The Afghan End Game – A Possibility
The stage now has been set where the events in Afghanistan have overwhelmed the US and neo-cons in Washington DC. Their exit, if they really do, from the battlefield is nothing short of defeat. Looking at US wars, historically, their record is dismal; they have vacated the field in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, and now Afghanistan. After the Geneva Accords, the US unabashedly left the Zone and all the problems to Pakistan. They will do the same now if they could. What they will leave behind is the glaring question. What next? Here, we have Brigadier (R) Sultan Mahmud giving a veteran’s analysis and predicting step by step what we may call the “end game” of Afghanistan. Pakistan has worked best, keeping ground realities in mind and not perceptions. US Republican Senator Ron Paul, in his intriguing article on Afghanistan War-The Crime of The Century dated 18 Dec 2019, has explained the lies that were fed to the US public and the perception of impending victory. Doha talks will mostly be remembered for many things: the US and the Taliban agreed on the same issue. Zalmay Khalilzad’s duplicity and his bumbling diplomacy, the riveting media coverage, and the opulent settings. Most of what the entire world wanted to see and got were the Taliban Team. The madrasah-educated men, in their shalwar qameez and chappals , sat across like monarchs facing their adversary. What they said, uttered, or meant was clear and without ambiguity.
What did the Indian media say?
Indian media was unanimous in its conclusion that India had lost to a superior long-term strategy. The US was two tongued with New Delhi, that Pakistan figured more prominently in their scheme for ‘Middle Earth’ (Afghanistan) than India. The Doha Peace talks were seen as a great achievement for Afghanistan; however, the euphoria at Kabul was totally missing.
What happens now?
Afghanistan’s successes have always been under a strong ruler, Ahmed Shah Abdali, Abdul Rahman, Nadir Shah, Sardar Daud, the Taliban years. Ashraf Ghani is uncomfortably close to being in the same situation as Najibullah, with no option but to stay. The Taliban are now more savvy, shifty, bloated, and in the future could be unreliable. We must, however, continue to reach out to them. Islamabad needs to focus on the PTM and the Baluchi non-state players. To deal with the PTM, one must look at three possibilities, divide, compromise, or isolate them. It is never too late to win them over. However, Islamabad has all the right to move against secessionists. Islamabad must prepare strong Pashtun teams to counter the PTM’s political narrative. The Government must seriously look at their grievances and address those by removing friction and doubts. The State has shown patience. They are Pakistani’s first and, in time, will realize the folly of political manipulation of foreign powers. Kabul and New Delhi see the PTM as an asset.
ISIS remains an enigma. In Afghanistan, its creation and utility in the country see a continuous rebirth. Strangely after the death of Baghdadi and the local Khorasani leaders of ISIS in Afghanistan, it was thought that it signaled the end of this cancer. Apparently, this was not the case. Therefore, the recent statement of Zalmay Khalilzad on 15 May is very meaningful, ‘Rather than falling into the ISIS trap and delay peace or create obstacles, and Afghans must come together to crush this menace and pursue a historic peace opportunity. In the book ‘Terrorism and the United States of America’ on page 427, Paul Craig, Reagan’s ex Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, says, ’the only reason Muslim Terrorism exists is that Washington created it. Barbara Honegger is quoted on pages 426 -427, ‘American, British and Israeli intelligence created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the ISIL or IS. Stinger and TOW missiles used by ISIS are reported to be from Israeli stockpiles. In 2014, Netanyahu confirmed that the IDF supported Al Qaida terrorists in Syria through its logistic base in Golan Heights. One need not look further at the cause of ISIS emergence in Afghanistan. Having failed to cripple the Taliban or make sizeable inroads into core Taliban territory, they have become an embarrassment and a liability. Hence, the US requests the Taliban in an ‘undeclared understanding’ to target and eliminate ISIS as they fear that it will hit the US/NATO convoys exiting Afghanistan.
