Futile and unwinnable war in Afghanistan
Pakistan was the darling of USA in the 1950s and to some extent in early 1960s since it was part of SEATO and CENTO that were poised to contain communism in South Asia and Middle East. After betraying Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 wars with India by applying military sanctions, the US once again befriended Pakistan in the 1980s to make use of it to defeat Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan. The US abruptly ended its honeymoon with Pakistan in 1990 and put it under sanctions on the plea that it was pursuing a weapon oriented nuclear program clandestinely. The 1990s saw the blooming of Indo-US relations and bashing of Pakistan.
After 9/11, Pakistan was once again taken on board by USA ruled by George W. Bush as a tactical partner out of compulsion to be able to topple the Taliban regime and dismantle Al-Qaeda. In nutshell, it was threat of communism followed by Afghan imbroglio which brought USA closer to Pakistan.
War on Terror
During the 17-year war on terror, Pakistan suffered the most since its so-called friends and allies played a double game by pushing terrorism from Afghanistan into Pakistan and then forcing Pakistan security forces to fight the proxies trained by RAW-NDS on its soil. Pakistan was destabilized by the Indo-US-Afghan nexus under a calculated plan in order to denuclearize it and make it a pliant state.
As a result of the US unsubstantiated accusations, admonishments that it was not doing enough and pressing it to do more, and above all, its heavy tilt toward India, the Pak-US relations went through ups and downs. In 2011, the relations hit rock bottom because of arrest of CIA spy Raymond Davis in January, stealth raid of US Navy Seals in Abbottabad in May to get Osama bin Laden and NATO’s Apaches attack in Salala in November.
After failing to cow down the Taliban through two troop surges in 2009, when Barak Obama was forced to launch a political prong in 2011 aimed at holding talks with the Taliban and ending the war, he sought assistance from Pakistan. Since the hidden purpose of talks was to divide and weaken the Taliban, no headway could be made except for opening a political office of Taliban at Doha in June 2013. Unity government installed by John Kerry in Sept 2014 to accommodate the two political rivals Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah added to the mess in Afghanistan.
Obama decided to pullout forces from Afghanistan by December 2014, but Pentagon and ISAF Commander Gen Petraeus forced him to sign a bilateral agreement with Kabul to retain 8 military bases and leave behind Resolute Support Mission (RSM) comprising 6000 troops, air power and $8.1 billion annual assistance to support the Afghan government and ANSF. The tide turned in favor of the Taliban when bulk of 140,000 ISAF troops returned home since ANSF at their own were unable to contain the offensive of Taliban.
The chance of a political settlement was scuttled in July 2015 after Kabul mischievously announced the death of Mulla Omar. US-China-Pakistan-Afghanistan quadrilateral talks intended to find a solution to Afghan tangle were ruined after the US droned Mulla Mansour in July 2016.
Trump’s Tidal Wave
Donald Trump had announced during his election campaign in 2016 that he will pullout American troops from all conflict zones including Afghanistan but he was also forced by Pentagon to change his track and reinforce failure by beefing up RSM. He remained friendly toward Pakistan as was evident from his telephonic talk with Nawaz Sharif, till he announced his Afghan policy on August 22, 2017.
He worsened the prospects of peace by adopting a highly belligerent posture against the Taliban and trying to solve the Afghan imbroglio militarily. He vowed to win the war and sent additional US troops to increase the strength of RSM to 18000 which included 14000 American troops.
Trump also coerced Pakistan and held it responsible for the instability in Afghanistan. He suspended the $ 800 million security fund, brandished the sword of FATF, directed the IMF to extend condition based loan to Pakistan, and hurled unsubstantiated accusations to demean Pakistan. The US surrogates India and Afghanistan upped the ante.
Reason behind preferring force over giving peace a chance was that stalemate doesn’t suit the occupation forces who are tired, homesick and suffer from psychic disorders. The unity government in Kabul is doddering, while the ANSF is in disarray and is suffering extensively. However, Pentagon refuse to accept the hard fact that war is unwinnable and further stay is catastrophic.
In compliance with Trump’s Afghan policy, Gen Nicholson launched a tidal wave of airpower and dropped mother of all bombs on Nangarhar and also used chemical weapons to roll back the Taliban. Financial resources including opium plants were targeted and resistance movement was demonized through religious leaders. Trump administration in the meanwhile applied full diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan accusing it of providing safe havens to Haqqani Network and Taliban and pressing it to fight them. It put the blame well knowing that Pakistan had successfully flushed out all militant groups form FATA in 2015 and the runaway militants had taken shelter in safe havens of Kunar, Nuristan and Nangarhar in Afghanistan.
Airpower didn’t Diminish Taliban Power
As a consequence to ruthless air bombing by US/NATO and Afghan jets, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan this year have broken all previous records. The figure is well over 8000 which include women and children. Emergence of ISIS (Khurasan) has taken the level of brutality to new heights.
