Without a Sign of Stability, Afghanistan Remains a Staging Ground - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 16 Jan 2016 0 Comment
As 2015 opened, expectations were running high in certain quarters that with the much-heralded departure of the bulk of foreign troops from the Afghan soil, a somewhat acceptable resolution of the controversial 2014 presidential election and the emergence of China in the region as a major economic power eager to participate in establishing Afghan stability and meaningful economic development of the country, the time had finally arrived to lay a fresh foundation for a lasting peace in Afghanistan. As months went by and violent jockeying for power within Afghanistan began in full earnest, it became evident that those earlier expectations were castles of optimism built on nothing but hope and wishful thinking.


Taking stock in the final quarter of 2015, it is obvious that the fundamentals that made Afghan society inherently unstable, and violently so during these last four decades, remain firmly in place. In addition, some new and old enemies of stability have crept in to ensure that this war-battered nation becomes a staging ground for the next round of violent actions they may have already planned.


No matter how one views the prevailing Afghan situation and prospects for the future, it is impossible to ignore the fragile nature of the country’s security. It is also a historical fact that without an assured level of security, no socio-economic development across the nation can be carried out. To have even a promise of a better future by building up its physical infrastructure and skilled manpower, Afghanistan will require large doses of foreign and domestic investment in the coming decades. Yet without a peaceful security environment such generous doses of investment will not be forthcoming - except, perhaps, on paper, in the form of MoUs.


As a result, the state will be able to generate only a meagre sum of money as revenue on a regular basis, and that inadequate sum will have to be used to pay off the nation’s security forces, accomplishing little for the population. Afghanistan will remain largely dependent on foreign donors, and try to meet their requirements. Meanwhile, brigades of corrupt forces - such as the drug traffickers, gun-peddlers, smugglers and powers-that-be with access to the till who have become powerful in recent years in Afghanistan - will keep the country poor and its people in a state of desperation. In essence, the civil war that engulfed Afghanistan with a bang in 1989 has not ended, and there is no indication that we will see its end in the foreseeable future.


Agents of Instability


The instability and insecurity that have been the hallmarks of Afghanistan during the last four decades were largely abetted by distant and neighboring outsiders. A major reason for Afghanistan’s continuing vulnerability, however, goes back many, many decades and is neither wholly external, nor alien. Historically, Afghanistan was disunited. Pushtuns are the largest single ethnic group, but they reside mostly in the southern, central and eastern part of Afghanistan. Often considered the “majority” community in Afghanistan, they in fact constitute only 40 percent of the population. The other 60 percent, the majority, consist of a large number of different ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmens, Aimaqs, Nuristanis and some others.


These fissures are what all those interested foreigners - such as the British, Pakistanis and the Russians, who have intervened covertly and overtly over long periods of time with the sole intent to exert and maintain influence over Afghanistan for their own geopolitical interests - have exploited and continue to exploit. Now, a new contestant has emerged on the scene in the form of the so-called Islamic State (IS), wearing Islamic religious garb and projecting an ever-expanding geographical landmass as its targeted territory while wielding the same weapons that have killed millions of Afghans for decades.


While these Islamic conquistadors have reportedly begun setting up in Afghanistan and are dedicated to pushing their territory well beyond, into Central Asia and the south Caucasus in the north, the Western powers are not sitting back either. The West has cast its eyes on Russia once more. Trouble is brewing in Ukraine and in the southern Caucasus region. The West claims Russian President Vladimir Putin is emerging as a new tsar who is all set to expand his Russian “empire” and the discontent brewing in the region reflects a strong desire to oppose Putin’s plans. Once again, whispers of the need to contain Russia are heard in Western capitals.


The West’s Russophobia


In recent months, the Western powers have imposed various economic sanctions on Russia with the intent to weaken President Putin. In Central Asia, the “stan” nations, a potential major source of oil and gas for all industrial nations in the future, remain weak economically and security-wise, while two large and powerful nations, China and Russia, are making determined efforts to cast their giant shadows in the region. Today the West, led by the United States and the former colonial Europe, does not have much ability to influence events in Central Asia.


