By Ajit Kumar Singh*
In a scathing commentary on Pakistan’s direct role in Afghanistan’s continuing misery, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani declared that Afghanistan could not “figure out” Pakistan’s intention.
Delivering a speech at the first meeting of the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation on June 6, 2017, Ghani stated,
… We want to be able to trust Pakistan. And we want the chance for friendly, cooperative relationships that will reduce poverty and promote growth on both sides of the Durand line. Our problem, our challenge, is that we cannot figure out what is it that Pakistan wants. What will it take to convince Pakistan that a stable Afghanistan helps them and helps our region? We continue to make an unconstrained offer for a state-to-state peace dialogue. But we cannot – nor can any signatory to the UN Counter-Terrorism Convention – accept that the global consensus against terrorism is not acted upon. So we again call on the Government of Pakistan to propose its agenda and a mechanism for that dialogue which can lead to peace and prosperity…
The meeting was attended by representatives of 24 countries and three international entities, the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN). Explaining the Kabul Process, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs website says “while multiple fora have been held to help with peace and security in Afghanistan and the region over the past few years… the purpose of the Kabul conference is to place the Afghan Government as the key driving force for achieving peace, with the earnest support of regional and international partners.”
Meanwhile, in the most recent assertion of Pakistan’s direct role in terror activities inside Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security in a statement released on May 31, 2017, noted, “The plan for today’s [Wednesday’s] attack was drawn up by the Haqqani network with direct coordination and cooperation from Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).” The statement referred to the May 31, 2017, suicide attack in Kabul, referred to as one of the deadliest attacks in Kabul since 2001, in which at least 150 people were killed and over 400 other injured. Most of the victims were civilians.
The explosion went off near Zanbaq Square in the Wazir Akbar Khan area, where most of the foreign embassies located. Though no fatalities among the foreign embassy people were reported, there were reports of damages to the buildings of some foreign embassies, including that of Germany, India, and Turkey. Reiterating Pakistan’s direct role in the attack, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), declared,
By killing innocent and destitute people today, the enemies of Afghanistan’s peace and stability showed that they are not worthy of friendship and will not change their stance against Afghans. In light of findings of security services and calls by the Afghan people, the ACB hereby cancels all kinds of cricket matches and mutual relationship agreement with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). No agreement of friendly matches and mutual relationship agreement is valid with a country where terrorists are housed and provided safe havens.
Indeed, the surge in violence against civilians across Afghanistan remains unabated. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in its latest quarterly report released on April 25, 2017, disclosed that, in the first quarter of 2017 (January 1 – March 31), it documented 2,181 civilian casualties (715 dead and 1,466 injured). During the corresponding period of 2016, according to the report released on April 17, 2016, UNAMA had documented 1,943 civilian casualties (600 deaths and 1,343 injured). UNAMA reports which categorize civilian casualties by “party to the conflict”, i.e., civilian fatalities by Anti-Government Elements (AGEs), Pro-Government Forces (PGFs), jointly by the AGEs and PGFs, and Unattributed Explosive Remnants of War, states that while AGEs were responsible for 60 per cent of the total casualties in the first quarter of 2016, their involvement increased to 62 per cent in 2017. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), at least another 240 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since April 1, 2017 (data till June 9).
Fatalities among Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) also continue to remain alarmingly high. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) quarterly report released on April 30, 2017, from January 1, 2017, through February 24, 2017, at least 807 ANDSF personnel were killed and 1,328 were wounded. SIGAR’s quarterly report released on April 30, 2016, had stated that in the first two months of 2016, at least 820 ANDSF personnel were killed in action and 1,389 were wounded.
Worryingly casualties among civilians and SF personnel have been constantly rising. According to UNAMA, civilian fatalities have increased, on year on year basis, since January 1, 2009, when UNAMA began systematically documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan, with an exception of 2012 when they declined marginally from 7,842 in 2011 to 7,590 in 2012. Also, according to the SIGAR report, at least 6,637 ANDSF personnel were killed and 12,471 wounded in 2015. The number of ANDSF personnel fatalities increased to 6,785 the period between January 1, 2016, and November 12, 2016. At least 11,777 personnel were wounded.
