Evolving Afghan Dynamics & Bearing on Pakistan
By Asif Haroon Raja
Afghanistan is connected with South Asia, Middle East and Central Asia. It shares 1400 km border with Pakistan and its 42% of Afghan Pashtuns share religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties with 15.2 million Pakistani Pashtuns. Pashtuns living in close vicinity of Durand Line have blood relations and the border has never acted as a barrier in their cross border movement. Pashtuns from both sides have been jointly fighting all foreign invaders and are doing so even now.
Afghanistan has traditionally remained friendly to distant neighbor India and unsympathetic to next door Pakistan since 1947. It opposed Pakistan’s membership in the UN, laid claim on Pakhtun populated areas of Pakistan and raised the stunt of Pakhtunistan, and also questioned the validity of Durand Line. It has been off and on carrying out border violations and has been giving shelter to Baloch rebels. The only time it was friendly with Pakistan and unfriendly with India was during the five-year rule of Taliban from 1996 till 2001, but the Taliban also refused to recognize Durand Line and laid claims on Mohmand agency.
Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship has been a prey to differing interests. The two have never been at ease with each other and deep doubts have persisted in bilateral ties. Pakistan has never exploited its vulnerability of being land-locked and has considered it as its natural ally. It played a key role in pushing out Soviet forces from Afghanistan and has been hosting over 3 million Afghan refugees since 1979. But its wish for a friendly government in Kabul has never materialized. Pakistan has behaved maturely despite Afghanistan’s provocations and extended all kinds of support.
Incident of 9/11 Blown up.
9/11 was projected as the biggest catastrophe ever happened and Al-Qaeda blamed for the vile act. Whole world shed tears of sympathy and condemned the perpetrators against whom no proofs had been gathered. Force mobilized to invade the most impoverished, war torn and sanctioned country far exceeded the threat. Afghanistan was encircled by establishing military bases in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in the north, making Pakistan a coalition partner and frontline state, taking China, Russia, Iran and Arab world on board and obtaining UN approval. India offered all out support. War was justified to fight terrorism but terrorism was never defined.
US Stated Objectives.
The US stated objectives of invasion of Afghanistan included: Rooting out terrorism by killing/capturing Osama bin Laden, disrupting, defeating and eliminating Al-Qaeda network; destroying Taliban or making them ineffective; democratization of Afghanistan; empowerment of women.
US Hidden Objectives. The hidden objectives were to assert American dominance in the regions surrounded by energy-rich Eurasian region, consolidate Afghanistan as a neo-colonial US protectorate and a staging post for further intrigues in Central/South Asia, Middle East, contain China, make India bulwark against China, a key player in Afghanistan, and stem resurgence of Russia.
Pakistan Specific Objectives.
Initially befriend Pakistan to occupy Afghanistan. Later, work towards destabilization, de-Islamisation, de-nuclearisation, and balkanization of Pakistan and making it a vassal state of India.
Installation of Puppet Regime.
Drums of victory were beaten in November 2001 and a puppet regime of Northern Alliance under Hamid Karzai installed in Kabul. During his over 13 years rule, Karzai allowed the occupiers to ruthlessly persecute the Afghan Pashtuns. He adopted pro-India and anti-Pakistan stance and permitted Afghan intelligence agency (NDS) grouped with five foreign agencies to use Afghan soil for undertaking massive covert war against Pakistan in FATA and Baluchistan.
Resistance War by Taliban.
Taliban regime under Mulla Omer was wrongly removed from power and then consistently hounded and oppressed. The Taliban after carrying out a tactical withdrawal to regroup, started guerrilla war to free their homeland from foreign occupation. No amount of force could break the indomitable will of Afghan Taliban or divide them. By 2008, resistance forces were running shadow governments in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces with core fighters of about 30,000 and potential fighters 500,000. ISAF suffered heaviest casualties in 2009 and there on, number kept increasing. 2015 was the most costly year for Afghan forces and the people.
