Afghanistan at ebb of precipice
By Asif Haroon Raja
The strategic import of Afghanistan can hardly be overstressed. The rising power, China, and reemerging power, Russia, energy and resource rich Central Asia and Middle East, and strategically located Pakistan surround Afghanistan. In real-politick terms, stability in Afghanistan and regional concord among all the countries surrounding it would contribute in the fast-paced development of the region, implying that continuing instability in Afghanistan could easily damage these potentials. Many observers, in fact, believe that volatility in the region is an essential outcome of this geopolitical significance. Consequently it is argued that the challenges, which the region and the Central Asian Republics are facing, have a direct relation with the situation in Afghanistan. It is important to keep this dimension in view while analyzing the conceptual aspect of the issue.
The US led ISAF during its longest war with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda killed quarter of a million Afghans, destroyed the country and pulverized al-Qaeda. Despite so much of bloodshed and destruction, the occupiers failed to break the resilience and fighting spirit of the resistance forces who brought the war to a standstill. ISAF also suffered heavy fatalities but aspects which disheartened the occupiers were inefficiency and unprecedented institutional corruption of ruling regime, ineptitude and indiscipline of ANSF and exorbitant war expenses. Other factors which lowered the morale of troops were very heavy injuries, suicides, post stress disorder cases and green-over-blue attacks. Wasting too much time and effort in locating Osama bin Laden, sidelining Afghan Pashtuns, blaming Pakistan rather than putting own house in order, relying heavily on India, weak US military leadership were other reasons of failure of the ISAF and forcing it to exit from Afghanistan in December 2014 without accomplishing any of the stated objectives and to open talks with the Taliban with the help of Pakistan.
Blood is still flowing but about 30,000 Afghan Mujahideen are still full of fight and are determined to push out each and every foreign soldier from Afghan soil. Bilateral Security Agreement between unity government and USA allows ISAF residual force of 12000 (US troops 9800) to stay in Afghanistan till end 2016 to give heart to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The draw down plan envisaged reducing US troops’ presence to 5500 by end 2015. However, after the Kunduz debacle, Obama under intense pressure from Pentagon, Republicans and Afghan unity regime, has revised the schedule by extending the stay of residual force till end 2017. The strength will be cut down to 5500 by early 2017 and confined to Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. But for impressive achievement of Pak Army at its end, this extension may not have been given.
Pakistan-Afghanistan bonhomie which peaked from November 2014 onwards proved short-lived and has relapsed into blame-game mode. RAW-NDS-Abdullah-Karzai nexus pressured Ashraf Ghani and poisoned his ears against Pakistan. RAW and NDS are using TTP for proxy war in FATA/Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, BLA- BLF in Balochistan and MQM in Karachi. To cover up their crimes, all attacks that take place in Afghanistan are put in the basket of Pakistan. This trend has continued. After giving highly provocative statements, Ashraf Ghani gave an absurd interview to the BBC on September 28 saying that Pak-Afghan relations were not brotherly but merely bilateral. Kabul fails to take into account the fact that attack on Gen Sanaullah in Dir, blasts in Church and in Kissa Khawani Bazar in Peshawar, attacks on Public School and Badaber in Peshawar were planned in Afghanistan and monitored from there. RAW assisted by NDS is carrying out covert war against Pakistan from Afghan soil since 2002 and Pakistan has substantial proofs of its involvement.
Haqqani network (HN) after losing their support bases and sanctuaries in Pakistan as a consequence to Zarb-e-Azb, moved to Khost and from there shifted their pivot of resistance towards Northern Afghanistan. The Taliban mobilized about 15000 fighters in the north and in conjunction with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), estimated at 7-8000 strong, are jointly carrying-out targeted operations. They have gained a degree of influence in the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Faryab, Zabul, Baghlan, Kunduz, Jozjan and Baghdis, strong-holds of Deputy President Gen Rasheed Dostum. They have full control over a dozen district HQs in the north. With Taliban support, the IMU has built-up these bases to conduct operations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzia. Elements of ‘East Turkistan’ movement (ETM) and Uighars are also present in the north and are in league with Taliban. Uighars are regarded by China as most serious external threat to Sinkiang Province. This base of resistance in the north of Afghanistan, adds a new dimension to the Afghan conflict. Their summer offensive is putting serious pressure on the ANA, which according to Gen Robert Seals, US Army is “falling like autumn leafs”.
