Afghanistan is in a destabilized state. Two decades of American efforts could easily come to a naught once the Americans progress their withdrawal. Meanwhile, Taliban has transformed into a reckonable challenge having extended its control over more than half of the country. The Russians are also back in the game. Chinese are the new players who have entered the arena. They would like to limit the ISIS in Afghanistan and thereby curtail its influence in restive Xinjiang. The author revisits the old alignments and takes stock of the new configuration of outside players to arrive at a way forward for the disturbed state
Afghanistan: A Holistic Review
On 7 January 2019, two Taliban attacks in Afghanistan’s Paktika province left 21 Security men dead.The day’s violence also claimed six civilians. Taliban has been on the rise and presently controls nearly 50-55% of Afghanistan. Such violence is now a common feature just as are attacks on the Afghan National Army. In 2018 there have been over 14000 civilian deaths. Taliban, ISIS and other insurgent groups are gaining ascendancy over a fatigued US coalition and the Afghan National Army. A state of stalemate has been reached.
Today, both sides are trying to break the stalemate. In this the insurgent groups seemed to have sensed the fatigue of US in this long war and have increased their attacks. US strategy of neutralizing Taliban since 2001 seems to have been a failure as today Taliban is much stronger than it was in 2001.As the peace talks gather momentum, Taliban have upped the ante to gain maximum leverage in the talks.The increase in violence is also due to the emergence of the ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Adding to this is the accusation of USA that Russia, Pakistan and Iran are aiding the Taliban, complicating the conflict in Afghanistan.
Recent Peace Efforts
There have been a slew of efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Notable amongst them are the US initiative of appointing Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad as special envoy He has held several meetings with Taliban, the last one at Dubai being also attended by Saudi Arabia and UAE. The next round will be held in Saudi Arabia/ Qatar. In early November 2018, Russia too held an 11 countries conference in which besides Taliban , China , India, US,unofficial reps of Afghan Government and other neighboring nations having stake in Afghan peace, attended.
US and coalition forces had achieved their premium objective in Afghanistan on 2 May 2011 when they killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Thereafter, the forces have been scaled down and security handed over to the Afghan Government and its National Army, progressively.
The US President in his election promise had stated that he will pull back troops from Afghanistan. The US efforts in negotiating with Taliban indicate that US is planning an early exit from Afghanistan before 2020. This has come as a surprise to many for the following reasons:-
• By directly dealing with the Taliban, US seems to be abandoning the democracy in Afghanistan, which it has fought to establish for the last 18 years.
• Talks with insurgents are held when they are so weakened that they are forced to negotiate. However in this case, Taliban is growing in strength everyday. In fact, if shunning violence is not a precondition to talks, why would Taliban scale back?
• By inviting Taliban for talks, Taliban is gaining what it wants most –sitting across the table with US, which it has admitted that it cannot defeat militarily. Taliban also stands to increase political clout, obtain release of prisoners,and highlight the irrelevance of the Afghan National Unity Government and withdrawal of foreign troops.
Though enemies, Russia and Taliban have acknowledged that they have been in contact as have other neighbouring countries including China. Talks have accelerated since the advent of ISIS in the Khorasan region of Afghanistan.
Though Taliban has not gained any military assistance, it has gained a political recognition from two world powers and its neighbours and thereby a moral victory, granting them a semblance of legitimacy. Ties with Russia and joining the Russian led peace talks have added pressure on US and NATO to clinch a peace deal early.
Russia now recognises Taliban as the de facto legitimate power in Afghanistan and not a security threat.Russia’s links with Taliban derives it the following benefits:-
• Security of its citizens and establishments in Afghanistan.
• Coordinated action against ISIS in Afghanistan.
• Russia has long been suspicious of the prolonged US and other foreign nation’s presence in Afghanistan as it destabilizes the regional balance and creates an atmosphere akin to the earlier “Great Game”. Resurgent and friendly Taliban, whom Russians perceive as not harboring any extra territorial interest, is beneficial to Russia to negate the “new Great Game”.
China today faces a low intensity insurgency in its oil rich province of Xinjiang bordering Pakistan and North Eastern Afghanistan. An unstable Afghanistan provides ripe training ground for the Uyghur insurgents in Xinjiang. The emergence of the ISIS in North Eastern Afghanistan and the threat of this ISIS establishing links with the Uyghur movement have made China concerned. China has established relationships with both the Afghan Government and Taliban to prevent Uyghur insurgency movement receiving help from any insurgentgroups in Afghanistan…
China is developing Copper, Lithium and Rare Earth mines in Afghanistan and their rapport with Taliban has ensured uninterrupted operations.
Afghanistan is an important cog in the wheel of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It plans to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) into Afghanistan and through it join CPEC with the Central Asian nations and Iran.
China driven Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Collective Security Treaty Organisation are keen to facilitate peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. China too has started aiding Afghanistan in its reconstruction. A Taliban led Afghan Government aids China to widen its footprint in this
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan has been grappling with the Afghan refugee crisis. The jihad against Soviet occupation, launched from Pakistan not only radicalised its society but also spewed violence. In this quagmire, it has become a major conduit for drugs from Afghanistan, abuse of which has affected a substantial part of Pakistan too. In supporting Jihad and later by becoming a part of the US led coalition in 2001, Pakistan may have gained in terms of foreign aid but its society and its governance has paid a very heavy price, bringing it to the level of a “ failed state”.
