Could a new geometry emerge in Afghanistan – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 28 Nov 2014 0 Comment

The Pitfalls to Stability: Though not noted widely, a disturbing fact is that President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, who have been in power for almost two months at the time of writing, have failed to name either Cabinet members or provincial governors during their self-proscribed 45-day period following the inauguration. President Ghani had promised Afghans that all those positions would be filled by Nov 13. According to Afghanistans Tolo News, the going word in Kabul is that the duo is encountering problems in choosing candidates, but that they will surely announce the Cabinet Ministers and other important officials before heading to London for the Dec. 4 conference co-hosted by the UK and Afghanistan.


Failure to announce the Cabinet should be a subject of major concern. The situation gives rise to speculation that Ghani and Abdullah, who were brought together by outsiders under the national unity government umbrella, are at loggerheads already over whose man will get which job.


While not necessarily representing the ethnic divide that exists within Afghan society, Ghani and Abdullah do represent two different factions within the countrys political spectrum, and it is likely that they have failed to ward off pressures from within those factions. And rumors are bubbling. On Nov. 15, local Tolo News reported that Abdullah Abdullah is aware of the rumors, and says that any report suggesting the delay stems from a disagreement between the president and the CEO is baseless. Formation of the Cabinet needs more time, Abdullah asserts, so as to bring in the most qualified and eligible persons for the jobs, according to Tolo News.


Little time for Ghani and Abdullah


While it is an obvious necessity under the circumstances for the CEO to assure the Afghan people that nothing is amiss between himself and President Ghani, their failure to take the first step does create a negative impression about the prospects for the new arrangement. To begin with, the manner in which the presidential election was conducted did little to evoke confidence within the population. Both the pre-election and post-election environments were rancorous, and both candidates demonstrated little capability to mutually resolve the disputes that emerged.


Afghans noted that a third party in the form of US Secretary of State John Kerry had to appear on the scene to glue the pieces together. They are concerned about how long that glue can hold, how much push and pull it can withstand and, more pointedly, whether the two top leaders are wholly committed to keeping the pieces together.


Afghans concerns were partly exhibited in a recent opinion poll conducted by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation. Prepared with the cooperation of ACSOR-Surveys, Sayara, the Afghan governments Central Statistics Office and Eureka Research, the Asia Foundation report shows a dip in peoples confidence over the past one year. Afghan respondents told pollsters that their main concerns are insecurity, corruption and unemployment.


The report also points out that today 54.7 percent of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction, down from 57.2 percent in 2013. At the same time, 40.4 percent believe their country is moving in the wrong direction, up from 37.9 percent in 2013. This upward trend in peoples loss of confidence about the nations state of affairs must be noted immediately by the Ghani-Abdullah duo. Unless they act quickly to instill a fresh dose of hope and confidence in the population, Kabul may find that it has lost the game before it could even start. Worse, this is not a game; it is a matter of life and death for many.


Broadly speaking, if Ghani and Abdullah cannot deliver something positive within a short time, they will be confronted with severe problems from, principally, three separate quarters. Moreover, they cannot assume that these three forces, acting for now in their well-entrenched spaces, will remain isolated for any length of time. Any two of these forces could join hands at any given time to undermine Kabul and set the stage for bloody confrontations. These three forces, not necessarily in their order of potency, are: the insurgents, the big warlords and the criminals (who are mostly associated with the big-money opium/heroin nexus).


Ghani and Abdullah know that during the 13 years Western troops/occupiers have been in Afghanistan chasing the terrorists and ostensibly trying to stabilize the nation, they did not succeed in weakening any of these three power blocs. How much they actually tried remains an open question. But from what we know, the big-money heroin/opium-handling criminals, for one, are now stronger than ever. We also know that both the insurgents and the warlords receive a chunk of cash that the narcotics traffickers routinely generate. That money has kept them strong, as well.


