Credible Strategy for Afghanistan - Immediate Context

NewsBharati    16-Aug-2021   
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The Taliban is on the cusp of gaining full control over Afghanistan. After claiming victory, the Taliban has violated the peace agreement by resuming offensive operations.

To “ending forever wars”, on 15 April 2021, President Joe Biden announced withdrawal of US military forces by 11 September 2021 after 20 long and frustrating years. Yet another critical development is the U.S. declaration to limit air strikes to hit terror-related targets only. Furthermore, Joe Biden has clearly stated that “the Afghan Forces must fight for themselves”. And, Afghan leaders have to sink their differences and come together. After all, the Afghan troops outnumber the Taliban.

Nonetheless, the U.S. continues to bank on Pakistan to broker successful peace talks with the Taliban, which is most unlikely to happen now - mostly delusional and farfetched. In retrospect, after the Taliban claiming victory it is strategic bankruptcy not to expect Taliban military offensive to exploit the opportunity available to them to firmly assert their supremacy and dominance in Kabul.

On expected lines, the withdrawal of U.S. forces unleashed a surge of violence. In June, General Scott Miller, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, admitted that the security situation was dire, saying, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.” A Taliban Victory Is Not Inevitable; How to Prevent Catastrophe in a Post-American Afghanistan" wrote Seth G. Jones on July 21, 2021. Now, the catastrophe appears a distinct prospect.

As per latest situation, even with the support of U.S. Air power, the developing military situation is quite grim and most perilous. Ten Provincial Capitals (out 0f 35) have fallen to the Taliban during the first 10 days of August 2021. In particular, the major cities of Kunduz and Herat (Provincial Capitals) in the North and West, besides Sheberghan, Sar-e-Pul, Aybak, Taluqan, Faizabad, Pul-e-Khumri, Farah and Zarono.

The Taliban are on the outskirts of Lashkar Gha and Kandahar - two key Provincial capitals. More importantly, nearly 80 percent rural areas are under the control of the Taliban. Reports of terror strikes in Kabul are a common feature. And, Kabul too is on the edge.

As per the U.S. intelligence, the Taliban could isolate Afghanistan’s capital in 30 days and possibly take it over in 90 days. The latest new assessment of how long Kabul could stand is a result of the rapid gains the Taliban had been making around the country. Yet, it all depends on whether the Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance.

Recently, Taliban leaders wanted the removal of President Ashraf Ghani as a pre condition for ending the conflict.

None should rule out the possibility of the Afghan political parties and leaders to sink their differences and forge a common front albeit temporarily to stop the Taliban offensives. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani returned to the capital after a flying visit to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to rally his beleaguered forces. In Mazar, Ghani held talks with long-time local strongman Atta Mohammad Noor and warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum about the defense of the city. The loss of Mazar would be a catastrophic blow to the Kabul government and represent the complete collapse of its control over the north – long a bastion of anti-Taliban militias.

There are several shake-ups in the top military leadership of the country. General Haibatullah Alizai has been named the chief of staff of the army, replacing General Wali Ahmadzai. Meanwhile, the Afghan interior minister has stated that it is arming local groups as part of a wider three-phase plan to fight back against the Taliban’s advances by focusing on trying to secure large cities, main highways and border crossings.

The “Afghan Gazers” are crystal gazing likely scenarios: How will internal factors shape the likely outcomes? Who are the international stakeholders and what roles will they play to restore peace in Afghanistan? What role will the “Deep State” of Pakistan will play? What will be role of Al Qaeda and the likely resurgent threat of the Islamic State?? What are the possible developments in the immediate and short term contexts?

It goes without saying that internal factors will determine the likely outcomes. The Taliban is unlikely to agree for a "power sharing deal" with the current regime. Also, the Taliban is unlikely to opt for a "Ceasefire" or cessation of hostilities. The Taliban is quite clear as what they want. They demand an Islamic system based on imposition of Sharia Law plunging the country to middle ages. As per Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Taliban leaders have said that they will not resume peace talks with the Afghan government as long as Ashraf Ghani remains president.

The exodus of Afghan people has started fearing Taliban violence. Afghan finance minister has fled the country. Either they are fleeing the country or moving into cities. For majority, the situation is grim. At the same time, they express dissatisfaction with the Ashraf Ghani regime and express apathy about who governs the country. In reality, ordinary Afghans have no say in the peace process, nor can they stop the war. They are stuck between different forces and different countries with competing interests. They are both victims and spectators. The battle lines are now more blurred than ever.

And, the Afghan security forces are most likely to either melt or merge with the "Militias" of War Lords" or surrender or flee to neighboring countries. If so, a civil war- protracted and fragmented - may break out. Enduring peace under the Taliban rule is quite unlikely.

