Written By:Dr. Huma Baqai & Qudsia Khalique
The long-lasting solution to the Afghan conflict lies in the rebuilding of region-based political consensus that may produce a political settlement among all the elements of Afghan society, including the Taliban. This requires that the Afghan government and the people, the United States and regional stakeholders agree on a negotiated framework for an inclusive peace process.
The international community for good reason is yet once again stepping up efforts to find a peaceful solution to bring Afghanistan out from the 16 years long conflict with the Taliban. This is largely because the fragile security across the country has further deteriorated, and it continues to follow a downward spiral with recurrent armed clashes between the security forces and the Taliban, fluctuating in the degree of their intensity. It reached a record high in 2016, and continued at that stride in 2017. 807 troops from Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) died just between January 1 and February 24, 2017.
The April 2017 attack in the northern Balkh province killing at least 140 soldiers of the 209 Shaheen Army Corps, responsible for providing security to most of northern Afghanistan showcases the deficient position of the 8,400 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of defense and agency contractors and Afghan security forces in the face of the Taliban and other armed groups resistance. The Taliban are now gearing towards more bellicosity with their recently announced spring offensive titled, Operation Mansouri. The statement released by the Taliban noted, “Mansouri would be carried out in two parts, military and non-military.”
Moreover, the Afghan security apparatus, besieged by the spiraling battlefield casualties, high number of desertions and non-existent soldiers on the payroll, has hitherto failed to halt the Taliban and other militant groups’ resurrection. Afghan National Security Forces are rapidly losing ground in their own country, and if it continues to accelerate at this pace, it could cause a “domino effect” by the fall of more government controlled areas of the country to the hands of Taliban and other militant groups. During the first eight months of 2016, the Afghan forces suffered death toll of 15000, the highest since 2001.
The recent 2017 report by an official U.S. watchdog, quoting senior U.S. military officials, stated that calling Russia, Pakistan and Iran “malign actors” in Afghanistan that enable insurgents or terrorist groups in Afghanistan does not help the situation. General Nicholson also said that Russia lends public legitimacy to the Taliban, which undermines the Afghan government and NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report is very damaging to the Russia’s initiative of which China and Pakistan are a part. It includes quotes from General Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations and Joseph Votel, Commander United States Central Command, suggesting that Russia may be “supplying the Taliban”. The Russian government has publicly rejected such remarks.
The latest report of the SIGAR underscores that the Afghan government has actually lost control of further 5% of its territory to the Taliban since the beginning of 2017. It further claims that the area under the control or influence of the Afghan government has decreased to just 52% of the nation’s districts in 2017 with half the country either contested or under the control of the insurgents, compared to 72% in November 2015.
The Moscow-led initiative which was initially not welcomed by Afghanistan because it was not invited to the meeting, is now joined by it. India and Iran are also a part of it. In fact the Afghan spokesperson actually called Russian government “an important ally”. In April, Pakistan had also invited the U.S. to participate in the Russian sponsored initiative, calling U.S. the biggest stakeholder. However, U.S. declined it saying the purpose is unclear. In fact the statements made later are indicative of American mistrust of Russian intent.
According to the recent brief on third round of the negotiations issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that: “The 12 participant countries including Afghanistan, Russia, India, China, Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian countries, came up with a joint narrative that there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis and that it can only be settled through the restoration of national accord by political means, in keeping with UN Security Council resolutions.”
The Conflict-matrix if perceived through the prism of the Pentagon, maintains a positive view of Afghanistan; while the ground reality contradicts it diametrically. The latest report of the SIGAR underscores that the Afghan government has actually lost control of further 5% of its territory to the Taliban since the beginning of 2017. It further claims that the area under the control or influence of the Afghan government has decreased to just 52% of the nation’s districts in 2017 with half the country either contested or under the control of the insurgents, compared to 72% in November 2015. In volatile Helmand province, the Taliban are contesting for 10 of the 14 districts. The Afghan government now roughly controls 60% of administrative districts with 29% under dispute and 11% in the hands of Taliban.