The Taliban initially were not sure what to make of this dramatic culmination of a struggle. However, the euphoria of achieving the impossible will slowly give way to the realization that in the absence of a White Western adversary, they now face their own nation. Afghans cannot forgive but will listen to powerful allies. If Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China have a role to play, it is here. If bloodshed and vengeance can be avoided, if hate can be overlooked, if Afghan statesmen rise above pettiness and personal glory, then we see a future. A civil war is looming in Afghanistan, NATO and the US are not unduly worried. They will reduce their strength at any cost but will not vacate Afghanistan. The Abdullah Ghani accord to form a joint government has in a sense reprieved Ghani from a humiliating end. While he may still be smarting in giving space to a rival, it has given him longevity; his government has become stronger with Abdullah. Neighboring countries and the West view this development positively. Afghan security forces, despite enhanced manpower, training, and equipment, do not inspire confidence. Its staying power is extremely questionable as and when they lose US air support and a curtailed financial backing. Armies are groomed on patriotism, loyalty, culture, tradition, battlefield victories. Only then does it deserve the masses’ support. Afghan Army lacks most of these. If Kabul is seriously threatened, one is liable to witness mass defections/divesting in rank and file. A recurring feature is seen in the past thirty years in Afghanistan.
The Regional Impact
India. India is not in an enviable position. It knows it stands to lose much more than just political and diplomatic ignominy. Reinforce a policy failure or sit back. They will have to move fast. They need a new narrative on Afghanistan. The mandarins at New Delhi’s South Block are madly at work finding an avenue to catch up. On the diplomatic/ political front, India, with Zalmay Khalilzad’s help, will manage a breakthrough with the Taliban, a temporary understanding will be arrived at. The Doha Deal has anyway forgiven the Americans for their omissions. In a few weeks in Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan province, the attack on security forces has increased manifold. This is likely to increase in tempo spreading to cities. Similarly, the LOC is witnessing increased activity.
The most concerned should be the Punjshiri’s. Back to the valley and their mountain passes! They do not have an Ahmed Shah Masood or a Marshal Faheem. All are too well fed to pick up arms. Beirut, London, Dubai, New Delhi, Istanbul are the obvious choices. Ustad Sayyaf and Gulbadin need to realign to stay relevant; both have limited options. Pakistan has no interest in peace in Afghanistan, as it impacts positively on us. Allowing Afghan soil to be used by a third country against Pakistan cannot achieve this. Peace remains an illusion that will not happen soon. Pakistan knows how to deal with its neighbors. The worry is, has Washington learned how to deal with the Afghans?
China has been carefully monitoring events in Afghanistan; while it has good relations with the Taliban since 2007, which Pakistan facilitated, it moves with the wisdom of the ages. It believes that fruit must ripen before it is plucked. It has a great interest in Afghanistan as it sees it as part of its BRI and CPEC. It is drawn to Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources. It is acutely aware that the US will deny China a free run to access CAR’s through Afghanistan. Taliban are not wholly trusted and fear its ascendency will reignite ETIM in its regions. It does not wish the Taliban to be the sole power in Kabul. Hence it will wait for things to settle first. Neither will it jump into the fray where the US is already embroiled, following the Doha Peace Deal closely. China has other pressing problems; COVID 19 has impacted negatively against China worldwide. The US’s threatening tone has forced China to issue its own Strategy in dealing with the challenge. Indian belligerency in Sikkim-Laddakh, the US naval challenges to its lines of sea communications, and the currency war (yen versus the dollar) are viewed seriously. Therefore, China needs to maintain a balance between the competing Afghan elements. It is also alive to the sensitivity of the contiguous Wakhan Border’, states Lt Gen Farooq Ahmed, who understands Afghan dynamics. China compliments Pakistan’s line of thinking on Afghanistan and will support Pakistan.
Like China is playing a ‘wait and see’ game. The return of the Taliban is anathema to it and will not venture into Afghanistan for any serious investment; however, it is decidedly elated to see the return of the Northern Alliance in power. Russia does not seem too worried about the IntraAfghan dialogue, as long as its CAR region remains immune to fallouts from across the Amu Darya. The Russia-India relationship has taken a few serious hits ever since Trump visited India. Moscow believed that India and Russia together could ideally be a balancing force in the region, a balance between China and the US. However, there is a cumulative change in thinking in Moscow. It feels India is far too deep into the US Camp that its retrieval was now difficult. Moscow now sees ‘Pakistan as a global pivot state and seeks better understanding,’ writes Andrew Korybko in his piece of 18 May 20,’Improved RussianPakistan Relations Will Help Moscow Balance the new Bipolarity’. A China – Russia platform will work wonders for Pakistan.
Recent events in Afghanistan have generally favored Iran. Its Northern Alliance has returned to power. It is finally seeing an end to the US occupation of the country and has a meaningful relationship with the Taliban. Additionally, the US has welcomed Iran’s reduction in rhetoric against the US in the recent past, which has helped lower the temperatures of both sides’. China has promised a record sum to invest in Iranian industry and to bring it into its fold of CPEC. The port of Chah Bahar though small compared to Pakistan’s Port at Gwadar is large enough for trade with Afghanistan.