Taliban upsurge unnerved the unity government and instead of finding ways how to tackle them, Ghani, Dr. Abdullah as well as other Afghan leaders exerted pressure on Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to hold talks. Eager to befriend them, Pakistan made concerted efforts and succeeded in arranging talks in Murree on July 7. However, before second round of talks could take place on July 31, the process was disrupted by vested groups. Purpose was to undermine Pakistan’s lead role, blight Pak-Afghan relations, divide and weaken Taliban movement and then sit on negotiating table from position of strength. Except for succeeding in spoiling Pak-Afghan relations, all other sinister plans of spoilers backfired when the Taliban intensified their Spring Offensive and hit targets in all parts of the country. Their gains together with decision of Mullah Manan and Mullah Yaqub not to contest for the post of Ameer and to pledge their support to Mullah Akhtar Mansour marginalized the opponent group propped up by anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan elements.
Besides several successful strikes including release of 350 prisoners from Ghazni jail on September 13, fall of Kunduz on September 28 stunned all and sundry and brought a dramatic change in the overall security scenario. Kunduz, inhabited by 34% Pashtuns is in the hands of ISAF/ANA since 2001 and had been developed into a strong fort. After making two abortive attempts to breach the city, the Taliban succeeded in overpowering Kunduz in third attempt in a pre-dawn attack and hoisting their flag. All prisoners were set free. It was the first attempt of Taliban to launch a conventional style attack on a fortified city. About 500 fighters attacked from different directions and made 7000 defenders run for their lives, leaving behind tons of arms, ammunition and equipment for the Taliban to fill up their armory. This cache will enable the Taliban to sustain their low profile activities during winter season and enough arms for the next spring offensive in April 2016 which will be critical.
Notwithstanding counter attack by ANA duly supported by ISAF Special Forces and massive air support, the Taliban held on to the city for three days and then decided to withdraw under a planned strategy. Carrying out conventional attacks or taking up positional defence to hold on to captured towns/cities is not part of Taliban fighting strategy. They are adept in hit and run tactics and guerrilla warfare and will continue to do so till such time they have sufficiently weakened their opponents. It was therefore quite logical for them to vacate the city after achieving strategic affects rather than getting killed like sitting ducks. They still retain a toehold in suburbs of the city. In addition, the Taliban control several districts of Kunduz province such as Chahardara, Dast-e-Archi, Imam Sahib, Khanabad and Qila Zul. On 01 October, the Taliban took control of Warduj district in Badakshan. Fierce fighting is going on in Faryab and Baghlan could be next target.
Besides delivering a fatal blow to the prestige of ANSF, the Taliban achieved another victory of winning the hearts and minds of the locals of Kunduz by treating them humanely. This caring treatment was contrary to the Daesh and Northern Alliance troops notorious for their atrocious behavior towards captives and that of ISAF which once again exposed their ugly face by ruthlessly bombing a hospital in Kunduz, killing 22 patients and medical staff.
Stunning fall of Kunduz has irreparably damaged the credibility of 400,000 ANSF. It has dispelled the long held impression of the US and Afghan regime that the Taliban are strong only in the regions closer to Pakistan because of latter’s support and availability of safe havens. It also belied the claim of ISAF that ANSF were sufficiently trained and equipped to take on Taliban independently. It reinforced the assessment of analysts that given the discipline problems and lack of will, ANSF will fragment from within and their soldiers would join private militias of warlords. This phenomenon was seen after the defeat and withdrawal of Soviet forces in February 1989. Within two years the Soviet trained Afghan national Army had fragmented. Whatever had been predicted about the ultimate fate of ANSF seems to be coming true all too soon. $65 billion spent by the US to train and equip them appears to be going down the drain.
Kunduz is the major provincial capital in Northern Afghanistan and supposedly northern parts being non-Pashtun heavy are more safe and secure. One of the contingencies worked out by Washington based think tanks was that in case of worst scenario, the country will be divided into two parts and northern, central and parts of western Afghanistan made into a separate country and a base to continue fighting the Taliban in eastern and southern parts. This hypothesis has been shattered after series of successes achieved by Taliban during ongoing spring offensive.
Kunduz episode has rattled the unity government which is already tottering and its writ doesn’t exceed beyond Kabul. 80% of Afghan territory is in control of resistance forces and even Kabul is not safe from deadly attacks. Main supply routes in eastern and southern parts of the country are under their control. NATO had to pay money to Taliban through security contractors to allow their supply trucks coming from Torkham and Chaman to pass through.