Essentially the Indian initiative and the Chinese initiative translate very differently on the ground in present day security situation. India is a cultivated protagonist in the conflict; secondly Indian government is losing ground. China has come up with a more 360 degree approach of cultivating both, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Its influence on Pakistan and the growing convergence between China and Russia plus China’s neutrality of conduct helps the situation immensely.
The civilian casualties connected to the conflict were around 11,418 in 2016 and also a significant increase in internal displacement where 660,000 fled their homes due to fighting, the highest number recorded since the U.S. invasion. This is notwithstanding the spending of more than $117 billion on different development schemes by the U.S. The country still remains near the bottom of most human development indexes, largely because of the corrupt Afghan government which is incapable of effectively governing and handling the security situation of the country. According to the Transparency International report, Afghanistan stands at 166 of 168 countries in its Corruption Index and an eighth of all the money that goes to Afghanistan is lost to corruption. American spending to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the amount spent to rebuild all of Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. The United States has also invested $70 billion in rebuilding Afghan security force. Afghan security forces continue to be plagued by the problem of inflated rolls and ghost soldiers with local commanders pocketing American-supplied funds to pay for non-existent soldiers. The United States has also spent $8.5 billion to battle narcotics in Afghanistan; opium production in 2016-17 has reached an all-time high. The failures of American war strategy in Afghanistan are both glaring and humiliating.
The new under-consideration strategy of the U.S. administration in Afghanistan of further deployment of between 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops would not reverse the momentum and direction of the Afghan war or American failures. In 2011, U.S. deployed 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan at the peak of the surge. The massive surge has remained futile to control the unabated Taliban insurgency. In fact, the Taliban and other militant groups have emerged with more robust potent threat to the already beleaguered security apparatus of the country. Hence, the plan to increase the number of troops does not have the potential to end the stalemate in Afghanistan.
Any increase of several thousand American forces in Afghanistan would be well below their 2011 peak. Although U.S. military is all set to pitch a revised Afghan war plan to President Trump in mid-May, on conditions of anonymity officials concede that the situation in Afghanistan is even worse than they had expected, and that any politically palatable numbers would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security.
This longest war in the U.S. history, dating from October 2001, now appropriates over three-quarter of a billion dollars to it. The U.S. achieved nothing and has failed miserably in Afghanistan on all fronts, with the fatalities of around 2300 U.S. military personnel and over 20,000 wounded.
More recently, the U.S. again show-cased its fierce military might by dropping the 21,000-pound GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), dubbed as the "Mother Of All Bombs” on a huge tunnel complex used by the IS-Khorasan in the Tora Bora mountains of the Nangarhar Province. Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani supported the bombing but senior state official Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan envoy to Pakistan, criticized the strike as "reprehensible" and "counterproductive" and maintained that “If big bombs were the solution, we (Afghanistan) would be the most secure place on earth today”. Former president Karzai also tweeted against it saying Afghanistan should not be used as a testing ground for American weapons. The strike that reportedly killed 90 militants show diminutive sign that the bomb dealt a devastating blow to the militants, as the area still remains an active combat zone and the U.S. troops still have restricted access to that locality.
In addition, the strike rather than disposing of the Afghan resistance, may galvanize the dissenting Afghan insurgent groups together against a common enemy with increased support of the people, and is more likely to exacerbate the insurgency. One of the bomb’s predecessor, named the BLU-82B or “Daisy Cutter,” was also many times used against the militants during the early phase of the war but yielded only short term tactical and strategic gains. The Special Forces' dictum, that ‘if an insurgency isn't shrinking, it's succeeding’, precisely fits in the existing lattice of the Afghan imbroglio.
More failure is not an option due to growth of terrorism and expansion of the conflict spectrum, which is stimulating and brewing anxiety in the peripheral countries like Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia.
Even, in spite of budget deficits and cost over runs, members of the U.S. national security apparatus, elected and appointed officials, senior military officers, and other policy insiders, accept war as an ongoing normal way of life. Andrew J. Bacevich in his article “The never-ending war in Afghanistan”, observes war in Washington has just become more tolerable, an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated, as quickly as possible.
