Deliberate and repeated insurgent attacks, endemic corruption within the governing polity, a shrinking ‘formal’ economy, the end of a development boom as a more than decade long international war draws to a close that in turn has created unemployment levels of 35 to 40 percent and a deteriorating security situation has the year-old Government scrambling to keep Afghanistan afloat.
Proxy wars and external powers’ political manoeuvring are returning to the country—history is repeating itself. Historically Afghanistan has always been at the mercy of the great powers of the day, its geographic position making it strategically critical as a tool to be used to extend the influence and interests of one ‘Empire’ against the other. Afghanistan was the buffer zone in the ‘The Great Game’, the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and more recently in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the country has become the political battleground of regional and international power play.
A Foreign Policy Vacuum
Afghanistan was recognised as a state on 19 August 1919 and has ever since been aligned to one or the other great power to ensure its stability. Accordingly, its foreign policy has always remained ambiguous in an effort to be aligned with the benefactor of the time. However the current Government, under President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, realises that the future of Afghanistan is intimately intertwined with its foreign policy and that its alignment with other powers determines the stability of the nation.
Foreign policy of a nation is enshrined through smart diplomacy focused on ensuring national interests. Political scientists argue and agree that small and fragile states need not have a declared foreign policy since they do not have the economic, political or military means to pursue and ensure their policy interests.
It is believed that foreign policy of such nations will always be shaped by external forces, and will mostly be beyond their control. It is indeed true that in the prevailing international system, fragile states have no control over their future. While not always being fragile, Afghanistan has had very little control of its foreign policy because of the geopolitical games played by other nations. In the 18th and 19th centuries the sparring between British India and Tsarist Russia was played out in Afghanistan and after World War II, the Cold War imperatives impacted on all foreign policy issues of the nation. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and more than a decade of conflict later, today Afghanistan continues to be in the unenviable position of having no clear policy direction and suffering from a long-term policy vacuum. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of consensus within the Afghan political elite regarding the direction that would lead the country to stability.
As and when a tangible foreign policy is crafted it will have to take into account the fundamental factors of the prevailing geopolitical situation and the national economy. It is within this context that President Ghani’s foreign policy initiative to stabilise the nation must be analysed.
The Geopolitical Situation
Afghanistan is riddled with geopolitical challenges and has become a safe haven for al Qaeda and other global jihadist groups, the latest in this list being the Islamic State (IS), which is clearly trying to establish a foothold. The lack of strategic direction and purpose that the Government has displayed and their inability to implement Government decisions for the past decade has made it impossible to prosecute these groups effectively. This weakness in governance has been a boon for regional militants who have set up camp in Afghanistan. The probability of cross-border terrorism into its territory has made Pakistan feel threatened, especially when it is undertaking a military campaign in their tribal areas that share a common border with Afghanistan. China is also increasingly worried about the support that their Uighur insurgency could receive from the transnational terrorist groups settling into Afghanistan.
On coming to power, President Ghani made a concerted attempt to improve relations with Pakistan, whom he views as being critical to ensuring stability. In doing so he went against the common belief in Afghanistan that Pakistan was fundamentally responsible for the terrorist activities that destabilised the country. The Afghan Taliban operates out of the safe havens in Pakistan where they are supported by the military intelligence arm of the Pakistan Army, the ISI.
Even as the President was making his overtures to Pakistan, the Taliban carried out a series of back-to-back suicide bombings in August this year and followed up by perpetuating a number of attacks in Afghanistan. Ghani has directly blamed Pakistan for these attacks and asked that the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan be closed down. In this confused scenario, the IS has made gradual inroads with the intention of weaning disgruntled Taliban and al Qaeda operatives to its flag.
For South and Central Asia the importance of Afghanistan is based on two factors—it has substantial and as yet unexplored mineral reserves and it straddles the energy transit route between the two parts of Asia. China particularly is concerned with the continuing violence that threatens the viability of their growing investment in Central Asia and its efforts at expanding its footprint in the Afghan mineral sector.