Stalemate – Victory of Taliban
Failing to defeat the Taliban in the longest war after spending billions of dollars and using excessive force/torture as well as underhand tricks to divide the Taliban, the US was left with no other option but to call it a day. Operation Enduring Freedom which commenced on 07 October 2001, ended on December 28, 2014 and Armies of 35 countries exited without achieving any of the stated and hidden objectives. Learning a lesson from its unwise decision of abandoning Afghanistan in 1989, the US has left behind a Resolute Force Group of 12000 under Bilateral Security Agreement till end 2016 to give heart to Afghan forces.
Stalemate was victory for Taliban since Taliban could continue fighting and occupiers could not. Unlike in 1980s when the Afghan Mujahedeen fought and defeated the Soviet occupying forces duly helped by Pakistan and the free world, this time the Taliban under Mulla Omar performed the miracle single-handedly and under much adverse conditions.
Mistakes made by USA.
Major mistakes made were insincere designs, distrusting Pakistan, relying on India, weak military leadership, drug trafficking, marginalization of Pashtuns, opening of torture chambers, dependence upon corrupt/inept Karazi regime and non-Pashtun heavy security forces, hiring of greedy NGOs/security contractors in thousands; bending situation according to its own whims, farcical political prong aimed at dividing Taliban, keeping Taliban out of peace talks till 2013. Last but not least opening 2nd front in Iraq.
Afghan Unity Government.
The incumbent unity government was formed in October 2014 after controversial elections, which is more inefficient and corrupt than warlord heavy Karzai regime. The flaw in this setup is the forcible marriage of convenience mid-wifed by John Kerry between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah after their prolonged estrangement. Abdullah heading Northern Alliance is heavily tilted towards India and he controls 50% of cabinet ministries including NDS. As a result, influence of India’s RAW in Afghanistan has not diminished. RAW and NDS patronise Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) runaways Fazlullah and Omer Khalid Khurasani based in Kunar and Nangarhar respectively.
Ghani’s Pro-Pakistan Stance.
To start with, Ashraf Ghani tilted towards Pakistan as a result of outstanding success achieved by Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan (NW) which not only pushed out anti-Pakistan militants, but also Haqqani network (HN) and Hafiz Gul Bahadur militant group. The other thing was Pakistan going an extra mile in removing Kabul’s security concerns. Ghani was also mindful of his weaknesses because of lack of political roots. Understanding with resurging Taliban was the only way for him to survive.
Reasons behind Patch up with Taliban.
One reason behind frantic efforts to negotiate with the Taliban is not-so-happy operational preparedness of the US-UK trained and equipped Afghan National Army (ANA) to confront the Taliban challenge. It may not be possible for the US to continue dishing out $4.1 billion per year for the upkeep of Afghan security forces for long, particularly if they fail to deliver. Other reason is inherent weakness of unnatural unity government engaged in power tussle. Most of cabinet ministers including four women are pro-west and have little experience of governance. Ghani leaned on Pakistan hoping it will persuade Afghan Taliban to talk and reach a political settlement.
Ghani’s Changed Foreign Policy.
With these considerations, Ghani while enumerating his foreign policy priorities, placed Pakistan, Iran and China well above India. He undertook his maiden visits to China and Pakistan. He also cancelled arms deal and military training agreements with India and instead sent cadets to PMA Kakul for training for the first time. ISI-NDS intelligence cooperation deal was inked. Both sides took practical measures to improve defence cooperation and intelligence sharing to tackle common threat of terrorism. Pakistan arranged meetings of Taliban and representatives of Ghani regime in Beijing and other countries.
Fast improving Pak-Afghan relations, China’s decision to invest $46 billion in Pakistan for the construction of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and energy projects and Pakistan sailing past the turbulent patch worried India immensely. India is getting highly vexed since her sinister plans set against Pakistan are falling apart like nine-pins. Her plan to fill up the security vacuum left behind by the withdrawing US-NATO troops and to complete encirclement of Pakistan is in jeopardy. Her strategic alliances with Afghanistan and USA are becoming inconsequential. All the three conniving partners in crime today find themselves in hot waters. Kautilya’s book offers no remedy to the prevailing situation since all games of intrigues, coercion and bloodshed have failed to cow down resilient Pakistan.
