The US scripted endgame has gone awry
Asif Haroon Raja
After occupation of Afghanistan in November 2001 by US led western forces and Afghan Northern Alliance force, the US inspired constitution and democracy was pushed down the gullets of Afghans. Ground was prepared for elections and the US spent huge amounts in winning over the loyalties of warlords and to make the elections successful. The first presidential election was held in 2004 which elected Hamid Karzai. Soon after, general elections were held leading to formation of Northern Alliance heavy government. Both elections were boycotted by the Taliban and great majority of Pashtuns. By the time next elections were due in 2009 Karzai had become unpopular and his government got roiled in corruption and inefficiency. ANA and Police trained by US and UK trainers were rated as poor. The third round of elections will take place in April 2014 in which Karzai having availed two terms will not constitutionally eligible to contest. New faces will be contesting the next elections. One of the prospective candidates for President’s seat is Karzai’s brother Qayum for which Karzai is lobbying hard.
Since last elections, the security situation in Afghanistan has undergone a sea change. Events have unfolded in favor of Taliban and in disfavor of occupation forces and ruling Afghan regime. Mullah Omar has urged the Afghans to boycott the elections and to disown the puppet government installed by Washington. He is in a position to say so since Taliban have achieved superiority of strategic orientation over US-NATO-ANA forces. Besides gaining full control over eastern and southern Afghanistan, which constitute over 60% of Afghan territory, the Taliban are in a imposing position to strike targets in any part of the country including most fortified Kabul. The capital city has been successfully struck several times by Haqqani network since September 2011. So is the case with targets in northern Afghanistan, supposedly the stronghold of non-Pashtun Afghans. The Taliban are likely to disrupt coming elections using violent means. Majority of Pashtuns having suffered the most at the hands of NATO and ANSF support the Taliban.
There appears to be some confusion with regard to the ethnic demography of Afghans. According to available reports, Pashtuns are in majority with 42% population and the rest divided between various non-Pashtun ethnic tribes in the centre, west and north of Afghanistan. These figures are misleading since no census has taken place since long. The non-Pashtuns Afghans being relatively more educated and liberal in outlook, they get themselves registered. On the contrary, Afghan Pashtuns are mostly illiterate and conservative and don’t get registered. Hence, the official demography may not be accurate particularly because no census has taken place since very long. Pashtuns may not be less than 51% if not more. Even if 35% Pashtuns raise their hands in favor of Taliban, this figure is good enough to make 2014 elections controversial and invalid.
Relations between Afghan and the US governments are far from friendly. Wall of distrust has come up because of Karzai’s filibustering and abrasiveness. After sabotaging Doha peace process in June this year, he is now in two minds whether to sign or not to sign Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with USA, which would authorize US-NATO to leave behind a residue force and to retain some military bases in Afghanistan after 2014 and till 2024. The sticking points are grant of immunity from prosecution by Afghan courts to foreign troops and full liberty of action to conduct military operation against militants. In other words, NATO forces would be at liberty to carryout extra judicial killings and torture as heretofore. Although John Kerry’s recent visit to Kabul has made Karzai accommodative, yet he wants the deal to be approved by Loya Jirga which he plans to call in third week of November. If approved, the BSA will then be ratified by Afghan Parliament. The US leadership is getting impatient and has sounded October 31 as the cut out date to ink the agreement, failing which it may opt for ‘zero option’ as in case of Iraq. The Taliban Shura has strongly opposed BSA and will reject it even if Loya Jirga approves it.
The Afghan-US Strategic Partnership signed in Kabul in May 2012 was Okayed by Loya Jirga but had not approved immunity to foreign troops. It was also ruled that ISAF would not undertake unilateral military action and that ANA would lead all operations. This time because of Taliban’s resurgence and weakened position of both ISAF and Kabul Government; possibility of Loya Jirga approving immunity to foreign troops is dim. Reportedly, Karzai is contemplating calling a selective Jirga and inviting only those who will endorse the BSA. About 3000 elders, politicians and clerics are expected to attend. Karzai is banking heavily upon Mullah Ghani Baradar who has recently been released by Pakistan on his insistence to make some Taliban leaders agree to attend the Jirga. Notwithstanding that he was number 2 of Mullah Omar, but it will not be possible for him to affect any change in hard-held policy decisions of Shura except for trying to bridge differences between the Taliban and Karzai so as to arrive at a home-grown political settlement without outside interference. He could be a suitable choice to head Afghan High Peace Council since neither Burhanuddin Rabbani was acceptable to Taliban nor is his son Salahuddin.
