After 17 years of US-led intervention in Afghanistan, country stares at uncertain political future

We have become accustomed to conceptually seeing Afghanistan as a destabilised political entity, rife with sanguine ethnic faultlines and sectarian divisions.

Ambreen Agha October 01, 2018 21:51:19 IST
After 17 years of US-led intervention in Afghanistan, country stares at uncertain political future

Afghanistan has been reeling under utter chaos. Despite the 17 long years of US-led military intervention, little has been achieved in terms of strategic gains and political stability. Popularly dubbed as a “fool’s errand” and a “lost war”, Washington’s role has come under further scrutiny, given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and increasing public fatigue in the US over its involvement in a "foreign war" that has cost more than USD 840 billion since 2001. The recent spate of terrorist attacks brings the existing vulnerabilities to the surface, exposing the prolonged political impasse over issues of governorship, a faltering peace process with the Taliban and the miscalculations of external powers, in particular US and Russia.

Indeed, we have become accustomed to conceptually seeing Afghanistan as a destabilised political entity, rife with sanguine ethnic faultlines and sectarian divisions that appear and reappear in this continuously evolving theatre of war. While the threat of international terrorism exists in more potent forms these days, the danger primarily lies domestically – in Afghanistan - with a multiplicity of terrorist formations finding shelter in the insecure eastern provinces that share their border with the restive tribal areas of Pakistan and operating in 32 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.

As Taliban moves further towards the north from its southern heartland Kandahar, the threat that mainly existed in the periphery has percolated and reached the core – the national capital Kabul, which, today, lies at the centre of all major terrorist attacks. Significantly, following the Taliban-led Ghazni Offensive on 9 August that had claimed more than 100 lives, the Islamic State-Khorasan massacred at least 48 Hazara-Shia students in the capital city Kabul on 15 August.

After 17 years of USled intervention in Afghanistan country stares at uncertain political future

A member of the Afghan security forces in Kabul. File image. Reuters

Kabul is the true locus of power in Afghanistan. An attack in Kabul is perceived to be an attack on the entire political machinery, including institutions of governance. Moreover, these attacks delegitimise the political leadership by painting a picture of a weak and fragile government incapable of providing public safety. With presidential elections due in April 2019, the threat posed to the power centre is ominous. Nevertheless, the challenge lies in maintaining the current momentum gained over the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled in October this year.

Islamic State-Khorasan: Consolidating Gains?

In the last three years, Islamic State has remarkably gained ground, appearing first in Nangarhar, travelling to Herat in the west and eventually disrupting the power centre in Kabul. The increasing presence and activities of Islamic State beyond its operational centre Nangarhar is a troubling sign. The first reports of Islamic State making inroads in Afghanistan had started coming in soon after the release of the terrorist group’s "world domination map" in June 2014 that included Afghanistan in the larger "Islamic region" of Khorasan. In the following year, on 26 January, Islamic State publicly announced the establishment of its Khorasan affiliate; and reportedly, carried out its first terror attack in Afghanistan on 18 April in Jalalabad city of Nangarhar that killed at least 35 people outside the New Kabul Bank.

Since its first attack in 2015, Islamic State has carried out several terrorist attacks in the country, particularly in Jalalabad city of Nangarhar and more recently in Kabul. Of the 10,453 civilian casualties recorded in 2017, at least 1,000 have been attributed to Islamic State. Owing to the retreating territory in its traditional operating areas in Iraq and Syria, the outfit appears to be expanding and consolidating in Afghanistan, despite the ferocious resistance from the internally factious Taliban. It was during the initial vacuum created by the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar that a leadership crisis within the Taliban emerged, creating ample space for Islamic State to grow, evolve and expand its operational capabilities from Nangarhar to Kabul.

In this scenario, where a defiant Islamic State and a fierce Taliban are both competing and contending parties, a gory turf war is likely to ensue. Crucially, Islamic State and Taliban have engaged in direct confrontations on several occasions, with the former determined to establish a foothold on the militant landscape of the country. The escalation of Taliban-Islamic State fighting poses a bigger threat to the long pending peace deal that is more elusive than tangible.

In this context of the peace process, Russia’s recent outreach to the Taliban in the absence of the Afghan government sets a bad precedent. This decision, which now stands cancelled, not only undermines the authority and legitimacy of the government but also emboldens and legitimises the Taliban in further entrenching its violent conflict. Such (deliberate) miscalculations expose a Machiavellian foreign policy that placates the non-state actors in achieving its geopolitical ambitions.

In this tangled war – with a multiplicity of internal and external actors, involved in different and at times, complementing capacities - the battlefield is littered with explosive remnants of war, making the road to "victory" – as imagined by interventionist powers –a hard and long one to travel.

Re-alignment amidst ambiguity

Amidst the complex war with a multi-faceted impact, there is persisting ambiguity over the future course of action, both domestically and internationally. With Afghanistan entering the fourth democratic process in April next year post-Bonn (2001), the political future remains uncertain — oscillating from consolidating byzantine politics to moving towards strengthening democracy. While Afghanistan navigates through an uncertain political future, the international and regional players must focus on forging future engagement and mediation.

It is time that the US abides by the ‘timelines’ that it sets for itself for engagement and disengagement in this protracted war. While, clearly, the presence of US forces in Afghanistan is considered to be in the larger interest of the internal and external stakeholders, we must learn that in this war of illusions and reality we need to abandon the former – a belief that external powers can stabilise the country militarily. US’s dilemma towards Afghanistan – from military intervention to troop withdrawal and back to troop deployment – reveals an incoherent approach. With not many alternatives left, will the US establish a permanent presence in the region by militarily engaging in Afghanistan or will it arbitrarily abandon the war zone, leaving behind the ghosts of war?

This leaves India with continuing its policy of social internationalism, which includes promoting common good and cooperation. It is equally important for India to continue to focus and pursue its present and future commitments in Afghanistan while at the same time align its objectives with the reality on ground.

The author is Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Her area of interest is religion, conflict and religious orientations of violent and non-violent forms. Views expressed are that of the author and not of the Council.

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