US may still change endgame in Afghanistan and put pressure on Taliban by imposing sanctions on Pakistan

Pakistan has long negotiated with the world with a gun to its head. It is time to call its bluff

Sreemoy Talukdar August 12, 2021 12:30:35 IST
US may still change endgame in Afghanistan and put pressure on Taliban by imposing sanctions on Pakistan

File image of members of the Taliban in Laghman Province, Afghanistan. The New York Times

Afghanistan is hurtling headlong into an abyss. The Taliban, according to the latest reports, now controls two-thirds of the territory. And that is even before American and NATO troops have wrapped up their presence. A radical Islamist movement that openly seeks to drag the central Asian state into the middle-ages by installing an Islamic caliphate, wiping out two decades of painstaking progress, reckons that it has forced the United States to surrender and scoot — the latest in a long line of great powers.

The Taliban’s likely unseating of the Ashraf Ghani government, if it comes to such a pass, will have grave enough consequences for regional security, not to speak of its people. A generation of young Afghans who grew up under US security cover and tasted opportunities provided by the modern world face an uncertain future. Some have fled while others worry about being pushed back into the dark ages by a medieval regime.

Yet the implications of the Taliban’s ideological victory will be graver still. From creating more terrorist sanctuaries, pockets of ungoverned spaces, ever-expanding narcotics trade, undermining of global counterterrorism efforts to encouraging an alphabet soup of Islamist fundamentalist movements across the globe, adverse possibilities are endless.

As the marauding Taliban fighters move closer to Kabul, sweeping away all obstacles including airstrikes from US B-52 bombers, Reaper drones, Spectre gunships and feeble resistance from Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the Ghani government is crumbling and Washington is alternating between denial and delusion.

For the United States, bored, exasperated and faced with growing backlash at home over a two-decade-old project in a faraway land, closing its eyes to reality and harping on “diplomatic negotiations” seems the easier option. From flushing out Al Qaeda to promoting democracy in a tribal society, from building the Afghan military’s capacity to building the nation, US objectives and interests have wavered with the geopolitical climate and mood in Washington, with the last few years being marked by growing impatience over the ‘forever war’.

After ordering out the troops, Joe Biden has switched off. He has no patience for an endless stream of bad news from Afghanistan. He wants to talk of “happy things”. The US may have created the mess that it is now eager to escape from, but its president now says “it’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country”, as if millions of Afghans who abhor Taliban rule have a choice.

But American denial goes deeper. Speaking at a recent briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “if the Taliban claim to want international legitimacy, these actions are not going to get them the legitimacy they seek. They do not have to stay on this trajectory. They could choose to devote the same energy to the peace process as they are to their military campaign. We strongly urge them to do so.”

This statement bears resemblance with Antony Blinken’s during his recent trip to India when the US secretary of state said the Taliban risks being a “pariah state” if it seizes power through military action. In other words, the US believes or chooses to believe, that it still has some sort of leverage over the Taliban and can even force the insurgent to come to the table.

It is not clear where it gets this confidence from unless the stance is a ruse for resignation to reality. The Doha “peace process” is going nowhere. Taliban fighters, who have the country’s vast rural terrains already in bag, have taken control of nine of the 34 provincial capitals, some without even fighting.

It was said that the ANSF had let go of the rural areas to focus on defending the urban centres. The strategy is clearly not working. US intelligence officials believe at this rate, the Taliban may isolate Kabul in 30 days and take it over in 90, reports Reuters.

Simply put, for a rampaging Taliban, the promise of ‘international recognition’ from the US is not a good enough incentive to stall its march towards Kabul when power is in sight. The Taliban isn’t fighting to gain advantage at the negotiating table. It is fighting to win power, and Biden’s decision to pull out US troops — against military advice — has galvanised the Taliban fighters and boosted the confidence of their backers and mentors in Rawalpindi.

The Taliban still balks at the ‘terrorist’ tag, but in China it knows it has a presumptive superpower willing to offer it a seat at the high table in return for the right incentives. For now, the militants continue their rapid advance at a pace that has taken even the US by surprise. The Taliban doesn’t see why it should share power when it is able to grab it all.

“Eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban in less than a week,” reports Bill Roggio of Long War Journal with ANSF in most cases capitulating without a fight. The Taliban have now taken control over the entire northeast, and the fall of the capitals of Badakhshan, Baghlan and Farah provinces looks ominous for President Ghani, who is now reduced to seeking the help of local warlords to restrict the Taliban’s advance at the cost of shelling out money, weapons, and bartering away some of the state’s autonomy.

And sometimes these local warlords still switch sides even after striking a deal with the government, as former senator and local strongman Asif Azimi did on Monday along with 300 of his men, hastening the fall of Aibak, the capital of Samangan province.

