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Accessed 15 October 2013
Oriental Review Open Dialogue Research Journal
Mon, Jul 22, 2013
By Ahsan ur Rahman KHAN (Pakistan)
Discernment of the probable form of the political transition of Afghanistan is one of the focal points of concern of the governments and public of Afghanistan, Pakistan and US, besides the regional countries and US’ major ISAF partners. Recent break down of the dialogue between US and Taliban – the two major ‘contenders’ in the transition issue – has once again stocked the lurking fears of ultimate failure of peaceful transition endeavours, which could result in very serious problems for a ‘safe’ withdrawal of US/NATO military, and a resumption of infighting in the country. There are also fears that even if US manages to ‘bring about’ some sort of governmental arrangement in 2014, it may not sustain. This particular fear is mostly based upon an oft-projected perception that Afghans – Pashtuns and others alike – lack the mindset for establishing an inclusive governmental arrangement in their multi-ethnic society. Though these fears are not totally unfounded, yet a very careful analysis of the situation does reflect a visible ray of hope too. Factually, the key for a realistic analysis in this highly complex issue lies in correctly discerning the ‘residual’ political ambitions of US and Taliban in the current and projected timeframe internal situation to evaluate the chances of agreement or otherwise between these two sets of ambitions – for, an agreement clearly presents much higher probability of a peaceful and sustainable transition, irrespective of the other ‘stake-holding’ counties; and, obviously a disagreements presents the chances of gloom.
It is well known that US’ actual ambitions in invading Afghanistan were to attain its objectives of gaining geopolitical control of the energy-rich Eurasia, and then to gravitate its thus acquired geostrategic weight towards Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asian States, and Russia. For that purpose, US chose the dominantly Tajik group of Afghans, generally known as the Northern Alliance, to be the ‘Afghan segment’ of US’ war against the then Taliban government of the country. That was one of the very basic mistakes in US’ planning. There is no doubt that Northern Alliance was the traditional opponent of the Pashtun dominated Taliban, but the fact cannot be overlooked that all through Afghanistan’s history Pashtuns, being the dominant majority, have ruled the country. The only instance of Tajik’s rule was when Tajik leader Bacha Saqao captured Kabul, but he too was defeated and driven out by Pashtuns within one year. Similarly the Soviet implanted Northern Alliance government in Kabul also melted away when repeatedly attacked by the Taliban. And, US authorities obviously cannot be unmindful of the fact that their arrangement of installing and supporting a government in the country, composed basically of Northern Alliance and associated warlords with Mr. Hamid Karzai ‘presenting a Pashtun face’ of the government, has also not worked out despite over a decade of brutal US/NATO military operations. This aspect of US’ failure in deriving the desired results, from its own Northern Alliance and associated warlords combine governmental arrangement in Afghanistan despite massive application of military force for over a decade, is very important to be kept in mind while evaluating the probabilities related to the forthcoming transition which US wishes to bring about in the country.
It is evident that after trying its utmost in vain for over a decade, US had to acknowledge that it could not continue its military occupation of Afghanistan in the hope of a final subjugation of Taliban before withdrawing its operation-oriented military from that country. And that, under the by then developed severe pressure of its own public, it had to reduce its original ambitions to merely the attainment of certain ‘residual’ objectives – two of those are clearly discernable. First is the critical objective of arranging an assured ‘safe exit’ of its military personnel and material – for, any further loss of lives of their own kith and kin in Afghanistan is now simply beyond the US’ public to bear; and that, any loss of its military equipment, some of which is sensitive, is bound to badly tarnish its proclaimed ‘super power prestige’. Second is the vital objective of ‘salvaging’ at least some of the aspects of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership arrangement agreed upon by presidents Obama and Karzai, albeit the fate of which still hangs in uncertainty. These two objectives are also of high significance in evaluation of the ‘transition issue’.
