Quagmire in Afghanistan

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 3 Jul - Aug 2017
Page No.: 
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The extraneous forces at play in Afghanistan each pursuing their own national interests overriding those of the Afghan people
Maj Gen Harsha Kakar (Retd)
Friday, July 21, 2017

Afghanistan as a nation has rarely witnessed peace. It has been engulfed in some form of conflict throughout its history. Its inter-tribal rivalry and within tribes, inter-clan rivalry has always been its bane. It continues unabated even in present times, when other problems like the Taliban and ISIS appear more overbearing. It is evident as the nation is compelled to create an additional appointment of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to accommodate Abdullah Abdullah, in addition to a President, to minimize tribal rivalries.

In recent times, the Soviet invasion, their forced withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban and Haqqani network (both referred by a common term, Taliban) supported by Pakistan and funded by the US, led to 9/11 and the subsequent US led NATO invasion. It is presently the longest running war for the US, with no signs of abating and permitting the US to withdraw honourably. At the peak of its involvement in 2011, Afghanistan had over one hundred thousand NATO and US forces deployed. The numbers have since dropped, however, there is no end in sight. As per the Washington Post, Trump’s foreign policy and defence advisors, led by their NSA are likely to recommend a surge of another three to five thousand US soldiers to join the already existing fourteen thousand US and NATO troops.

The present situation in the country is precarious. The two main groups actively operating are the Taliban and the ISIS. Both possess different ideologies and hence battle each other for supremacy. Both have begun gaining ground, resulting in mounting Afghan army and civilian casualties. In 2016 the nation had over eleven thousand civilians’ dead or wounded, the highest since the surge of 2009. This year has only been worse. The US announced the intention of the Trump administration by dropping the GBU-43, the ‘mother of all bombs’ on 13th Apr on an ISIS base near the Pakistan border. A week later the Taliban attacked an army command centre near Mazar-i-Sharif killing about one hundred and fifty soldiers.

A recent announcement by the ISIS of capturing the Tora Bora caves from the Taliban indicates its expanding power. These were the caves where Bin Laden had remained hidden in 2001 to hold out against the NATO and Afghan forces and have always been under Taliban influence. The previous hideout of the ISIS had been destroyed by the GBU-43. Both the groups independently target Afghan and NATO forces. The increasing power of the ISIS has regional and neighbouring countries seeking solutions to restrict ISIS expansion.

Between the two, the Taliban is considered the lesser of the two evils, solely as it is presently restricted to within Afghanistan and does not draw global Jihadist supporters on the scale of the ISIS. The concept of a caliphate has grabbed the attention of Muslims worldwide, who seek to establish the same in their base areas. This threatens Russia and China as nationals from their troubled provinces, Chechnya and Xinjiang operate with the ISIS. The Taliban and the ISIS are both battling one another for supremacy and control of territory. Hence, Russia, Iran and China consider the Taliban as a part of the solution, rather than the problem. The regional group comprising Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran began deliberations on the issue. Afghanistan, the affected nation was ignored till much later. India is also a late entrant into this fold. 

The diversity in thought processes between various players of the group, have further complicated any easy solution to the crises. Afghanistan and India view both the groups as terror groups unless they are willing to participate in talks without preconditions, which in the case of the ISIS, is unlikely. Afghanistan has no option but to battle both groups as they are responsible for its instability. For the rest, the Taliban could be supported to contain the ISIS, hence the regional grouping (less India and Afghanistan) is even willing to consider removing some Taliban leaders from the UN sanction list. China, Iran and Russia have been involved in unofficial parleys with the Taliban, possibly even providing it with weapons or funds.

For the US, the main player in the country, both the groups are anathema. It has been targeted by both. Recent lone wolf attacks on US soldiers by Taliban supporters within the Afghan army is only enhancing distrust. Unless it contains the situation, a withdrawal with some semblance of success appears unlikely. It also knows, that if it withdraws unilaterally, the country would plunge into chaos. Hence it is reassessing its Afghan strategy, which is likely to be released shortly. This strategy, as per reports is expected to indicate a hardened stand against Pakistan.

