Pompeo has planned a visit to India in the coming days, but on his way over he must stop in Rawalpindi and make sure that the Taliban was successful in bringing the reconciliation process on board.
For the Kabul Government, this August has been the worst month for violence and barbarity since the US-led war began in 2001. Equally, this year has witnessed many firsts: Offers of two ceasefires — Eid and Eid ul Zuha in June and August — first accepted and second rejected by the Taliban; militants and the Afghans embracing during the Eid cease fire; protests by civilians in Kabul against the Government’s failure to protect them against violence; scattered protests by Afghans against US and foreign forces; Peoples’ Peace Movement’s silent protests outside the US, Russia, Pakistan, the UK and Iran embassies in Kabul; the Taliban pledging not to bomb civilian areas; offer of unconditional talks by President Ghani, any time, any place, rejected by the Taliban; US engaging the Taliban in direct talks; Pakistanm Army’s direct intervention — denied by Gen Bajwa — in the recent siege of Ghazni. Afghanistan has overtaken Syria and Iraq as the bloodiest theatre of terrorism. In the first six months of 2018, 1,692 and 3,430 civilians were killed and wounded. An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 police and Army combatants were killed, deserted and kidnapped annually since 2015 — casualties that are unsustainable indefinitely.
The blood-soaked period, centred around August 15, saw multiple suicide attacks and kidnappings by the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) across the country in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Baghlan, Faryab, Kabul and Ghazni. The temporary loss of Provincial capital Ghazni in an audacious attack was reminiscent of the Taliban storming Kunduz in 2016, which led to the reappraisal of US/Afghan military strategy following the serial foul-ups there. A German NATO officer had told this writer then that as long as Provincial capitals and Kabul are secure, and the Ring Road around Kabul and essential lines of communication are open, the Taliban cannot unhinge the strategic security grid. With 30,000 fighters, they do not have the capacity to capture and hold ground. Which is why the Afghan Government still controls half of the 365 districts, which accounts for progressively decreasing 51 per cent of the territory. The Taliban is in control of 15 percent of the districts with the rest being contested as no man’s land. District headquarters exchange hands and this pattern prevails.
Given these ground conditions, and rejection by the Taliban of the ceasefire of August 21, parliamentary elections slated for October 20 and presidential polls for 2019, appear iffy. National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar suddenly resigned last week to contest for President. It seems the Trump policy in Afghanistan announced last August, which blasted Pakistan’s role, cheating and deceit, and included a hike of 3,000 US troops to raise the force to 15,000, has not worked despite Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ ‘last chance to Pakistan’. In defiance of US exhortations, Rawalpindi has put no pressure on the Taliban on Pakistani soil to either let up on violence or agree to join the peace process. What effect drone strikes against the Taliban/Haqqani network, that were dramatically increased in October 2017 and were suddenly put under wraps in March 2018 have had, is not clear. Both sides want to be in a better bargaining position during talks.
Meanwhile, the Taliban rejected to talk to Kabul as long as foreign forces remained on Afghanistan soil. In a dramatic U turn, Gen John Nicholson, US Commander in Afghanistan, announced that Washington was ready to discuss the role of foreign forces with the Taliban, adding “but the US is not a substitute for Afghanistan”.
In June, following the Ramzan ceasefire at the Brussels Nato summit on July 12, Ghani called the Trump strategy on Afghanistan a “game-changer”. He said: “For the first time in 40 years, we have experienced peace.” On July 28, Special Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, before meeting Taliban officials in Qatar, had met Bajwa in Rawalpindi. She talked about reaching a “deal” with the Taliban soon. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council Resolution extended UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan for a year and the US and NATO agreed to keep funding Afghan security forces till 2024.
Despite these commitments, Trump is impatient about outcomes. He is fully reconciled to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban but he still needs Bajwa to squeeze the Taliban after he has frozen the military aid and education programme. Wells has said that the peace process is being stymied by Taliban leaders in Pakistan. Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada is telling the Afghans that invaders (US) and their stooges (Afghan Government) will soon be expelled and victory will be theirs.
Pakistan’s new leader Imran Khan wants to recalibrate relations with the US given that his links with Pakistan and Afghan Taliban have given him the moniker Taliban Khan. He can use his Government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa patronage of the Darul Uloom Haqqania militant seminary aka Jihad university, whose alumni include, late Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, late Mullah Akhtar Mansour to soften the Taliban. Otherwise, the mercurial Trump could use the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering which reports to FATF to threaten shifting Pakistan from grey to black list. He can also, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested, put a spoke in the wheel of Pakistan’s 13th IMF bailout. The option of sanctioning some more of the Taliban leaders is always there.
The Taliban has been urging the US to take the earlier lot of their leaders off the sanctions list as a precondition for talks. Not just punishing the Taliban, the US could also sanction ISI Generals, two of whom have their children studying in the US. Recently, Trump had sanctioned some Burmese Generals. On September 5, Pompeo, enroute to India, for US-India 2+2 dialogue will stop over in Islamabad for his first meeting with Khan and Bajwa. Setting aside earlier criticism of Pakistan, the US has welcomed the new civilian Government and is looking forward to work with it.
Tough-talking Pompeo will doubtlessly talk about Taliban and Afghanistan with both and hope for a positive response from them. US priority in Afghanistan is peaceful parliamentary elections in October and Taliban brought on board the reconciliation process. Pompeo needs Bajwa to press the Taliban to join the peace process. The 64 million dollar question: What is the deal with the Taliban that Wells talked about? One possibility is amending the Constitution to placate the Taliban. The Trump team is desperate to exit Afghanistan while preserving the gains. Meanwhile, the Russian initiative on reconciliation for September 4, has been rejected by Kabul. Too many cooks have spoilt the broth.
(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