The conflict in Afghanistan is attracting new stakeholders to the conflict. It is rapidly becoming a strategic hub of competition and conflict among regional and global players. The U.S. is there, not ready to realize the underlying causes of the conflict in spite of monumental failures and costs. India, China and Russia are the new entrants. Russia is now looking at a regional and global role, as an active player. Its proactive role in Afghanistan is essentially driven by the expanding foothold of IS-chapter in Afghanistan and it is trying to integrate itself with China’s growing economic footprint in the region, One Belt, One Road project by improving its connectivity with the region.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s affiliate in the South and Central Asia, Wilayat Khorasan (WK); the latest emerging threat in 2015 in the country’s east, now threatens to expand its sway in the region. It has enticed various splinter factions from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as Jundallah and other local groups. Moreover, WK also draws the sympathy and recruits from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Jamaat Ansarullah of Tajikistan. They attract disaffected Taliban and unemployed Afghan youth with huge economic incentives, normally $700 a month to join them. According to the U.S. military officials, the group holds 600 to 800 fighters hugely concentrated in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces of the country, whereas the Afghan officials estimate around 1,500 fighters, with twice as many ancillary helpers and up to 8,000 less active supporters.
The Russia-China-Pakistan led peace-initiative on Afghanistan is also a response to this new threat. It is to step up efforts to promote the intra-Afghan peace process while maintaining the leading role of Afghan government and integrating the armed opposition into peaceful co-existence. United States’ continued resistance to the initiative post its acceptance by the Afghan government, indicates that the U.S. is still incapable to grab the gravity of the situation and is unilaterally focusing on accentuating the military presence, a strategy that has met with nothing but failure.
The Russian led peace-initiative is now welcomed by Pakistan, Iran, China and Afghanistan itself, the direct affectees of the conflict. Iran favors the initiative as its calculus of keeping the Wilayat Khorasan at bay and competing for influence over the Afghan Taliban fit with this model. China also supports the move as the country is eagerly pursuing for stability in the region to ensure the success of its One Belt, One Road initiative.
Whilst, during the second session of this initiative, India and China did not see eye to eye and deeply came at odds with each other, especially on the latter’s demand to initiate talks with Afghan Taliban. India had confined itself to sticking to developmental support in Afghanistan to increase its influence by working on its linkages with the weak government of Afghanistan.
Essentially the Indian initiative and the Chinese initiative translate very differently on the ground in present day security situation. India is a cultivated protagonist in the conflict; secondly Indian government is losing ground. China has come up with a 360 degree approach of cultivating both, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Its influence on Pakistan and the growing convergence between China and Russia plus China’s neutrality of conduct helps the situation immensely.
Since 1990s, the strategic significance of Afghanistan for China has escalated astronomically with concerns ranging from Uyghur militants posing threats in Xinjiang province to Afghanistan emerging as a key player in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. China is now ready to play an overt role for peace in Afghanistan. China recognizes the Afghan format and wants the Taliban to join the peace process. India, on the other hand, describes Taliban as the biggest threat to Afghanistan largely because it views Afghanistan through Pakistan’s prism.
Russia provided both the diplomatic and logistical support to U.S. military in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2015. Although, over the last two years, it has been critical of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and its role to end the war. This led to significant shift, which now has become more obvious from Russia’s prior policy of neutrality to assertion in Afghanistan.
U.S., now perceives the Russian engagement and its peace negotiation moves in Afghanistan as country’s policy to expand its influence by taking advantage of the turbulence in the country to establish itself as a major player in the region and extending its foothold to the other critical parts of the world.
The long-lasting solution to the Afghan conflict lies in the rebuilding of region-based political consensus that may produce a political settlement among all the elements of Afghan society, including the Taliban. This requires that the Afghan government and the people, the United States and regional stakeholders agree on a negotiated framework for an inclusive peace process. It can only be materialized by a positive shift in varying threat perceptions, competing interests, and conflicting assessments by the actors of the conflict; hence moving beyond the “Rashomon effect” to peace cultivation. A stable Afghanistan should be the top priority of the U.S. and regional players with a paradigm shift of winning a war to reaching peace. The Russia-China-Pakistan initiative appears as a silver lining on the conflict-ridden horizon of the region.
Dr. Huma Baqai is Associate Professor at Institute of Business Administration, Karachi in the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, and, Qudsia Khaliq is Research Assistant to Dr. Huma Baqai.