Fate of Afghanistan beeps mixed signals

The destiny of nearly 33 million Afghans is still grounded on the frontlines of the gory conflict between the Taliban — the hawkish Islamist militia that had ruled the country for more than a decade during the 1990s — and the resistance led by NATO and the American support forces as the United States begins a renewed purge of the Taliban across select pockets in a spring-summer counter-offensive.

As the law and order scenario in the country spirals downhill with a resurgent Taliban – instilling a regime of terror in the civil society with spate of abductions, threats, extortion and daring guerrilla raids — the prospect of the pullout of support forces now appears uncertain. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has mandated in favour of retaining its troops in the country till the next year— though the United States is strangely ambiguous despite its new aggressive stand.  On June 17, 2016,  the US refused to mediate in a border clash between Afghanistan and Pakistan near the Durand line over a “wall” that Pakistan wants to build to stop the transit of terror across the border.

The United States, which has been involved in counter-terrorism operations and security drills in Afghanistan since 2011, is in a limbo. On one hand, the Barack Obama administration has pledged to cut back on the number of troops by the end of 2016, on the other hand, it has been pinned down by pangs of diplomatic conscience to carry on policing the strife-torn nation— as the Taliban musters more venom to spill on the streets and in everyday lives of the people.

Army general John W. Nicholson jr, in a 90-day assessment report tabled on June 16 — put together since he took over as the commander of the US military forces in Afghanistan in March— suggested that the US government had to confront tough choices in a region where it has significant strategic stakes — together with Pakistan and India.  The report which has yet to be made public has spurred the United States government to ramp up its military operations in the region. The administration has cleared the way to expand the military’s authority to conduct airstrikes against the Taliban, “when necessary in the face of escalating violence,” the media reported.

The United States and NATO formally ended their combat mission in Afghanistan in the end of 2014 — but the duo has been to provide support services to the Afghan national security forces. The United States at the moment has 9,800 troops stationed in Afghanistan  after a series of pullouts from its initial strength of 100,000 when it was rallying behind NATO to take on the Taliban. The contingent is engaged in “Resolute Support” and counter-terrorism operation under the umbrella, “Freedom’s Sentinel”. But the coalition forces have a time-bound trajectory that entails a pullout over the next two years to come. The Pentagon is debating on controlling the number of deployment to 5,500 into next year before phasing out the forces completely.

The widening of the American and the support forces’ footprints in Afghanistan with an order to strike at the Taliban – whenever need arises — shows the intent of the western powers to impose a semblance of political sobriety in the lawless state which has just experienced a democratic process of election — and has been striving to recoup from the damages of the last 40 years since the invasion by the Soviet forces in 1979. But the paradox lies in the objectives of NATO’s military deployment and its fruition – empowerment of the internal security– which is proving to be distant a possibility by the day.

The Afghan security forces have been crippled over the last four decades in the absence of a civilian government. Since the  Afghan-Soviet war that lasted for nine years to keep Hazifullah Amin – the then head of state – in power against a guerrilla force of Islamist hardliners known as the “Mujahideen”, state policing as a concept was deliberately expunged from the list of government subjects. The evolution of the internal security was caught in the Mujaheedin’s zeal for “jihad” to grab more religious space – and the Soviet-backed establishment forces, which verged on repression.  The Mujaheedin – later morphed into the Taliban – bred in the Sunni “madrassas” of Pakistan where the Afghan refugees enrolled in hundreds to pursue an Islamic education. In the last 25 years, the Taliban has become a formidable adversary to the pro-west and pro-India state establishment in Afghanistan, rejecting the open-door that Amin and his successors had tried to script in the political manual of the nation – once so arterial to the Indian sub-continent.

The revival of terror has cast a cloud on the efficacy of the support mission that NATO and US had embarked on to pull “hardline insurgency” out by its roots. The internal forces are yet to be trained – and the youth, say observers, are not keen to join the security forces, opting  for civilian livelihoods and unpredictable destinies. The security and the fate of Afghanistan, according to international peace interlocutors, will have to be vested in the Afghan security forces in the future. The forces as they exist now are grossly out of sync to match the superior battle instincts of the Taliban.