Next, all international stake holders to include Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Central Asiatic Republics, Saudi Arabia among many other Asian nations and the U.S. and NATO allies may play a constructive role to advance peace and reconciliation process in pursuit of their national interests. Outwardly, they want a sovereign, Islamic, democratic, united, neutral, and connected Afghanistan.

In particular, the US and its allies would like to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a center for Al Qaeda, Taliban, or other radical extremist groups to consolidate and advance their global Islamist Caliphate project. The international community affirmed its desire for that end state in March 2020 when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2513, which made clear that the world does not want the return of the Taliban’s emirate. Even the Afghan people affirmed their support for that end state at a peace jirga in August 2020. And, they hope that Afghanistan's future leadership to pursue responsible moderate Muslim policies and firmly combat all forms of terrorism.

Doha talks are stalled. Uncertainty dominates outcomes. The extended Troika countries – Russia, the US, China and Pakistan – are meeting on the sidelines of international meeting. As per Russian media, the Taliban leaders had promised not to attack neighboring countries after making its territorial gains. Pakistan’s foreign minister stated that his country will continue to play its role to facilitate the Afghan peace process. Turkey and Iran have moved to fill diplomatic vacuum in Afghanistan. Erdogan of Turkey is prepared to meet Taliban leaders. Turkey still intends to run and guard Kabul airport after other foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan. The Taliban have warned Turkey against keeping troops in Afghanistan to guard the airport but Ankara has maintained its stance.

Most important is the role of Pakistan - Janus faced diabolical game. It must be remembered that the Pakistan "Deep State" has worked hard to get the Taliban back in driver’s seat in Afghanistan. Now, they too fear a backlash on their home turf. Surely, none should expect Pakistan to accept a neutral government in Kabul. Having invested and fostered the Taliban forces from within Pakistan, they are unlikely to forego the opportunity of installing a pro-Pakistan Taliban regime in Kabul. After all, Pakistan has its time-tested “Iron Friend” China to replace and substitute financial aid that may be lost due to the U.S. withdrawal.

Of utmost significance to all alike is the future prospects of the Haqqani Network in close coordination with prominent terrorist organizations like AQ (approx 500 mainly from the Middle East and North Africa), Islamic State - Khorasan (IS-K: approx strength 500 to 1500), Tehrik-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad and "frontal organizations that raise funds for their activities. Surely, the Taliban regime cannot disassociate themselves from their alliance with radical outfits.

AQ strategy in the near term is likely to maintain its safe haven in Afghanistan. However, AQ longer-term core strategy may be "strategic patience for a period of time before it would seek to plan attacks against international targets again." As per UN Report of June 2021, a significant part of AQ including foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban resides in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and in various parts of Afghanistan. The core works closely with its affiliate group 'Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent' (AQIS) that consists primarily from Afghan and Pakistani nationals besides others from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar operates under the Taliban umbrella from Kandahar, Helmand (notably Baramcha) and Nimruz Provinces.

Next, as per recent UN Report, IS-K has expanded its presence in several provinces of Afghanistan and strengthened its positions in and around Kabul and expanded its presence in several provinces of Afghanistan, despite leadership, human and financial losses during 2020. IS-K’s strategy includes local and global objectives. IS-K seeks to establish a Caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by Sharia Law. IS-K carries out its global strategy in different operating environments exploiting perpetual unrest. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, IS-K’s strategy seeks to delegitimize the governments and degrade public trust in democratic processes, sowing instability in nation-states, which the group views as illegitimate. Kashmir is fertile ground for future IS-K subversion. IS-K reportedly is recruiting Taliban fighters who rejected peace deal.

Viewed in the above highly complex and dynamic fluid situation, more aptly politico-military quagmire or quick sand, what should be the Indian strategic posture? Options can be conjured; but there are no good options. The lesson of Vietnam War is simple: “Big Army or Big Money” cannot win against revolutionaries.

More importantly Afghanistan is famed for being the “the Graveyard of Empires”. And, for the Pashtu’s in particular, “War means employment; peace means unemployment”. The lesson even for the American in the end was bitter: “Loose, Loose situation” to include: Killed - U.S. service members through April 2021 - 2,448; U.S. contractors - 3,846; and other allied service members, including other NATO member states. And, the sunk costs according to the Costs of War project, the U.S. have spent a stunning total of $2.26 trillion on a dizzying array of expenses.

To sum up, one may conjure many scenarios and identify many options for India. But, there are no good choices available to exercise. "Strategic Wait and Watch" should be a preferred choice at least in the immediate context. At the same time, prepare to deter, dissuade and counter the spillover of unemployed AQ, IS-K, LeT, JeM and other radical outfits particularly into J & K and other vulnerable parts.