Joe Biden inherits an Afghanistan situation with the baggage of Pakistan and resurgent Taliban
Given the dynamics at play, India is reduced to a mute spectator as are the other neighbouring countries like Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who have their own sovereign, sectarian, ethnic and strategic interests at stake, with the evolving narrative
Donald Trump will bequeath the incoming Joe Biden dispensation with a seemingly intractable and worsened situation in Afghanistan. The longest war in US history (started in the wake of the 11 September, 2001 attacks) with over 3,500 US-led coalition casualties and at least 11,0000 Afghan deaths is faced with the grim reality of the principal enemy, ie the Taliban, surging ahead with more than half of Afghanistan already under its physical control.
The warring tribes of Afghanistan understand the essential import and sophistry of semantics, as practical history repeats itself with the Afghans having evicted the British forces in 1919, pushing out the Russians in the late 1980s, and now wearing out US forces, even as the expression ‘withdrawal of troops’ is used instead of a more literal, ‘defeat’. The optics and narrative are eerily reminiscent of the ostensible peace accord in 1973 titled ‘Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Viet Nam’, which had allowed the supposed ‘honourable withdrawal of US troops’.
No sooner had the deal been signed that it was almost immediately, routinely and brazenly flouted and soon the Communists had overrun the entire country: The current augury in Afghanistan is no different. The US and the Taliban have signed yet another peace deal in Doha, Qatar, titled very familiarly, ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’!
The Taliban is not an easily controllable or a monolithic force and there are vested, competing and conflicting regional interests at play in this lawless, restive and violent Af-Pak admixture. The joker in the pack and the foremost stakeholder is Pakistan, and unless it indulges in an unusually reformatory and restorative role (which would defy its past record and basic instincts), escalation to a full-blown civil war and mayhem is guaranteed.
Most recently, former US president Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land captured the unfiltered reality of dealing with Pakistani duplicitousness in the Af-Pak theatre. Explaining the knowing violation of Pakistani sovereignty whilst conducting the Osama Bin Laden raid, Obama reasoned, "Abbottabad compound was just a few miles from the Pakistan military’s equivalent of West Point, only heightened the possibility that anything we told the Pakistanis could end up tipping off our target." Even the current US Peace Envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the force behind the hurriedly-stitched Doha deal (already tearing at the seams), is well-versed with the perfidious double-game played by the Pakistani establishment in fuelling violence.
In 2016, while deposing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the topic ‘Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the fight against terrorism’, Zalmay had unequivocally stated, "Pakistani policy is the principal cause of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan," and added, "Pakistan views the Taliban as an effective proxy to ensure Pakistani dominance over Afghanistan." But more worryingly he had prophetically warned, "Pakistan believes that they can outmanoeuvre and outwait us. They are adept at offering tactical gestures that make it appear that they are being helpful, which they calculate will make it more difficult for the US to take a hardline stance" — four years later, and with President Donald Trump making additional direct charges against Pakistan, indeed the Pakistanis have outmanoeuvred and outwaited the US in the shadow of the Doha deal.
Pakistan’s proxies in the Taliban are set to return to the centre stage of Kabul, yet again. While negotiations, reconciliation and a ‘peace deal’ are inevitable in bringing to an end any violent conflict, the underlying ground-situation, suppositions and perceptions amongst the insurgents are key — herein, the enthusiasm for the current negotiations with Taliban is rightfully decoded as a sign of weakness on the part of the US-led counterinsurgents, and this undermines the psychological flow of events that would follow. The absence of any momentum, surge or a basic position of advantage on the Afghan battlefield for the US means that the Taliban will willy-nilly dictate its expansionist and revisionist instincts, that are ghost-written by the Pakistanis.
The emerging pattern in Afghanistan is destined to fulfil portents of the ‘strategic depth’ in Kabul, as envisioned by the Rawalpindi Military GHQ, for decades.
Islamabad has been visibly buzzing with activities pertaining to Afghanistan, ever since Trump did his infamous U-turn on involving Pakistan in Afghan affairs, much to the unsaid consternation of India. Besides propping its favoured factions amongst the disparate composition of the Taliban, it was seen courting the 'Butcher of Kabul' ie former prime minister and extremist warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose brutality was described by The New York Times as the ‘most brutal of a generally brutal group’.
Confirming the worst kept secrets of Pakistani designs and providing a sign of times to come in Afghanistan, Hekmatyar’s role is sought to be revived. The known India-baiter, whose controversial pardon in 2016 was slammed by the Human Rights Watch as ‘an affront to victims of grave abuses’ was recently given official audiences by the Pakistani top brass including the president, prime minister and an array of the Pakistani establishment. This move assumes significance as the beholden Hekmatyar along with his band of ruthless warriors have a foothold within Kabul, and could do Islamabad’s bidding to facilitate manoeuvring the Taliban, from within.
In the face of Trump’s untimely comment of bringing US troops ‘home by Christmas’ – Hekmatyar’s lurking shadow within Kabul, is ominous. True to script, Hekmatyar was seen railing against India in an event organised by the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, to mark the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Hekmatyar’s comment underscored his perfect alignment, "China and Pakistan have a common and coordinated position on Afghanistan, not only do they support the peace process, rather they see it as beneficial to their regional interests, especially if it leads to a reduction in India’s presence in Afghanistan’.
Meanwhile, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan added to the ongoing flurry by making his first state visit to Afghanistan and stated rather incredulously, "The idea of visiting at a time when violence is increasing [in Afghanistan] is to assure you, President [Ashraf] Ghani, that the people and the government of Pakistan have only one concern; peace in Afghanistan." The ground situation is tilting increasingly in favour of the Taliban, as the outgoing US administration’s team is desperately hastening the speed of negotiations, even as the Taliban violence is spiralling to unprecedented levels — clearly the outfit smells blood and will make yet another bid for Kabul, as it had done in early 1990s, guided invaluably by the Pakistani Military GHQ in Rawalpindi.
The Pakistani Foreign Office released its ‘shared vision’ document signed between the Pakistani and Afghan government which necessitated, ‘close coordination, a structured dialogue, and willingness to take difficult and courageous decisions’.
The hapless and cornered Ghani government is in a sticky bind, as the incoming US administration of Joe Biden, too shares the ‘winding down’ approach, albeit, not in the same tearing hurry as displayed by Trump. Given the dynamics at play, India is reduced to a mute spectator as are the other neighbouring countries like Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who have their own sovereign, sectarian, ethnic and strategic interests at stake, with the evolving narrative.
The fast spreading surge and imminence of the dreaded Taliban looming around Kabul, naturally bears the countermove impulse for an alternative, more-inclusive and modern-day version of the Northern Alliance, as also, a case for building pressures on the US to not accelerate the ‘withdrawal’ process without getting working guarantees from the Taliban, and more importantly, from Pakistan.
The author is former Lieutenant-Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry
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The bad news is that the Taliban faction governing Afghanistan today is even more operationally and ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda than the old Afghan Taliban leadership