In desperation, India allocated $300 million to its notorious intelligence agency RAW and mandated it to further destabilize the troubled regions of Pakistan and to scuttle CPEC at all costs. Hamid Karzai was given $50 million to rejuvenate cross border terrorism from Afghan soil and to keep weak-willed Ghani under pressure and force him to shift his tilt from Pakistan to India. Karzai has teamed up with RAW influenced NDS, Abdullah and Northern Alliance heavy Afghan Parliament as well as ANSF to spoil Afghan-Pakistan relations. Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is personally pursuing anti-Pakistan agenda.
Ghani is caught between the rock and a hard place. On one hand, he has to bear the pressure from segment of his government led by Abdullah and backed by Karzai led faction of Pashtuns, and on the other is the surging Taliban who enjoy influence over 80% of Afghan territory. After their ouster from NW, HN has intensified activities in northern Afghanistan where eight provinces are under its control. Most of Helmand province is also in control of Taliban. Taliban’s 2015 spring offensive has rapidly changed the situation in their favor. 2016 Spring Offensive in April may decisively turn the tide. Under pressure from the US, unity government is trying to patch up with Pakistan. It has taken resignation from the NDS head Nabeel and sacked 8 officials in NDS. Some improvement in Pak-Afghan military relations is discernible.
Obama’s Second Thoughts.
The US military felt that with the dismantlement of safe haven in NW, it had become easier for the Afghan National Army backed by US airpower/intelligence support to deal with the militants in eastern Afghanistan and thus defeat them. However, when no success could be achieved at their end and the Taliban continued to strike targets at will in all parts of the country, the option of dialogue was renewed. To appease Taliban, Obama struck off Afghan Taliban from the category of terrorists and termed them as insurgents fighting for their rights. He also declared that US troops would not fire at Taliban unless provoked by them. These reconciliatory moves were aimed to induce the Taliban to negotiate and arrive at a political settlement. Obama had announced that by mid-2015 he would withdraw 50% of residual force, but now the US seems to be having second thoughts on gradual reduction of troops on account of Pentagon’s pressure and Da’esh (ISIS) threat.
Two Pronged Negotiations.
The US was forced to patch up with the Taliban whom it had all these years been projecting as uncivilized, crude terrorists deserving no mercy. Initial effort to induce Taliban for talks was based on two prongs, one prong led by Ghani and the other by the US and in both cases, Pakistan was asked to assist. China was also given a green signal to play its role in restoring peace in Afghanistan. Ghani kept urging the Taliban to join the unity government, and this was one reason of 106 days delay in forming the 16-member cabinet duly approved by Afghan parliament, but the Taliban didn’t agree.
Presumed Pakistan’s Influence over Taliban.
Both the US and Afghan regime carry the impression that Pakistan is in a position to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. While it is true that Pakistan does have some influence over Taliban leaders since quite many were in its custody all these years, it doesn’t control them and is not in a position to make them agree to the terms sought by the US. It can also not give any guarantee to the Taliban that Afghan regime will abide by the terms of agreement arrived at. Pakistan and China are however trying hard to create conducive conditions for talks. Pakistan is playing a key role in creating goodwill space for China in Afghanistan and in mending its relations with Taliban.
As a consequence to these silent efforts, the wheels of talks started to churn slowly in Doha and the Taliban in principle agreed to open their political office there for the initiation of formal political dialogue. Murree talks held on July 7, 2015 between representatives of Taliban and unity government, and US and China’s representatives sitting as observers raised hopes of a settlement for the first time. On July 29, eight members of Taliban Shura had reached Islamabad to participate in second round of talks on July 31 to further speed up the reconciliation process.
Death of Mulla Omar Exploited
Ill-motivated and ill-timed announcement of death of Mulla Omar by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) on July 29 was aimed at derailing peace talks, straining Pak-Afghan relations and dividing Taliban. The news was later confirmed by Taliban Shura. Election of Mulla Akhtar Muhammad Mansour as next Ameer was announced by Afghan Rahbari Shura on July 30. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Haibatullah Khanzada were appointed deputies.