The West does not have military bases in Central Asia; but, during their “official” stay from 2002 to 2015 the United States and NATO set up a number of bases in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is where they still have a “legitimate” claim to keep almost 10,000 troops. They have helped to put in power an Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who will continue to depend on London and Washington for his political survival. If it becomes necessary in the context of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, it is likely that the West will make this Afghan president accept the stationing of more foreign troops in those bases.


This thinly hidden plan of Washington has not gone altogether unnoticed. Last April, Salman Rafi Sheikh pointed out in Asia Times that “the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed between the USA and Afghanistan in 2014, following President Ghani’s assuming of power in Kabul, also offers the option of increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan as and when needed. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that the US would choose to increase the number of its troops on the Afghan soil to buttress its position vis-à-vis Russia in Ukraine” (“What’s the real military situation in Afghanistan today?,” Salman Rafi Sheikh, Asia Times, April 28). The BSA was signed by President Ghani to help out his benefactor.


It has become clear in recent years that Washington, having long intertwined its operations inside Afghanistan with the Pushtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, while keeping the other minority ethnic groups at arm’s length, is making an effort to work out an arrangement with the Pushtun-dominated Taliban militants. The motto for such an arrangement is ostensibly “live and let live.”


Washington has already made clear that it no longer considers the Taliban to be untouchables. In late January, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters in no uncertain terms that the Taliban as a group is not a terrorist group, but a band of insurgents. “The Taliban is an armed insurgency. ISIL is a terrorist group. So we don’t make concessions to terrorist groups.” On this occasion Schultz might have torn a leaf out of Islamabad/Rawalpindi’s game-book that has long been saying that the Afghan Taliban are the “good Taliban,” whereas Pakistan’s homegrown terrorist group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operates from within Pakistan, often targeting the Pakistani establishment and scuffing up foreign troops in Afghanistan from time to time, are the “bad Taliban.”


Pakistan made that distinction years ago and stuck to it for its own convenience in order to maintain its grip, however loose that might be, on the militant faction of the Pushtuns that the Taliban represent. In addition, it must be noted that the Afghan Taliban have done little to cause security-related problems within Pakistan since the group’s founding in the 1990s, while the TTP has been involved in full-fledged terrorism in Pakistan, targeting non-military and military facilities, and even daring to attack military headquarters, since its rise in the post 9/11 era.


Washington has used a logic similar to that Pakistan uses in claiming the Afghan Taliban, with their professed allegiance to al-Qaeda, are only “armed insurgents,” whereas the bad guys are the IS cadres, who are the “real” terrorists (“US calls Afghan Taliban insurgents, Islamic State terrorists,” The Hindu, Jan. 29). The US State Department has not designated the Afghan Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), but it has designated its allies - the TTP and the Haqqani Network, which operates from Pakistani soil and carries out suicide missions inside Afghanistan against foreign troops, in particular - as FTOs.


Washington’s efforts to work out some kind of an arrangement with the Afghan Taliban is most likely aimed at ensuring the use of Afghanistan as a staging ground from which to maintain a watchful eye over the Central Asian and South Caucasian nations and act as a potential protector in the region against the future grasp of both China and Russia. There is no indication as of now that the West has made any serious effort to work out a similar deal with IS; but that, too, could seem at some point to be a perfectly viable option to Washington and London.


“Radicals” Yesterday, “Moderates” Today


For a number of years now, the US-led West’s policy to assist “moderate Islamists” in Syria to carry out a regime change and establish a “democratic” government in Damascus has been on display. Since 2011, as the campaign got much rougher in Syria, hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists and, later, more radical versions, including those who identified themselves as IS, have surfaced fighting Damascus, as well as each other. As IS captured a swathe of land and emerged as the main enemy of the West in Syria and Iraq, the West, aided by the Gulf Arabs, quietly accepted the al-Qaeda-affiliated fighting outfits as beneficiaries and partners in the battle to remove the Bashar al-Assad regime.