The Pakistan factor in Afghanistan is amongst the most debateable issues. Pakistan’s support to the Taliban is more to handle its conflict with India than Afghanistan itself. Indian influence in Afghanistan always existed. Today, India has immense influence and could also begin providing increased military hardware to the country. Economically, India is a major partner in its development, hence has substantial presence. Thus, Pakistan has to ensure that the Indian influence is reduced, if not completely eradicated, as it considers Afghanistan as its strategic backyard. A Pashtun dominated Taliban with Haqqani leadership is its best bet. There is no way, Pakistan can stop supporting this group, as it has proved over the years. Under immense pressure Pak did launch operations against select Taliban bases and only created another monster, the Pakistan Taliban, which now targets them.

The new US policy, as per reports, could also consider increased drone strikes within Pakistan, reduction in aid and removing Pak from the status of a non-NATO ally. However, there are always doubts whether such action would compel Pakistan to change, as it has its own concerns. Pakistan on the other hand has been crying hoarse on being singled out, claiming that the situation is worsening due to the Taliban being unofficially permitted to control areas along the border, be a part of governance, thus enhancing its strategic depth and internal dynamics within Afghanistan.

There have been suggestions of the Taliban and ISIS combining in some areas and opposing one another in others. These reports can never be verified, but the fact is that both are gaining ground, clashing in some areas, while maintaining safe distance in others. Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan CEO stated in an interview to Fox news, ‘The interests of the two in the immediate term differ, but at the same time, both are against the state institution and want to replace the governance with their own system’. Hence both would remain a threat. 

The reality emerging from the country is that options appear to be diminishing. The US desires withdrawal with honour, regional powers want to contain the ISIS, Pak wants a pro-Pak government in place, India and Afghanistan consider both the Taliban and ISIS as enemies of the state, while the power of both the groups seems to grow. There was an option of containing the Taliban first, the ISIS later, which is again unlikely to succeed as the ISIS would only enhance its power and grow, as its holding in Syria and Iraq diminish and fighters relocate. This is the quagmire in Afghanistan.

If an all-encompassing strategy is not adopted, the country may only become a destabilising factor for the region, impacting Pakistan, a nuclear armed Islamic state, Iran, Chechnya in Russia and Xinjiang in China. It could ultimately become a base from where global terror strikes may be launched. The US seems to concentrate on handling the Taliban, while regional powers seek to eliminate the ISIS. Further, the approach adopted by Trump in handling his allies has pushed the US into security isolation, with NATO allies reluctant to contribute to a troop surge.  

While the US and Russia appear to be heading for a confrontation in Syria, it is here that interests may merge, as both are equally affected. China also remains concerned as growth of ISIS would adversely impact its CPEC, as Xinjiang, from where it originates could be affected. Thus, this adhoc grouping of US, Russia and China, setting differences aside, needs to seek a solution, possibly pushing it down Pakistan’s throat, if necessary.

Realistically and pragmatically there are extremely limited options. Pakistan must reign in the Taliban, restricting it into areas it now controls, without seeking any expansion, also forcing it to stop targeting the state. This could release the Afghan army, supported by US air and missile power with special forces to handle the ISIS. The Taliban in the meanwhile could be involved in talks to resolve the crises. If it does not agree for talks then options to target it by air, missile and drones at a later stage always exist, in addition to blocking its funding by imposing severe costs on Pakistan.

Present force levels, capabilities and terrain conditions restrict the state, even with US support from engaging both groups simultaneously. Hence, the more dangerous of the two, capable of destabilizing a larger region needs to be neutralized first. Indian influence, would naturally reduce, irrespective of our attempts and approach, as others view Afghanistan differently and are more likely to adopt the Pak stance, more from individual concerns than from a moral viewpoint. National interests would override all other considerations and obligations.