To add to these hard ground realities, there are many more problem areas which de-limit US’ options for arranging the transition. Many credible publications clearly indicate those problems. One of those is from Anthony H. Cordesman. It is titled ‘Afghanistan from 2012-2014: Is A Successful Transition Possible?’, published by Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) on 19 June 2012. Right in the beginning of his publication, Cordesman mentions that US’ plan of transition in Afghanistan lacks the crucial requirement of planning i.e. a clear definition of the mission. And. while referring to President Obama’s speech of 1 May 2012 in which Obama announced the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, Cordesman made certain very important observations:“President Obama’s latest definition of “transition” was far more modest than the ambitious goals for transformation and regional stability the US and its allies initially set in 2002, and it still left many of the key aspects of “transition” undefined. — It did not provide any specific goals for development, democracy, or human rights”; —- “The President did make it clear that “transition” would not mean an end to long-term US support of Afghanistan”; —- “However, the President did not call for the defeat of the Taliban and other insurgents, and did not call for the total elimination of all forms of terrorist presence”; and “The definition of “transition,” and the US mission in Afghanistan, had become conditional, and would be determined by the course of events, rather than defined as a set of specific goals”. The first observation regarding President Obama’s latest (2012) definition of transition being far more modest than the ambitious goals set out in 2002, corroborates the earlier mentioned discernment of US’ compulsion to be content with the much scaled down ‘residual ambition’ of attaining just the couple of rather ‘limited’ objectives. The observation that President Obama left many aspects of transition undefined, even leaving out the mention of defeating Taliban, clearly showed that the current US’ strategy is ‘open-ended’, focusing mainly on establishing such a political transition arrangement which may assure attainment of its two aforementioned ‘residual objectives’ irrespective of the form and manner of formulation of the government, (even if Taliban form or lead the government). The reason for this major change in US’ strategy can be easily understood by having a careful look at the challenges faced by US.
The most significant of the transition challenges faced by US has been pointed out by Cordesman:“As noted earlier, the challenge is not to have a “good” or “honest” election between 212 (2012) and 2014, it is to create an effective Afghan leadership and political structure”. And obviously, that requirement can only be met if the upcoming Afghanistan government meets two fundamental conditions:
(1) that it is considered by the majority of Afghans as corruption-free and competent to work for the socio-economic alleviation of the masses; and
(2) that it is capable of establishing and maintaining law and order during and after US/NATO military withdrawal.
For that purpose, US has two options, either to bring about a governmental arrangement based upon the Northern Alliance and associated warlords, supported by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); or to have a government based upon or led by Taliban. However, the chances of US adopting the Northern Alliance group option have become very low. That is so, because despite being in the government with full US/NATO support for over a decade Northern Alliance has not only failed to deliver, it has also caused the germination of severe governance problems. Their poor governance capacity is clearly elaborated even in the US’ Department of Defence Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, April 2012. It highlights, “However, the capacity of the Afghan Government and the extension of effective governance and rule of law have been limited by multiple factors, including widespread corruption, limited human capacity, and uneven concentration of power among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains and threaten the legitimacy and long-term viability of the Afghan Government”. This finding leaves no doubt about the incapacity of any government formed or led by Northern Alliance in both the aspects of assuring the required security (law and order) and political viability.
It is noteworthy that these remarks of US’ official document are rather mild. The severity of the adverse conditions has been elaborated more clearly in many other documents and reports. The report of UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan, titled ‘Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent Patterns and Trends’, of December 2012 presents the factual position by highlighting that corruption is seen by Afghans as one of the most urgent challenges facing their country; that the delivery of public services remains severely affected by bribery in Afghanistan; and that in 2012 half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service and the total cost of bribes paid to public officials amounted to US$ 3.9 billion which amounted to an increase of 40 per cent between 2009 and 2012. And regarding the actual state of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) the fact is that while their numerical strength has risen quite a lot, their operational worthiness suffers from serious problems. CNN’s report, titled ‘Are the Afghans Really Ready to Take over Security?’ dated 20 June 2013, brings to fore that despite its remarkable growth rate, ANSF has faced soaring casualties, rising attrition and desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, illiteracy and corruption, and a desertion rate of as much as 10 percent. In addition, elements of the ANSF are riddled with sexual and drug abuse, extortion, routine kidnapping, and they are often complicit in insider attacks. Factually the desertion rate in ANSF appears to be still higher, as mentioned in Daily The News of 6 February 2013, “ISAF figures suggest that 27% of Afghan Army deserted in the year 2012, 16.8% of Afghan Police and 14% of Afghan Air Force. Most of them allegedly join the insurgents along with their weapons and in some cases vehicle too.
It is obvious that the Taliban leadership is also fully aware of these ground realities, and is expected to formulate its political ambitions relating to the transition issue capitalising on this situation. However, the question remains whether the Taliban would use this situation to force US to accept their much ambitious hard line political demands, or would they prefer a rational approach?
