The Shape of Things To Come
The final visible act is in play in Afghanistan, the curtains are about to drop, and the main actors are ready, packed, and loaded to depart. What is left and what will come to be after the final bow will consume us all for many years. There will be uncertainty in the region, and may well be a civil war in Afghanistan. The proxy scramble has been ongoing for a long and will play its part in the future of Afghanistan and the region.
Defeat has many faces; military, political, moral, social, and economic. The US and NATO are staring at all of these. Most importantly, apart from a massive loss of face whereby the Worlds’ mightiest militaries have succumbed to a tribal force equipped with Toyota pickup trucks and only small arms, the compromise of the US’s moral stance is its biggest defeat. To sit down and talk peace with networks that have been proscribed as terror outfits makes one question the whole issue of morality in war. The psychological ascendency achieved by the Taliban has many ramifications. Perhaps the most pertinent lesson drawn from these past twenty years is the Taliban’s adherence to a long-standing principle of war; Maintenance of Aim. It is almost impossible to defeat an ideology unless its leaders betray it.
Neighboring countries will need to focus on what shape the expected fallout of the expected turmoil to follow will take. Therefore, Pakistan must identify the threat being formulated as it appears to be too focused on the process; of talks and withdrawal time frames. Clarity will assist in the Pakistan response.
The answer to that question will have many facets, but one determinant will be to identify what will be left in the rubble of the edifice of Western occupation. In the political field, a government at Kabul with its support of the Northern Alliance; the Northern Alliance’s own line of defense does not, however, visualize the city of Kabul as its schwerpunkt. Instead, it has a rearward geographical line enclosing Panjshir Valley, Salang Pass, Badakhshan, Bamiyan, Sar-e-Pul, Balkh, Jauzjan, Faryab, and Herat that will define its areas of interest. For the Northern Alliance, it matters little if Kabul falls to the Taliban. Then there are pockets of ISIK, TTP in the Eastern provinces of Nuristan, Kunhar, Ningarhar and Paktika facing Pakistan. The Haqqani Network retains fierce influence, mostly in the East with meaningful influence in Central Afghanistan in Kabul, Ghazni, Wardak, Paktia, Khost, Nangarhar. The Taliban are widespread, and those areas are known to and best avoided by government troops. While no line of demarcation exists between both, yet Kabul keeps safely clear of this imaginary line.
It is also clear now that the US never actually had a design to see the intra- Afghan dialogue reach consensus. Khalilzad bluffed all along. This glaring deduction is dwarfed by the sudden disclosure and intent of the US to quit by 11 Sept ‘21. It is this race for fresh proxy relevance that will keep all the regional countries on their toes. The fact that a few thousand US contractors will act as ‘stay behind troops,’ be its eyes and ears, with sufficient bite to be noticeable, will make the new ‘great game’ interesting. A hidden agenda then becomes evident, that peace is not the object. It is China, Pakistan, and CPEC. To play this out will need freedom of action, freedom of space, and legal authority from a central authority like Kabul. Where in Afghanistan does the ground geography provide these proxies with the best chance of achieving this but close to the Pakistan border, It would have to be in a Pashtun dominated province, these proxies will have to fight off the Taliban and Haqqani’s for required space, and finally they must have guaranteed air cover. The other minor aspects of funding, tasking, and coordination with TTP/ ISIK or even AQ is already taken care of. Amrullah Saleh, Mohibullah Mohib, and Ashraf Ghani are the guarantors and RAWs’ goading/monetary support. We now have an outline of what is left. The areas needed for these left behind contractors to operate without the hindrance of governmental bottlenecks can now be identified. First, all Kabul posts; which troops need to vacate or remain bottled up in and not interfere in with these operations. These tracts of land inside Afghanistan but astride our borders are available in Nuristan, all the areas of Kunhar bordering Pakistan, parts of Nangarhar, Paktia, Paktika, and Zabul.
The Threat having been identified, its manifestation will be; in the South to retard the progress of CPEC and in the North, it must create space for local uprisings in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. Pakistan will have to depend on its Pushtun Taliban connections to thwart this, which will probably have to include the much-vilified Haqqani network (recently made kosher by the US) and the Taliban of the South. The US will leave Afghanistan more fragmented than when it invaded it two decades ago, and Pakistan’s stance has been borne out to be correct; the US should have started talks with the Taliban a decade or more ago.