Taliban views have been consistent over the years, namely;
* All foreign military forces must leave Afghanistan. Taliban will, however, agree to a reasonable number to stay on as instructors, advisors. In addition, the Taliban will monitor all Bases activities that are agreed upon in the use of foreign forces.
* If the Kabul Government announces to follow the Sharia in true spirit and end democracy, the Taliban will join them.
* Afghan soil will not be used against any other country.
* The Afghan Defense Forces will continue but under Sharia laws. Therefore, knowledge of religion will be emphasized.
* Women will have freedom of work as per Sharia. Therefore, women can serve in the Government, Judiciary, and almost all organs of the State.
* A woman can never be a President. * A woman cannot lead a prayer congregation.
* A woman judge cannot pass a death sentence on a case she is presiding over.
Imposing one’s will on an Afghan is not sensible. Afghan respect strength. Pakistan has played rationally; it is on the right side by supporting the peace effort and pushing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Taliban will not like to be dictated by any future and would prefer to be seen as independent of any Pakistani strings attached. A hostile Taliban to Pakistan is not foreseen. The Taliban will not rest till Kabul is not achieved. Pakistan’s political support to the Taliban must continue whether we like it or not. The emerging Pakistan-China-Russia consensus bodes well for Islamabad. However, Iran needs to be nudged by both China and Russia not to rock the boat. Turkey’s entry will make it a formidable block.
US President Donald Trump has elections on the mind. After the elections, Washington may renege as the US is notorious for backing out of treaties, the JCPOA being the latest. Its future aims for the region are clear. It will not leave Afghanistan to any of its rivals China or Russia. Paradoxically, tarnished and bruised, the US will reduce its commitments and engagements in Afghanistan. India will reestablish itself with the Abdullah Abdullah group, but it will win over Hazara’s and Dostum’s shrunken canvas. India will respond positively to the smallest Taliban concession. The Taliban will mend fences with India temporarily. As long as Zalmay Khalilzad is hovering in the region with his bag of tricks, we can expect dramatic changes. A go-along storyteller who himself does not know the ending. One can expect another book by him when his time is up.
Pakistan must continue to reach out to Kabul as well as to all ethnicities. It already has a healthy rapport with the Uzbeks and some Hazara leaders. Must work on things that unite and not divide. Inviting Abdullah to visit Pakistan will pay dividends. Pakistan should not expect any let-up in the attacks in Baluchistan nor the political activities of the PTM. Iran-RAW nexus proven support to BLA/BLF must be tackled head-on. Iran is unapologetic; we must not halt fencing the border with Iran. Abdullah Saleh and his team will not cease just because of a peace deal. Imposing Western standards for Nation-building in Afghanistan achieves varying but doubtful successes, which Occupation Forces cannot do. It also seldom survives to see the benefits of its victories. Nevertheless, the Taliban philosophy remained triumphant to the end. It survived despite losing its leadership in the early years; this definitely says much about the intense Madrassa teaching and belief.
The US will maintain its bases with money and wait to see the aftermath of the Intra –Afghan talks. Sensing a decrease in Iranian belligerency in the Gulf, the US has reportedly ordered a drawdown of some of its forces from the Gulf Region. Saudi Arabia may well have to adjust to the new environment. China, Russia, India, and Iran all have varying interests. However, a race for ‘proxy relevancy’ as Maj Gen Isfandiyar Pataudi comments will begin. India sees it as an opportunity against Pakistan. This must be challenged. Taliban or Kabul must blunt all Indian pervasive activities or bear the consequences. If tackled maturely, all neighboring countries must let Afghans decide their own future.
China’s BRI has a massive appeal for developing countries; its success is dependent on peace and stability. • The LEAD Inspector General Report to the US Congress for the period 1 Jan -31 Mar 2020 highlights that ‘months of sustained military pressure from the US, Afghan Defence Forces, and THE TALIBAN appear to have taken a heavy toll on the ISIS-K (Khorasan). Approximately 300-2500 members remained in the country, with 50-100 in Nangarhar. Mass surrender by ISIS-K Kabul forces was witnessed’. The Taliban –US deal on the ISIS-K is successful.
Whatever option the US decides on, in the long run, it stands to lose. Its’ time in this region is running out. It seriously needs to salvage its prestige. The Great Game is very much alive, and much of it is in Chinese!