The National Economy
The Afghan economy is fully dependent on foreign aid and military contracts. However, this was always not the case. Prior to the country descending into the current crisis, its economy was based on tourism, and the export of lapis lazuli, dried fruits, and carpets. Subsistence farming was also practiced although the country has never been self-sufficient in food. The growth rate now is only 1.5 per cent and from an economic perspective the country is a failed state with a dismal image.
However, Afghanistan has vast quantities of natural resources and minerals that can be extracted to make the nation economically viable. Optimal exploitation of these resources would require technical and financial capital, which is currently unavailable to the government. Any initiative to revive the economy must have a long-term plan that in turn requires an enormous amount of political will, institutional capacity for implementation and overarching and sound policy directives backed by foreign investment on a gigantic scale. Sadly, none of these ingredients to success are currently on display in Afghanistan.
Transitory Peace Talks and Mullah Omar’s Death Announcement
In early July, the Afghan Taliban had been coerced into attending peace talks held in Murree, Pakistan, which was orchestrated and sponsored by the US, China and Pakistan although one faction of the Taliban which runs the Qatar political office boycotted the meeting. However, the revelation, after the first round of talks, of Mullah Omar’s death in Karachi more than two years ago negated the possibility of further negotiations. In any case, the only agreement that was reached in the first round of talks was the intent to meet again. Since the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death on 29 July, the Taliban has backed away from the promised second round of peace talks. The entire peace process is now ‘on hold’, with no visible future schedule.
The manner and timing of the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death makes one pause to analyse the motives behind it. The initial news was given out by a splinter Taliban faction of limited influence known as Fidai Mahaj and was almost immediately confirmed by both the Afghan Government and the US. It is interesting that Pakistan did not deny it, while not also confirming it. Mullah Omar while he was alive was demonstrably averse to any negotiations with the ‘un-Islamic’ democratically elected government. The Taliban cadre had vested some sort of a mystic divinity around the personae of Mullah Omar and stood united purely on the strength of this belief. Since Mullah Omar was notoriously reclusive and the entire cadre was actually being run by his Deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, it suited Pakistan to keep his death secret, to further entrench Mansoor’s hold over the group.
There has always been a strong and enduring relationship between Mullah Mansoor and the ISI who was instrumental in installing him as the Deputy. Mansoor headed the Quetta Shura and has for long operated out of Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province with the full support of the ISI. It is also reported that he was educated in a madrasa (an Islamic seminary) in Jalozi village located in Naushera district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. His loyalty to the ISI runs very deep. However, Mansoor had only a very tenuous control over the Qatar faction who stayed within the fold only because of their reverential attitude towards Mullah Omar.
The revelation of Mullah Omar’s death, full two years after the event in a Karachi hospital at this juncture, can therefore be considered to be an ISI sponsored act of necessity to ensure Pakistan’s strategic stake in Afghanistan. Since early 2015, Pakistan has been informing the international community that it is willing to give up its interest in Afghanistan if the Taliban were to be accommodated in the emerging power structure of the country. If this was to be achieved, then Pakistan would become the custodians of the peace in Afghanistan and the puppet masters of the Taliban under Mansoor. However, it seems that something went wrong in this calculation and therefore the ISI now wants to sideline the Taliban factions that are inimical to its interests so that it can institute Pakistan’s own policy goals in Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar’s death is shrouded in mystery and there are rumours already floating that he was poisoned. The Taliban cadre have started to question the motive and the authority behind keeping his death secret for so long. The death announcement has definitely accentuated long standing schisms within the Taliban and effectively closed the chances of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. It also opens the doors to leadership challenges since Mullah Omar was the only unifying factor within the group. Almost immediately on the announcement of his death rifts became visible in the Taliban. Mullah Mansoor, supported by the ISI, claims the leadership but is not universally accepted as the leader. The brother of Mullah Omar, Mullah Abdul Manan and his son Muhammad Yaqoob maintain that the successor should be from the same clan. The tensions regarding the succession have reached a point wherein the Taliban political chief in Qatar, Tayyeb Agha, has resigned.