Matthieu Aikins, a journalist based in Kabul has referred to and commented upon a classified report of US’ officials relating to Taliban in Afghanistan, in his article of 9 March 2013. That secret report, of US’ officials at Bagram base in Afghanistan, is based upon the information obtained from the captured insurgents, and it provides quite credible insight into the ground realities, within the framework of which Taliban leadership is more likely to formulate its strategy relating to the transition issue. This report was meant for circulation in ISAF. It is titled “State of the Taliban“, 6 January 2012 (Secret/Re. ISAF). . Some of the excerpts of that report, which provide the required insight, are:
“In the last year there has been unprecedented interest, even from GIRoA (Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) members, in joining the insurgent cause. Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over GIRoA, usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders. The effectiveness of Taliban governance allows for increased recruitment rates which, subsequently, bolsters their ability to replace losses”;
“Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their contol (control) of Afghanistan is inevitable. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset”;
“Since 2010, Taliban strategic messaging has focused increasingly on redefining the Taliban “Emirate” as a legitimate government. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a relative moderate and reputed pragmatist, serves as the Taliban’s deputy commander, directly subordinate only to Mullah Mohammad Omar”;
“Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, have publicly related a somewhat clearer and more consistent vision for a future Taliban government in Afghanistan, one which ostensibly advocates acceptance of all Afghan ethnic groups and distances the group from international extremism”;
“The Taliban have publicly relayed their intention to include all Afghan tribes, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashai and Pashtuns in their efforts to rebuild Afghanistan”;
“Throughout Afghanistan, formal and informal agreements between Taliban, Arbakai militias and Afghan intelligence, police and army units have long been a common occurrence”;
“The weapons bazaar in Miram Shah, Pakisan, is increasingly inundated with rifles, pistols and heavy weapons which have been sold by Afghan security forces. Captured photographs of Taliban personnel riding openly in the green Ford Ranger pickup trucks of the Afghan Army are commonplace throughout Afghanistan. These vehicles and weapons were once only acquired on the battlefield. They are now regularly sold or donated by Afghan security forces”;
“Overall contact between Taliban and GIRoA leaders also appears to have increased in the last two years. —– Small, yet quantifiable gestures of support are provided as evidence of the GIRoA official’s interest in cooperation”.
It is known that in many areas of the country, under their de-facto control, Taliban are managing the local affairs. In that context it is significant to note that by this time Taliban have brought in many changes in their pre-2001 system of governance. The mentioned report of US’ officials elaborates those changes comprehensively. In brief, it mentions that in the last two years Taliban leadership continued to refocus from military operations to the establishment of alternative civilian governance.
While Taliban military operations continue to gain media attention, their growing ability to provide essential governmental services has become a strong source of appeal for Afghans.
Taliban have thus developed widespread appeal by returning to simple, values-based administration with overlapping systems of checks and balances to ensure at least the appearance of incorruptibility. It has been achieved through the civilian commission system, which is designed to provide local, Sharia-based government, unbiased mediation, judicial systems free of corruption, as well as an independent voice for civilians who have issues with the Taliban military command. People are allowed to complain, which is investigated by an independent team which reports directly to the Talban Central Shura.
Civilian commissioners are chosen for their impartiality and local respectability by leaders who are echelons above local Taliban military commanders. — One of the strengths of the civilian commission system is its flexibility in which Taliban provincial governors are free to establish a civilian commission system which suits the needs of their assigned province. People have reported their satisfaction with the system.
The US’ officials report also mentions another significant aspect, i.e. the way of thinking of Afghans. It highlights that “in Afghanistan, the term “liberal values” often equates to civil-war-era lawlessness and chaos, sexual permissiveness and a promotion of secularism. Even relative moderates equate the term “democracy” to liberal, Western values. Democracy, education, religious tolerance , and women’s rights were all common Soviet propaganda themes during the 1979-1989 occupation.
Such themes are largely dismissed in Afghanistan as being concerns of the “red faces,” as the British, Russians and Americans are commonly labeled.
However, combined GIRoA/ ISAF efforts to educate the public on the true definition or societal value of democracy, secularism, tolerance, liberal values and women’s rights have tended, thus far, to be disregarded outright”.
Further more direct and credible reading of Taliban leadership’s way of thinking and ambitions, relating to most aspects of transition (cease fire, elections, formation of government, US’ post-2014 presence in the country, etc.), were reported in a paper published by the well-known Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), titled ‘Taliban Perspective on Reconciliation’, September 2012. This paper is based upon the report of RUSI’s team of experts. The team comprised of Michael Semple, Fellow at the Carr Center on Human Rights, Harvard University, and a former deputy to the European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan, Anatol Lieven Professor of Terrorism and International Relations, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, Theo Farrell Professor of War in the Modern World, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and Rudra Chaudhuri Lecturer in Strategic Studies and South Asian Security, Department of War Studies, King’s College London. The team interviewed four senior interlocutors who referred primarily to the Quetta Shura of Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar which is, as they all confirmed, is the primary vehicle driving the insurgency, and in their view, continues to enjoy the allegiance of other key groups dotting the insurgent landscape. Those interlocutors were: (1) a former Taliban minister familiar with the workings of the Quetta Shura’s Political Committee and closely associated with Mullah Mohammad Omar, (2) a former Taliban deputy minister and a founding member of the Taliban, (3) a senior former mujahedeen commander and lead negotiator for the Taliban who has never been part of the Taliban but had negotiated key deals between the Taliban and other non-Taliban groups in the 1990s, and (4) an Afghan mediator with extensive experience in negotiating with the Taliban as recently as the late 2000s, and has never officially been part of the Taliban.