It is not just the territorial gains, the speed of Taliban’s progress and snatching of urban centres has created an air of inevitability, further sucking the morale of the Afghan forces. One of the enduring puzzles marking Taliban’s stunning progress has been the capitulation of Afghan forces who have received decades of training from the US, carry advanced weapons, move around in fancy vehicles, have air support and outnumber the Taliban at least on paper.

The ground reality is different. With the US contractors leaving Afghanistan, most of the Afghan airpower has been rendered useless due to lack of maintenance and spare parts, and those warplanes that are still airworthy, have been grounded due to the Taliban’s strategy of targeting the pilots.

On the ground, most of the 250,000 ANSF troops are without ammunition, food, payment and motivation, leading to their readiness to surrender. The other issue, as Wall Street Journal points out, “built by the US and its NATO allies alongside Western models over the past 20 years, the Afghan military is collapsing in part because of its sophisticated structure. Reliant on outside contractors and air support, it has turned out to be unsustainable for a country like Afghanistan, with its limited means and skills.”

The other piece of this puzzle is money. To win a war, requires funds. The Taliban are a mega-rich militant outfit that makes a lot of money from the narcotics trade, extortion, mining, taxes and “charitable” contributions from the Gulf. Pakistan also chips in with funds for “jihad”.

According to a report in The Conversation, “in the fiscal year that ended in March 2020, the Taliban reportedly brought in $1.6 billion.” The report quoted Mullah Yaqoob, son of the late Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who revealed the Taliban’s income sources in a “confidential report commissioned by NATO and later obtained by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.”

Add to this the massive revenue Taliban has found access to of late in seizing key customs posts and collecting import duties on goods entering Afghanistan. According to Bloomberg, the Taliban took more than 2.7 billion Afghanis in import duties last month, denying the Ghani government a key source of revenue.

Bolstered by its military success, territorial gains and steady generation of funds, The Taliban is moving in for the kill. In a throwback to the 1990s, the militant group is already imposing its harsh and retrogressive laws that are fundamentally at odds with the 21st-century world in the areas that it has captured, and at the receiving end has been the women, the most vulnerable group in Afghan society.

Afghan women have entered public life as doctors, lawyers, politicians, governors, joined the military, police, sporting arenas, or taken up livelihoods in music, teaching, engineering and form a crucial part of the civil society in a generation when Afghanistan tiptoed out into modernity, are now being marginalized, boxed up and shuttered away. The Taliban is burning schools, banning girls and women from stepping outside without a male escort, forcing women to cover themselves from head to toe. They are reportedly “going door-to-door in some areas, compiling lists of women and girls aged between 12 and 45 years for their fighters to forcibly marry.”

New York Times quotes Farzana Ahmadi, 27, who graduated from Kunduz University two years ago before moving to a Taliban-controlled village with her husband, as saying, “It was my dream to work in a government office… But I will take my dream to the grave.”

Along with repression, the Taliban has been brutal and severe. Music is banned, men are forced to keep beards, beatings and executions are commonplace. The Taliban recently executed 22 Afghan commanders who were ready to surrender. It has killed an Indian photojournalist and mutilated his mortal remains, caused the death of 27 children, killed nearly 1000 people while overrunning the province of Kandahar last month, beheaded a comedia and dragged a 21-year-old woman out of her car and shot her dead for not wearing a veil.

The biggest impact of the Taliban’s rise, however, will be in regional security as it is likely to inspire a plethora of Islamist terrorist outfits who will take their inspiration from the Taliban’s “success”. India will obviously be impacted. Scholar C Christine Fair, in an interview with Open magazine, says “we are quickly entering some version of the 1990s, but a more dangerous version. But the US has returned to its old thinking that as long as these groups are parochial and lack the ability to hurt the US, these groups are someone else’s problem.”

That could be another miscalculation. Though Biden has claimed that US objective has been met as Al-Qaeda is no longer a threat, a recent UN report suggests that the militant group which caused the US to invade Afghanistan in 2001, still maintains congenital ties with the Taliban. According to the UN report, Al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, and “operates under the Taliban umbrella from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz Provinces. The group is reported to be such an “organic” or essential part of the insurgency that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies.” This has been evident from the fact that several of Al-Qaeda commanders have died while fighting in Taliban-controlled territory, “underscoring the closeness of the two groups.” The report also points to the presence of ISIS into the mix.

The situation also presents a grim reality for India with reports emerging that thousands of Pakistan-based terror operatives from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) are fighting alongside the Taliban. Many of these jihadis are joining Taliban ranks and returning to Pakistan as “martyrs” for the cause, triggering even more recruits for the Taliban.