In this emerging imbroglio, it is difficult to fathom Pakistan’s game plan and intentions. Pakistan is under pressure from the US to check the Taliban activities in Afghanistan and China also has indicated that it would not want a Taliban takeover in the country. Pakistan is also realising that with the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, their overarching control over the Taliban is reduced. Their control over Mullah Mansoor now does not translate to influence over the entire Taliban, which was supposed deliver strategic control of Afghanistan to ensure stability—the one carrot that was being offered to the Ghani Government.
Mullah Mansoor is not accepted by all the factions of Taliban and lacks legitimacy to enforce his will. There are indications that the rifts—both tribal and ideological—that had so far been papered over by loyalty to Mullah Omar, have come out as open divisions. That this situation will derail any meaningful progress in the peace process is a foregone conclusion. The current situation provides a window of opportunity for the Afghan Government to create an opening to stabilise the nation, although it may be something of a gamble.
At the moment Mullah Mansoor cannot sell the peace process to all Taliban factions, especially the radical groupings. The gamble would be for the Government to push Mansoor, with Pakistan’s assistance, into a peace deal although such a process will undoubtedly split the Taliban with the high possibility of the splinter groups joining the IS. This scenario could perhaps not be counted as a success and in any case is dependent on the willingness of Pakistan to pressure Mullah Mansoor to come to the negotiating table.
Pakistan’s efforts at the moment will be focused on ensuring that the Afghan Taliban remains a single entity since a split will further destabilise the security situation within Pakistan where the domestic Taliban have started to pledge support to the IS. Therefore, the future of the peace talks is fully dependent on Mullah Mansoor’s ability to persuade the entire Afghan Taliban to accept him as the single supreme leader, which is highly unlikely to happen. At this juncture in Afghanistan it would seem that even the chance of arriving at a settlement with one half of the Taliban is a gamble worth taking.
Pakistan is currently in a bind. The strategy of proxy wars and negotiations that it had orchestrated is unravelling rapidly. At the same time the Afghan Government in Kabul is asking them to step up the pressure on the Taliban to stop the terror bombings and restart the peace talks.
However, Pakistan’s control over the Taliban is now not that strong, especially when factional struggles are on-going. Further, the Qatar faction of Taliban is critical to the future of Afghanistan, but is anti-Pakistan. It is possible that this faction is being supported by the Middle-Eastern Gulf powers and being developed as an antidote to Pakistan’s overwhelming influence, with the tacit approval of the Afghan Government. It is obvious that Pakistan underestimated the challenge of controlling Afghanistan through proxies and pursued a misconceived approach to achieving it. The ultimate paradox in this complex performance is the Afghan Government seeking Pakistan’s ‘co-operation’ to deal with the terrorist activities of the Taliban that have been unleashed by Pakistan itself.
There is no indication that Pakistan in trying to reign in its terrorist proxies or attempting to abandon its quest for strategic control of Afghanistan. On the other hand there is mounting evidence of Pakistan’s deceitful attitude towards all negotiations with Afghanistan. It continues to use terrorism as the primary instrument of state policy to destabilise all its neighbours. However, the joker in the pack is the IS and its claims to a Caliphate that is slowly taking root domestically and which is likely to change the game in Pakistan. Pakistan is playing with fire, with not a care to its own safety.
Afghanistan – Fledgling Steps to Nationhood
Afghanistan today is in a state of exasperation, staring at an uncertain security situation and an unpredictable future. Its domestic imperatives always trump foreign policy requirements and its internal stability is intertwined with its relations with regional powers—not an ideal formula for stability. The National Unity Government (NUG) has been in power for almost a year and the nation still harbours cautious optimism based on an understanding that after decades of conflict and confusion the path towards peace is long and progress normally slow.
The NUG is an uneasy power sharing arrangement, primarily between President Ghani and the CEO Abdullah Abdullah, made necessary in order to assuage the two major ethnic communities in the country—the Pashtuns and the Tajiks. The Hazaras form the third major group, although there are 14 ethnic groups in the country, each supported by a different regional nation.
