By Lt Gen Kamal Davar (retd)*
War ravaged Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires”, continues to descend into growing political instability and recurrent fratricidal conflict. That the overall security situation in the land of the ancient Hindu Kush has, regrettably only worsened, as President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government (NUG) completes one year in office, is a cause of concern, both to the hapless people of Afghanistan and the international community.
The overall internal security situation has gravely worsened after the draw-down of nearly 140000 US and NATO combat troops since Dec 2014, warranting international and primarily, UN introspection. 2015 has been the most violence and casualties ridden year in Afghanistan since the Operation Enduring Freedom was launched by the US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops after the terrorist strikes in New York in September 2001.
It is an alarming fact that even years after rigorous operations by the US, ISAF and Afghan troops in the harsh Afghan hinterlands, only the district capitals are controlled by the Afghan government whereas the Taliban control most of the countryside, also imposing their own cruel interpretation of the Sharia ( Islamic law) on the scared peasantry.
Just the last week, the strategic city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan fell to a Taliban onslaught. However, Afghan government troops aided by US Special Forces and supported by intense US airstrikes have reportedly recaptured Kunduz but this successful counterattack has attracted, for the right reasons, the ire and condemnation of the Afghan people and of the international community.
A US AC 130 gunship, ostensibly, on the request of the Afghan Army pounded at midnight the only hospital in Kunduz run by a charity organization called Medicins Sans Frontieres( Doctors Without Borders) killing 22 (including 12 staff) and injuring over 50 including many patients. Rightfully, many in the international community have asked for this “war crime” to be properly investigated. Perhaps, the US over-reacted and could have taken on any Taliban insurgents (if there were any) holed up in Kunduz with attack helicopters or armed drones and not gone all out with ground attack aircraft— a clear case of unnecessary over-kill.
Thence terming it as “collateral damage” has only compounded the American’s grave error further antagonizing many Afghans. Perhaps a timely unqualified apology and some compensation to be awarded to the families of those killed could have soothed the anger of the Afghan public.
Notwithstanding the West and US led confabulations by the international community striving to establish some stability in Afghanistan, peace continues to elude this impoverished country, driving out thousands of Afghans from their native land to many nations, especially to the West including to the US.
According to UN statistics, Afghans now constitute the second largest number of refugees internationally and the Afghan exodus continues.
Two ominous developments have taken place in the last six months in Afghanistan. The major insurgent group in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban in July 2015 formally announced the death of its chieftain Mullah Omar’s death in (a news that was successfully kept under wraps for 2 years) and selected, after some internecine struggle, as its new Emir (chief), Mullah Mansour.
The Reconciliation Talks scheduled between the Taliban with the US, Chinese, Russian and Pakistan representatives in Murree in Pakistan in end July 2015 were postponed by the Taliban clearly to enable Mullah Mansour to bolster his negotiating demands from the international community.
Subsequently in August 2015, the new Taliban chieftain, perhaps to announce his arrival, mounted a spate of audacious suicide and other terror attacks on government and international targets in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan including the near successful capture of Kunduz.
The other newer menacing development in Afghanistan has been the emergence of fighters pledging their loyalty to the international Salafist terror outfit, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams (ISIS)—even some Taliban cadres have joined this new outfit now referred to as the Islamic State(IS).
Reportedly, both the Afghan Taliban and the IS have been fighting for control of parts of the eastern province of Nangarhar. The Taliban and IS confrontation to lead the jihad will, in all probability, lead to additional instability and violence in Afghanistan.
Time is now running out for Afghanistan warranting substantial international intervention especially by the UN and the US. The latter must not be in a tearing hurry to exit Afghanistan till stability is established and the Americans must not replicate their Iraq template for Kabul.
Afghanistan too shows signs of differences in political aspirations—a case that becomes evident in the northern and western provinces populated largely by ethnic minorities like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras have political aspirations different from the Pashtuns who are largely concentrated in the central and eastern parts of Afghanistan. Thus, President Ghani has his work cut out and will have to carry all minorities and leaders like his Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah with him.
All stake-holders in Afghanistan will have to, importantly, discard their own jingoistic agendas for the common good of Afghanistan. President Ghani has by now realized that his overtures to Islamabad in the initial months of his office have all but failed as Pakistan is the major problem and not a part of any solution for Afghanistan.
The former’s machinations over the years have been solely directed to seek a fundamentalist, Islamabad friendly proxy regime in Kabul as also keep at bay India’s soft power forays into Afghanistan. Thus India’s civil developmental projects and other assets in Afghanistan have been frequently targeted by Pakistan’s ISI sponsored terrorists belonging to the Taliban, Haqqani and Hekamatyar networks.
Though the Pakistanis and even the US wish to keep India out of any Afghan peace process, India must take the initiative in getting all the stake-holders on board for a mutually acceptable and a long term solution to the Afghanistan conundrum. Regional giants like Russia, Iran and China, along with India are all crucial to the future of Afghanistan.
Even if financially weary and battle fatigued, the US having invested trillions of dollars during the last 13 years or so and coalition troops taken over 2600 casualties during Operation Enduring Freedom, must not now shy away from working towards a UN led process to bring lasting stability and peace to Afghanistan.
*Lt. Gen Kamal Davar (Retd.) was the first chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency, India. He can be reached at [email protected]