Afghanistan: Heading for A Meltdown?

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Notwithstanding the charade of a new peace/reconciliation move by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising the villain-in-chief Pakistan, victim-in-chief Afghanistan, financier-in-chief USA and bystander-cum-freeloader-in-chief China, the situation in Afghanistan is looking bleak. Many of the worst fears, even nightmares, about the negative trajectory of the state of affairs, particularly in the critical domain of security, appear to be coming true.

The Taliban terrorists are on the rampage. They have demonstrated their ability to carry out horrific and mindless violence through a devastating terror campaign in virtually every part of the country. Worse, they have started launching military style operations to capture territory. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has been forced to make strategic retreats in some areas. With ANA casualties mounting, morale will be difficult to hold up, more so because of feckless leadership at the political level, which is unable to infuse the troops with confidence and a sense of purpose and direction. The proclivity of the political leadership to do back-room deals that smack of genuflection before their tormentors has added to the sense of disquiet among the more proud sections of the Afghan political and military establishment. The Army in any case suffers from serious capacity and capability issue, which isn’t so much a reflection on the professionalism and fighting prowess of the Afghan soldier as it is a telling statement on the cynical calculation of the Americans and their allies to appease the Pakistanis by ensuring that the ANA is at best a glorified constabulary.

No surprise then that the American favorite, President Ashraf Ghani, has also gone back to the old and failed formula of appeasing the Pakistanis in the hope that they will give his tottering regime some succor. He has forced out of office yet another intelligence chief who stood up to the Pakistani infiltration and influence in Afghan affairs. The new NDS chief, it is said, isn’t averse to signing the controversial MoU with the ISI, which effectively will reduce NDS into a sort of adjunct of the ISI and will make it push the Pakistani agenda inside Afghanistan. What is more, the new chief of the High Peace Council, Pir Syed Ahmed Gilani, is known to have been on the ISI payroll for years and is expected to work to further the Pakistani agenda. The steady infiltration by the Pakistanis into the Afghan power structure has only added to the woes of the Afghan state, what with the ‘enemy’ getting wind of plans even before these are disseminated within the system inside Afghanistan.

Asides from the growing dysfunction of the administrative structure, at the political level there is growing distrust and suspicion about Ashraf Ghani and his game-plan. At a time when the political forces needed to come together against the barbaric Taliban, Ashraf Ghani’s policies has divided them. This has worsened the sense of drift and disarray in the country. Invariably, in such a situation, the players tend to hedge their bets and secure their own positions. This in turn only saps the vitality of an already ailing state structure.

Afghanistan’s internal political, economic and security troubles have been exacerbated by the Americans, slowly but surely, throwing them to the wolves. Admittedly, the Americans suffer from a strong sense of fatigue, more so with a war that seems unending and worse, has no economic advantage and perhaps only a marginal strategic significance (when compared to other hotspots like the oil rich Middle-East). With most other countries walking out of the Afghan theatre, the Americans are pretty left holding the can and footing the bill. Clearly, despite the recent extension in the deployment of US troops in Afghanistan and the expressions of resolve that the US won’t abandon Afghanistan in a hurry, that is precisely what seems to be happening. Of course, the Americans are trying to couch their abandonment of Afghanistan in a way that it doesn’t quite seem as though the mighty Americans were forced out. At the same time, the US is trying to rope in other players – Chinese, in particular – to pick the slack so that the edifice in Afghanistan doesn’t collapse as soon as the Americans exit. If, after the Americans leave, and a respectable time has passed, then for all that the Americans care, the roof can collapse on Afghanistan.

For their part, the Chinese have pretty much had a free ride in Afghanistan since 9/11. They had no contribution in Afghanistan security, their financial assistance to the Afghan state has been negligible, they have no worthwhile investments in Afghanistan (even the investments in mines haven’t as yet yielded anything). And yet, the Chinese have managed to position themselves as central/pivotal players in Afghanistan, something that is also borne out by their being part of the QCG. The Americans believe that the time has come for the Chinese to put their money where their mouth is and contribute meaningfully for the survival of the Afghan state. The way the Americans think this can happen is 1) if the Chinese leverage their enormous influence over Pakistan to push the Pakistanis to end their double game of hunting with the Americans hounds and running with the Taliban hares; and 2) if the Chinese pay some of the monies required to keep the Afghan state afloat.

The US logic is that more than them, the Chinese stand to benefit enormously from stability in Afghanistan – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (with a branch line into Afghanistan to exploit the copper mines and other possible projects) and keeping the genie of Islamist terrorism in the restive Xinjiang province at bay) depend on the peace and stability of Afghanistan. The Chinese, however, are disingenuously modest about how much they can call the shots in Pakistan. If anything, the Chinese seem to be working towards a situation in which Pakistan will do the heavy lifting on behalf of China – precisely the faulty calculation that the Americans made about the Pakistanis before and after 9/11. In other words, the Chinese are repeating the blunder made by the Americans viz. banking upon paying the Pakistanis to sort out or at least manage the mess in Afghanistan.