The crux of the West’s policy in Afghanistan is no different. In mid-August, following the announcement of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death, the new leader of the group, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, used the Taliban’s media outlet to release a public message accepting al-Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri pledge of loyalty to him. “The Taliban’s Voice of Jihad this week issued a statement of acceptance of al-Zawahiri’s pledge of loyalty to Mullah Mansour that al-Zawahiri issued earlier this month on al-Qaida’s official media outlet, As-Sahab. In the statement, Mullah Mansour praises al-Zawahiri as the ‘respected emir’ of his ‘mujahedeen’ and urges them to continue the war against America” (“The Taliban affirm their alliance with al-Qaida: Afghan peace talks in doubt,” Brookings Institute, Bruce Riedel, Aug. 20).


Looking back, it is evident that with London’s help Washington had made serious efforts to develop a working arrangement with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Afghan Taliban. Britain, long the controller of the Afghan tribe, the Pathans or Pushtuns, was making efforts to have its own faction within the “Taliban.” The Independent of Britain reported in 2008 that Britain planned to build a Taliban training camp for 2,000 fighters in southern Afghanistan as part of a top-secret deal to make them swap sides. Citing intelligence sources in Kabul, the paper reported that the plans were discovered on a memory stick seized by Afghan secret police in December. (“Revealed: British plan to build training camp for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan,” The Independent, Jerome Starkey, Feb. 4, 2008)


Again in 2009, Britain made public its efforts to start talks with the Taliban. The UK’s Guardian reported in July 2009 that David Miliband, then-foreign secretary, and Douglas Alexander, then- international development secretary, had held out the prospect of reconciliation between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters prepared to renounce violence. The article said: “Miliband’s call for talks with more moderate Taliban elements was echoed later by Gordon Brown, who said: ‘Our strategy has always been to complement the military action that we’ve got to take to clear the Taliban, to threaten al-Qaida in its bases, while at the same time we put in more money to build the Afghan forces, the troops, the police’” (“Britain and US prepared to open talks with the Taliban,” The Guardian, Richard Norton-Taylor, July 27, 2009).


Then in 2013, the United States and a faction of the Taliban made contact in Doha, Qatar, with the intent to hold talks against the wishes of then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At what level those talks were held and what those on-and-off talks realized is anybody’s guess; what is certain, though, is that to ensure the option of stationing itself for an indefinite period within Afghanistan, Washington had long shed its inhibition to talk to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Taliban. Once again, this year, when President Ghani suddenly offered his hand to Pakistan to open up a dialogue with the Taliban, both the United States and China were openly supportive of his move. It is likely that President Ghani - who had stayed away from Afghanistan in the troubled days of 1980s through 2002, has a very narrow political base and is wholly dependent on his Pushtun identity - was directed by both Washington and Beijing to help establish a workable arrangement with the Taliban.


There could be other reasons for Washington to direct Ghani to court the Pushtun-dominated Taliban. They had perhaps received a signal from a faction of the Taliban prior to the 2014 presidential election that brought Ghani to power. Leading up to the 2009-2010 presidential elections, the Taliban was very active in disrupting the electoral process and, indeed, succeeded in achieving some of their objectives. But in 2014, certain segments of the Taliban had begun to consider alternatives to a campaign of violent disruption of national elections and had even invested considerable effort in making those alternatives viable from an organizational point of view (“The Taliban and the 2014 Elections in Afghanistan,” Antonio Giustozzi, United States Institute for Peace report, April 3, 2014).


The Taliban, of course, were also playing their hand carefully. A long-time beneficiary of Islamabad’s military and intelligence support, the present power-group within the Taliban is aware of the close geopolitical relationship between Islamabad and Beijing. It was therefore no surprise that the Taliban welcomed China’s involvement in Afghanistan. Following President Ghani’s four-day official visit to Beijing this year, they sent a delegation to China to discuss with the Chinese leaders issues related to Afghanistan and the current regional situation, sources close to the Taliban told the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP). A Taliban official, who requested anonymity, also confirmed the Taliban officials’ visit to China, stating: “The purpose of the trip was to share the Islamic Emirate’s stance with China” (“What’s the real military situation in Afghanistan today?” Salman Rafi Sheikh, Asia Times, April 28). Taliban identifies Afghanistan as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.


(To be continued…)

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