Three Adverse Forces


The most visible challenge that the Ghani-Abdullah duo expects to face is the insurgency posed by the extremists, jihadists, Pakistan-instigated terrorists and some others. It has been well established by now that over the past years insurgents of many stripes and ideologies have assembled inside and along Afghanistans eastern and northern borders with Pakistan. The Pakistan factor in Afghanistans insurgency goes back to the 1980s.  Although the Americans were fully aware of how Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf had protected the al-Qaeda/Taliban fighters - whose presence in Afghanistan was the reason why the US went in, spent $750 billion and, along with NATO, lost more than 3,000 military personnel - Pakistan was pretty much allowed to continue its business as usual, sheltering, nurturing and training foreign terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda and operating from inside Pakistan.


Pakistans role has been well and widely documented. What is important for Kabul to note is whether or not Pakistan-based or Pakistan-driven terrorists still exist. President Ghani was in Pakistan in mid-November and met with the Chief of the Army Staff Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in addition to other lesser authorities. The visit was a confidence-building measure, and it seems both sides have agreed to clamp down on the terrorists.


According to the New York Times, the Pakistan military presented the picture to President Ghani on the situation along the two countries common border, which runs through mountainous tribal areas where militant groups are active. Ghani, in response, called for stronger security ties with Pakistan, including cooperation in training and border management, and promised his countrys cooperation to jointly curb the menace of terrorism (Afghan President Out to Ease Relations on Visit to Pakistan, Salman Masood, The New York Times, Nov. 14).


Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a Pakistani senator and the head of a research group called the Pakistan-China Institute, told The New York Times that the Afghan presidents visit was a great opportunity for both sides for a reset in our relations. Sayed added: The political will exists in Kabul and Islamabad to open a new chapter in ties, as peace in Pakistan means peace in Afghanistan.


Pakistan’s Overt and Covert Meddling


Despite the bonhomie during President Ghanis visit to Islamabad, what is happening along Afghanistans eastern border with Pakistan is not particularly confidence-boosting. The Pakistan military has been engaged for the last five months attacking militants in North Waziristan. The Pakistan militarys fierce attack has eliminated a large number of the members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), otherwise known as the Pakistan Taliban, who have developed a wide-ranging terrorist network inside Pakistan and had been involved in terrorist activities against Pakistans military. Islamabad also claims that a significant number of these militants have crossed the borders and are now ensconced in Afghanistan. In other words, Kabul has given these brigands a shelter.


Pakistans COAS Raheel Sharif reportedly pointed this out to President Ghani. According to the Pakistani daily, The Dawn, Pakistan has demanded several times through official and unofficial channels that Kabul uproot TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, who has been hiding with dozens of supporters in Afghanistans Kunar province, and the Afghan president assured Pakistans prime minister and COAS that he would do so.


But the mess that has been created over the decades as a result of Pakistans benign neglect of the militant buildup in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan cannot be cleared up by a military campaign alone, particularly since the border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, the mythical Durand Line, is not recognized by Afghanistan or by the locals who straddle it. As a result, the Pakistan militarys five-month-long campaign, code named Zarb-e-Azb, is now flooding Afghanistans eastern province of Khost with refugees. It is likely that many of them are active members of the TTP.


Recently, Strategy Page noted that Islamabads claim of success in its military campaign against extremists in North Waziristan does not mean that the militants have been annihilated. Many Islamic terrorists under attack in North Waziristan have simply moved further north, to the Khyber region where incidents of violence are increasing, according to these reports. In Khyber, some groups of Islamic terrorists are planning and carrying out attacks, especially against pro-government tribal leaders. These tribal elders have made it more difficult for Islamic terrorists fleeing North Waziristan to find refuge in Khyber. In part this is because the tribal leaders encourage people to report the presence of Islamic terrorists, which usually results in an aerial attack or a raid by ground troops. Because of this the army has shifted a lot of its forces north to Khyber and there has been a lot more action up there since October (India-Pakistan: Terrorist Activity Declines, Strategy Page, Nov. 18). In short, the militants have shifted their headquarters to a location just beyond the Zarb-e-Azb campaigns range to fight another day.


