Fluctuating Afghan Situation & Impact on Pakistan
General. Afghanistan is a landlocked country and dependent upon Pakistan for its exports/imports, but has traditionally remained friendly to India and unsympathetic to Pakistan since 1947. The only time it was friendly with Pakistan and unfriendly with India was during the five-year rule of Taliban from 1996 till 2001. Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai was worst of all. During his over 13 years rule, he allowed five foreign intelligence agencies to use Afghan soil for carrying out covert war in FATA and Baluchistan at a massive scale. As a consequence, 180,000 troops have got pinned down in FATA. Mercifully, 50,000 Frontier Corps troops engaged in counter insurgency and border duty have kept 12 Corps free in Baluchistan.
9/11 was projected as the biggest catastrophe ever happened and Al-Qaeda blamed for the vile act as the biggest monster. 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, 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 areas, 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, 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.
Resistance War by Taliban. Taliban regime was wrongly removed from power and then consistently hounded and persecuted. Drums of victory were sounded in November 2001 but the Taliban after carrying out a tactical withdrawal to regroup, started guerrilla war to free their homeland from foreign occupation. No amount of force, torture and trick could break the indomitable will of Afghan Taliban or divide them. By 2008, resistance forces were running shadow govts 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.
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. Armies of 35 countries exited without achieving any of the stated and hidden objectives and 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. 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, NGOs/security contractors, and non-Pashtun heavy ANSF; bending situation according to its own whims, farcical political prong aimed at dividing Taliban, keeping Taliban out of peace talks till 2013.
Afghan Unity Govt. The incumbent unity government in Kabul installed in November 2014 is the second government which is apparently friendly to Pakistan but is also friendly to India. The flaw in this setup is the forcible marriage of convenience mid-wifed by the US between Ashraf Ghani and 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 Fazlullah and Khalid Khurasani based in Kunar and Nangarhar respectively.
Ghani’s Pro-Pakistan Stance. Ghani tilted towards Pakistan as a result of outstanding success achieved by Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan which not only pushed out anti-Pakistan militants, but also Haqqani network and Hafiz Gul Bahadur 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 is 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 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 new faces, moderate and pro-west and have little experience of state-craft. Ghani leaned on Pakistan to 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.
Indian Anxieties. Fast improving Pak-Afghan relations, China’s decision to invest $46 billion in Pakistan for the construction of CPEC and energy projects and Pakistan sailing past the turbulent patch have 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.
RAW Activated. In desperation, India allocated $300 million to 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.
Ghani’s Dilemma. 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. Taliban’s spring offensive is rapidly changing the situation in their favor. They detest Bilateral Security Agreement, which has allowed the US to retain 14000 troops till 2016.
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 Daesh threat.
Two Pronged Negotiations. Current effort is based on two prongs, one prong led by Ghani and the other by the US and in both cases, Pakistan has been asked to assist. China has also been 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.
Peace Talks. 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 between reps of Taliban and unity government on July 7, 2015 for the first time raised hopes of a settlement. It was unwise to make US observer sit in the meeting since it gave a wrong message to Taliban fighters. 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. Notwithstanding expression of satisfaction, in reality the US is not in favor of Pakistan mediated and result-oriented peace talks. Emerging Russia-China-Pakistan-Iran coalition and Afghanistan ruled by Taliban doesn’t suit USA.
Death of Mulla Omar
Ill-motivated, ill-timed and deliberate announcement of death of Mulla Omar by the 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 M. Mansour as next Ameer was announced by Rahbari Shura on July 30. Sinister objectives of detractors were achieved and peace process has been halted but the biggest loser is Kabul itself. Several stories about circumstances, place and date of Omar’s death created tension among rank and file of Taliban and impacted their unity.
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 will not bolster his position.
Rifts in Taliban
Spoilers sprang into action to accentuate the rift and today two rival camps are 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 Gul Agha Ishakzai is another opponent of Mansour who accused him of killing Omar. Head of Taliban political office in Doha Tayyab Agha has resigned, but is so far neutral. Taliban are also divided on the issue of talks, one faction favoring and the other opposing it. This internal rift is to the liking of India and other spoilers. It has made the position of Pakistan and Mansour favoring talks difficult.
India and other spoilers are busy widening the rift, while five members of Council of senior Taliban Ulema are trying to bridge the rift. They met on August 21 to resolve the differences, but Mulla Yaqub refused to contest the post of Ameer since he knew he didn’t enjoy popular support among the Taliban. Had Mansour not met them, the Council would have appointed Maulvi M. Ahmad from Kandahar belonging to Kakar tribe as next Ameer. It will be desirable if the new Ameer Mansour and his two freshly chosen deputies, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Haibatullah Akhunzada consolidate their hold on the Afghan Taliban as soon as possible.
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 meeting the two demands of 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.
In order to win over opposite camp, Mansour has stiffened his stance over talks and that too facilitated by Pakistan, and is likely to reiterate the old demands that unless complete withdrawal of foreign troops take place and the US tailored constitution is brought in line with Sharia, talks will not be possible. He has also stepped up attacks to dispel the over optimistic impression that after the death of Mulla Omar, Taliban are in disarray and resistance has weakened.
Threat of Daesh. Daesh has gained toeholds in Nangarhar and Farah provinces and has also colluded with 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 dangerous 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. Extension of hand of friendship to Mansour by Al-Qaeda’s head Zawahiri will further complicate things. It may result in more bloodshed and destruction, which may lead to division of Afghanistan.
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 ISIS in bigger numbers and pave the way for Daesh 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 12 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. 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 and ANSF will crumble and pave the way for dreaded civil war or takeover by Taliban.
In conclusion I would say that 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 Omar’s shoes. War torn Afghanistan is in a state of flux for the last 35 years and 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.
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.
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 abandon 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?
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, since 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.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre, Director Board of Governors TFP. firstname.lastname@example.org