Thursday June 30, 2022

A balancing act in Afghanistan

January 21, 2017

Islamabad is trying to balance its act in Afghanistan with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa reaching out to the Kabul leadership twice after assuming office on November 30. He has extended a hand of cooperation towards Kabul in spite of President Ashraf Ghani’s increasingly hostile attitude and diatribe against Pakistan.

Relations between Islamabad and Kabul are at their lowest in the last 15 years following the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar in December 2016 in which President Ashraf Ghani joined Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in lashing out at Pakistan for ‘exporting terrorists’ to Afghanistan. The Ghani administration believes the insurgent Taliban movement draws all its strength from Pakistan where it has sanctuaries and from where it receives logistical assistance.

This simplistic view tends to ignore the ground reality of Afghanistan where conservative forces are well-entrenched and command the support of the Pakhtun population’s majority. The Afghan Taliban is an umbrella organisation of conservative tribes. Unfortunately, liberal (or progressive) elements in Afghanistan constituted a minority in the 1980s and are still in minority in 2017.

When big powers like the Soviet Union and the US with their full military might failed to pull Afghan society out of tribal culture, how can Pakistan do the job? Islamabad has no option but to side with the overwhelming majority in its neighbouring country.

For 15 years, Taliban groups have survived the military operations of international troops led by the US forces. Following the withdrawal of the troops of the US-led coalition in 2014, the Taliban have expanded their writ. Out of 408 districts, the writ of the government-allied tribal lords is 258 while the Taliban control 33, most of which are in the south. The remaining 116 districts are contested zones where government forces are on the retreat.

The US still maintains nearly 9,800 troops in Afghanistan as part of the international troop presence. In 2014, the main responsibility for fighting the Taliban was transferred to the Afghan forces including the military and the police but the US forces provide critical domain awareness, intelligence, surveillance support and air power. Further, the US and Nato provide around $5 billion per annum to sustain the Afghan forces.

The Afghan army has been constantly crippled by incompetence and nearly 90 percent illiteracy. It has a desertion rate of 25 percent. If not supported by the US troops, this army is incapable of preventing the Taliban from regaining Kabul. The question that now arises is: when the US could not rout Taliban groups with nearly 100,000 troops, how can it defeat them with merely one-tenth of that force? How long can Washington and its allies dole out billions of dollars year after year to the Kabul administration to keep it in power? There is no way out of this situation – except a power-sharing arrangement between Taliban and non-Taliban forces.

The recognition of this reality was reflected in the recent statement issued after the trilateral meeting of the representatives of Russia, China and Pakistan in Moscow on December 27. The statement, among other things, demanded that the Taliban movement be ‘invited to political talks in the future’. The three countries favoured ‘a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement’ and removal of certain figures from the sanctions lists as part of the efforts to advance this dialogue.

Russia and China make their own assessment of a particular situation as two big powers would. If the Afghan Taliban movement is not a ground reality and merely a creation of Pakistan, they cannot be expected to lend the organisation political legitimacy which they did. The fact is that nearly all countries in the region except India, which too maintains covert connections with the organisation, realise that the Taliban need to be politically engaged for ending the Afghan civil war.

The presence of US troops in Afghanistan for an indefinite period is a source of worry for all the countries in the region except India. The Moscow statement, couched in diplomatic language, contained the message that these countries do not want permanent US presence on the Afghan territory. The trilateral initiative will gain more strength once Iran joins it formally. So far Iran has maintained covert connections with the Afghan Taliban.

Another major concern for the countries of the region, as expressed in the trilateral meeting, is the emergence of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh in Afghanistan. The Moscow statement expressed, “The influence of Daesh was growing in Afghanistan and that the security situation there was deteriorating”. There is fear that the Daesh might destabilise Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan the way it damaged the entire Middle East. These countries view the Taliban as a counter-Daesh force.

Russia, China and Iran have engaged with the Taliban to counter Daesh and neutralise Washington’s presence in the region. However, this move does not mean that these countries want the Taliban’s ascent to power at the expense of or exclusion of other Afghan forces, including the Northern Alliance and liberal Pakhtun groups. No country wants a replay of the 1990s. It is in the interest of the region that liberal, moderate forces in Afghanistan be protected from annihilation by the Taliban.

A balance between Taliban and non-Taliban forces seems to be the goal of the trilateral moot held in Moscow. COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa is also aiming for this. President Ashraf Ghani can help achieve this objective if he gets real with the ground realities.