It has bolstered the position of new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour within the rank and file of Taliban fighters and has further shrunk the space of his opponents wanting to oust him. Much talked of so-called HN and Quetta Shura, all have accepted Mansour as their new leader. The main battle is now being fought in northern parts, much away from Pak border. Hence the oft repeated complaint of safe havens in Pakistan, frequently aired to arm-twist Pakistan holds no water. Inability of the US trained/equipped ANA to beat back Taliban assault in Kunduz has terrified neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. They are urging Moscow for security. Even Dostum has sought military assistance from Moscow. This trend has opened up avenues for return of Russia’s influence in Central Asia/Afghanistan. It is now to be seen whether Russia stokes proxy war or joins up with China and Pakistan to bring peace in Afghanistan.
While the unity government is in dire crisis, the much maligned Pakistan blamed for all the ills in Afghanistan has bounced back after a long ordeal and has now become relevant. While the overall security situation has been vastly improved – thanks to operation Zarb-e-Azb and National Action Plan, economic indicators are steadily improving, developments works including game-changer CPEC are proceeding at a fast pace and energy crisis is being overcome on war footing. The menace of corruption which is eating into the vitals of the country is being combated. The nation is standing by armed forces to rid the country of the scourges of terror and corruption. Pak-China strategic partnership coupled with gradual closeness with Russia is giving wider options to our policy makers to deal with arm-twisting tactics of USA. This notable turnaround has impressed the world and left the detractors aghast.
Conversely, the security situation in Afghanistan has reached the ebb of precipice. Rather than making amends at home, tunnel-vision Afghan leaders are continuing with their old habit of pointing fingers at others and blaming Pakistan for the chaos. They forget that Pakistan had played a key role in liberating Afghans from the clutches of Soviets, is still hosting over 3 million Afghan refugees, has suffered a great deal in the process and despite being given a raw deal has addressed most of their security concerns. Except for duplicitous Washington, none is listening to the concocted grouses of spoilers sitting in Kabul. USA is the only one which is still keen to make troublesome India the key player in Afghanistan and unashamedly asks Pakistan to do more and never shies of making payment of $300 million CSF conditional. It shirks from holding Kabul regime and India accountable for the disorder. Pakistan’s nuclear program remains an eyesore for US and its strategic partners.
The Taliban are racing towards the victory stand under a well calculated strategy. Having gained significant influence in all parts of Afghanistan, they will now concentrate towards interdicting supply lines from the north and elsewhere to prevent military/food supplies from reaching garrisoned local/foreign troops. Taliban may also start striking air supplies. Control of strategic Salang tunnel in Panjsher Valley will cut the country from the northern road network. Such a course of action will further aggravate the economy of the country which at present is generating only $874 million and accelerate desertions in ANSF, which needs $4.1 billion foreign aid annually for its upkeep. Small contingent of marooned ISAF may at best delay the fall of major cities, but cannot stem the gushing tide of Taliban.
Unity government languishes under the perverse influence of US and India and is threatened by two headed monster of Taliban and Daesh. Pakistan has suffered the most on account of instability in Afghanistan and is going out of the way to extend a helping hand to Kabul. Cooperation with Pakistan can help wobbling regime of Ghani to stabilize, but confrontation and blame-game will hasten its fall. Collaboration will also help Pakistan in taking war on terror to logical conclusion, which will prove beneficial for the region.
Pakistan needs to have a second look at its one-sided concessions and arrive at a decision whether policy of appeasement with Indian-driven Kabul regime, and that too at the cost of annoying Taliban, will be beneficial for Pakistan’s long term interests. Kabul wants Islamabad to play a role in peace talks but strictly on its terms and without caring for Pakistan’s security concerns. Our gains must be consolidated rather than frittered away to please ungrateful lot of hate-filled Afghan rulers who miss no opportunity to bleed Pakistan to please India. Af-Pak region will remain restive until and unless porous Pak-Afghan border is effectively sealed through effectual border management and two-way security cooperation is evolved and RAW’s presence in Afghanistan is cut to size.
The writer is a war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre, Director Board of Governors Thinkers Forum Pakistan. He conducts lectures and takes part in TV talk shows. firstname.lastname@example.org