Therefore, three out of the four players are all banking upon the fourth player – Pakistan – to solve the problem. This means, the nub of the problem in the first place is being seen as the solution! Clearly, this is an unworkable and untenable assumption. Only someone naive enough to believe that Pakis had nothing to do with the Taliban for 15 years since 9/11, will buy into the nonsense that they now don’t control the new Taliban head honcho, Mullah Mansoor. Incidentally, Pakistan Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, has admitted to hosting Taliban and the defence minister Khawaja Asif has said Pakistan will use its influence on the Taliban to ensure that TAPI pipeline project goes through.

The Pakistanis might claim limited influence on Taliban but things on ground are moving more or less according to a script written in the GHQ in Rawalpindi and Aabpara (ISI HQ) in Islamabad. In order to fathom the Pakistani capacity for double-speak to push their double-game, it is important to recollect what happened after the 9/11 attacks. At that time, the then ISI chief was tasked to go to Kandahar to knock sense into Mullah Omar’s head to give up Osama bin Laden. But the ISI chief instead told Omar to dig in his heels. The same template is being followed today. Publicly the Pakistanis say that they are leaning on the Taliban but behind the scenes they are telling the Taliban to dig in their heels as this will get them better deal.

In other words, the Taliban hard line is part of the negotiation strategy. The more unreasonable they appear, the greater the ground that will be ceded to them in the hope of winning them over to agree to a dialogue. The icing on the cake for the Pakistanis is that the more the Taliban take a hard line, the easier it becomes for the Pakistanis to tell everyone that see they don’t listen to us anymore. On the flip side the hardline also works for the Taliban. It comes handy to keep the flock together, especially the hardliners who are opposed to any compromise.

What is more, even if by some strange twist of fate and destiny, the Pakistanis were to play the constructive and benign role that is expected off them, it still doesn’t account for the elephant in the room – Taliban! It is precisely the unreliability of the role that the Pakistani and their proxies Taliban and the impact this has on the decisions, choices and actions of other players, that was the reason for the failure of all previous peace attempts. And it since there is nothing on ground to suggest that this time around, the Pakistanis or the Taliban are going to be reliable partners in the search for peace,

All the various factions being invited to join the talks in theory appears to be the right thing to do in order to build a broad based consensus inside Afghanistan. But practically, the opposite is happening. All the non-state groups invited, or wooed, to join the reconciliation process are Pakistani proxies. This will tilt the table against the Afghan government, reducing it to being just one party among others, instead of being the central party. So much for Afghan led Afghan owned peace process!

The irony is that even if efforts to get the Taliban to agree to a dialogue are successful, it will still mean a failure in the sense that it will accord the barbaric Taliban a legitimacy they doesn’t deserve. Quite asides of what the Pakistanis and the Taliban do, or their intentions, calculations and sincerity in joining the peace and reconciliation process, the most problematic aspect of the entire peace/reconciliation effort has been the fact that for the last few years its focus has almost entirely been on getting the Taliban to the talks table as though this was an end in itself and would automatically lead to a solution acceptable to all sides. The sheer vacuity of this approach is quite astounding because even if the Taliban were to agree to sit on a table, unless there is some middle ground, a possible workable solution with which both sides can live, a dialogue is a desultory track. For a middle ground to emerge, both sides will have to give up something and compromise, and as yet the Taliban show absolutely no sign of being ready to compromise. In fact, if the Taliban were amenable to a compromise, they wouldn’t be the Taliban! And if some Taliban become amenable to a solution, they will be repudiated by the other more hardline elements.

More fundamentally, when by all accounts the Taliban are on the ascendant, the Americans are desperately looking for exit routes, the Chinese don’t want to pull their weight with the Pakistanis and still want a free ride in Afghanistan, and an Afghan state is tottering and facing enormous challenges in keeping its army fighting fit, why should the Taliban compromise? Remember, the Taliban are jihadists, but they are not stupid.

The terms being offered to them today, were on offer a few years back when the situation wasn’t so bleak. If the Taliban had rejected some of the peace offerings back then, then why should they accept those terms today when they are winning? And if by some quirk of chance they do accept some of the terms being offered to them, then be rest assured that this will be a tactical compromise, aimed at getting a foot (and an arm) into the door. After this, it will be a matter of a couple of months or an year or two before they make a power grab for the entire state. And that they will do from the inside. Game, set and Match – Taliban!

 

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