Afghan Conundrum

From Dr Hamid Hussain. 

“A real friend is one who takes the hand of his friend in times of distress and helplessness’.  Afghan proverb

 In September 2020, Afghan government and Taliban representatives met for the first time publicly in Qatar to start intra-Afghan dialogue.  There were lot of hurdles between the first step of signing of agreement between United States and Taliban in February 2020 and start of intra-Afghan dialogue in September 2020.

 All parties are asking Taliban for a ceasefire during intra-Afghan dialogue.  Taliban are not agreeing to this condition and violence has escalated in the last few months.  Taliban leadership is concerned that if it agrees to a ceasefire then foot soldiers and local commanders will head back to their homes.  This will weaken Taliban negotiation position and it will require some effort to re-mobilize foot soldiers.  In addition, there is also fear that hardline Taliban may break away.  The price that Taliban are paying is negative public opinion inside Afghanistan.  Large number of Afghans are angry that Taliban have signed a truce with foreign troops; the very rai-son d’etre of Taliban fight while shedding the blood of fellow Afghans with impunity.

 Pakistan and Iran have deep involvement in Afghan affairs dating back several decades.  In the last two years both countries have adjusted their objectives.  Pakistan has been advocating dialogue with Taliban and when United States started the dialogue, Pakistan helped bring Taliban leaders to the table. Pakistan is worried about its own nightmare.  In military operation against militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), concern about military casualties resulted in operations that pushed large number of TTP militants into Afghanistan.  Now, there is clear and present danger that TTP will regroup in ungovernable border areas of Afghanistan and will launch cross border attacks.  Recently, there have been attacks on Pakistan security forces and target killings inside former tribal areas suggesting that TTP militants are trying to regroup.

 Iran’s role has also changed.  It was happy to give some assistance to Taliban and satisfied with bleeding of Americans on the killing fields of Afghanistan.  The calculus changed with emergence of Daesh in Afghan theatre.  Tehran was shocked when Daesh took over large swaths of Iraq with a breathtaking speed and later wrote new chapters of brutality in Syria.  Tehran realized the existential threat to Shias from this new extremist Sunni killing machine.  In Afghanistan, Daesh found haven in eastern Afghanistan.  Tehran calculated that with receding American influence and emergence of large swaths of ungovernable spaces, it was just a matter of time before Daesh will be sitting on Iran’s border with Afghanistan.  Tehran focused on western Afghan provinces of Heart, Farah and Nimroz.  It provided Taliban with military hardware, money and intelligence to take control of large swaths of these provinces to prevent entrenchment of Daesh.  Tehran’s hope is that a détente with Taliban will help create a cordon sanitaire near its border. 

 Nothing is inevitable and pages of history are written by the hands of individuals and nations.  Taliban are confident at present.  They have a dedicated cadre of followers and sympathizers concentrated in southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan.  Their biggest asset is human resource and they have overcome military superiority of the adversary by sacrificing their followers.  Taliban have also become financially strong that will make them less amenable to outside pressure.  A classified United Nations report estimated that in 2019-2020, Taliban generated $1.6 billion.  In Afghanistan, money plays a larger role than bullets.  Rate of defections is directly proportional to the size of the purse. However, their hubris is setting the stage for the next round of civil war.  Violence mainly occurs in contested areas and areas where one party is dominant levels of violence decrease.  People in areas under their control acquiesce for desire for a peaceful daily life and a significant element of fear.  Large number of Afghans detest Taliban both for their ideology and brutal methodology.  Almost all non-Pushtuns and a significant segment of nationalist Pushtuns consider Taliban as tools of Pakistan army.  When Taliban come out of the shadows during negotiations and control of areas under their control, they also present targets.  Afghan and non-Afghan opponents of Taliban can punish Taliban for their sins.  Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had trained Counter Terrorism Pursue Teams (CTPTs) recruiting from both sides of Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan.  There were also some successful assassinations of Taliban leaders in Pakistan most likely carried by operatives of Afghan intelligence National Directorate of Security (NDS).  These operations were also wrapped up with American withdrawal.  These teams can be activated to increase the cost to Taliban and Afghan government can claim that they will take revenge for every death of their security forces.  Even if government does not take any action or becomes ineffective, private, ethnic and tribal militias can be recruited. Taliban need to dial down the violence during negotiations to prevent this backlash. 

 Afghan government is riddled with factional discord.  Government’s short term objective is to slow down the talks with Taliban until the outcome of American presidential elections.  Current project of rapid American retreat is run only by President Trump’s envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with exclusion of other branches of US government.  However, democratic nominee Joe Biden is also not a hawk.  He had disagreed with President Barrack Obama about increasing troops in Afghanistan.  He has publicly stated that he will continue American withdrawal and will leave only 1500 – 2000 Special Forces troops and supportive intelligence assets in Afghanistan.  This is in line with American public opinion. 

 One can take the road of constructive engagement with efforts to keep violence below a certain threshold and work on to make Afghanistan a buffer state.  The real task is to control the urge of taking a drastic action for a short term gain at the cost of long term interest.  Economic integration will bring windfall of prosperity for all regional countries.  For this to happen, each party needs to re-assess its old policy urgently. 

 On the other end of the spectrum, Afghan theatre can be used to hurt real and imagined enemies.  If Unites States clears out of Afghanistan then a dramatic decrease in risk to US assets changes calculus.  Many foes can be punished and hurt.  A very limited investment in money and intelligence assets can punish all who were enjoying American suffering and humiliation. Uighurs are facing an existential threat in China and a haven near Afghan-Tajikistan border and launch from Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan can increase Chinese headache.  Taking out Chinese targets in Afghanistan especially economic infrastructures on the path of Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) will prevent linkage of China with Central Asian Republics (CARs).  A little encouragement to India and India will be happy to keep western borders of Pakistan hot forcing increased military commitment.  Pakistan was content when more than half a million Indian troops were busy fighting insurgency in Indian controlled Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).  Both countries are happy to keep undermining each other for another generation or two.  Headache for Iran can be increased several folds by destabilizing Baluch dominant areas of Iran from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

 There are so many contradictions in objectives of different Afghan factions, country’s neighbors and major powers to pursue the path of peace.  Afghan factions are happy to take silver from everyone to the detriment of their nation.  Neighbors are happy to fight to the last Afghan and distant powers pursue their larger goals regardless of cost to the others.  It takes courage and common sense to take the road of peace.  This will never happen if societies remain pacific bystanders while their leaders lead them to disaster after disaster in the name of nationalism and religion.  There is always an intriguing historical question of whether European nations could have agreed to European Union without first taking the highway to hell of First and Second World War.  This question is also valid for the regional countries of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.  Is enough blood has been spilled for people to think differently or they will continue to fight the wars of their fathers and grandfathers?

 “Blood can not be washed out with blood”.  Afghan proverb

 Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

25 September 2020

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