28 April 2016

Why Pakistan feels bold enough to seek 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan once again

MK Bhadrakumar
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“The international community must keep their attention on Afghanistan,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, to Reuters last week. “It’s far from being over. It’s not the time to switch off”.

No doubt, that’s sensible advice. But who is there to listen?

The world chancelleries, especially in the West, are hopelessly focused on the so-called hotspots ranging from Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the Islamic State to Ukraine and the “migrant crisis”.

But Marti was spot on when he added, “The security situation has really deteriorated ... and my prediction is a further deterioration. Potentially the 18 months ahead of us will be much tougher.”

However, a western (re)engagement in Afghanistan on the pattern of the famous “surge” of 2009 can be safely ruled out. The “surge” was a Pentagon baby and a reluctant President Barack Obama who was new to the job didn’t assert (probably against his own better instincts).

Looking back, the surge, which ended in September 2012, didn’t make any difference. It leaps out of the myth of Sisyphus.

Obama will not want another futile sideshow at this point in his presidency. Simply put, it is already too late to think of a western reengagement in Afghanistan.

Spring offensive

Apart from being a calculated revenge act by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence for the horrific terror strike in Lahore recently, last week’s bomb attack in the heart of Kabul (allegedly by the Haqqani group) most certainly intended to convey a grim message to the western capitals not to wade into the river of blood. Over 64 people were killed and 350 injured in last Tuesday’s attack.

To be sure, the Taliban have begun their “spring offensive” with a bang. The thesis that they are bedevilled by disunity and are a weakened force, seems far-fetched.

Equally, such a major operation in Kabul couldn’t have been undertaken by the Taliban alone. The ISI is very much in the driving seat.

Surely, as Marti also pointed out, there is more violence to come. What it means in political terms is that the Taliban have no real interest in the reconciliation process mooted by the multilateral group (Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China). At the very least, they hope to negotiate with the next United States administration from a position of strength.

Why not? They are sensing victory and probably feel they don’t need largesse dished out by foreigners. A stunning analysis by the CNN last week noted,

“The Taliban do look a lot like they are winning. It is a grotesque slow grind, their pursuit of victory… Little of this could have been avoided, but much of it was predictable. The West simply ran out of funds and appetite for the battle, and left Afghanistan to come to its own devices… So what is left?.. Taliban’s current gains mean they are unlikely to imminently change their current disinterest in talks”.

The US commanders concede that the Taliban contest more territory than ever before since the overthrow of their regime in 2001. But, equally, the Taliban are not on the verge of victory.

True, government forces are bleeding heavily – over 5,000 soldiers killed last year, which is more than all the casualties Americans took during the 15-year war.

But then, the government forces still hold all major cities and towns, whereas, Taliban are unable to hold on to their gains of territory.

Tipping point

Suffice it to say, a US strategy aimed at preventing the Taliban from winning (rather than to defeat them), is at work. It is a gambit because the tipping point is just ahead where a significant increase in the US troop strength and their return to combat missions may become unavoidable.

The US commanders anticipate an escalation, but they may have to sit out the Obama presidency. The next US president may augment the force presence but may still hesitate to order a restart of the war.

However, Obama’s narrowly-focused prioritisation of “homeland security” as the US’ core agenda in Afghanistan, which stands vindicated, may also find acceptance with the next administration.

It essentially meant stalling an outright Taliban takeover for as long as possible with a view to bring them to the negotiating table.

Thus, from the Taliban perspective, it makes sense to go for the kill during the coming 18-month period or so, which will be the time needed for the next US president to settle in, take stock of the war and craft a new strategy.

Meanwhile, the fluidity of the Afghan political scene becomes a key factor. It is not only that the tandem between the president Abdul Ghani and the chief executive officer Abdullah is hampering governance, but there is a constitutional deadlock today.

The Afghan parliament is in limbo, having completed its term. The parliamentary and local elections stand postponed. The tandem is unable to overcome mutual differences and squabbling to make cabinet appointments. The idea of constitutional reform leading to diffusion of power away from the presidency has been shelved.

The recent confrontation in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the sensitive Amu Darya region between the followers of the two powerful northern warlords – Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Atta – flagged that the centre cannot hold much longer.

Paradoxically, Dostum also happens to be the first vice-president of the country and Atta the provincial governor and a key ally of chief executive officer Abdullah.

Nonetheless, when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul recently, he decreed that the Ghani-Abdullah tandem he’d put together in 2014 will not end in September, as originally conceived, but shall complete a full 5-year term.

There was huge uproar, since most Afghans genuinely want a regime change. Arguably, the state power in Syria or Iraq appears more legitimate than in Afghanistan.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that Pakistan’s cooperation assumes great importance – perhaps, more than ever – to bring the war to an end. But then, why should Pakistan rein in the Taliban when they are knocking at the gates of Kabul?

The Taliban and Pakistan feel dissatisfied that their “legitimate” demands have not been conceded by Washington.

If for the Taliban the bottom line is that the foreign occupation should end, for Pakistan, the fear of Indian influence in Kabul subsumes today all other considerations.

Of course, the US cannot oblige the Taliban, since a permanent military presence in the region is part of its global strategies.

On the other hand, Washington’s willingness or capacity to persuade New Delhi to lock on to a normalisation process with Pakistan is limited.

Under the circumstances, Pakistani military’s interest in reining in the Taliban that it considers its “strategic asset” becomes doubtful.

Evidently, the initiative lies almost entirely with the Pakistani military leadership to do “out-of-the-box” thinking and explore the possibility of an innovative power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan – that is, if it chooses to.

But that is a big "if". Given the state of relations with India, Pakistani military leadership is unlikely to take chances with a broad-based power structure emerging in Afghanistan that might come under Indian influence.

Indeed, the security of the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor becomes an added priority today. More than ever before, Pakistan will be seeking “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. It gets a free hand through the coming 18-month period to press ahead with that agenda.We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.

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