oct 2001. Hamid Karzai was appointed President in 2002. An abrupt change in focus took place with the international fire storm shifting to Iraq in March 2003. The acute military phase in Iraq continued till 2010. May 2011 the US declares that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014. A massive drawdown takes place. Final US exit is targeted now by 2021. In all these entries and exits little attention was given to the ability of the Taliban to survive, remain lethal and enlarge their politico military envelope.

Indian focus in Afghanistan rightly bridges the humanitarian, economic and infrastructure domains. This however can be far more effective and focussed. It is still open to the world and India to strengthen the ANA, to steel up for the storm which may manifest. Based on the recognised code of conduct in the AF-PAK region, an agreement or arrangement with a foreigner, has no long-term value. Why should it be different for the US? There is no concept of trust in the Taliban, only self-interest and propagation of its power, control, and way of life. The future in Afghanistan will be decided based on power and dominance. The Afghan Government must enable itself to develop such ascendency.

“Yesterday has gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin”  –Mother Theresa

The writer is a Former Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal & Dy Chief Integrated Defence Staff.