Moreover, it is also evident that Pakistans support for the Afghan Taliban, under the leadership of Mullah Omar, has not been withdrawn. The Afghan news agency Khaama Press reported on Nov. 14 that, following his meeting with President Ghani, Maulana Fazl ur-Rehman, one of the founders of the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s and chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, endorsed the Taliban extremism in Afghanistan, calling the Taliban-led insurgency a legitimate war against the foreign forces (Fazal-ur-Rehman endorses Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, Khaama Press, Nov. 14).


“Good Taliban, Bad Taliban”


In this context, the statement of Pakistans Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security Sartaj Aziz, during an interview with BBC Urdu on Nov. 17, cannot be ignored. Although Pakistani authorities are doing their best to underplay the statements, during the interview Aziz asked the rhetorical question: Why should Americas enemies unnecessarily become our enemies. He went on to assert that the Afghan Taliban is Afghanistans problem, and Haqqani network is a part of it. Some of them were dangerous for us and some are not. Why must we make enemies out of them all? he said, referring to the Haqqani network. This raises the old question: Does Pakistan continue to protect and shelter terrorists who do not target Pakistan, but target other nations, labeling them the good Taliban, and at the same time wage war against those who attack Pakistani installations, labeling them bad Taliban?


These statements by Pakistani politicians and a high-level bureaucrat with years of experience and exposure behind him seem to contradict many of the assurances that Islamabad and Kabul are issuing. The Ghani-Abdullah duo should note that it may mean the Pakistan factor in Afghanistans instability is alive and well, and that other terrorists, eager to make Afghanistan a firm base when the well-armed foreign troops withdraw, are waiting in the wings. 


Khaama Press reported on Nov. 16 that Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi stated that foreign militants belonging to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya, as well as militants from the al-Qaeda network, are involved in terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Speaking at a press conference, Sediq Sediqi said that the majority of foreign militants are trained in Pakistans North Waziristan tribal region and are sent to Afghanistan to carry out attacks. He cited the recent arrest in Kunduz province of three al-Qaeda terrorists from neighboring Tajikistan, who had disguised themselves in womens dress (Foreign militants involved in terrorist activities in Afghanistan, Khaama Press, Nov. 16).


Kabul cannot ignore the other big fish, the so-called Islamic State (IS), that has also emerged on the terrorism scene in recent days. Reports indicate that some senior commanders of the TTP have pledged their allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis IS. Observers in Pakistan have increasingly noticed IS footprints in the graffiti and posters appearing in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, Bannu, Gilgit-Baltistan, Wah, Hangu, Kurram, Bhakkar, Dera Ismail Khan and other towns and cities of the country. However, IS in Pakistan has not yet claimed any terrorism act.


Warlords of Afghanistan


The second potentially disruptive factor is presence of powerful warlords. One of the most dangerous of the bunch is the Uzbek Jumbish-e-Milli chief Abdur Rashid Dostum, who was President Ghanis running mate. Dostum has a checkered past and has switched sides from time to time. He maintains absolute control over Jowzan province, which is separated from Turkmenistan by the Amu Darya River. He also exerts control over Afghanistans second-largest city, Mazhar-e-Sharif. In addition, Dostum has strong links with Karim Khalili, a Hazara Shia warlord from Central Afghanistan, and with the Ismaili Shia warlords of Samangan province. These links are military in nature and make him a power to reckon with.


Dostums chief rival in the north is the Tajik warlord and governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor. Both Dostum and Atta Mohammad were part of the Karzai-led Afghan government; but Atta Mohammad, being a Tajik, remains hostile to the Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazaras. Much of this hostility has to do with protecting his own territory and the ethnic division.