It is a comprehensive report. The main aspects of the input provided by the interlocutors, as presented in the paper, are reflected in the following of its excerpts:
- Renunciation of international terrorism and the likes of Al-Qaida can be considered ‘a given’, but it has to be built as a process into a comprehensive peace settlement.
- Agreeing to the continuation of drone attacks would be extremely difficult for the Taliban, even if remaining Al- Qaida figures were identified.
- No Taliban leader has publicly endorsed the idea of a ceasefire; however it is plausible that the Taliban may support a ceasefire in the right circumstances.
- There was no buy-in whatsoever for accepting the Afghan constitution as it is currently lettered and represented, because it is seen as lending authority to the Present Karzai regime; however this issue could be dealt with if the narrative around acceptance presently seen as one akin to surrender is changed, and if the constitution were to be approved by a Loya Jirga or an assembly of sorts with representation from the Taliban.
- Taliban have no problem with the idea of parliament or elections. What they may want is some form of clerical role in Afghan government, but without executive authority. Further, the Taliban would want a centralised and undivided state, and would oppose a federal structure.
- Regarding formulation of post-conflict government, Taliban felt there was no real foundation for elections in Afghanistan, President Karzai was utterly corrupt and could not be relied upon to deliver clean elections, besides that Taliban cannot support a government run by Karzai. Hence, if an agreement was to be reached, there could be a suggestion that an interim period of three years would be needed between a nominal agreement and elections, which Taliban representatives would campaign like any other candidates.
- Taliban may work with other members of the parliament, but there is no chance of working with Hamid Karzai, his family members, and all others who have record of corruption. Since a key imperative for the Taliban in government would be to root out corruption, hence the question is not ‘who the Taliban will work with’, but ‘who is willing and able to work with the Taliban.’
- The Taliban are prepared to accept a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, provided that US military bases and continuing presence of soldiers would be acceptable to a level that does not impinge on Afghans independence and religion. The prospect of the US military operating in Afghanistan up to 2024 out of five primary military bases (Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul) could be agreed through negotiation; however Taliban would need to consider this in the context of what is best for Afghan national security.
- The US’ presence would be acceptable if it contributed to Afghan security, but not if the Americans launch attacks against neighbours – such as Iran and Pakistan – from Afghanistan.
The foregoing credible information provides a very clear understanding of the ‘actual’ prevailing ground realities in Afghanistan, within the framework of which US and Taliban have to strive for the fulfillment of their ‘remaining ambitions’ of achieving their ‘residual objectives’. If it is thoughtfully pondered upon in perspective for analysis, it becomes easier to discern the probabilities related to the Afghanistan transition 2014. It makes it clear that on the one hand US has an ‘insurmountable compulsion’ to withdraw safely as planned (critical objective). Besides that US also desires to retain its ‘foot-hold’ in the country in the form of military assistance for training and security alongwith certain of the bases, and some economic assistance. US is in no position to revisit its decision to withdraw as planned, even if it has to accept the re-admission of Taliban in the leading political role, and to compromise a bit in its objective of retaining its ‘foot-hold’. The other matters, like the procedure of forming the next government, its form, etc. may at the most be the ‘bargaining chips’. On the other hand, Taliban have a ‘priority preference’ of bringing an end to the US/NATO military operations to provide the much needed relief to the ‘war-weary’ masses, in a manner that Afghans’ national sovereignty and their ingrained Islamic and traditional values are not impinged (critical objective). However, this is not an ‘insurmountable pressure’ like the one with US – for, Taliban can afford to continue their guerilla operations due to obvious reasons, but US cannot afford to prolong its war. This is a very strong ‘bargaining leverage’ with the Taliban. Those aspects in which Taliban are not likely to compromise are not many. They are not prepared to accept any form of cease-fire, or any other related action, which may appear to Afghans as ‘surrender’. They cannot accept any US’ demand like blanket immunity for US personnel from Afghanistan’s law, or any other such demand which violates Afghans’ sovereignty and their Islamic and traditional values. They are also not likely to accept politically working with Hamid Karzai, his close relatives and others known for corruption. Very obviously, compromise on these by Taliban will be like committing ‘political suicide’. In the rest of the aspects of transition issue, Taliban are more likely not to be rigid, although they may use each of the aspects as ‘bargaining chip’. In essence, therefore, there is a clear ray of hope that US and Taliban, propelled by the ‘marriage of expediency’ (US’ insurmountable pressure and Taliban’s priority preference), will ultimately succeed in arranging the Afghanistan transition, though the proceedings are likely to be ‘anxiously lengthy’, interspersed with many alarming situations. The only ‘disrupting danger’ to such a settlement could be from the known ‘transition spoilers’, who do not want US/NATO to implement their withdrawal as planned.
