Afghanistan has been teetering at the edge of a precipice ever since the US-led invasion of the country in 2001. The situation has become further precarious, if such a thing is possible at all, after the current President Ashraf Ghani took over the reins of government two years back.
The embattled nation has been in a state of persistent turmoil for the past four decades, after the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979. For the first ten years after that invasion, the country was engulfed in a US-sponsored/supported proxy war, fought by several groups of Islamists, which lasted till the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89. The Islamist groups that had successfully pushed the Soviet Union out almost immediately started to fight each other to grab power and form the government. The result was that the nation descended into further chaos and became unstable. A power vacuum was created in the centre with no group able to deliver any semblance of governance. Into this chaos stepped the Taliban with their version of puritanical Islam and the urge to take control of the nation.
The Taliban, an Arabic word meaning student, were mainly resident in the Islamic seminaries established on the Pakistan side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Their encroachment into Afghanistan was gradual, done with the direct aid of the Pakistan Army. In 1996, the Taliban took control of the entire country, establishing and ruling the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from then to 2001. During this period Osama bin Laden and his extremist group al Qaeda were allowed to establish themselves in the country, from where they master minded the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001. This led to the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan that, in collaboration with the Northern Alliance group dethroned the Taliban and pushed them out of the country. This was punishment for support and sanctuary that was provided to al Qaeda. The US installed a new government in Kabul and almost immediately the Taliban commenced a virulent insurgency that has continued ever since.
Politically Influenced Policy Shifts
In the early days of the Taliban insurgency, the Afghan security forces were trained by Western military forces deployed in Afghanistan. However, the local Afghan forces were unable to gain the upper hand against the Taliban or even make appreciable progress against the insurgency. Realising the situation, the US changed their strategy, moving from a purely military solution to a political solution. Diplomacy was resorted to in an attempt to bring the Taliban participate in the political process and even bring them into the government. However, this initiative met with only limited progress since they were unable to meet the Taliban’s demands for joining the government.
Further, the Taliban is reluctant to go against the wishes of the Pakistan Army since they have a symbiotic and close relationship. In addition, Pakistan has crafted its own itinerary to follow in this imbroglio.
The way forward in Afghanistan is almost completely dependent on US initiatives. The underlying factor in this is that for some intangible reason Pakistan brings to bear an unnaturally powerful influence on the US decisions. Whether the US tailors its initiatives to Pakistan’s tune willingly or unwittingly is an opaque situation. On 9 June, President Obama granted expanded military authority to 9,800 US troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of the latest initiative to bring stability to the war-torn nation. Although he has pledged to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan by year-end, currently the forces in-country have been permitted to join the Afghan forces in the battlefield. What this initiative, militarily limited in nature, will achieve is not yet apparent.
The US is currently facing a two-fold challenge in Afghanistan. With the Presidential election looming in early November, any further troop deployments could become an electoral liability to the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Second, the cost of the war is starting to hurt the US as it never has before. This cost is counted not only in terms of the blood and treasure that have been expended in the actual fighting, but also in terms of the enormous outlay that has been done as a rebuilding fund for Afghanistan. Since 2001, $ 113 billion has already been expended on rebuilding activities.
However, there is almost no progress to show for the spending of this huge amount since a major part of the resources has been squandered through corruption, waste and mismanagement. The dilemma is that the US knows that any troop withdrawal will neutralise the limited progress that has so far been made.
The stark fact at the current juncture is that although the Afghan forces have won some battlefield victories, they have not been of sufficient strategic impact for the Taliban to stop fighting or to force them to consider negotiating. The reality is that Taliban now controls or contests control of a larger territorial area than at any other time since the war began fifteen years ago. It is obvious that the US initiatives are not working.
The Pakistan Factor
The US-Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship is complex, to say the least, and definitely unpredictable. Unfortunately it has a direct impact on the progress or otherwise of the on-going Afghan War. The situation is a three-cornered unending pursuit of individual national interests. To start with, Afghanistan has never accepted the current de-facto border that it shares with Pakistan, which is based on the Durand Line. This line was an arbitrary internal administrative demarcation drawn when the entire area was ruled by the British crown. Further, this border is extremely porous since the mountainous regions are difficult to patrol. This insecure situation has been exploited by both Pakistan and the Taliban, one to provide assistance to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and the other to cross over to the safe havens that have been established on the Pakistan side of the border.
The US-Pakistan relations have had its share of difficulties, but nothing has been more of a sticking point and upset Pakistan more than the continued US drone strikes within Pakistan territory. The killing of Mullah Mansoor, the Taliban leader, in Baluchistan in a targeted drone strike disturbed whatever little equanimity that existed in the relationship. Currently there are over 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. If they are forcibly expelled, Afghanistan will sink into further instability, perhaps reaching a point where recovery will not be possible. Pakistan uses this fact as a threat to leverage its position and influence US decision-making.
