From Dr Hamid Hussain
Some questions and then more questions came my way about recent events in Afghanistan. My two cents put together in the piece.
Afghanistan – Next Round Afghan Style
“However tall the mountain is, there is a road to the top of it”. Afghan Proverb
United States and Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020. The agreement was to pave the way for withdrawal of US troops and integration of Taliban in Afghan political system. The next step was exchange of 5000 Taliban and 1000 Afghan government prisoners. This also proved to be the first hurdle. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insisted on linking prisoner release with cease fire. Taliban rejected it and under US pressure, Ghani released few hundred Taliban prisoners.
In the deal with US, Taliban agreed not to threaten “security of US and its allies’. Taliban defined only Europeans as ‘US allies. Off course they don’t consider Afghan government as US ally therefore they continued to attack government forces. On the start of the Muslim holy months of Ramazan, Ghani asked again for a ceasefire. Taliban representative in his response called this call ‘illogical’. Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) also called for a ceasefire during negotiations between Taliban and Afghan government. Taliban are not likely to agree to this. They see attacks on Afghan security forces as a lever to extract more concessions. Taliban also want to calibrate its military operations to keep momentum of its cadres. If they agree to a prolonged ceasefire and few months later need military operations, they may face difficulties in re-activating its own cadres.
Current violence in uneven geographically. Violence has decreased in Taliban controlled areas in south and east and large cities. In Taliban controlled areas, night raids by Afghan forces and air strikes by US forces and attacks by Taliban on government posts and convoys, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks and target killings was the main engine of violence. Afghan forces have stopped operations in Taliban controlled areas resulting in marked reduction of violence. In government controlled large cities, Taliban were attacking government and civilian targets. They have markedly reduced these attacks that resulted in reduction of violence in large cities. In some parts of eastern Afghanistan, Daesh was responsible for most attacks. An unlikely alliance of US, Afghan forces, Taliban and local militias confronted Daesh from all sides eliminating most pockets of Daesh that contributed to marked reduction of violence. In all these areas, with reduction of violence, general public feels somewhat secure with economic activity picking up in towns and rural areas.
Most violence is now concentrated in contested areas where Taliban and Afghan forces are trying to assert control. Taliban want to expand the territory under their control to further strengthen their bargaining position. Some parts of Ghor, Ghazni, Badghis and Badakhshan have seen increased violence.
In Washington, a pause button is hit on all military and diplomatic ventures. Diplomats and military leaders are grounded during Corona virus crisis. The only exception is Afghanistan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and even commander of US troops in Afghanistan General Austin Miller are shuttling between Kabul and Doha to keep Afghan project on track. Khalilzad and Austin made a trip to Islamabad and met army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to get Pakistan’s help in influencing Taliban to keep violence low. Corona crisis and economic meltdown has weakened President Trump’s position for the upcoming election. He wants to use withdrawal from Afghanistan as his big achievement. This is the main reason that only Afghan file is open on diplomatic front.
Afghans are hard bargainers. Every negotiation round is painfully slow and contentious. If prisoner release is facing so many hurdles then wait until negotiations start about political bargains. This will be a multi layered process involving Taliban, different factions that are currently part of Afghan government, local tribal leaders and all those who are currently out of power. Violence will be used at different stages by each group to advance its own interest and extract maximum concessions. In this battle, each Afghan party will also seek assistance from foreign backers.
“Community is not made by force”. Afghan Proverb
Afghan Government Tussle: Bargaining reminiscent of an old bazaar of Central Asia is going on between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. Tentative agreement is that Abdullah will get forty percent of ministries and head the peace negotiations with Taliban. Khalilzad is cajoling and Pompeo is carrying the stick. Many details need to be hammered out but if this agreement goes through it will have its own set of repercussions. Ghani and Abdullah will run their share of ministries as fiefdoms to reward their partisans. If Abdullah becomes the head of the negotiation team that will make any meaningful negotiation very difficult. Abdullah’s support is overwhelmingly non-Pushtun and he will not be able to give too much ground to Taliban as it will risk his own support base.