Atta Mohammad has already raised the proverbial warning flag. Leader of the Jamiat-a-Islami party of Afghanistan and an influential political figure on his own right, he was reportedly a close ally of Abdullah Abdullah during the presidential elections. He has issued a warning, stating that the national unity government would collapse if there were any violation of the terms of agreement reached between President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah (Atta Mohammad Noor warns against the collapse of unity government, Khaama Press, Nov. 09).


All-Encompassing Opium


Then, of course, there is the issue of ethnic division, which sometime raises its head to dominate the functioning of Afghan society. Perhaps the strongest opposition to the Pushtun-dominated Taliban in the late-1990s was the Northern Alliance group that consists of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, along with a few other smaller communities. The Northern Alliance is based mostly in the northern and western parts of Afghanistan. The group will remain vigilant and possesses the wherewithal to react violently if it considers the Ghani-Abdullah-led government is allowing Pushtuns to assume the central stage.


The group is well-armed and - although receiving a major setback when the Tajik warlord and Karzais former vice president, Mohammad Fahim, died last March - it maintains its strength because of strong support from both India and Russia. Moscow and New Delhi favor this group because it bitterly opposes the Pakistan-Saudi-led interference in Afghanistans affairs. The Pakistan-Saudi vehicle has always been used by both London and Washington to do whatever they want to do in Afghanistan. As a result, the Northern Alliance leaders, like the Indians and Russians, do not trust the Westerners either.


The other significant factor of instability is the explosion of opium production in Afghanistan. This could indirectly subvert all efforts to stabilize Afghanistan because it is big money and has the capability to corrupt one and all. The problem that the Ghani-Abdullah duo may run into is the huge network that runs Afghanistans opium/heroin. Only the tail of that serpent is visible; the body and the head are not. What is real, however, is that the 8,000 tons-plus opium that Afghanistan produces these days under the Western troops watch is converted into heroin and helps to oil the Wests creaky financial machine - in addition to financing terrorists and those gun manufacturers and distributors who work in the shadows, under the umbrella of their respective countries authorities.


The London Observer reported on Dec. 13  2009  that the former United Nations Office Drug and Crime (UNODC) director, Antonio Mario Costa, telling the news paper that part of the fallout from capitalisms economic meltdown has been that drugs money worth billions of dollars kept the financial system afloat at the height of the global crisis.’” He said he saw evidence that proceeds from the illicit trade were the only liquid investment capital available to some banks on the brink of collapse and that a majority of the $352bn (£216bn) of drugs profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result.  


At the fifth India-Russia meeting of the joint working group on combating international terrorism in December 2008, Viktor Ivanov, the director of Russias federal anti-narcotics service, stated: The super profits of the narco-mafia through Afghan heroin trafficking have become a powerful source of financing organized crime and terrorist networks, destabilizing the political systems, including in Central Asia and Caucasus.


In an interview with Rossiskaya Gazeta following the Pakistani ISI-Lashkar-e-Taiba-led attack on Mumbai hotels in 2008, Ivanov said: The gathered inputs testify that regional drug baron Dawood Ibrahim had provided his logistics network for preparing and carrying out the Mumbai terror attacks. Ivanov said the Mumbai attacks were a burning example of how the illegal drug-trafficking network was used in carrying out terrorism.


What Kabul must realize at the outset is that the opium is tied to very powerful international forces, which include the movers and shakers of worlds financial system, foreign intelligence services that protect some terrorists to serve their own interests, as well as on-the-ground terrorists, like Dawood Ibrahim, who control a network of terrorists and money-launderers.


Kabul cannot expect to fight them and win; but what it can do is seek the help of regional powers to eradicate opium cultivation from Afghanistan and begin to put in place policies and mechanisms that can turn Afghanistan into an agro-industrial nation. I bet Kabul will find friends now in its neighborhood who are ready to help it accomplish that task. 


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