Hence the need of the NATO training camps to pull up their socks for more rigorous training to the local Afghan security people to ensure stability of life.

The spotlight is on training and capacity building of the internal security — in a country where more than 25 per cent of the young people are returnees as “exiles” reconnecting to their homeland after a mass exodus between 1980 and mid 1990s. It is no mean mission to equip the Afghan security forces with precision firepower to take on the Taliban— as fear is endemic among the younger crop.

A retreating civilian mindset, who prefer to stay indoor in times of wars in the provinces and during raids in the capital, Kabul, coupled with the dwindling quantum of western military deployment have emboldened the Taliban in its traditional bastions once more. The support forces are locked in a fierce battle for Kunduz, a province, which fell to the militia last year in the northern region. To the south, the Taliban has made inroads into Helmand, taking the national security forces and the support troops by surprise in cities like Laskar Gah and Sangin.

In the heartland, the militia breached the high security of Kabul with a strike on the elite military headquarters complex in April 2016 that killed more than 50 and injured 300. It was the beginning of the organisation’s spring offensive. Between April to June, the Taliban made several incursions into the Afghan capital targeting civilians and security forces in sporadic guerrilla raids— though with smaller casualties.

The average Afghan, besieged by long years of repressive regimes — first by the Soviet occupation, the mujaheedin movement and then by the Islamic hardline Taliban in the 1990s — is in the midst of another spell of miasma. A mute government led by President Ashraf Ghani — who took over from Hamid Karzai — and a resurgent Taliban under a succession of rigid “mullahs” is a sign of a new political complexity looming on the fragile nation, which has been fired a new salvo by the entry of Islamic State’s Caliphate fighters in the eastern hubs of the country.

The peace talks — mid-wifed by Pakistan – has foundered with the Taliban developing cold feet on the table, much to the glee of the mediator (sic Pakistan) which has been providing covert support to the Taliban by pumping resources into the seminaries on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in the remote heartlands that act as training ground for the Taliban cadre.              Afghanistan, which had earlier been subjected to Russian occupation, has stood up to constant “manoueverings” by Pakistan to foist a “friendly government” that would allow it to use the country as a gateway to central Asia and as a counter-cushion to India’s growing muscle in the subcontinent. But the Afghans, a resilient and battle-scarred lot, remain committed to peace that might be difficult to claw out of the mesh the country is trapped in.

If history is taken as a context for the growth of militancy in Afghanistan, then the present scenario is no less provocative. The Taliban is on a comeback trail — together with the Haqqani network, the al-Qaida, which pledged support to the Taliban recently, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Islamic State. The Taliban, which had a free writ in the country during the 1990s – suddenly finds itself among competitors armed with greater expertise honed in the west.

It has been compelled to set in motion a series of sweeping changes in its ranks – a transformation in the modus operandi that is vexing the common Afghan on the streets. The death of Mullah Omar – the founding mastermind of the terrorist network – last year had bolstered the morale of the Afghan masses for peace while the US — which forms the scaffolding of the foreign security back-up with the NATO forces — lapsed into a reconciliatory mode exhorting the Ghani government to sit across the table with the new successor, Mullah Mansour. The possibility of infighting in the Taliban, as the reports suggested in the media, led the western powers to infer that a weakened Taliban riven with internecine feuds would be easy to rehabilitate. But the “mullahs” have not allowed the Afghan citizenry or the government or the support forces any respite. The slew of attacks on civilian targets has intensified in the last two months.