According to Lisa Curtis, former US national security council senior director for South and Central Asia in the Donald Trump administration, “Without US forces on the ground in Afghanistan to support intelligence collection and counterterrorism operations by the Afghan forces, Al-Qaeda and other terrorists will have more freedom of operation and the ability to rebuild their leadership networks and capabilities.”

It is not a stretch to imagine that just as in the late 1980s and early 90s, Pakistan will again use a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a nursery and breeding ground for India-specific terror groups, and its repercussions will be felt anew in Kashmir.

Pakistan presents the final piece of the puzzle in Afghanistan, one which the US has overlooked for the last two decades, and may overlook even now. Jeff Smith, research fellow for The Heritage Foundation, strikes it home when he writes, “even if America’s strategy were flawless, even if the Afghan government was free of all corruption, the safe haven the Taliban and their allies enjoyed across an international border was alone adequate to keep the conflict simmering indefinitely. Addressing Pakistan’s role in the conflict was not sufficient, but it was very much necessary.”

Pakistan has aided, abetted and strategized for the Taliban to defeat America, and is now putting on a show of victimhood yet again — a game that has yielded so much dividend over the years that Pakistan feels tempted to push the limits of this strategy. And to its surprise finds that the US never fails to fall for it.

Over the two decades that it was US “partner” for its war on terror, Pakistan has carried on with its duplicitous double game on Taliban, nursing the terrorist outfit back to health for a military offensive at an opportune time while publicly calling for a “political solution”.

Writing in SouthAsia, Professor Fair argues that the Taliban “were never an insurgent group. They were and are a wholly owned subsidiary of Pakistan. This war in Afghanistan has been greatly beneficial to Pakistan. Not only did the United States receive copious subsidies to support the war in Afghanistan, it was never penalized for continuing to undermine it.”

Little wonder that when the Doha deal (essentially an exit plan by the US) was finally agreed upon last year, Pakistan was struggling to contain its glee. And even as the civil war unfolded in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s powerful military has supplied the Taliban with intelligence, weapons, training and strategic advice, and safe haven for Taliban fighters and their families while ensuring smooth cross-border movements. Basically, the Taliban wouldn’t be in the position it is in today without Pakistan’s military and logistical support.

As Michael Rubin, senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute writes, “Because Afghanistan is landlocked and U.S. policy largely prevented cooperating with the alternate route through the Iranian port of Chahbahar, Pakistan also became the logistical gatekeeper and charged a hefty price. When I sat down with a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) leader a decade ago, he openly bragged that Pakistan was playing it both ways and, even if Washington recognized that, there was nothing they could do.”

As The Taliban fighters gained control of the urban centres, a hashtag #SanctionPakistan raged across social media. “As of Wednesday”, reports Al Jazeera, “the hashtag had been used more than 730,000 times, with at least 37 percent of those tweets tagged as originating in Afghanistan, according to data from the social media insight company, Talkwalker.” This is not a coincidence.

Addressing a UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan in New York last Friday, Ghulam M Isaczai, Afghanistan's Permanent Representative to the UN, said, “The Taliban continues to enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan and supply and the logistic line extended to their war machine from Pakistan… “This is not only a naked violation of the 1988 UN Security Council sanction regime, but also leads to further erosion of trust and confidence towards establishing a collaborative relationship with Pakistan to end the war in Afghanistan.”

It has long escaped analysts and policymakers elsewhere, more so in India, why the US continues to indulge Pakistan and pretends not to notice its deceptive behavior. According to Michael Hirsh on Foreign Policy, “US reluctance to push Pakistan too hard is rooted in a singular fear: Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state. To isolate Pakistan and identify it as a supporter of terrorism could easily create a nightmare much worse than what happened in the late 1990s, when a Pakistani smuggling network enabled Libya to obtain nuclear weapon designs. Even more frightening to Washington is the prospect that an unstable, isolated Pakistan could fracture, and extremists might get hold of the country’s nuclear weapons.”

Pakistan has long negotiated with the world with a gun to its head. It is time for the US to break free of its mental capitulation before Islamabad and impose costs on Pakistan for its behavior. The Biden administration is making yet another mistake in hoping that Pakistan will succeed in bringing the Taliban once more to the negotiating table and moderating its behavior. Pakistan’s myopic vision is rooted in paranoia over India’s influence in Afghanistan.

It has resisted US pressure on Taliban for two decades, and it is even more unlikely to accede to US request now that its protégé is close to wresting power in Kabul. The only way to put pressure on Pakistan is to impose sanctions, forcing Islamabad out of its comfort zone, confront the realities and disincentivizing it from playing the double game.

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