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan is a post-retirement PhD, and a research-analyst from Pakistan. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily coincide with one’s of the ORIENTAL REVIEW editorial.
Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan
(Written in mid-March 2018)
The latest move by the Afghanistan President came with a bit of a surprise, in which he convened a conference of the countries involved in the so called Kabul Process and on 28 February 2018 offered a number of concessions to Afghanistan Taliban if they accepted to join in a plan to bring peace in the country. The surprise was due to the fact that since about some months US along with Afghanistan government had commenced a blitz of wide spread devastating aerial bombing strikes killing a record number of civilian men, women and children in the process of pursuing the Afghanistan Taliban to suppress and cow them down to bring them to the negotiating table; though rather than being cowed down, the Afghan Taliban were responding with increased deadly attacks causing hundreds of casualties. This sudden major change in the political decision making by the Afghanistan government, which obviously was at the behest of the US government, therefore deserves a very careful analysis to discern whether at long last could there be any chance of the ‘long wished for’ return of peace in Afghanistan, or is it going to be yet another failed attempt.
This short paper presents the required analysis covering the essential related aspects, i.e. (a) the actual objectives of US in Afghanistan, and the reasons for the current ‘softening change’ in US’ design to deal with Afghanistan Taliban; (b) the proposed concessions to the Afghanistan Taliban, and the latent intricacies of the proposal; (c) possible reaction of the non-Taliban Afghans; (d) discerned limits of any compromise by Afghanistan Taliban and US; and (e) the inferences drawn in the current time-frame.
Actual US’ Objective in Afghanistan
It is a well-acknowledged fact that US government’s claim was a complete untruth that it invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al-Quaeda who master-minded the 9/11 ‘Twin Tower’ attack and also to overthrow the Taliban government which supported Al-Quaeda. The reality was that much earlier than 9/11 US had already planned to invade Afghanistan and plant there a government of its own choice to attain its actual, albeit latent, objectives. That fact was published in a BBC report dated 18 September 2001 titled ‘US ‘planned attack on Taleban’. It mentioned that Mr. Niaz Naik former Pakistan Foreign Secretary was informed by the senior US officials in mid-July, at the UN-sponsored international contact group on Afghanistan which took place in Berlin, that US military action would go ahead against Afghanistan by middle of October to topple the Taliban government and install a government of moderate Afghans. Besides that, the then US Secretary of State Ms. Condoleezza Rice also mentioned in TV programmes that the approved US’ strategy/plan to invade Afghanistan to destroy Al-Quaeda and Taleban leadership, their command and control, etc. in Afghanistan was already in place in spring/summer of 2001, but it was kept secret, and was formally approved on 04 September 2001. That statement of the actual truth by US’ Secretary of State, extracted from various TV programmes is still available in the video recording of ARY’s TV programme ‘Power Play’ by Arshad Sharif dated 18 October 2017.
In reality the actual US’ objectives, in invading Afghanistan to occupy it militarily and install a government of its own choice in that country, were/are therefore, geopolitical/geostrategic. That aspect becomes very clear by having a careful look at the following map.
From this map it becomes amply evident that geographically Afghanistan is virtually a ‘strategic fulcrum’ in this region; and from the ‘politico-military stranglehold’ of this ‘strategic fulcrum’ US can geo-strategically gravitate towards Pakistan, China, Iran, Central Asia, and Russia. This ‘politico-military stranglehold’ of Afghanistan provides US three distinct capabilities, related to its actual geopolitical/geostrategic objectives in the region.
First, besides posing any sort of missile etc threats, US can also utilise this Afghanistan launch pad to create internal disorder/destability through the ‘covert terrorist operators’ of its own or/and its allies in the selected areas of these countries.
Second, for long US has been designing to remove the nuclear weapon capability possessed by the only Muslim country, i.e. Pakistan. Through Afghanistan, US has the ‘proximity’ capability of launching US’ CIA – Indian RAW combine proxy terrorists in Pakistan to spread terror-chaos in the country, with the plan of destabilising Pakistan to the extent where US could compel Pakistan to give up its nuclear arsenal and facilities apparently in the name of UN control.
Third, there are also reports that US is interested in exploiting the reported over a trillion USD worth of the un-explored mineral deposits in Afghanistan. This third capability, however, will entail quite a lot of development of related facilities and infrastructure, etc.
