Afghanistan: New Great Game unfolds – III
by Sandhya Jain on 20 Jul 2015 3 Comments

United States: By the time Ashraf Ghani took office, the security situation had become complex and a firm date for withdrawal of American troops was no longer a priority; indeed, one of his first acts was to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and the multilateral security agreement with NATO, which Karzai had resisted. This was urgently needed to prevent the loss of some provinces to armed jihadis.


Washington agreed that complete withdrawal would embolden militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan (still a key US ally), with the potential of spreading to Central Asia and even China. The rise of ISIS is troubling, as is the fact that jihadis from Afghanistan have already joined ISIS in Syria. The Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, and Afghan wars comprise an arch of instability from the Middle East to Central and South Asia. Washington therefore feels it is prudent to retain bases in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Bagram for longer, though troop commitment beyond 2016 would have to be decided by the next US president. However, Obama has permitted US troops to resist the Taliban if US interests are at stake or in danger.


Ghani, who served as finance minister under Karzai and was judged the best finance minister of Asia in 2003 by Emerging Markets, is moving cautiously. In Washington, he lauded his predecessor’s efforts to initiate the peace talks, pointing out that President Karzai travelled 26 times to Pakistan as part of this quest, which he (Ghani) is continuing in earnest. CEO Abdullah Abdullah also served Karzai briefly as foreign minister. A senior member of the Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Massoud, he also served under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Abdul Rashid Dostum is a vice president. There is, thus, a measure of continuity between the Karzai regime and the new unity government. Ghani told his American audience that Kabul seeks closer ties with the US, China, and the Arab and Islamic world.


When Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah landed in Washington in late March, the Obama administration readily committed an annual $4 billion to fund the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at the level of 352,000 troops for the next two fiscal years, up to 2017. President Obama agreed to slow down troop withdrawal, originally slated to be completed by 2017, after Ghani expressed fears about ISIS advances and a resurgent Taliban, with whom Afghan troops are currently engaged in intense fighting which is expected to escalate in the coming summer. Nor have Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan been neutralised. Originally, half the 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan were scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2015. These will now remain and this may encourage the coalition partners to retain their 3000 troops in the country.


The Afghan delegation met Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry and discussed reforms Afghanistan would have to undertake before receiving up to $800 million in US aid to tackle the looming financial crisis. Washington is impatient over the slow progress in government formation, with too many vacancies at the top; Ghani appointed 16 cabinet members before departing for Washington, but 32 provinces remained headless.


Negotiations with the Taliban are fraught with risk. The reduction of international coalition troops from 2011, as a prelude to withdrawal, emboldened the group, enabling it to operate more freely in the countryside. Hence, casualties of Afghan security forces and civilians peaked in 2014. There are fears that failed negotiations or a deal too favourable to Taliban may erode the regime’s credibility. The Taliban on its part fears that negotiations may prompt hardliners to break away and join ISIS. Furthermore, the fact that Pakistan would be brokering the deal has created apprehensions that this may put Kabul too much in Islamabad’s debt.


The Taliban


When Mullah Omar’s regime fell to American intervention in 2001, the group found a haven in Pakistan, under ISI protection. Omar has not been seen since 2001, but all statements from the group are issued in his name. The Taliban is currently reputed to have around 60,000 armed fighters, with strongholds in the south and east, and links with Pakistan’s western tribal areas that have consistently defied Islamabad. The Taliban saw the US drawdown in 2011 as a victory of its war of attrition against the occupation forces: “America, its invading allies... along with all international arrogant organisations have been handed a clear-cut defeat in this lopsided war,” it said in a statement. After Washington rescheduled the pace of withdrawal, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujaahid said this left them no choice but to continue to fight against the US.


US drone strikes against the militants continue. The security situation in the country is so fragile that the ceremony marking the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission was held in secret due to Taliban threats.


America seems caught between the devil and the deep sea. In 2014, Washington released five top Taliban leaders (including Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Nori, suspected of involvement in the massacres of Sunni Tajiks and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan) from Guantánamo Bay, ostensibly in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (now charged with desertion). The real reason was to facilitate talks with the Taliban, but Mullah Omar saw the release as a sign of being “closer to the harbour of victory.” Similarly, President Obama has offered Pakistan a $1 billion arms deal in lieu of cooperation on counter-terrorism, but the ISI continues to protect the top Taliban leadership for “strategic depth” against India.


The ISI cultivated the Afghan Taliban from the time of the Soviet invasion and gave them safe havens along the 1,500-km long border between the two countries. Several militant groups also hide here. Now, Islamabad is expected to bring the Afghan Taliban into the unity government, but the jihadi groups are closely intertwined. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (close to Afghan Taliban) condemns the Pakistani State as apostate for aligning with the US post-9/11. The TTP has links with al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which are behind the violence against Pakistani Shias.


Terrorism is an issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Islamabad wants Kabul to hand over Mullah Fazlullah, believed to be in an Afghan hideout. Kabul accuses Islamabad of protecting the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, which continues to harass it with suicide bombings. Kabul is also unhappy that Pakistan firing in Afghan territory while pursuing militants has killed, wounded, and displaced its border population.


As efforts intensify to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, questions legitimately arise whether the group can be trusted to accept the country’s constitution or would (ab)use its position to restore its emirate. Will the Taliban formally renounce terrorism and surrender its arms, and will all its factions come on board?


These developments are taking place in the background of an evolving situation in Iran, where Washington is trying to hammer out a nuclear deal amidst growing tensions with Russia in Europe. America needs a stable Afghanistan to oversee developments in Central Asia and China (Xinjiang, and the Silk Road project), even as a nuclear-armed Pakistan remains internally conflicted and fragile. New Delhi is wary of the prospects for peace in a situation of inherent instability among the leading actors. The ISIS strike in Jalalabad has introduced a new element of volatility which may make the Taliban even more reluctant to strike a deal with the government.


This article was written on April 20 for Dialogue quarterly, April-June 2015, Vol. 16 No. 4, before the visit of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

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