Even if Pakistan is reluctant to do so, it is being pressurised to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The primary influence that Pakistan has over the Taliban is that their safe havens are in Pakistan territory and theoretically can be shut down. Further, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is not as strong as it used to be in the past. This gradual erosion in what was once a very robust and close relationship has taken place because of the emergence and steady rise of the Pakistan Taliban insurgency. There is a changing military attitude towards the Afghan Taliban within the Pakistan Army. For these reasons the attempt to pressurise Pakistan to force the Taliban to negotiate seems to have failed. Currently Pakistan is in a state of strategic paralysis, obsessed with real and imaginary Indian interference in Baluchistan and India’s initiatives in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s external vision has been coloured by a number of mistaken and some factual beliefs regarding its national security priorities.
The cooling of Pakistan’s ardour towards the Afghan Taliban is also the result of Chinese influence. China is fully opposed to Taliban control of Afghanistan, which it fears will lead to increased Islamic militancy in Central Asia that will inevitably spread to its own Xinjiang province. Considering Pakistan’s economic and security reliance on China, these directives cannot be ignored. In these circumstances at least an outward show of decoupling with the Afghan Taliban can be expected from the Pakistan Army.
In the meantime, the Pakistan Army has also become disconcerted for two reasons. One, that even after three years of effort they have not been able to install a Pakistan-friendly, meaning Pakistan-controlled, government in Afghanistan. This has led to Pakistan resorting to its time honoured strategy of initiating proxy-wars, through orchestrating terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in the population centres if Afghanistan. Two, the US is re-evaluating Pakistan’s usefulness in its Afghanistan policy and therefore Pakistan realises that the permissive window of opportunity for its interference in Afghanistan’s domestic politics is rapidly closing. The US has now repeatedly warned Pakistan to stop support to terrorism and to shut down the safe havens in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas that it has so far turned a blind eye to. Even though it is being squeezed from both ends, by China and the US, Pakistan still harbours the ambition to establish proxy control over Afghanistan, akin to what it had in the early years of the Taliban regime.
India – Playing the Mandala Game
India has been contributing to bring stability to the war-torn country, spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan. It has built the Parliament House, restored the Presidential Palace and constructed dams and expressways. India legitimises its interest in the country and in-country activities to support stability in Afghanistan through evoking the long and historic civilisational and political ties between the two countries that predates the formation of Pakistan in 1947. What is left unsaid is the contemporary geo-strategic factors that provide an impetus for India to establish a foothold in Afghanistan in the pursuance of the ancient ‘Mandala Theory’ of Chanakya.
At an altruistic level, India may actually want to stabilise Afghanistan and assist in furthering its peace and prosperity. However, in order to achieve this, at the pragmatic operational level India will have to assume the initiative to neutralise Pakistan’s efforts at destabilising Afghanistan. This could mean indirect confrontation with Pakistan’s proxy warriors. India can face this challenge in one of two ways. The first will be commit its military forces, with the permission of the Afghanistan Government, to initially establish stable areas around population centres and then to spread the stability further into the more remote regional areas. This would involve concerted military action in conjunction with the US and NATO forces still in Afghanistan. Such an action would also be open-ended and will invariably lead to direct combat with the Taliban. Whether India has the national will to embark on this course of action is doubtful.
The second strategy, perhaps more palatable from an Indian perspective, would be to commence providing military training and hardware to the Afghan national forces. This will be a long-term initiative and will have to be continued till such times that the Indian training team itself feels that the Afghan forces are competent enough to defeat the Taliban in their own game. The primary aim of the military build-up should be to contain and then defeat Pakistan-inspired and supported aggression within Afghanistan. In this strategy, the probability of mission creep is very real. If India wants to and is willing to bring the Mandala Theory to its logical conclusion, it will have to initiate actions that may have to be supported and continued for a fairly long time. Unfortunately there are no short term solutions to the challenges that confront Afghanistan now. This may just be India’s opportunity to come out of its self-imposed ‘stand-apart’ posture in terms of foreign policy and to assert its regional status. Again, whether India has the will and confidence to implement a long-term strategy in its foreign affairs, which could also involve military actions, is unknown.
The Peace Process – On again, Off again
The Afghan Government and the Taliban were in tentative negotiations regarding the way forward when the drone-strike kill of Mullah Mansoor on 21 May ruptured all contacts. With this death the US-initiated negotiations for peace seems to have been shelved indefinitely. It is even possible that the US is mulling a return to the military-led strategy to decapitate the Taliban with the hope of fragmenting its cohesiveness. However, the death of Mullah Mansoor, if the strike was meant to divide the Taliban, does not seem to have achieved any such effect. At least outwardly, the Taliban remains united under the new leader, Maulavi Haibatullah Akhunzada, a respected religious teacher who is more a titular head. The more active leadership is being provided by the deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the formidable Haqqani network. In these circumstances, it is not an exaggeration to state that the peace process has collapsed.