Discerned Reasons for the US’ ‘Softening Change’
It is well-known that all through the last about 17 years, US was facing a host of serious problems in establishing a real term ‘functional’ government of its choice in Afghanistan to further its geopolitical/geostrategic objectives in the region. And not only that, those problems have also constantly been increasing in magnitude – a mounting expenditure (1.07 trillion USD so far), over 2,000 US troops killed, thousands wounded and maimed, and thousands suffering from mental disorders (PTSD and TBI, besides suicidal tendencies), etc. However, despite the increasing problems US government has so far been insisting to continue with the hope of ultimately establishing its required government through the sheer use of brute military force and payment of hefty bribes to the non-Taliban Afghan war lords/power-wielders.
The sudden US’ ‘softening change’ therefore does not appear to be related merely to these quoted problems. In that context a careful look at some of the recent developments/happenings in Afghanistan helps in clearly discerning the reasons which has compelled the US government to meaningfully soften its stance towards Afghanistan Taliban. Some of those are:-
- The latest published BBC research report titled ‘Taliban threaten 70% of Afghanistan, BBC finds’, dated 31January 2018 shows that out of the 398 districts (within the 34 provinces) of Afghanistan, Taliban control 14 districts and have an open and active presence in another 263 districts.
- Even the security situation of the capital city Kabul – so heavily defended by US and Afghan forces – has become extremely precarious. That ground reality becomes absolutely clear in a very recent ‘on ground’ report by the award winning war zone reporter Lara Logan published by ‘Time’ on 14 January 2018. During her visit to Kabul Lara Logan met General John Nicholson Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and Mr. Ashraf Ghani President of Afghanistan, besides others. She describes “Kabul is so dangerous, American diplomats and soldiers are not allowed to use the roads. They can’t just drive two miles from the airport to U.S. headquarters. They have to fly. After all these years, a trillion dollars, and 2,400 American lives — Kabul is under siege”. And to a question on this aspect by Lara Logan, General John Nicholson did admit this reality and tried to provide a reason by saying “Protecting the lives of our troops is our number-one priority”. Even President Ashraf Ghani did not sound optimistic when Lara Logan asked him as to how long will it take to secure Afghanistan, Mr. Ashraf Ghani replied “As long as it takes. Generations if need be!”.
- The internal strife between the central government of President Ashraf Ghani and the regional leaders is on the rise even in the government-controlled parts of the country. In December 2017 President Ashraf Ghani fired Mr. Atta Mohammad Noor the governor of Balkh province from his post, but Mr. Atta Mohammad Noor refused to comply with the orders and still remains the governor. Then after a month or so another governor Mr. Abdul Karim Khadam, has refused an order from President Ashraf Ghani to resign as governor of Samangan Province.
- Reports in the international media have started emerging that Afghan people have started openly showing a spreading feeling of despair and their dissatisfaction with the US-backed government in the country.
These developments/happenings certainly reflect serious danger for the US-backed system of government in Afghanistan. Afghan public’s spreading feeling of despair and dissatisfaction with this system is especially note-worthy. If that spreads further in magnitude, it may as well cause the implosion of the whole US-backed governance system in the country, which is bound to result in severe infighting and real term mayhem for the US forces as well. It is this clearly visible danger that has compelled the US government to bring in a ‘softening change’ in their design relating to the Afghanistan Taliban.
Proposed Concessions to Afghanistan Taliban and Latent Intricacies
The February 28 announcement by President Ashraf Ghani to the Afghanistan Taliban proposed a cease-fire, release of prisoners, removal of sanctions, and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political group, besides the promise of considering Taliban’s further views in the peace conference. Apparently it sounded well. However, it did not at all cater for the two basic and long entrenched demands of the Afghanistan Taliban, I.e. (a) they do not consider the US-planted government in Kabul as a legitimate government, and hence demand direct talks with US government which ousted the Taliban government in 2001; and (b) they demand complete withdrawal of the US’ and all other foreign forces which are currently occupying Afghanistan, which is also a well-known ingrained psychological element of the ferociously independent-minded Afghan nation.
Those who know Afghans know it well that Afghans are a very proudly independent-minded nation. They are strong-willed, but not void of pragmatism. However, they just do not budge at all from their basic principled stance(s) which relates to their psyche. The proposal is therefore not likely to make any headway unless the two mentioned basic demands of Afghan Taliban are adequately catered for.
