Adnan Qaiser discusses Afghanistan’s future in reference to foreign intervention, geopolitics and power sharing, the Taliban, and intrusions of neighbouring countries.
By Adnan Qaiser
At the start of Afghan war in 2001, India’s famed author, Arundhati Roy, posed the question: “Can you destroy destruction? Dropping more bombs on Afghanistan will only shuffle the rubble, scramble some old graves and disturb the dead.” Today, after thirteen years of war and the election of a new government, Afghanistan’s future remains bleak because the fundamental issues could not be resolved: foreign troops remain, ethnic discord and power tussles persist, and regional interference and proxy wars continue.
Fatigued after years of involvement, the international community considers the latest developments a positive outcome. However, it fails to notice the raging storms bustling beneath the veneer of apparent bonhomie, which are likely to keep Afghanistan unstable. Despite a peaceful transition of power and President Ashraf Ghani’s welcoming visits to Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, President Obama’s decision to keep the American troops in a combat role in Afghanistan until 2016 has brought us back to square one. The sane advice that Afghanistan needs a political solution, and not a military approach, unfortunately did not hit-home, even after a decade of fighting.
Notwithstanding bringing some semblance of peace and order to a warring country, Afghans never took foreign boots on the ground kindly. Considering it against their honour, President Karzai’s Education Minister and Peace Jirga Secretary, Farooq Wardag, had said in an interview on 11 March 2010, that ‘a nation having 5000-year old history cannot be left to the whims and wishes of outsiders.’ A departure from President Karzai’s disallowance of night-raids – that had been desecrating the sanctity of the Afghan household and spilling innocent blood – will only escalate conflict and foment anger among ordinary Afghans towards their benefactors. The sharp rise in ‘Green over Blue incidents’ and the high attrition rate of Afghan security forces’ in the recent years indicates a growing antagonism towards foreign troops’ heavy-handed operations and scorch-earth policy.
Moreover, Afghanistan‘s regional geopolitics is not only a deft use of diplomacy, but also skilful choreography. The surprise victory of a Pashtun Ghani in the run-off presidential election – by a sudden leap of 25.4% – wasn’t that surprising after all. Since a pro-Indian, non-Pashtun at ‘Arg’ (Afghan presidential palace) did not suit neighbouring Pakistan’s strategic interests, Ghani had been the choice candidate of major stakeholders, including the Taliban. Mullah Omar, who had earlier dismissed the presidential election as a “waste of time”, changed his stance in his Eid message, stating “When the occupation ends, reaching an understanding with the Afghans will not be a hard task because by adhering to and having common principles and culture, the Afghans understood each other better.” A peaceful election, despite the Taliban announcing an offensive named ‘Khaibar’ on 8 May 2014, followed by the release of US Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, were thus not mere coincidences.
However, the national unity government is still caught-up in power sharing, resulting in delays in announcing a cabinet. Secondly, the power deal brokered by Secretary Kerry between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, often referred to as a ‘shot-gun marriage’, needs constitutional consensus. That remains a tall order seeing Afghanistan’s internal power tussles and diverging outlook of various ethnic groups. The incapacity of Afghan Security Forces also remains worrisome, and pledges translating into a real transfer of funds at the London’s donor conference of 4 December 2014, would decide the future survivability of Afghanistan.
While a conservative Afghanistan grapples with Taliban insurgency, power tug-of-war, ethnic discord, warlordism, and narcotics-trade, a new phenomenon of societal chasm – between (an affluent) liberal left and (less privileged) religious right – has emerged. President Ghani’s Christian wife of Lebanese descent has yet to receive approval among ordinary Afghans. Fearing the fate of King Amanullah and his modern wife Suraya (1919-1929), the first-lady could not be publicly introduced.
Although President Ghani has begun backdoor diplomacy with the Taliban, his strategy is unclear. The High Peace Council of yesteryears and its ‘Roadmap 2015′ is nowhere to be seen. Besides the ‘revenge element’ in Pashtun culture to settle old scores, the warring groups have also to reconcile on past human rights abuses and atrocities. The issue of 180 mass graves of those summarily executed from the Communist Saur Revolution of April 1978 to the fall of Taliban in December 2001, as unearthed in the 800-page report of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, keeps peace afar.
No one knows the status of private militias or ‘Arbakis’ called the Critical Infrastructure Protection Force, which NATO forces had created against the Taliban. With heavily armed groups facing-off each other, another ferocious civil war war cannot be ruled out.
Finally, the intrusion by neighbouring countries keeps Afghanistan unstable. Unable to institute a mechanism that keeps regional and extra-regional interference out of Afghanistan, proxy-wars continue. Bringing into focus the endgame and ‘new great game’ that surround the geopolitics in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, historian William Darymple – Deadly Triangle – has already warned of the “danger of an escalating conflict between the two nuclear powers that could threaten the world peace”.
The Pentagon’s report of October 2014 on Afghanistan’s security also identifies the threat of an India-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan. The Indo-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement continues to add to Pakistan’s anxieties. Considering Pakistan’s sensitivities towards India the statement of acting Afghan Interior Minister Umer Daudzi, calling India an “all-weather friend”, would not have gone well. Pakistan, however, cannot be solely blamed for the troubled ties. Using India as a ploy, successive Afghan governments have fuelled animosity on the Durand Line and Pashtunistan issues.
Therefore, despite recent high-level visits from both sides – claiming to have “overcome the obstacles of past thirteen years in three days” – Afghanistan-Pakistan distrust continues. Afghanistan did not buy Pakistan’s claim of uprooting the Haqqani network through its much-awaited and ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azab in North Waziristan. Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Shakib Mustaghni called it “unacceptable” for not taking on the Haqqanis.
The aborted plan to carry-out a military action inside Pakistan by Afghan security forces mid-June 2014, could have been caused by reports of Pakistan moving the Haqqanis from Miranshah to Shewai, opposite Khost province. While a worried Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rushed his special emissary, Mahmood Khan Achakzai a Pashtun politician and a close friend of President Karzai, to instill some sense in Kabul, an incensed army chief, General Raheel Sharif felt it necessary to summon the Afghan ambassador, Janan Musazai on 18 June 2014 followed by the Afghan national security adviser, Rangin Dadfar Spanta on 26 June 2014… probably to be given an earful.
Pakistan defined its priorities when its adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, posed the question in an interview to BBC Urdu on 17 November 2014, ‘Why should Pakistan target militants who do not threaten the country’s security?’ Not seeing eye-to-eye with the United States on Afghanistan’s future, Pakistan’s defence minister, Khawaja Asif, also blamed the ‘region’s suffering on America’s failed policies’.
It is hard to keep Afghanistan immune from regional meddling. Saudi-Iranian sectarian rivalry, Russian interests, and China pledging a paltry $317 million in aid until 2017, demonstrates Afghanistan’s fragile future.
Against this backdrop, President Obama’s decision to continue combat operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban amounts to ‘reinforcing failure’, for what had always been required was a political power-sharing formula in which no ethnic group felt disenfranchised. Suffice to say for the West’s involvement, that it is not wise to outlive one’s usefulness or outstay one’s welcome!
Adnan Qaiser is a defence and political analyst having had a distinguished career in the Pakistan army as well as in international diplomacy and public and social sector development. He can be reached at: email@example.com