A disturbed Afghanistan has also led to Pakistan not only lose its strategic depth to the West but it has it has given rise to added necessity of securing the Western border. The increased presence of India in Afghanistan has given it a strategic disadvantage.
Since 1979, Pakistan has been a safe haven for Taliban. Most of the Taliban leaders have safe sanctuaries in Pakistan, facilitated by Pak ISI. Therefore, a peaceful Afghanistan which is preferably led by Taliban will give Pakistan a say in the governance of Afghanistan.
US has often accused Pakistan of playing a “Double game”. Recently Trump administration held back the two billion dollar reconstruction aid to Pakistan, to put pressure on it to contribute more in US fight against Taliban. However, in early December 2018, US President requested Pakistan for help to revive the faltering US – Taliban peace talks.Since then, Pakistan has been actively involved in arranging the peace talks, the first being for two days in Dubai in mid-December 2018.Facilitating peace talks has given a shot in the arm to Pakistan which had been sidelined by US for a long period.
For Pakistan, a stable and peaceful Afghanistan will solve its refugee crisis, help combat drug menace, reduce violence and hatred in its society and many such ills. Its main gain will be that a Taliban led Afghan Government will secure its Western border. It may also lead to waning influence of India in Afghanistan and that will provide strategic relief to Pakistan. Extension of CPEC into Afghanistan too, will reap economic benefits.
At this juncture, when peace talks under Moscow or Washington are gaining strength, conduct of Taliban over the past 18 years raises doubts on their ability to transform from an insurgent/ military group into an able Government, abiding to uphold the Afghan Constitution. In Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army had its well established political wing Sinn Fein and therefore the transition from insurgency to governance was smooth. However, Taliban today has a central leader Haibatullah Akhundzada who presides over a shadowy Pakistan based leadership of some senior mullahs. Under them are the various regional commanders and their tribal oriented fighting units, who operate with a fair degree of operational autonomy.Most of Taliban has only been fighting since 1979 and their vision is to establish their version of Islamic polity via military means, contrary to the Constitution in vogue.
Even if Taliban does form a government, pre existing tensions/ fault lines based on ethnic, regional, tribal and political lines will raise their heads. Already, the rival Islamist parties of Northern Tajik leader Atta Mohammad Noor and the Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are queering the political scene. Adding Taliban to this cauldron will create an imbalance difficult to correct. Governance will fail.
This should dictate to the US, its coalition partners and to the regional players that transition of power in Afghanistan after reduction/ withdrawal of US and coalition troops has to be closely monitored, the power sharing between various warlords peacefully brokered; all within the ambit of the Afghan constitution.
Since 2001, India has been the largest regional donor in reconstruction of Afghanistan. It has provided aid worth $ 3 billion.Development in infrastructure, communications, education, health care, social welfare, training of officials, economic development and institution building have been its key focus areas. This has earned India a huge goodwill in Afghanistan. Opening of the Chabahar port route from Iran has enabled India to circumvent the non availability of land route through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Since 1947, India has been consistent in its Afghan policy and has proved to be Afghanistan’s most reliable friend in the sub continent.
However with Taliban(Afghan Pashtuns) India has been on a sticky wicket. It’s mainly due to India’s inability to openly criticise the Soviet invasion in 1979, due to its strategic partnership with Soviet Union. This gave Pakistan the opportunity to win over the Pashtuns by providing them all facilities to wage their war against the Soviets and later against the US led coalition.India has to realise that it cannot replace Pakistan geographically and thereby is at a disadvantage in wooing over Taliban.
Taliban however is very keen to transform itself into the rulers of Afghanistan without the tag of a ‘global pariah’ which it has been assigned since 1996. Taliban is witness to the development activities of India in Afghanistan and its positive effects on the population. It’s also keen to garner international recognition and such recognition coming from a reliable and time tested friend of Afghanistan like India will boost its image and also they help them rebuild their war torn country.
India will have to play its cards well to woo Taliban by appealing to the historic ties between Pashtuns and mainland India and the well meaning intent of India as portrayed by benefits its reconstruction work has derived. It’s only then that it will be able to retain its strategic pressure on Pakistan, from Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of US and other coalition troops from Afghanistan is inevitable. As Taliban are the most dominant power, Governance will move in to their hands, gradually. But before power is transferred to Taliban the following must be ensured by US, the regional players and UN:-
• Ensure Taliban adheres to the principles enshrined in the present constitution, namely democracy, social and gender equality and rule of law.
• Taliban must be made to commit that no terror groups such as Al Qaeda will be allowed to use Afghanistan as a safe haven.
• Form a Group of Observers of countries having stake in the stability of Afghanistan to ensure smooth transition of power and power sharing between Taliban and other ethnic/ tribal power centres.
• Being war ravaged and poor,Afghanistan has insufficient means to sustain itself. Therefore,it must be provided adequate funds for reconstruction and,ensuring it doesn’t slide back into anarchy.
• Ensure Taliban eradicates its drug industry which today finances it wholly.
The Ladens and Bagdadis of this world have a habit filling in such vacuums.Let history not repeat itself in Afghanistan.
Col RN Ghosh Dastidar (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)