During the Afghanistan war, Taliban had the upper hand. The stalemate will prevail at least till the presidential elections. India would do well to scale up its military assistance
There is no respite from Taliban assaults in the killing fields of Afghanistan, from Kandahar in the east to Farah in the west. On the battlefield, the Taliban has the upper hand. The killing, in October, of the most powerful Afghan police chief in Kandahar, Lt Gen Abdul Raziq, also the most formidable political voice in the Taliban heartland, while he was holding a meeting with the new US Field Commander, Gen Scott Miller, who miraculously escaped the attack, reflects the ascendency of the Taliban. That Taliban suicide bombers could penetrate the concentric rings of the US and Afghan security around his stronghold affirms their military superiority.
But it also reflects the worst ever security situation in Afghanistan, 17 years after the Taliban was ousted from Kabul. Today, they hold/control and have influence over nearly half the country’s space. The drubbing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are taking is unprecedented, averaging daily killings of 62 to 80 ANSF. That they are holding out under such attrition is remarkable.
When the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2014 gave his report on the combat capability of ANSF, just before US troops ended their combat mission, it gave ANSF sufficiency in capability to independently the withstand Taliban offensive, but added that it would require US Air support and logistic assistance. It ruled out any strategic collapse. Then, Konduz, a provincial capital, fell in 2015 and since then, district and provincial capitals have been overrun by the Taliban. In the August attack on Ghazni, Pakistan-based terrorists were involved, prompting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to call it Pakistan’s undeclared war against his country.
US President Donald Trump’s warning to Pakistan, repeated several times by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the famous “last chance” missive by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, demonstrate the failure of the US’ military strategy. It is a miracle that the ANSF is holding out despite desertions. The US focus is, therefore, now on reconciliation and kick-starting the peace process after Taliban supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who let down the US on talks, was droned down in an attack in 2016.
The Trump team stepped up the tempo of talks, and for the first time, engaged in direct talks with the Taliban’s Qatar office at Doha at two levels: With US Assistant Deputy Secretary of State, Alice Wells in July; and with Special Envoy of the State Department on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, in October. The Taliban rejected outright talks with the Kabul Government, which they call US stooges.
The Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process is only notional despite offering unconditional talks. The Taliban has indicated it will continue talks with the US on terms and conditions for a full and final withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Surprisingly, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor has said that Pakistan does not want foreign forces to leave Afghanistan till peace is restored. This is a sharp contradiction of the Taliban’s stand, and one which Rawalpindi cites to prove that the Taliban is not under its influence, leave alone control.
So far, the Americans have called the shots on dialogue with the Taliban. Their diktat has prevailed with Kabul. This month, Russians jumped in for the second time this year with a conference to kick-start talks. Kabul had turned down Russia’s earlier attempt to begin a dialogue. Russians are keen that they have a key role in dousing the fires in Afghanistan. China has also dabbled in orchestrating talks which will inevitably end with too many cooks spoiling the broth.
The most visible change is in China’s policy towards Afghanistan which until recently, was circumscribed by four Noes: No boots on the ground; No interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs; No criticism of the US; and No use of northern distribution network. Policy shift is from development to security.
China worries about access from Afghanistan via the Wakhan panhandle to its Xinjiang Province by Uighur (ETIM) militants. For the first time Beijing is training and equipping an Afghan Brigade to be deployed in the mountainous reaches of Wakhan Corridor with joint patrolling in the area. China has signed an MoU with Afghanistan to connect Kabul with the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as some joint Afghanistan-Pakistan energy projects.
Kabul is extremely disappointed that the joint India-China project for Afghanistan is merely training diplomats instead of being a big infrastructure project. While Beijing is pound foolish in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in Kabul, it is seen as being penny wise in holding back its investments.
For Trump, his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy is in tatters. Still, Pompeo hopes that the reset in US-Pakistan relations will lead to Rawalpindi cooperating in acting against Taliban sanctuaries on its soil.
According to Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin, there are limits to the use of US military force against a nuclear-armed Pakistan. He added that as long as the US and Nato troops are deployed in Afghanistan, the Karachi-Kabul lifeline will render Washington hostage to Rawalpindi, especially after the US sanctions against Russia and China, which make the use of the northern distribution network untenable.
Pakistan Army Chief, Gen Qamar Bajwa is upset that Trump is encouraging India to acquire strategic depth in Afghanistan at Pakistan’s cost. This had never happened before because the US always looked at Afghanistan through Pakistan’s prism.
The prevailing theory is that the US will not leave Afghanistan in order to monitor activities of Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China from its strategic bases in Afghanistan. The stalemate on the ground in which the Taliban has a clear upper hand, will prevail not the least till after presidential elections in Afghanistan in April 2020. The campaigning season will soon come to a close but already, the Taliban has inflicted fatal damage on ANSF and the reputation of US forces in preventing wholesale attacks across the country.
India has focussed so far on economic assistance and capacity-building with an investment of two billion dollar, coupled with a commitment to another one billion dollar. This has earned it considerable goodwill and popularity in Kabul but not the scale of influence that Pakistan enjoys with contiguous borders. It is time that New Delhi scales up its military assistance, including supply of military hardware and more specialised training. India will not put boots on the ground — on which Trump queried Modi — but it can forward deploy at its Aynee Air base in Tajikistan, a full-fledged training centre as well as a field hospital. Both are urgently needed by the ANSF with its back to the wall.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
Writer: Ashok K Mehta
Courtesy: The Pioneer