Karzai, whose writ doesn’t go beyond his palace in Kabul, is vainly trying to rouse Afghan nationalism by acting tough against USA and Pakistan. His ploys to shed away the label of American lackey and to present himself as a savior and an honorable Pashtun are not selling. The Pashtuns have not forgotten that he had sold his soul to the Americans to acquire power and how he mercilessly allowed the destruction of Afghanistan and presided over the oppression of the Pashtuns living on both sides of the Durand Line.
It was unwise on part of Nawaz Sharif to give a helping hand to the untrustworthy drowning man trying to clutch at the last straw. He has become a liability for the US as well as Afghans and is in no position to give anything in return for the favors extended to him. while 36 Taliban prisoners have been set free by Pakistan on his request, Pakistan has not been able to get back any of the absconding terrorists like Maulana Fazlullah in Kunar and Faqir Muhammad in Kabul, enjoying the hospitality of their hosts. Karzai insolently acknowledged their presence in Afghanistan. He has been constantly talking ill of Pak Army and ISI and alleging without furnishing any proof that the duo is destabilizing Afghanistan. There have been several incidents of burning of Pakistan flag in Afghanistan but Karzai never apologized. On the contrary, when a single incident of burning of Iranian flag occurred in his country he promptly extended his apologies. He brazenly says that the goodwill and support rendered by Pakistan Establishment in 1980s to Afghans was to gain strategic depth and to make Afghanistan Pakistan’s 5th province. He alleges that Pak military is forcing Afghans to recognize Durand line as international border.
Although the US claimed that the left behind force was meant to impart training to ANA, build up its capacity, render technical advice and logistic support, and to hunt left over al-Qaeda operators numbering 75 or so, however, the initial figure of 25-30,000 residual force negated the spelt out scope. The US hidden motive was exposed when it started haggling with Kabul over immunity issue and liberty of action. It couldn’t justify the stated strength and retention of nine military bases for chasing 75 Al-Qaeda elements. The strength has now been scaled down to 5-10,000 owing to mounting differences between two sides and danger of BSA getting jeopardized. Likely bases for the reduced force are Kabul and Bagram in the centre, Mazar-e-Sharif in north and possibly Herat or Shindad in the west.
It will however be incorrect to conclude that reduction in size of residual force would reduce its combat potential. Combat strength is measured in terms of firepower and not the bayonet strength. The latter counts when the strategy is based on boots on ground. The ISAF abandoned boots on ground strategy in 2009 and relies heavily on airpower. After 2014, the stay behind force would remain confined to military bases and assist ANA by providing training, technical guidance, intelligence and firepower support.
The bunker based residual force will be of little use to the not-so-disciplined ANA with high attrition rate, or for the harried Afghan government struggling to keep the Taliban at bay. It can at best provide air support to ANA to delay the fall of Kabul or any of the military bases. Or to arrange safe landing of the returning main force in case of a rethink in Washington in the wake of effective encirclement of Kabul and eminent fall of northern Afghanistan. The ANA will remain battle worthy as long as military aid to the tune of $4.1 billion flows in annually. The moment this aid is stopped or radically reduced, it would hasten the disintegration of ANA the way the national army trained by Red Army had fragmented in 1993.
The US not only desire pro-US regime in Kabul to cater for its regional interests but also wants to avoid repetition of horrendous fallout of its hasty exit in 1989. It would like to give some respectability to its misadventure which has robbed it of its prestige, honor and glory. With only 14 months left for the pullout of ISAF, the obtaining operational environment in Afghanistan are gloomy and do not auger well for smooth transition. The endgame scripted by the US and its strategic allies has gone awry. Prophecy of doomsayers that 2014 and beyond would prove more bloody appears to be turning into a reality. The three major stakeholders – the Taliban, Kabul government and the US – are circling in respective orbits. All three distrust each other. In-house attacks in Afghanistan are not subsiding and so are cases of suicides by US-NATO soldiers. The spoilers on the sidelines with vested interests are sprinkling oil to keep the pot of terrorism and distrust boiling. Clash of interests has thickened the clouds of uncertainty and insecurity. Pakistan is the only country which sincerely desires peace since it is the most affected country and its peace is linked with stability in Afghanistan.
The writer is a retired Brig, defence analyst, columnist and historian. email@example.com