Possible Reaction of the non-Taliban Afghans
Composition of Afghan people comprises of Pashtuns (42%), Tajiks (27%), Uzbek (9%), Hazara ((8%), Aimaq (4%), Turkmen (3%), Balochi (2%), and others (5%). Out of these, the Afghanistan Taliban almost entirely comprise of Pashtuns, although since last some years people of certain other communities also joined the ranks of Afghanistan Taliban. The non-Taliban faction has been led by Tajiks, who along with Uzbeks and Hazaras assisted US’ invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban government. This faction has its major share in the US-backed government. This faction is therefore most likely not to oppose implementation of the proposed formula, even if including some power-sharing arrangement with Afghanistan Taliban, albeit after lot of ‘bargaining’. However, even for this faction too it is likely to be very difficult to ‘openly’ agree to allow the continued stay of the occupying US’ and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Discerned Limits of any Compromise by US and Afghanistan Taliban
It is obvious that it will be hard for US to completely give up its politico-military stranglehold on Afghanistan for the attainment of its afore-mentioned geopolitical/geostrategic objectives, for which it has been paying heavy price in terms of military personnel and finances. However, it is also evident that further continuation of US’ current politico-military stranglehold on Afghanistan is becoming extremely difficult due the afore-mentioned severe problems. In that context, therefore, it appears more probable that US may ultimately slide down from its ‘maximum aim’ (the three actual afore-mentioned geopolitical/geostrategic objectives) to certain lesser geo-economic and geostrategic objectives as its ‘minimum aim’ which it may be able to bargain with Afghanistan Taliban as a quid pro quo for meeting some of the more pressing Taliban’s demands about the new set up of Afghanistan government and related affairs.
On the other hand, Afghanistan Talibans also have their strengths and ‘non-strength’ (if not outright weakness). Their strength lies in many aspects: their fighting ability and national resilience to remain un-defeated by the world supper power for about 17 years by now; their skill both in ground attacks and guerilla warfare to squeeze the US-allied forces even in the capital city in the state of a siege; their demand for a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country arouses supporting feeling even from non-Taliban Afghans, being an ingrained element of Afghans’ psyche; and the recently increasing political and economic support for them by China, Russia and Iran. However, they also have aspects where they lack strength: they are not militarily capable to oust the US-backed government, because US has not yet withdrawn from the country as was the case when USSR had withdrawn; their unity of command and organizational structure is not as strongly streamlined as was in the era of Mullah Umar; and the support from China, Russia, and Iran is not yet a real term challenge for US’ support for its supported government in the country. It therefore appears probable that Afghanistan Taliban may also try to reach some sort of an agreement with US government, without giving in on their two afore-mentioned basic demands.
Further progress on the proposed talks is possible only if US’ government finally decides to slide down from its maximum aim to lesser minimum aim, and also to address the two basic demands of Afghanistan Taliban as mentioned above. That is an aspect which is very difficult to predict about in view of the rather ‘hawkish’ pattern of US’ Afghanistan policy applied so far. However the chances of US’ government ultimately sliding down its objectives can also not be ruled out, keeping in view the recent record of sliding down of US’ policy decisions from almost belligerent to ‘negotiatory’ – examples, the cases of Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, etc.
In case US’ government decides to so slide down its objectives, it may offer to accept one of the basic demands of Afghanistan Taliban of having a ‘peace dialogue’ directly with US on the conditions that Afghanistan Taliban accept (a) to form a national government with an adequate power-sharing formula to accommodate other Afghan stake-holders; (b) to allow US to retain (even if on lease) the right to use the “Agreed facilities and areas” (US’ bases in Afghanistan) as agreed in the Security and Defense Agreement of May 2, 2012 between the then governments of US and Afghanistan (paragraph 7, p. 4 of the Agreement), these include nine US’ base facilities, at Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-e-Sharif, Heart, Kandahar, Shorab (Helmand), Gardez, Jalalabad, and Shindand (p.30 of the Agreement); and (c) to grant US the contractual arrangements for the exploitation of the reportedly huge mineral deposits in Afghanistan.
As for Afghanistan Taliban it is more likely that they may agree to grant contractual rights of mineral exploitation to US, along with certain other countries, because it will help in boosting Afghanistan’s economy also; and after hard bargaining, they may also agree to grant ‘some’ power sharing in the government to the non-Taliban Afghan stakeholders, though bargaining upon the distribution of key ministries is most likely to be quite problematic. However, the issue which is certainly going to remain the most contested is the US’ demand for retention of its military bases in Afghanistan, whereas on the contrary Afghanistan Taliban demand complete withdrawal of all US and its allied forces from the country. This issue may as well cause many break ups in the peace dialogue, if and when those commence. At this juncture at the best it may be hoped that this issue may as well be resolved at some time later if US and its allies agree for withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan by a mutually decided date, and as a quid pro quo Afghanistan Taliban’s government allows ‘restricted’ use of just some of the bases by US in the country on lease for a mutually agreed period.
