8 June 2015

Why Pakistan is the problem and not any possible solution for Afghanistan

Ashok K Mehta 

The international community needs to take note of President Ashraf Ghani lambasting Pakistan for waging an undeclared state of war for 14 years in Afghanistan.

In a turnaround from his predecessor Hamid Karzai's anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban policies, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani had staked all his political capital on Islamabad, hoping it would deliver a tamed Taliban for negotiations. Amidst unprecedented violence unleashed by the Taliban and domestic opposition to his policy of appeasement of the group, Ghani's patience seems to have snapped. Last week, he lambasted Pakistan for waging an undeclared state of war for 14 years and earlier wrote to Islamabad demanding a crackdown on the Taliban and the Haqqani network. These warnings will fall on deaf ears.

Until last year, Afghanistan was considered a success story compared to Iraq, with Kabul cruising towards an impressive transition: political, security and economic. Troubles erupted during the presidential elections resulting in a creaky national unity government which, nearly a year later, is minus several deputy ministers, provincial governors and ambassadors.

Ghani's U-turn towards Pakistan and leaning on China led to the US and the West encouraging a reconciliation bid with the Taliban. It also led to cosmetically improved relations with Pakistan, for example a standard operating procedure was devised for joint management of the border. Coordinated border patrolling was done. Afghan cadets were sent for training to the Pakistan Military Academy. Not just that, even intelligence-sharing between Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence and Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security. Majority of the Afghans were annoyed by these measures to the point where they are now questioning Ghani's sense and sanity.

Spring offensive

Six weeks ago, Taliban tweeted about launching their annual Spring offensive, named Operation Azm (resolve), aimed at influencing political negotiations on its terms for conflict termination and a power-sharing arrangement. Last month, two meetings were held, one at Qatar as part of Track II diplomacy, under the aegis of the think tank Pugwash, and the other at Urumqi, China. The contacts were between Afghanistan's High Peace Council and Pakistan's selected so-called Taliban leaders with representatives from Hizb-e-Islami and the ISI. A number of issues germane to a political settlement were raised by Taliban – notably, redrafting the constitution and vacation of all foreign troops. The public absence of Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Omar for more than five years – some say 14 years since 2001 – is being widely questioned.

Operational Azm has continued with devastating effect on Afghans, wreaking unprecedented levels of violence. Last year, 2014, was the worst since 2001 after the eviction of Taliban from Kabul. The first five months of this year have been even worse: 2200 soldiers and police killed as on June 1 and nearly 4000 wounded, averaging losses of nearly 330 personnel a week. Such high levels of casualties – double, compared to the same period last year – are sustainable only with exceptional governance and efficient replenishment and evacuation chains, both of which are extremely stressed. Air and artillery support has depleted following the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces withdrawing to a non-combat role.

Taliban strategy is to keep fighting while talking so that its gamble for the fall of a district – or, better still, a provincial headquarter – would place it in a stronger bargaining position. This is likely wishful thinking as the Afghan National Security Forces' own strategy is to hold in strength key provincial capitals and district headquarters while fortifying Kabul, with the ring road duly sanitised.

Targeting Kabul

Despite this, Kabul has been pulverised with almost daily Improvised Explosive Devices and multiple suicide attacks indicating the extent to which Taliban has infiltrated and subverted both the Afghan intelligence and security networks. The outgoing Chief of the Army Staff, General Sher Mohammad Karimi reported last month that fighting was taking place in 26 of 34 districts. For the first time, high intensity combat was seen in the north and north east and surprisingly not in the usual south and east. Kunduz city, for example, was dotted with Taliban for months with ground changing hands frequently between Afghan forces and Taliban. Reinforcements had to be rushed not just to Kunduz but many other places to stabilise the situation. The road to Bamiyan was cut for a long time. According to an insider's account, some infantry battalions were found missing on the ground though they existed on paper with salaries apparently being pocketed by wily field commanders.

But the Afghan forces have held ground at Kunduz, though with the help of local militias which were regenerated with arms and ammunition provided by Kabul. The battleground has been muddied by reports of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkish Islamic Movement militants having regrouped in the north and north east after their eviction by the Pakistan Army from North Waziristan. Further, there are claims that Daesh/Islamic State has made its battle début in Afghanistan. The first beheading of Afghan soldiers in Badakshan has been attributed to the brutal ways of IS. In the $10-a-day Taliban milieu, it is quite possible that renegade Taliban lured by IS territorial conquests and wealth have defected to the Black Flag.

According to information from Pakistan, the growing influence of IS in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has led to the formation of a local affiliate of IS called Khorasan Shoora. This, coupled with pressure on Taliban to reconcile with Kabul, has divided the group with some hardliners crossing over to IS. While Afghan authorities are not writing off the threat, Gen John Campbell, the NATO Commander in Afghanistan has said that IS is not operational, though their agents are recruiting fighters from AfPak region who are mainly Taliban turncoats. The turf war between IS and Taliban will take off only when there is a big split in the Taliban. The proliferation of Jihadi armed groups like IS following extreme form of Sunni Wahhabism amounting to Salafi ideology, and local militias and Taliban espousing Deobandi thought will congest the ideological battlefield, multiplying violence. This noisy scenario is not what Afghanistan needs.

Pipe dream

Ghani's gamble for making Taliban mend its ways with the help of the world's biggest proliferator of terrorism, Pakistan, was always a pipe dream: and it is already playing out that way. While the cover provided by the International Security Assistance Force and NATO was in place till end 2013, the Taliban mainly targeted foreign forces. Now, with the security cover gone, the focus is on targeting civilian international players in Kabul, Afghan National Security Forces, fellow Pashtuns, and nearly all other Afghans.

The lesson from Op Azm is that the international community cannot let the gains made by Afghanistan in the last 14 years be frittered away, least of all by an artificial peace process chaperoned by Islamabad and blessed by them so that they can withdraw from Afghanistan in 2016. The corollary is that Afghan National Security Forces need more time to train, equip and stabilise. With Syria and Iraq in turmoil and IS heading east, Afghanistan cannot be allowed to fail.

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