Without a Sign of Stability, Afghanistan Remains a Staging Ground - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 17 Jan 2016 0 Comment
The Causes of Today’s Instability: The US invasion in 2001 that ousted the already-hated ruling Taliban government of Mullah Mohammad Omar had conveyed the false message that the intervention was to unite a war-torn nation under a benign, temporary foreign rule. A large number of US and NATO troops remained in Afghanistan for more than decade. During that time, Kabul was dependent for administrative and other policy decisions on Washington, London and Brussels. (In addition, the West was providing the money that enabled Kabul to pay its bills.)


As unpalatable as the arrangement was for Kabul, it was nonetheless acceptable because of the conviction that US and NATO troops were there to hand the country back to the Afghans by eliminating the Taliban and al-Qaeda - the two alien forces jelled together in the 1980s and 1990s by the West’s close allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which had hijacked the country. Yet, in spite of having hundreds of thousands of foreign troops stationed in the country for more than a decade and spending hundreds of billions of dollars to secure the nation from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, nothing of a permanent nature was established. Today Afghanistan is as insecure and divided as it was before 2001.


That is not to say that the country has not undergone some level of economic development during this period. In the immediate aftermath of the US invasion and the setting up of a government in Kabul, Afghanistan experienced a period of quick economic growth. But that growth did not include the poor who live outside of major cities. Moreover, most of the economic success was achieved in the first few years following 2001; once the political powers with vested interests got themselves entrenched into the newly-developed system, economic growth became more and more confined to only a handful. Still, the rate of economic growth, which often does not signal the health of the nation, was high, averaging above nine percent per year. And during this period the average per capita income of Afghans as a whole also rose sharply.


Inadequate and unsustainable, those economic upticks reduced neither the overall poverty in rural Afghanistan nor the insecurity that prevailed throughout the period the foreign troops were in charge of maintaining law and order. Now, in 2015, Afghanistan’s economy is contracting and Kabul is experiencing larger fiscal gaps. Analysts are pointing to greater threats the country faces in light of the reduced number of foreign troops and an increasingly lethal insurgency that has raised its head once more. Afghanistan’s economic woes - including, in particular, the lack of physical infrastructure, development of skilled human resources, education and health care - is a prime factor in Afghanistan’s instability.


But when one looks for the more proximate causes of the current instability in Afghanistan, three stand out: the resurgence of the Taliban, the emergence of IS and the bountiful production of opium/heroin.


Resurgence of the Taliban


With the 2015 spring thaw setting in, the Taliban has enhanced its on-the-ground activities. While many violent actions have been labeled “Taliban attacks,” it is not altogether clear that all of the clashes in recent months targeting the Afghan police or the Afghan National Forces to undermine Kabul’s authority were actually the handiwork of the Taliban. The reason is that the Taliban’s objectives and strategy at this stage are not at all clear, and there are sharp factional divisions within the group.


The group’s relationship with IS is not clear. Some Taliban outlets talk about establishing an Islamic system, but what does that exactly mean in the context of what its alleged opposition, IS, is demanding? And why are the Taliban and the IS contesting each other? Another point of contention is negotiations with Kabul. For years, a faction of the Taliban wanted to negotiate with the Western powers, but was firmly opposed to negotiating with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In July, Chatham House’s Matt Waldman observed that the Taliban movement is less hostile to negotiations than it was a few years ago and, according to Waldman, increasingly views political activities in tandem with military efforts (“Opportunity in Crisis Navigating Afghanistan’s Uncertain Future,” Chatham House, Matt Waldman, July).


Other Taliban factions project a military victory over Kabul and vow to maintain violent armed struggle to achieve that end.  Apart from disagreements on issues, there are geographic divisions in the Taliban - in particular, the non-Afghanistan-based Taliban faction, widely recognized as the Haqqani faction, which operates from within Pakistan. Describing this grouping as “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 22, 2011, that the Haqqani network is probably the most dangerous faction in the Afghan Taliban and that it was funded by the CIA in the 1980s to counter Soviet forces (“Haqqani network is a “veritable arm” of ISI,” Mullen, The Dawn, Sept. 22, 2011)


The factional differences were highlighted in early July, when Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who had become the voice of his master, Mullah Mohammed Omar, revealed that Mullah Omar is dead. The Taliban leader had not been seen since 2010. Following the announcement, a faction within the Taliban (it is not clear whether it is the larger or the smaller faction) rejected Mansour’s authority. The Haqqani faction fell in line behind Mansour.