The strategy of coercion, raids and air bombardment didn’t work. The Taliban held their ground and retained their operational capacity to carry out attacks. They didn’t face any financial crisis and their strength which was estimated to be 15000 a decade ago has swelled to 60,000. The Taliban are gaining momentum, seizing territory, and killing ANSF soldiers in record numbers (2.9% monthly attrition rate and 22 deaths in a day).
ANSF has suffered 30,000 casualties since 2015. The Taliban control more territory than at any time since their removal from power in November 2001, and are in control of over 61% of districts. They had successfully besieged provincial capital cities of Farah in May and Ghazni in August this year. Taliban are no more isolated or dependent upon Pakistan. They have garnered political support of Russia, China, Iran, Qatar and UAE.
Demands of Taliban
The Taliban are convinced that time and tide is in their favor. They are gearing to add more steam in their offensive to widen their influence in the contested regions. They will not ceasefire till such time their following demands are met:
1. Releasing their prisoners.
2. Unfreezing their accounts.
3. Removing their leaders from UN/US blacklist.
4. Removing restrictions on travel.
5. Allowing them to set up political offices in Afghanistan.
6. Giving a firm date of complete withdrawal of occupation troops.
7. Abstaining from meddling into the internal affairs.
8. Letting the Afghans to frame the constitution, achieve lasting peace and undertake reconstruction of the country.
Longest War without Results
The US is fighting the longest war in its history and has spent $1.5 trillion in Afghanistan. Billions of dollars have also been spent in stoking covert war and hybrid war against Pakistan. Their troop casualties is nearing 2400 and that of civil contractors 1750. While suicide rate of US combatants has increased, cases of post stress disorders run into tens of thousands. The US prestige and credibility as the sole super power is in tatters. Its economy is under tremendous strain and national debt has jumped sky high on account of futile war on terror, funding clandestine operations and maintaining military bases all over the globe. Diplomatically, it is getting isolated in the region and has made many enemies.
Ironically, after losing so much, the US has not been able to achieve any of its stated and unstated objectives and is finding itself stuck in the graveyard of empires and has no clue how it will get out of the quagmire.
Change of Posture
A change occurred in February 2018 when Asharf Ghani made an offer of recognizing Taliban as a legitimate political group and to open an office in Kabul. He proposed a ceasefire, release of prisoners, and removal of Taliban leaders from international blacklist, reintegration and constitutional review. It led to a 3-day ceasefire on the occasion of Eidul Fitr in June 2018. The Taliban also expressed their willingness to engage in talks and end the futile war. Daesh and division within them are factors which impelled the Taliban to agree to a political compromise. They know that the ground fight is between Afghans and not with foreign troops.
Trump’s jingoism has watered down and he is now talking of peace. This change in posture has occurred because 2018 proved to be the deadliest year in terms of human losses. In Oct-Nov alone, ANSF lost 4,000 troops and the US lost 10 officers and men. Having realized that the US cannot win the war, he agreed to the demand of the Taliban to hold direct talks with them. Three rounds of direct talks have taken place at Doha starting July 2018.
Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as special representative for Afghanistan and deputed him to arrange truce with Taliban and to work out a political settlement. Currently Zalmay is on a whirlwind visit to Pakistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar and Afghanistan. Geneva conference held in last week of November 2018 was attended by 61 countries. It endorsed the process of direct talks between the US/Afghan regime and Taliban. They laid emphasis on a political settlement before the presidential election due in April next.
Changed Ground Realities
The ground realities in Af-Pak region have undergone a change. While the two contestants in Afghanistan are trying to gain an edge and bargain from a position of strength, the Taliban are at an advantageous position and are smelling victory. They are placing more trust in Russia after the latter outclassed USA in diplomacy by hosting an international conference at Moscow last month in which for the first time Taliban participated.
The US want the Taliban to surrender arms or ceasefire and then hold talks, but this demand has been rejected by the Taliban. The Taliban want the US to give a firm date of complete withdrawal. They know that once this announcement is made, it will give a boost to their movement. That is why the NATO chief Stoltenberg and the US Secretary Defence James Mattis have thrown a spanner by stating that in spite of the understanding given to the Taliban at Doha in November that the exit plan will soon be announced, the RSM will not move out and will continue to protect the US interests in Afghanistan.
The military is once again playing the same game of delaying tactics in the hope of converting defeat into victory and is turning a blind eye to the advice of saner elements to exit immediately before it is too late.
The Taliban are suspecting that the same old hidden hands are trying to sabotage the peace talks. They intend rejecting the peace talks and have made it clear that till such time the US announces its exit plan, they will continue fighting. They are planning to avenge the death of Maulvi Manan.
Pakistan which has suffered the most because of instability in Afghanistan since 1979 is being coerced by USA and pressed to compel the Taliban to hold talks and to fight with those refusing to talk. Pakistan has declined to do more. Pakistan no more wield that much influence over the Taliban to convince them to come to the negotiating table and that too when the demands of Taliban and USA are divergent.