Fighting between the Taliban and the forces are raging across 20 provinces in Afghanistan, says a Kabul-based parliamentarian Farhad Sediqi. The spiralling violence, which is threatening to plunge the country into a civil war, has spurred the Ashraf Ghani government into officially ratifying a “defence minister” and an “intelligence chief” — in an indication that Afghanistan is ready to helm its own security to ensure a continuity in command at a time when more American and NATO are preparing to go home.
Nicholas Haysom, the UN security general’s special representative for Afghanistan paints a mixed picture of the security situation.  “There is a risk, in my view, that the conflict might enter a new phase which could see retaliatory acts of vengeance and an escalating spiral in violence,” Haysom, who has been manning the post for four years, says.   Hayson, who warned in March, that the very survival of the President Ashraf Ghani’s government in 2016 would be an achievement, says the “battlefield is in a state of flux with gains and reversals but neither side affecting a clear dominance”. “Security forces face more challenges of leadership, morale and recruitment”. Going by the scope of training local security people and the response of the fledgling Afghan army in provinces like Helmand and Kunduz — observers say the war-preparedness of the regime forces leaves much more to be desired. The Afghan army is still reluctant to pull out the big guns — after decades of being smashed at source command since the Russian invasion  and the later years of Mujaheedin insurgency. The army did not receive lee-space to evolve.

At stake are lives of the unsuspecting victims – like the Nepali guards killed on 20 June in a bus ambush — who cannot out a finger to the conflicting forces at play. The rapid change in Taliban leadership after Omar’s and Mansour’s death, as many local residents point out, brought initial cheer that democracy would allowed to enact itself out in the political theatre of the country that has not witnessed much of “realpolitik” in the last five decades. If the reign of Hazifullah Amin was brazenly pro-Russia, the reign of Hamid Karzai was pro-India and the west in defiance of Pakistan’s bid impose its writ on the nation. Ghani, on his part, is dependant on the western support forces and NATO to keep him in the chair.

The Taliban exhibits a singular-minded determination to find a toehold in Kabul — and the west is confused about the power points driving the organisation to frame bolder strategies in the vicinity of the establishment.     Mullah Mansour, a former warlord and a hard-boiled fighter, did not turn out to be a fair player in the peace process — under the hawk’s eyes of mediator Pakistan. Mansour, who was not averse to opening a dialogue with the government in the early phases of the peace mission, went on the backfoot after the first two rounds of talks. His tenure in the organisation was eventually cut shot in a drone attack by the US in May 2016 deep inside the Balochistan province in Pakistan— where the “mullah” was sheltered. Mansour was in contrast to Omar, who did not beat around the bush for peace. The founder was committed to the “jihadi” and the terrorist ideology of the Taliban, which had tasked itself with the “takeover” of the country to form a militant Islamic nation. Omar carried the organisation through the restive times, post Russia and the increased presence of western forces later on.  The organisation had been lying low in the last decade — either cowering in a corner battered by the death of Mullah Omar or recouping after its 2001 debacle when it was trounced — out of power.

The United States claims that it took Mansour out because of his bellicose outlook to peace— but his successor, Mawlawi Habibatullah Akhundzada, a hardline cleric from the spiritual ranks in his fifties — is a mysterious figure, whose strengths have not been identified. But as Af-Pak observers point out, the Mawlawi is a seasoned operative with a flair for guerrilla strategies —  a fact that the US would not like to ignore. Akhundzada, a member of the Noorzai tribe from the Panjwal district of the southern Kandhahar province, is member of the first generation of the Taliban – and was close to Mullah Omar. Out of the frontline combat, Akhundzada was responsible for the “day to- day administrative and judicial machinery” of the organisation.

According to Michael Semple, a professor of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice in Belfast, the cleric was the “author of many of the decrees that Mansour used as religious cover for his actions”.  Akhundzada’s religious grounding – together with his austere lifestyle – may restore the Taliban to the “Mullah Omar days” of jihad and simplicity, integrating the younger and the more aggressive ranks with the older and the mature ones. The cleric has the firepower of the Haqqani network as Sirajuddin Haqqani – the chief of the Haqqani group — is one of his deputies.

