Af-Pak – Tricky Days Ahead
By N K Bhatia
Currently, there appears only one certainty in Afghanistan and that is the US withdrawal. Beyond that “AF-PAK” is looking at an uncertain future. What the region would be looking at after the withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan in the days ahead would primarily be a struggle to control the reins of power. Beyond that, a bleak future awaits the people of Afghanistan, women in particular. At threat would also be various institutions that have come up during the last two decades, promoted by a western notion of rule of law and democracy that most Afghans do not relate with, due to illiteracy and a conservative tribal mindset.
After the US troops depart from Afghan soil there would certainly be a post-withdrawal analysis of the US Grand Strategy to invade Afghanistan, post 9/11 terrorist attack on World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. Although there was no clear Afghan involvement in these attacks, it was invaded on the presumption that the Taliban was providing sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and cadres of Al-Qa’ida. Similar, situation continues to prevail with Aymen al-Zawahiri and cadres of Al Qa’ida still reported in the Af-Pak region.
With limited US resources and troops on the ground, Osama bin Laden eluded US forces for ten years. A change in tactics and adoption of the “Surge Strategy” in 2010 enabled the US to seize momentum followed by control of Southern Afghanistan. Enhanced intelligence efforts and action by SEAL Operation led to the elimination of Osama from a Pakistan safe house in May 2011.
The drawdown of US troops in 2014 from a position of strength, without a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban due to upcoming elections, proved to be an ill-conceived step allowing the Taliban to regroup. Post 2014, the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan the focus shifted to air power and extensive use of drones. It led to the elimination of a few top Taliban leaders and a substantial number of middle rung cadres. But most significantly the collateral damage caused to civilians drew considerable criticism for US actions.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan continued to be fragile with frequent clashes between the Taliban and Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). Despite a series of bold actions by ANSF, the Taliban continued to hold sway in rural areas. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s tacit support to the Taliban and its control over its leadership continued unabated leading to frustration all around.
Pakistan‘s perfidious role in providing sanctuary to the Taliban and its leadership, helping them with equipment, training, safe sanctuaries and repeatedly facilitating their re-organisation has been known to everyone including the USA. Part blame for Pakistan’s action lies at the door of the USA who knew of Pakistani actions has been unable to tame Pakistan into attacking the Taliban.
Frustrated with Pakistan’s actions, it was then U.S. President Donald Trump, who in 2018 publicly acknowledged that Washington had “foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years” and in return, Pakistan had given “safe haven to the terrorists.” President Trump also reiterated that the U.S. “cannot be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations.”
The US, frustrated in its efforts to eliminate terrorism from the region changed track and entered into negotiations with the Taliban for a solution to the problem, after a lot of backroom manoeuvres and succeeded in inking the Doha agreement in February 2020 at cost of displeasing Afghan government.
Taliban, who have always been the main antagonists to the legitimate democratic dispensation in Afghanistan refused to fully honour their part of the deal to ensure that it will not allow “any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security” or “pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” by simply absolving itself from all terrorist attacks and activities that have shown no sign of abating post-signing of the peace agreement.
Emboldened by Taliban-US Peace Agreement as being the sole signatory, as if representing the people of Afghanistan, during the last year, it has reclaimed its legitimacy and strength in preparation of taking over the future political landscape of Afghanistan to be the unchallenged custodian of Afghan destiny and future course of events that would unfold in the country.
President Biden’s decision to completely withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, has given a new dimension to what would emerge in Afghanistan amid fears of instability. The immediate threat would be the efforts by the Taliban to dislodge legitimate government in Afghanistan leading to clashes and terrorist attacks on Afghan security forces and facilities unless the Taliban and Afghan government work out a power-sharing deal for stability.
Pakistan’s role in the coming days would be crucial and it will face the challenges of many conflicting requirements. Firstly, Pakistan would want to ensure that the Taliban gets into power-sharing to keeps its interests in mind. In the event of disagreement, there is all likely hood of Pakistan playing favourites and supporting its proxy in the power struggle within the Taliban. Within the group, there are bound to be internal conflicts and it would be difficult for Pakistan to control all factions and is likely to lead to violence.
Secondly, Taliban in its new form would want to peruse an independent course for itself and not be seen as tutelage of Pakistan. Once it has anointed itself in Kabul, breaking free of Pakistan would be relatively easy since they would no longer need to be dependent on Pakistan for safe sanctuaries.
Thirdly, Taliban would like to see itself as taking up the cause of Pashtuns leading to a conflict for claim over Pashtun territory along the Afghan-Pakistan border which has never been recognised by Afghanistan. Fencing along this border to keep Pashtuns separated is also likely to face resentment.
Fourthly, Pak ISI has so far controlled Taliban. ISI in all probability would continue playing its double game to keep its control over Taliban, leading to conflict within and outside the outfit.
Opposing conflicting requirements would therefore impact peace and stability in the Af-Pak region. It, therefore, becomes imperative upon the countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood, India, Iran, Russia and China to proactively involve themselves beyond just passive assistance. That will come with its challenges leading to a clash of interests.
India has been an active player in Afghanistan and supported it throughout its period of turmoil. It has supported Afghan efforts for peace, calling for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled” peace process. India is for a negotiated settlement of the issue and opposes Taliban takeover without a legitimate process. India has political, security, and economic interests in Afghanistan and beyond in Central Asia. India has traditionally been supportive of Northern Alliance and the current Afghan government which have always been opposed by the Taliban.
With Taliban gaining strength in the days ahead, India will perforce have to open negotiations with them. There are indications that the process to engage with them is already underway in a low key manner until a clearer situation on their future role in Afghanistan emerges.
India would be wary of the Taliban’s past animosity to its interests. Given Indian goodwill in Afghanistan amongst all sections of the population, a rapprochement would only help the Taliban earn goodwill. It would also be interesting to see if they are willing to break out of shackles of ISI control and peruse dialogue with India to shorn off the baggage of ISI.
As Afghanistan stands at a critical threshold in its quest for peace and stability, the unfolding of the attitude of key players in the conflict will determine if things would return to anarchy or prosperity.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.