“Courage among civilized peoples consists in a readiness to sacrifice oneself for the political community.” G.W. Hegel
Taliban: After conclusion of agreement with United States, there was some ripple within Taliban ranks on two planes. One related to jockeying for power that resulted in removal of some members of Taliban’s Doha office. Second related to some rank and file who were charged up to fight the ‘infidel’ and now told to hold attacks on the ‘infidel’ but continue to kill fellow Afghans. To placate these fellows one senior Taliban commander gave some hardline narrative suggesting that Taliban will not negotiate with Afghan government but looking to replace it ushering in new era of Taliban 2.0 that will be a bit moderate and tolerate few things not allowed in 1990s. It will be very difficult for Taliban leadership to accept a power sharing agreement in present set up. If US pulls out then next step will be marked reduction of US financial assistance. In this environment, government will become more dysfunctional from fights for dwindling resources and corruption. Taliban will wait for that moment to expand territorial control. They will need more coercion of the population as they have the guns but not the gold that does the magic of defections from the other camp.
“I will say this much for the nobility: that tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious”. Mark Twain
Neighbors: Pakistan’s main interest is to have some semblance of stability in Afghanistan while working to decrease Indian influence. This is due to apprehension that a strong Indian presence in Afghanistan will keep its western border destabilized. It wants that Taliban become part of the new set up that will help reduce Indian influence. Islamabad does not want another round of civil war or outright Taliban take over as it will worsen Pakistan predicament. It will face refugee crisis and financial burden and worsen country’s regional and international position. India’s main concern is that return of Taliban in any capacity risks use of Afghan territory against Indian interests. Delhi has the bad memory of 1990s when Afghanistan was used to fuel Kashmir insurgency. Current BJP government is not in a mood for engagement. It wants to keep Pakistan off balance hoping that faced with myriad of problems Pakistan will not be in any position to re-activate insurgency card in Kashmir. If Afghanistan descends into chaos after American withdrawal or Taliban capture large chunk of territory, it will be very difficult for India to maintain large influence. Keeping in mind this worst case scenario, India has been trying for over a decade to establish a military base in Tajikistan. This effort is not successful in view of Chinese and Russian interests. A Chinese paramilitary contingent is secretly operating in southeastern Tajikistan in the panhandle bordering Wakhan corridor to prevent return of Uighur militants in Xinjiang. The largest Russian troop presence outside Russia is in Tajikistan. Russia considers Central Asia as its backyard and not willing to allow combat presence of other countries. India is currently using Ayni and Farkhor airbases in Tajikistan for transporting non-military supplies to Afghanistan. It has no combat assets stationed in Tajikistan. If things deteriorate then India can strengthen its position in northern Afghanistan. In this Iran is a partner as interests of both countries converge in Afghanistan. If Russia joins this ensemble then India may be able to convince Russia to allow use of Tajikistan bases for military purposes. The only sane approach is a détente between India and Pakistan as chaos in Afghanistan is against the interests of both countries. If both parties understand this fundamental reality then they can control their gut reactions and avoid adding fuel to the fire.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent; but it takes a touch of genius and lots of courage to move something in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein
United States: A speedy drawdown before elections is President Trump’s main objective. If he is re-elected, then political compulsion will be removed, and he may decide to keep some American assets in Afghanistan as surely it is not likely that Afghan government and Taliban can reach a deal in the next 1-2 years. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the election, then we may see revisit of current policy. The key factor will be economic aftermath of Corona pandemic. If US economy is in deep recession then it will be very hard for Biden to sell to American public increased American military and economic commitment to Afghanistan. Biden has been involved in Afghanistan as Vice President and he held the view that Pakistan was much more important than Afghanistan and he expressed this to then Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He may give more role to Pakistan for policing the badlands. Unless things completely meltdown, it is likely that Washington will keep air and intelligence assets in Afghanistan. The security of these assets can be contracted to private security companies. In this scenario, Kurdish model can be adopted. The line will be drawn along Hindu Kush range. Taliban will be allowed to play in the south and east while non-Pushtuns organized, armed and provided intelligence and air cover to keep their area free of Taliban encroachment.
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.” Samuel P. Huntington
01 May 2020