The Taliban is in strategic relationship with the Haqqani group officially for the first time — and the tactic has paid off in rich harvests. The strikes have assumed more precision while in the provinces, the organisation has revived dramatically to hold the security forces at a distance. For the citizens and even the security forces, resurgence of the Taliban has mixed portends. Accountability is cherished in the ranks of weather-beaten militants – every move by the organisation has to be justified to the cleric under a central command to curb the infighting that had broken out after Mansour’s death. Akhundzada has ruled out negotiating with the government— and in the process letting the people have an understanding of the things to come. Peace is far-fetched, but the average Afghan is more wary now than he was in 1979 — because of the element of universality that the nation had begun to savour to engage with the world after the democratic election of  2014.

Pakistan has made its stand obvious. The two countries – traditional rivals – are locked in a battle on the border over the reported movement of terror. However, Islamabad continues to support and shelter the Taliban on his soil as a buffer against the democratic government in Kabul. The momentum of the growth and infrastructure rebuilding work that the country was privileged in the last five years is slackening – mostly because of the vulnerability of the foreign crews deployed as know-how to bring the country back on rails.

India, one of the steadiest of the Afghan allies, has appealed to the United Nations to declare Akhundzada as a terrorist. The country risks losing the support of India as an Indian aid worker kidnapped from Kabul has not been traced and amid reports of the sporadic deaths of expatriate Indians in Taliban raids. The region is a bustling breeding ground for terror, United Nations envoy Mahmoud Saikal says .

The revival of the Taliban and the entry of the Islamic State —  coupled several other “jihadi” clusters — has triggered an unprecedented exodus of refugees to the west, who opt to live as refugees in camps rather than face bullets in their homes. The country is beginning to resemble Syria or Iraq — where the Islamic faith is at war against forces from within. Pakistan adds to the inferno with its constant attempts to stamp its whip on the country. The deaths of Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour in quick succession raise doubts about the veracity of the proclamations? The news of their deaths leads to unholy analogies between the Taliban and the “often” circulated news of Islamic State ideologue Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s demise.  Are they really dead or is it a ploy to throw the support forces and the western world off their scent — present proxies in the fight against the regime?

Akhundzada appears tougher than his predecessors if the frequency of the raids are a yardsticks The Taliban seems to changed its war-plan — launching a two-pronged blueprint that is waging “hits-and-run” in the cities and full-blown sustained battles in the southern provinces and in Kunduz in the north. The outfit is rich with resources – earned from the multi-million dollar opium trade and as new reports indicate – from the banned lapis lazuli mines.

For India, Afghanistan spells a small diplomatic riddle as the two have cooperated since Kabul’s  post-Taliban building years. The two countries’ animosity towards Pakistan finds a chord in India which has been fighting Islamabad since Independence over border, terror and armaments.  Kabul is a strategic ally for India given the two nation’s traditional kinships and hostilities. The growing Pakistan-China axis of power in the subcontinent and in east Asia makes it a tightrope walk for Afghanistan to keep its bridges untouched with India – and the west in general. The United States is cautious in its approach to peace in Kabul — stopping short of the heartfelt friendship with Ghani — fearing a backlash in its “defence deals” with Pakistan.

China eyes Afghanistan as a wary battleground – where it can cash in on the ambience of terror and get a slice in the development trade if Kabul can be weaned away from its Indian affinities.  In this scenario, the common Afghan is back to where he was in 1979, confused and vulnerable.  Democracy is confined to the capital complex in Kabul and the internal security is still on the story board, unlikely to empower itself in the western training schools, which are fast shrinking their infrastructure. For the west, Afghanistan, as the grapevine in the corridors of Pentagon indicate, is eminently expendable, a mammoth military burden, taxed by interventions in Syria.  The casualty of the war is the scarred Afghan, whose life swings between NATO support and the Taliban’s killer dance. Despite the fact that the United States has given President Ghani a year of life-breath – by allowing support forces to retain the frontlines against the Taliban – and its ilk.

History rarely allows decreed war zones to enjoy interludes of peace.

Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi/Kabul, June28, 2016

 

 

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