Mullah Omar’s departure from the scene has altered the whole dynamics of nascent peace negotiations with the Taliban. His deputy Mulla Mansour was part of the Taliban movement from the start and has effectively been in charge as de facto commander since 2013. He faces a huge challenge in trying to unite a movement that is already showing signs of fragmenting and questions about his legitimacy at the highest echelon of the Taliban has made his position awkward.
Rifts in Taliban Two rival camps got engulfed in war of succession; one led by Mansour and the other by Omar’s brother Mulla Abdul Manan and Omar’s 26 years old son Mulla M. Yaqub backed by Mullas Mansur Dadullah, Hasan Rahmani, Abdul Razaq, Rasool Akhund and Qayum Zakir. Fadayee Mahaz headed by Haji Najibullah is another opponent of Mansour who accused him of poisoning Omar to death. Head of Taliban political office in Doha Tayyab Agha resigned, but has so far remained neutral. Taliban are also divided on the issue of talks, one faction favoring and the other opposing it.
Sinister Objectives of Detractors Accomplished.
Spoilers sprang into action to accentuate the rift and succeeded in achieving their sinister objectives by disrupting peace talks. Several woven stories about circumstances, place and date of Omar’s death created tension among rank and file of Taliban and impacted their unity. This internal rift is to the liking of India and other spoilers who are busy widening the rift by supporting the opponents of Mansour. The US is also a spoiler. It is not in favor of Pakistan mediated agreement since it will benefit Taliban and Pakistan. It has made the position of Pakistan and Mansour favoring talks difficult. Pak-Afghan relations that had begun to improve have again become frosty. However, the biggest loser is Kabul itself.
Efforts to Heal the Rift
Five members of Council of senior Taliban Ulema tried to bridge the rift. They met on August 21, 2015 to resolve the differences, but Mulla Yaqub and Manan refused to contest the post of Ameer since they knew they didn’t enjoy popular support among the Taliban. Had Mansour not met them, the Council would have appointed Maulvi Muhammad Ahmad from Kandahar belonging to Kakar tribe as next Ameer. Currently Mulla Rasool is the main opponent of Mansour and is anti-peace talks.
Mullah Mansour’s Assertiveness
In order to consolidate his position and to win over support of opponent camp, Mansour stiffened his stance by asserting that there will be no talks without meeting their basic demands of complete withdrawal of foreign troops and replacement of US tailored constitution with Islamic constitution. He also stepped up attacks in all parts of Afghanistan and raised his stature after capturing Kunduz. He did this to dispel the over optimistic impression that after the death of Mulla Omar, Taliban are in disarray and resistance has weakened, and that Taliban will be negotiating from position of weakness. Taliban hold sway over 127 districts of the country. Latest news is that on February 12, the opponents of Mulla Mansour have decided to forge unity and reunify the Taliban movement.
Negotiated Political Settlement
Negotiated political settlement leading to broad based government with Taliban, given representation as per their demographic strength will be an ideal arrangement since it will prevent civil war and benefit Afghan Pashtuns, Pakistan and China but may not be that beneficial for non-Pashtun Northern Alliance since its power base will shrink. It will also not suit India since balance of power will shift towards Pakistan friendly Afghan Pashtun. Iran and USA will also not be happy.
While Pakistan and China are playing an active role in making Afghanistan peaceful, both are clear that arm twisting of Taliban will prove counterproductive. In case a settlement is reached without giving a bigger share in power to the Taliban, the implication is that there will be strong resentment among the rank and file of the Taliban and other resistance forces. It will become very difficult for Mullah Mansour who has become controversial to control the dissenters.
Threat of Da’esh.
Da’esh (ISIS) has gained toeholds in Nangarhar and Farah provinces and has also colluded with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Northern Afghanistan. India and probably USA are discreetly facilitating their entry. Weakening of Taliban will create more space for Da’esh in Afghanistan, which will be more hazardous for the whole region, since Da’esh is vying to re-establish ancient Khurasan State comprised of parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Collusion of Da’esh with TTP leaders based in Afghanistan assisted by RAW and making Nangarhar as main base of operation is a dangerous development. Extension of hand of friendship by Al-Qaeda chief Zawahiri to Mulla Mansour if reciprocated will add to the complications of regional security. It will result in prolonged bloodshed and destruction spread over decades, as predicted by Obama.