It is something of a mystery how such major news could be kept secret for so long. How could Mullah Omar’s son, who was expected to be in the know of things and opposed Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s leadership as soon as his father’s death was made public, had  allowed Mansour to call the shots under “Omar’s guidance” for two years? The secrecy could be construed as an effort to maintain unity within the Taliban, but it could not have worked unless all of the factions were functioning under one large umbrella that, presumably, Islamabad/Rawalpindi had spread out. And that condition may have changed since Mullah Omar’s death became public.


Strategy Page, in a Sept. 15 write-up, said the Afghan Taliban is known to be sharply divided over the subject of peace talks with the Afghan government and strategy in general. Some of the dissidents accuse Mansour of rigging the reported intra-party election to emerge as the leader. Some factions also complain openly that Pakistan (in the form of the ISI) actually controls the Taliban leaders living in Baluchistan under the protection of the ISI. In recently released emails, US State Department officials discussed the Mullah Omar situation and confirmed that, as far as the US government was concerned, there was no doubt that Pakistan had been sheltering Omar since 2002 (“Afghanistan: Fight or Flight,” Strategy Page, Sept. 21).


Be that as it may, the much-vaunted Taliban-Kabul talks scheduled for July in Murree, Pakistan, and backed by three major parties in the Afghan affair - Pakistan, China and the United States - did not take place and have, in fact, been postponed indefinitely. Strategy Page notes that Mansour backs peace talks while Omar was said to have opposed them. Taliban leaders most loyal to Omar still oppose peace talks.


As things now stand, the Ghani administration does not face any real threat from the faction led by Mullah Akhtar Mansour. That faction is not only controlled by Islamabad/Rawalpindi; it may have become less threatening because of its contacts with Washington and Beijing. As a result, the only “active” faction within the Taliban is the one that propagates a military victory to get to power. How strong is that faction, and how much of a threat does it pose to the Ghani administration?


According to Matt Waldman’s Chatham House report, the Taliban-led insurgency remains powerful, well-resourced and able to benefit from sanctuaries and support in Pakistan. The Taliban are launching more attacks on government forces than at any point since 2001, killing unprecedented numbers of soldiers and police, and are well positioned to make unilateral gains, especially in the south and southeast of the country and parts of the north.


On Aug. 26, Thomas Ruttig, writing for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), reported the Taliban had taken the second district center in the southern province of Helmand. A month earlier Musa Qala and Nawzad had gone under Taliban control. Although such takeovers were not wholly complete and cannot be said to be permanent, they indicate that the Taliban is making headway in the Pushtun-dominated south. Ruttig points out that taking over the district center and controlling the entire district are two different things - for both sides. The most that can be said, he says, is that the Taliban seem to have adopted a long-term strategy of increasing the strain on the Afghan armed forces.


Ruttig notes that, like Musa Qala, Nawzad had been volatile for many months. In November 2014, the Afghan media quoted its district governor saying that “government forces control only one of the 360 karez (village clusters linked to the same irrigation system) and the office of the district governor.” In Musa Qala, Afghan forces seem to have been outnumbered again.


Although AAN did not report the exact number of Afghan government forces on the ground, District Governor Muhammad Sharif said that he had to flee the district town when “more than 100” Taliban fighters attacked “from all sides.” He also indicated that reinforcements had not arrived in time within the week the fighting had been raging. He said three Taliban groups, with 150 fighters each, were already active in the area in May, and that the police were understaffed (“The Second Fall of Musa Qala: How the Taliban are expanding territorial control,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, Thomas Ruttig, Sept. 3).