There is no guarantee that the US will abide by its commitments. Its credibility has become doubtful after it cancelled the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran.
Pentagon, CIA, US Corporates, drug mafia, civil contractors, Israel and India are spoilers and like the war to drag on owing to their mercantile and imperialist interests.
Russia on the other hand is getting weary of the stalemate and are concerned about the footprints of ISIS (Kurdistan) in Afghanistan. China wants peaceful Afghanistan to ensure stability of Sinkiang and success of its one-belt project. Likewise, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan desire peaceful neighborhood.
As long as the US-NATO forces are present in Afghanistan, Northern Alliance heavy government is in power, Indian influence is there, and foreign agencies continue training, equipping, funding and launching terrorists into Pakistan, hope for peace is far-fetched.
Even if the Taliban agree to sit on the negotiating table and arrive at a political settlement, the big issue at hand will be how to deal with Daesh, and to achieve harmony and reconciliation between various militant groups, hardliners in Taliban, and the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras under the sway of India and differences between Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah.
Ostensible Change of Heart
Trump has asked Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan to help in ending the war. This overture is not new. Whenever the US finds itself on a weak wicket, it renews its efforts towards peace but no sooner it gets out of the muddle, it readopts its old stance. What it desires is to hold negotiations from a position of strength and to dictate terms for a political settlement.
What must be remembered is that the Indo-US-Afghan-Israel objectives against Pakistan remain unchanged. The US is too firmly committed to India and will never take any step to please Pakistan at the cost of annoying India.
What must not be forgotten is that Pakistan does not fit into the security paradigm of USA. Reason is that it is a Muslim country, and a nuclear power aligned with China, which refuses to accept Indian hegemony and become a compliant State. Therefore, the US will continue to misuse Pakistan to accomplish its short-term objectives in the region and will neither make it its strategic partner nor make it a self-reliant country.
What is however worrying is that despite repeated betrayals, Pakistan’s leadership refuse to come out of the magic spell of USA. That is why, the new leadership has got excited and has started flying balloons of optimism after receiving a letter from most unpredictable Trump. Shah Mahmood Qureshi is singing the old tunes of appeasement.
It will be unwise on part of Pakistan to please untrustworthy USA and the puppet government in Kabul which has all along towed the Indian dictates, by out rightly annoying the Pashtun Taliban having blood relations with Pakistani Pashtuns and Pakistan sharing 60% of its border with eastern and southern Afghanistan. It must not be forgotten that the non-Pashtun Afghans and a sizeable segment of Afghan Pashtuns hate Pakistan because of brainwashing by India.
Change of heart will be discernible only if the US and its strategic partners remove the cloak of victimhood and stop blaming Pakistan for their mistakes and failures, the US recognizes and addresses Pakistan’s genuine security concerns, forbids anti-Pakistan nexus from meddling into internal affairs of Pakistan, close dozens of Pakistan specific training camps/centres and four Indian Consulates established in Afghanistan, gives up its mission of disabling Pakistan’s nuclear program and accepts CPEC as a reality and above all acknowledges Pakistan’s sacrifices and stops distrusting Pakistan.
But why should the US do so when Pakistan has never picked up courage to speak about the sinister objectives of USA and its strategic partners and pursues a policy of appeasement? Khawaja Asif during his brief stint as foreign minister in first half of 2018 had boldly shown mirror to US leaders when he visited Washington and explained how the most allied ally was repeatedly slighted by USA. If Ashraf Ghani, USA, Russia, China, Iran, Gulf States and India are vying to befriend Taliban, why are we shy of declaring our rapport with them and pleading their case?
In the backdrop of US betrayals, Pakistan must not feel optimistic that there is a genuine change of heart in Washington. It must not give false hopes to Washington or to Kabul that it can bring the Taliban in line particularly after all the important Taliban leaders including Mulla Baradar have been released. What Pakistan can do is to reinforce the prevailing impression that Pakistan is central to Afghan peace process, and that it can play a key role in strengthening the hands of peace makers to stabilize Afghanistan, and can help the foreign troops in exiting from Afghanistan safely.
What USA must do
As far as the US is concerned, since it has created the mess, the onus of clearing the mess rests on it. However, it is beyond its capability to do so at its own. It must shed away wrong notions that troop surges, air/drone strikes, technology, resources and propaganda will help in winning the war. It must understand that dialogue is the only way to end the turmoil. It should stop the blame game, accord priority to diplomacy over coercion and force, give the timeline of withdrawal from Afghanistan, should engage with Taliban, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, and keep out the spoiler India which doesn’t share border with Afghanistan. Under the policy of accommodation, 2019 should be declared as the year of peace. All stakeholders should exhibit flexibility and patience and adopt policy of reconciliation to ensure lasting peace in war-torn country.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. firstname.lastname@example.org