Though there is no authoritative data on the number of terrorists/insurgents killed in Afghanistan, according to partial data compiled by the ICM, this figure is also increasing, on year on year basis, since 2015. At least 6,030 militants were killed in 2014, rising to 10, 628 in 2015, and further to 11,469 in 2016. The current year has already seen at least 4,318 insurgent fatalities. Most of the militants killed belonged to the Taliban though, according to President Ghani, there are at least 20 international terrorist groups operating inside the country.
The emergence of Islamic State and the resultant turf war between the Taliban and the Islamic State has further worsened the security situation. According to the SIGAR quarterly report, as of February 20, 2017, insurgents controlled or influenced around 11 per cent of Afghanistan’s total territory. Significantly, insurgents were controlling or had influence over just six per cent of total territory in January 2016. Moreover, the Afghan Government, which controlled or had influence over 71 per cent of territory in January 2016, now controls or has influence over just 60 per cent of the territory. The ‘contested areas’ increased from 23 per cent in January 2016 to 29 per cent in February 2017.
Pakistan for long has been held responsible for Afghanistan’s prolonged torments by almost all who are in the know of developments in the region. Most recently, on April 17, 2017, US National Security Advisor Gen H.R. McMaster, stated,
As all of us have hoped for many, many years, we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after (militant) groups less selectively than they have in the past and the best way to pursue their interest in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy and not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.
Thus far, however, Pakistan has evaded any meaningful penalty for sustaining its reprehensible strategies to rule Afghanistan through its proxies (Taliban). Indeed, Islamabad continues to receive funds for purportedly ‘waging war against terror’ and is also ceded a pivotal role in the Afghan peace process.
There are, nevertheless, some early signs of changes. The Kabul Process seeks to confer on Afghanistan the pivotal role in peace talks. Almost all the earlier initiatives, including the Qatar Process and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) process had provided prominence to Pakistan. This was done primarily because Pakistan had deceived a willfully gullible international community into believing that peace could only be achieved by making the Taliban the principal stake holder in the talks process.
Ironically, and despite the significant losses US and coalition Forces have suffered as a result of proxies operating from Pakistani soil, Washington has remained one of Pakistan’s principal backers, and forged its Af-Pak policy on the assumption of centrality of Islamabad’s role and of bringing Taliban to the negotiating table. However, as SAIR has noted earlier, a US revaluation of its Af-Pak policy has been under consideration since Donald Trump assumed the Presidency. Indeed, during a press conference in Canberra, Australia, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis stated on June 5, 2017,
As far as Afghanistan goes, as Secretary Tillerson [US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson] said, the policy is under review, but at the same time we’re up against an enemy that knows that they cannot win at the ballot box, and you think – we have to sometimes remind ourselves of that reality. That’s why they use bombs, because ballots would ensure they never had a role to play, and based upon that foundation, that they cannot win the support, the affection, the respect of the Afghan people… But the bottom line is we’re not going to surrender civilization to people who cannot win at the ballot box.
Tillersons’s statement originally noted,
As to the Afghanistan policy which is still under development and review, so there is no conclusion… I think clearly, though, what we do understand is we can never allow Afghanistan to become a platform for terrorism to operate from. And so our commitment to Afghanistan is to ensure that it never becomes a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks against the civilized world or against any other part of the world or any of their neighbors. And so this is really a question of what is the end state and how do we reach that end state, and that’s part of the policy review that is still under development so I don’t want to go further than I would say the thinking currently in the administration is, but other than to say we are committed to ensuring Afghanistan does not become that platform from which terrorist activities can be launched… [sic]
While the persisting incoherence of US policy is apparent in this statement, there are indications that the US may deny Taliban and Islamabad centrality in any process to secure a ‘political solution’ in Afghanistan. This would constitute a major shift in US policy, and a sustained commitment to such a posture would help Afghanistan emerge stronger. It would also help isolate Pakistan further. The critical question would then no longer be “What does Pakistan want?” Rather, Afghanistan would be helped to secure progressive control over its own destiny.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management