Iran-Saudi Tiff. Growing tiff between the two ideological rivals is casting its shadow on Syria and Afghanistan and if not defused in time will have bearing on Pakistan as well.
Indian Military Involvement in Afghanistan.
Indian military which had refused to join the US led coalition in Afghanistan to fight terrorism in 2001 has now decided to barge into Afghanistan. India has renewed its defence deal with Afghanistan and is now supplying arms and ammunition to ANA since last January. Indian Military Attache in Kabul Sojeet Narain stated that India has started assisting the Afghan military in their fight against militants and this support will continue till victory. 400 trucks carrying arms have been transported to Kabul for ANA via Chahbahar. It includes MGs, LMGs, rocket launchers, grenades and ammunition. India’s Russian built MI-35 attack helicopters flew from Bagram air base to support ANA’s ground operation in Helmand on January 20. Gen John Campbell appreciated Indian effort. On February 1, Indian military cargo planes unloaded weapons and equipment at Kabul airport. India is already imparting training to Afghan police and is now likely to train ANA.
During Modi’s last visit to Kabul, an agreement was signed allowing Indian citizens to travel to Afghanistan and back without visa. Taking advantage of this facility, India has inducted large numbers of retired armed forces officers and undercover officers in Afghanistan in order to consolidate Indian military’s presence and to keep western border hot and to gain control over Wakhan corridor. This ingress will help India in interfering with CPEC.
Fallout of Turmoil in Afghanistan
Negative fallout of the disarray in the Taliban ranks is not good news for the peaceniks including President Ashraf Ghani, Washington and Islamabad. Another obvious corollary of the disharmony in Taliban ranks is that erstwhile Taliban factions will join Da’esh in bigger numbers and pave the way for Da’esh to emerge as the most powerful entity. Turmoil in Afghanistan will be to the big disadvantage of Pakistan, since there will be spillover effect. Pak Army is already tired fighting the war for 13 years and cannot afford to further prolong it. It will also adversely impact China’s economic aggression in the region and its plan to connect Gwadar with Afghanistan.
Preventive Act. In order to prevent the chaos, US, China, Pakistan and Iran should collectively help the intra-Afghan dialogue to proceed smoothly till comprehensive political settlement benefiting all factions of Afghans irrespective of ethnic divisions. Role of unity government is however critical since Taliban offensive has rattled Ghani, and he has begun to speak Karzai and Abdullah’s language. War lords are once again getting stronger and cases of desertions from ANSF to private militias are increasing as had happened in 1990/91.
Three sessions of quadrilateral talks have been held in Islamabad and Kabul in which representatives of Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US took part to evolve a roadmap for peace talks. Afghan unity government has prepared a draft for next meeting in Kabul on February 23. So far no breakthrough has been achieved since the Taliban have not joined it. However inclusion of two heavy weights and Russia’s support has given strength to peace process. Russia favors striking off names of Taliban from UN black list. Pakistan is insisting that spoilers should be restrained, Afghan regime should cooperate, and all factions of Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami should be invited and use of stick avoided. Afghan government wants use of force against those refusing to hold talks. Taliban, HN and Fidai Mahaz have been asked to prepare their list of demands, while Hizb-e-Islami is also being approached through elders of tribes in Paktia.
The four have urged the Taliban to attend the next meeting in Kabul on February 23 but the Taliban have made their participation subject to fulfilment of their demands hereunder: A. Take off Taliban leaders from the UN list of terrorists. B. Release of prisoners. C. Remove restrictions on travel. D. Unfreeze their accounts in foreign banks. E. Intimate exact date of departure of Resolute Support Force.