As a result of these developments, the Taliban has brought under its control large parts of the district east of Musa Qala, Kajaki, with its important hydro-electrical station that provides power to Kandahar. The road linking the district center with the rest of the province has been blocked since fighting in mid-June. Fighting was also reported earlier this year from Sangin, to the south of Kajaki, another former hotspot of British-Taliban fighting; and from Nahr-e-Seraj district, to the immediate north of the provincial capital Lashkargah. Also, Dishu and Baghni (an unofficial district) in Helmand’s south are partly in Taliban hands. Eight of Helmand’s 14 districts (13 plus unofficial Baghni) are under full or significant Taliban control. (“The Second Fall of Musa Qala: How the Taliban are expanding territorial control,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, Thomas Ruttig, Sept. 3)


In the north, Associated Press on June 22 cited an unnamed Afghan official saying that the Taliban had captured a second district, Dashti Archi, in the northern Kunduz province after heavy fighting with local security forces. The Afghan news agency, Pajhwok, reported in early September that hundreds of Kunduz residents were urging the Ghani government to send the first vice-president and chief of the Uzbek-Afghan militia, Jumbish-e-Milli, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, to the province to lead counterinsurgency operations. Dostum had travelled to northern Faryab province in August with security forces, and had reportedly “cleared” the Qaisar, Pashtunkot, Shirin Tagab and Almar districts of insurgents. But subsequent reports indicate that the Taliban have re-emerged in Qaisar and Shirin Tagab districts. While in Faryab, the Taliban ambushed Dostum’s convoy and killed nine of his militiaman. Dostum escaped the attack unscathed. (Afghan Intel Captures Taliban’s Shadow Governor for Faryab: The Long War Journal: Bill Roggio: Sept 1 2015)


However, on Sept. 29, in what seemed like a sudden development, Kunduz city, the capital of the eponymous northern province, fell to the Taliban. Kunduz is the first major city or garrison to fall to the jihadists in 14 years of war since the Taliban were toppled in 2001. According to Dr. Mohammad Taqi, a noted analyst, “the etiology of the Kunduz debacle is complex, but its immediate lesson is clear: it will serve as a major morale booster for the post-Mullah Omar Taliban, whether or not they can hold on to the city” (“The Kunduz debacle,” Daily Times, Dr. Mohammad Taqi, Oct. 1).


Taqi also stated that “President Ashraf Ghani’s policy has been clearly flawed, and he has simply failed to fix it. He had changed the Kunduz governor with his handpicked man, Mohammad Omar Safi, in an attempt to upend the local militias and warlords; but Safi - an outsider to Kunduz - failed to gain traction and was pushed to pasture a few days ago. At the time of the current Taliban assault, Governor Safi was apparently in Tajikistan awaiting his dismissal orders from Kabul.” Safi is a Pushtun who was brought in to rule over a Tajik-dominated area. Was it an effort by Ghani to bring Kunduz under Pushtun leadership, an objective that failed but probably had the blessings of both London and Washington? Was it, indeed, an effort on Ghani’s part to weaken the non-Pushtun alliance that dominates northern Afghanistan?


A New Area of Taliban Activity


Taliban activity and military successes have also been reported from the thinly-populated northern province of Badakhshan, which borders Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. Obaid Ali, writing for AAN, reported on Sept. 14 that over the past four years insurgents have established roots in 12 of Badakhshan’s 28 districts: Jurm, Warduj, Yamgan, Tagab, Kuran wa Munjan, Argo, Shuhada, Shahr-e Bezorg, Arghanjkhwah, Yaftal, Ragh and Keshem. It has also become a safe place for insurgents from Central Asia who, as locals told AAN, have been stepping up their activity. “Fighters from Central Asia have frequently participated in local battles supporting the Taliban,” Badakhshis told AAN. Obaid Ali pointed out that Badakhshan was once almost free of insurgency, but is now being contested. He also noted that the foreign fighter communities are growing, their recruitment is speeding up and the national security forces deployed to fight them are regularly beaten back.