Afghanistan has been ruled by the Pashtuns for the past two centuries and therefore they are averse to change, even in terms of alterations to their accustomed lifestyle. The Tajiks and the Hazaras are better educated and have always formed the administrative and bureaucratic backbone of the nation.
Their greater literacy makes them amenable to change and adoption of moderate approaches to social and cultural issues. However, they have very limited understanding or experience of wielding power. Although sectarian conflict is very rare in Afghanistan, the inherent diversity of ethnicity, language, and culture directly and adversely impacts the cohesive development of a national consciousness that could surpasses narrow parochialism.
The Government is focused on furthering the peace process; and so it should be. However, the diarchy of power sharing and dual control of the government machinery are not conducive to smooth functioning, especially when such an arrangement often leads to mundane personality issues overriding other more serious considerations. Further, there are rifts within the Government with the National Security Directorate (NSD) considering the Taliban a terrorist organisation, while the President is attempting to negotiate with them. The NSD does not want a power sharing arrangement with the Taliban, who in turn aspires to return to power in the country that they ruled before being ousted in 2001 by the NATO-led coalition. The Taliban have a long term vision and appropriate strategies in place to achieve this objective.
In Afghanistan there was scepticism regarding President Ghani’s peace initiative with Pakistan, which has turned into active questioning of Pakistan’s credibility in furthering the process after the recent wave of terrorist bombings attributed to its proxies. It is reliably reported that about 4100 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed and almost double that number injured in the first six months of this year, a 50 per cent increase in comparison to the same period last year. It seems that the ISI is pursuing its own agenda, playing a different game keeping Pakistan’s own domestic agenda as the highest priority, with the Pakistan Government unable to control it. That too is nothing new, the ISI has been a law unto itself for several years now. The possibility of a split in the Taliban could make the ISI change its tactics, but the policy of employing terrorism as a strategic weapon will not change.
India, the other regional player in the game, is visibly concerned with President Ghani’s attempt at reorientating Afghan foreign policy through negotiations with the Taliban under the aegis of Pakistan and China. It feels sidelined, especially after it has played an important role in funding and assisting in reconstruction efforts towards infrastructural, educational and capacity-building projects in Afghanistan. There are strong cultural links between India and Afghanistan and Afghanistan government has openly acknowledged India’s assistance in providing higher education facilities to its people. However, the current initiative does not include India, which is perturbed by its being kept out of the core dealings in the peace process.
There are some facts that must be stated before a broad solution to the challenge of Afghanistan can be contemplated. First, Kabul by itself will not be able to contain the Taliban, even in its splintered form. Second, co-opting the Taliban for peace talks is not conducive to progress since they are part of the problem and cannot be an integral part of the possible solution. Third, the Pakistan Army wants strategic control of Afghanistan and therefore continues to foster the Taliban as a major factor in the stability calculus—a retrograde step in the long-term stability equation. Fourth, a preponderance of evidence is now available to clearly label Pakistan as a force that is bent on destabilising the greater South Asian region who should be kept out of any involvement in the Afghan peace process.
The US military withdrawal weakens the Afghan Government’s position in negotiations and the recent ISI sponsored terrorist attacks undermine its credibility with regard to providing basic security for its citizens. From Afghanistan’s perspective, the nation is on a route of enduring troubles leading to a complex and tortuous future. However, a strategy to create stability based on pragmatism and reality is unfortunately nowhere in sight. International support to the embattled nation is now critical to achieving tangible progress in stabilising the volatile situation.
Even a semi-permanent solution to Afghanistan’s deepening woes can only be achieved with international and regional participation, committed to keeping Afghan interests at the highest priority without bias. If an enduring peace leading to long-term stability is not achieved through sustainable reconciliation, the Afghan challenge will embroil the entire South Asia in a tumultuous turmoil. The future, at least in this devastated part of the world, is predictable.
First published in the blog www.sanukay.com on 8 September 2015