National Public Radio (npr) is an American privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organization based in Washington DC. It serves as a national syndicator to a network of over 1,000 public radio stations in the United States.
On 02 April 2018 it has published a report titled “Trump Freezes Syria Aid Funds, Sends Mixed Messages On Anti-ISIS Strategy”.
The report mentions “The White House has ordered the State Department to put on hold $200 million in recovery funds to Syria, following President Trump’s remarks last week signaling a possible withdrawal of American troops from Syria”.
According to reports this decision by Trump has puzzled US’ military authorities. The npr report highlights that Pentagon estimates that ISIS has by now surrendered 98% of the area which it previously controlled, whereas US’ military advisers mentioned in February that another two to six months were required to defeat the ISIS, and then another year to stabilise the area with humanitarian aid.
The important point in this affair is that this Syria Aid Fund is meant for the US-backed rebels in Syria, i.e. Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); whereas Turkey considers the Kurdish militias in SDF an extension of the Kurdish PKK which is engaged in insurgency against Turkey since the last three decades.
According to npr Richard Engel, NBC chief foreign correspondent, who just returned from Syria, US military commanders are concerned that withdrawing the nearly 2,000 U.S. troops too early would leave the SDF in a lurch; and that SDF will not be able to fend against Turkey.
As a matter of general understanding of the complexity of the Kurdish problem in general a look at the following map may be of help. Kurdish population straddles across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. For about last three decades Kurds have been engaged in launching an insurgency in Turkey for carving out their own state. So far they have remained unsuccessful. However after the destabilisation of Iraq, due to the US military occupation of the country, they managed to establish the Iraqi Kurdistan Region which they claim to be autonomous, if not independent. Now the US-backed (SDF) has commenced operations to expand westward, even west of River Euphrates.
The point to understand is that the US-backed SDF is a mixture of Arab and Kurd militias; and the Kurd element of this force includes YPG and its political wing PYD which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency in Turkey. Hence Turkey declared that it would not allow the establishment of this ‘terrorist corridor’. And would push the SDF back to east of river Euphrates. Turkey, supported by its own opposition group launched an attack and after two months of fighting captured the Kurd enclave at Afrin (see map below). Now Turkish forces have advanced towards Manbij where US troops are also located with SDF. This is the highly sensitive point where the situation stands today.
It is obvious that in such an already complicated serious situation the announcement of US’ president, to stop funding of US’ own created group of armed militias (SDF) and withdrawing the US troops from the support of that group, appears a bit ‘puzzling’. Mr. Trump’s critics, whose number is quite large, may call this act as just one of Mr. Trump’s ‘thoughtless tweeting activity’. However, a deeper thought clearly shows that it is not one of those ‘tweeting acts’, rather it is a well thought out plan.
In that context, it must be kept in mind that US has a very elaborate and well structured system of policy input for the government. And, Mr. Trump like his predecessors can ill-afford to ‘call the shot’ at his own against the policy input – to quote just one example, one of his quite vociferous election promises to his nation was to finish the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but now he has to order its reacceleration in his newly announced strategy.
This intention of Mr. Trump may still be debated in US, but what is clear is that this intended act of his reflects the application of the well recognised US’ strategy of ‘destabilising a country to attain US’ geopolitical domination in the target region’. This strategy has been applied by US’ presidents (Republicans and Democrats alike) before Mr. Trump too, through US’ direct military intervention, along with NATO, or through covert / proxy actions – examples Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. The case of Syria appears no different.
Accessed 05 April 2018
(Highlighting and comment in green added.)
The start of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant is another sign of cozy relations between Turkey and Russia. Turkish, Russia and Iranian leaders are to hold a summit on Syria.
The two leaders watched cement pouring at the $20 billion (€16.3 billion) Akkuyu nuclear power plant through a video link from Erdogan’s sprawling 1,100 room presidential palace in Ankara.
The joint venture already broke ground once in 2015 before being put on hold after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Syrian border, causing relations between Moscow and Ankara to nosedive.
A U-turn in relations has witnessed the two countries closely cooperate on Syria and expand economic ties.
Putin and Erdogan met eight times last year and spoke often, signaling the two leaders have been able to compartmentalize their differences at a time when both countries face deteriorating relations with the West.
- The ‘re-strengthening’ of Turkey-Russia ties, after shooting down of a Russian aircraft in Syria by Turkey reflects: (1) the diplomatic statecraft acumen of Turkish leadership, and (2) Russian ‘political requirement’ of wooing an important NATO member (Turkey) at this time of rising US-Russia tension.
- The developing political ‘closeness’ of Russia, Turkey, Iran (and may as well be of China too) is a very significant aspect to watch.