Kabul will have its own dynamics, and to understand the security situation around Kabul, one must account for the Shomali Plains Commanders who till now were with the Panjshiris and the Northern Alliance. These Commanders of Tajik, Pashtun, and Arab origin guard their domain, extending from Kabul’s Kotal Khair Khana Exit to Jabul Siraj, the garrison at the Salang Pass mouth Panjshir Valley. The Shomali plain Commanders, seven to ten in number, are understood to have voiced their annoyance to Kabul and The Northern Alliance at the cost of blood paid by them to guard Panjshir and Kabul. They do not want to fight anymore unless forced to. They are key to Kabul’s defense. When unlocked, the Shomali gate will force the collapse of Kabul and the Northern Alliance in Central Afghanistan. A case very similar to Sept 1996 when Ahmed Shah Masoud withdrew without a fightback to the Panjshir. Any agreement between the Taliban and the Shomali Commanders will counter the two objectives of targeting CPEC and creating unrest in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The boldness with which the Taliban have begun operations indicates their hurry to capture a well-stocked Kabul Government garrison. The day the Taliban get hold of free-flying rockets, ground to air, or shoulder-fired missile systems or multi-barrel launchers, things will change.
The past few decades of instability in Afghanistan have made the Afghan people hardy and pragmatic; they are survivors. It also means that Kabul forces will avoid serious military engagements with the Taliban. Instead, a vacation of positions will be the norm.
The major conclusions that emerge are:
- The US will leave behind a fragmented environment. A so-called Buffer Zone will be allowed to emerge in Kunhar and elsewhere where TPP/ISIK will have freedom of movement and action against Pakistan.
- There is a geographical division that is discernible.
- CPEC, both of Pakistan’s neighboring provinces and the tribal areas of KPK, are the targets.
- Kabul, though important, is not key to the defense of what is seen as the Northern Alliance area of influence. However, it will give legitimacy to the objectives of any agenda pursued by either the Taliban or the others.
- The Kabul government will continue to malign Pakistan in all instances, irrespective of the good intentions of Islamabad. Therefore, Pakistan must respond bluntly and, where relevant, highlight Kabul’s affiliations with external agencies pushing other agendas.
- TPP/ ISIK and AQ will be extensively used against targets in both KPK and Baluchistan. Therefore, a revival of PTM or similar movements must be dented from the outset.
- Weaning of TTP to Pakistan through an amnesty scheme is an illusion. They are assets of others.
- Taliban understand the threats of these internal players. The weakening of the writ of Kabul will also affect the motivation and funding of the TTP.
- The Northern Alliance collectively have time and again shunned Islamabad’s overtures. They will not change. Pakistan must, however, continue to reach out to them irrespective of what their attitude is.
- Pakistan must use regional political bodies like the SCO to insist on peace and accommodation of all ethnicities in Afghanistan.
- Iran, India, and Russia will not relent in their support of their proxies in Afghanistan. Pakistan must understand these implications.
The region will remain unstable, and Pakistan policymakers must take steps accordingly to safeguard its interests. Pakistan’s consistency in its engagement on the Afghanistan Peace Process, its unfailing insistence on talks with the Taliban is a vindication of its government’s understanding of the situation from the very outset. When a decade or more ago, Pakistan advocated talks with the Taliban, US policymakers were insistent that they would defeat the Taliban militarily, almost to the point of arrogance. They did not understand the very nature of the conflict, it was not a military problem, and if there was going to be any defeat, it was that of the Afghan people. Pakistan has paid the price for this war unequal to its share and stood by the US in an unwinnable war despite knowing that it was a lost cause all along and has seen its ‘strategic ally’ status downgraded to being seen as part of the problem. It has had horrific fallout because of the US invasion of Afghanistan. It has had its children massacred in cold blood by Chechen, Arab and Central Asian fighters and seen the spawning of many AQ affiliated terror groups. The Pakistan Army has borne the brunt of this terror campaign. It has taken it on the chin with every one of its battalions doing more rotations into operational areas than any other military in the World and with a gallant record of sacrifice unequaled by any. Pakistan’s predictions of the outcome of the Afghan invasion by the US and its allies and the dogged pursuance of a policy to safeguard its interests are now being seen as consistent with a correct assessment of the War’s outcome. Who would have thought that the Haqqani Network leader would be invited to sit across a negotiation table and be a party to a Peace Accord with the US? Is there any morality in war ever? Are not interests always supreme?
The coming days will be tough. Afghanistan will be a battleground for proxies and Non-state actors that will run the gamut of nationalities from Chechen, Arab to US contractors. Again, Pakistan will be susceptible to attacks and instability in its border regions. Therefore, Pakistan must decide firmly on its long-term objectives and whether having an internal political environment that helps grow this environment is in its long-term interest.