Although analysts are busy painting doomsday scenario, saying it marks the end of Taliban movement, but knowing their resilience and unmatched sacrifices, it will not die down and someone else will carry forward the baton; although none will fit in Mulla Omar’s shoes. Their position has eroded a little due to internal rifts, but Mulla Mansour commands the largest and most powerful faction. Yet the 36 years’ war has fatigued them and their 3-4 generations have got affected. They also want the war to end. The country too badly needs a break.
Pakistan has suffered the most on account of instability in Afghanistan.
Pak-Afghan security is inter-linked and it is a geo-strategic compulsion for both to remain friendly. While Pakistan realizes it, Afghan leadership doesn’t. Earlier the Afghan leaders recognize this reality and take practical steps to restore peace, better it will be for the region.
Till such time anti-peace elements led by India, Abdullah and Rashid Dostum are reined in, and the US stops its double game, peace will not return in Af-Pak region.
Unless Kabul gets out of perverse influence of India, cooperate rather than distrust Pakistan, and opts for a home-made formula, sooner than later unity government would crumble and ANA would splinter and pave the way for dreaded civil war.
In real-politick terms, stability in Afghanistan and regional harmony among all countries surrounding it would contribute in the fast-paced development of the region. Implication is that this region cannot develop economically as long as Afghanistan remains unstable.
With hostile India on its east, Pakistan can ill-afford to have pro-India and anti-Pakistan regime in Kabul posing a twin threat to its security.
History of Afghanistan teaches an important lesson that peace and stability in Afghanistan is possible only after complete withdrawal of foreign troops. And all stakeholders within the country are ready to accept each other and arrive at a common arrangement. This was true in the past and is valid today.
All depends whether the US after abandoning Afghanistan would forsake its declared and hidden objectives for which it came, spent trillions and suffered heavy casualties besides losing face and prestige as a sole super power, or indirectly continues with its proxy war?
The US having lost the war, would like as a minimum to have friendly government in Afghanistan to be able to pursue its mercantile interests in Central Asian region.
Only joint and collaborative efforts can tackle terrorism and not blame-game.
Ultimate solution to Afghan imbroglio will have to be found by the Afghans themselves. Others can at best facilitate dialogue.
Lastly, key to peace is with Taliban and none else. Best course for people of Afghanistan is to honor the colossal sacrifices of the Taliban and let them form the future broad based government without outside interference.
Pakistan should grant ‘Most Favored Nation’ status and land access to India through Wagah border with due prudence. This should be linked with resolution of core issues.
Pakistan should assert and exert its geo-strategic position and significance and extract its due share rather than following a self-defeating policy of appeasement.
Pakistan should continue to convince the US and Afghan government to limit India’s role in Afghanistan since it is the chief trouble maker.
Concerted efforts be made to counter Indian propaganda in Afghanistan aimed at poisoning the minds of Afghans against Pakistan and remove their misperceptions.
Imaginative themes should be coined to win back friendship of estranged Afghan public, particularly Afghan non-Pashtuns.
Pakistan should be mentally and physically prepared to handle post 2016 explosive scenario in Afghanistan.
Pakistan should help China in further expanding its influence in Afghanistan to neutralize Indian influence.
At behest of USA, Pakistan betrayed Afghan Taliban and suffered a great deal. They must not be ditched again.
To conclude I would say that Pakistan has remained under the deceptive magic spell of the US for too long without any gains. Pakistan helped the untrustworthy USA to occupy Afghanistan and remove a friendly regime and replace it with anti-Pakistan regime. It has been ceding ground to win the friendship of India but couldn’t change the mindset of Brahman rulers who have not reconciled to Pakistan’s existence and has missed no opportunity to harm Pakistan. Unity government in Kabul is wholly in the grip of USA and India and will continue to prefer India over Pakistan. It is continuing to help India to destabilize Pakistan. Notwithstanding the need to maintain friendly relations with all the three, this fatal affection must not be at the cost of national interests and dignity of the nation. Policy of appeasement should be replaced with policy of upholding our self-esteem. It is Pakistan’s strategic compulsion to have a friendly government in Afghanistan and it must strive hard for it using all its diplomatic skills.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre, Director Board of Governors Thinkers Forum Pakistan. email@example.com