Obaid Ali, who visited the area, reports that the local government officials blame the increase in insecurity on a variety of factors. Some are rather contradictory and illustrate a deep rift between the authorities in charge and the extreme difference in perceptions that exist on what needs to be done and by whom. He also notes a different narrative from Deputy Governor Bedar, who claimed that a couple of Afghan base commanders had made a private deal with the local Taliban, handing over the base because “they did not want to fight. They did not shoot a single bullet.” Instead of fighting, Bedar said, border police and Afghan Local Police (ALP) rather engaged in “drug smuggling and illegal extraditions of resources.” The fact that these commanders might have “sold the base” was also reported by local elders to another AAN researcher who travelled north. (“The 2015 Insurgency in the North (2): Badakhshan’s Jurm district under siege,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, Obaid Ali, Sept. 14)


These developments are no doubt significant. At a minimum they suggest that the Taliban are not sitting idle. However, Taliban control is not necessarily permanent in these areas - and even whole districts in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban had moored decades ago - and the areas themselves are mostly peripheral and do not threaten the entire province. The Taliban has a similarly strong presence in east Afghanistan bordering Pakistan and parts of central Afghanistan. This presence does not pose an existential threat to the Kabul regime, but it is strong enough to establish a state of permanent chaos in certain areas and would help in maintaining disunity and division within Afghanistan.


The Islamic State: How Real a Presence?


While the Taliban have been around for years in Afghanistan and have developed a covert communication channel with Kabul, helped by Islamabad in particular, the group cannot really be considered an immediate threat to seize control of Kabul. Not so with the so-called Islamic State (IS). It is not evident as yet that IS and its present-day Afghan collaborators have built functional bases inside Afghanistan. In July 2014, the Afghan news agency Tolo News reported that the Pakistani Taliban group Tehrik-e-Khilafat (the Caliphate Movement) had declared their allegiance to IS. That report stated that the group is growing in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, as well as in some other areas in central and southern Asia. Analysts believe that since Pakistan is a safe haven to many insurgent groups, there is a high possibility that some other extremists groups will also pledge allegiance to the IS leader, Al-Baghdadi. “ISIS (another name for IS) might not offer any practical aids to the surge groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan; but the groups could get inspiration from ISIS and follow their policy regardless,” Pakistani military analyst, Amir Rana, said. (“Pakistani Taliban Declares Allegiance to ISIS,” Tolo News, Sharif Amiri, July 10, 2014)


In addition, AAN reported on April 22 that the suicide attack on the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad on April 18 that killed more than 30 people and injured at least 100 others was condemned by the Taliban and claimed by IS, or at least by a Facebook site purporting to represent IS (“First wave of IS attacks? Claim and denial over the Jalalabad bombs,” Afghan Analysts Network, Kate Clark and Borhan Osman, April 22).


While the IS foothold inside Afghanistan is not distinct, some foreign officials believe the group has already made inroads. In March this year, Nicholas Haysom, the United Nation’s representative for the Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), warned the UN Security Council that IS “had also established a foothold in the country,” and that, while not yet significant, it had a “potential to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups could rally.” Russia’s deputy UN Delegate Vladimir Safronkov dittoed Haysom’s views, stating that extremists would try to “rock the boat” of the new Afghan government as well as test the country’s security forces. He warned about the widening activities of IS, as well as Afghanistan’s rising drug production, which, he said, now accounts for 15 percent of the beleaguered country’s gross domestic product (“Brightened Afghan prospects challenged by ISIL ‘foothold’, Taliban terror, weak economy,” WorldTribune.com, John J. Metzler, March 20).


Warnings have been issued from Moscow, as well. Speaking at the Collective Security Treaty  Organization (CSTO) summit (Sept.14-15) in Dushanbe, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that IS had become a serious threat not only for West Asia but also for the six CSTO members - Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus (“Fight terror threat: Putin to CSTO,” Russia-India Report, Oleg Egorov, Sept. 21). Last March, before Safronkov’s statement at the UN, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told reporters in Moscow that the IS militant group posed a threat to Russia’s partners in CSTO: “We have noticed that in this region the first factions of the Islamic State group have emerged. We see how they are starting to push toward the southern borders of our allies, first of all those in the CSTO” (“Russian Defense Ministry: IS Poses Threat to Tajikistan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 5).


All this still does not give us a clear picture of the potency and location of IS involvement inside Afghanistan. At the same time, it is likely that IS will find fertile ground in the mountainous eastern provinces and in Pakistan’s tribal regions, where an assortment of international-oriented bands are operating. The Punjabis, Pashtuns, Kashmiris, Uzbeks and Uighurs straddling the Af-Pak frontier are international in composition and outlook, and the IS may find them willing recruits.


(To be concluded…)

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