In a further complication of an already vexed situation, the animosity between the current Afghan Government and Pakistan is increasing. The US-Afghan team believes that Pakistan was never serious about supporting the peace process. While Pakistan is of the opinion that the US is manoeuvring the peace process in such a manner for them to be able to take action within Pakistan territory. The distrust between the two is palpable. Analysing the events of the past two years, one is bound to realise that there were unrealistic expectations regarding the outcome of the peace process from all parties concerned.
It was unrealistic on the part of the US to believe that sufficient pressure could be brought to bear on Pakistan to force it to rein in the Taliban and bring them to the negotiating table. This basic factor, critical to the progress of the peace process, was premised on unrealistically optimistic beliefs. The US felt that they had sufficient leverage with Pakistan to exert the necessary pressure for that nation to reverse its long-term strategies. It has become obvious that the US did not have that kind of leverage. It is also obvious now that the amount of influence and control that the Pakistan Army has over the Afghan Taliban has been exaggerated.
If peace talks are to resume in any meaningful manner, there has to be a conscious realignment of positions by both the Afghan Government and the Taliban. In order for this to happen, the first step would be to establish informal links between the two through which talks as a precursor to formalised discussion can take place. Such an informal channel will be of great utility to establish the ‘never-cross’ red lines of both sides. The absence of an awareness of these sacrosanct lines very often leads to the breakdown of well-intentioned negotiations.
Neither the Afghan Government nor the Taliban have clearly enunciated their respective positions for the peace process to move forward. It is therefore difficult to analyse the reasons for its failure. However, sifting through the reports from journalists who have managed to meet the leadership from both sides, taking into account some public statements and doing some reading between the lines, it is possible to understand the standpoint of the belligerents. The Afghan Government has repeatedly asked the Taliban to accept the constitution and lay down their arms. In return they will be permitted to enter mainstream politics and also run for office.
Under these circumstances, it can be assumed that some sort of an amnesty will also be forthcoming. This offer has been accepted by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islamic party. In fact Hezb representatives are already sitting in parliament.
The Taliban views are very different. First, it views the Hezb’s approach as surrender and for the Taliban ‘surrender’ is not an option. In fact the concept of surrender is not part of the DNA of any Afghan fighting group. The Taliban seems to be internally divided regarding the offer from the Afghan Government and the ensuing peace deal. There is one group who believe that military victory is possible and that the victory will lead to the restoration of the pre-2001 Islamic Emirate. On the other hand the second group accepts that total victory is not possible and that the demographic and societal changes since 2001 has been such that it will be impossible to recreate the pre-2001 situation. Therefore, the peace settlement is the only way for the Taliban to retain its influence at the national level and for Afghanistan to escape an endless war.
The division between the two groups and the influence of each on the decision-making fluctuate. Combined with this there is a willingness on both sides to fight a long-term war if that would improve their individual positions in the eventual negotiations. The Taliban’s minimal conditions are the complete withdrawal of non-Afghan forces from the country; that they will not disarm; and that a new constitution must be drafted and then approved by a national assembly, the Loya Jirga. Their unwillingness to disarm is the first point of contention.
There is no denying the fact that the Taliban has successfully expanded its territorial control across several regions in Afghanistan. At the same time the Afghan National Security Forces remain under-resourced and semi-prepared to effectively counter the Taliban advances. The expanse of ungoverned and remote areas is expanding on a daily basis, providing a clear opportunity for the Islamic State and al Qaeda to reconstitute themselves without any hindrance. Afghanistan has all the ingredients to return to being an extremist sanctuary like what it was in its pre-2001 iteration.
Meantime, the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG), run by President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, Pashtun and Tajik leaders, is facing an existential political crisis. Unequal power sharing between the two leaders has led to a parting of ways, the ‘unity’ in the government’s name remaining an empty word. The NUG was meant to last for a period of two years and was constituted on 21 September 2014 when it assumed political power. In these two years it was expected that it would enact reforms, bring in transparency and ensure better governance. None of this has happened. A constitutional Loya Jirga is to be held by September 2016 and electoral reforms enacted by October. Both of these are unlikely to happen. When the deadlines imposed by the original agreements fall due in another weeks’ time, the power sharing agreement will itself collapse. In other words, the NUG will collapse.
In the face of an on-going war, the political developments will continue to be divided and random. No actionable policy can be formulated in this climate of divisive rhetoric. On the other hand, the battle lines are such that the war cannot be brought to a reliable conclusion in the existing conditions. Victory is now not defined in traditional terms. New definitions have emerged that does not have any connection to how victory was conceived even a few decades ago. In these circumstances and considering the rigidity of stance of the different players, both military and political, as well as the ethnic mix in the country, it seems that Afghanistan is not going anywhere in a hurry.
A country that has been at the receiving end of the application of lethal force by both the Super Powers of the world in the past half century seems to be frozen in time with no end to its strife in sight.