Afghanistan Back to Square One
April 20, 2012
Last Sunday, the Taliban declared the start of their spring offensive with a well coordinated attack on a number of fortified locations in Kabul, including parliament, Western embassies and NATO headquarter. The 18-hour standoff in the Afghan capital between Taliban insurgents, and Afghan and NATO forces reportedly claimed 36 casualties, almost two-third of which were those of the insurgents, including suicide bombers.
The options for making peace in Afghanistan are getting limited by the day. And the primary reason for this is the war itself — a war that was avoidable in the first place, a war that should not have allowed the Northern Alliance to capture power in Afghanistan and subsequently dominate its security, politics and economy at the expense of the country’s Pashtun majority
While the latest spectacular offensive by Taliban has not produced any tangible outcome in the form of human and material loss, its symbolic value in the on-going Afghan war amid the withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan can hardly be under-estimated.
That Taliban insurgents can penetrate so deeply in Kabul’s most sensitive zone and then operate militarily so close to the Afghan Presidential Palace highlights the fragility of the relative peace in Kabul. In Afghanistan’s southern, eastern and parts of the north and west, the security situation is even more precarious or there are pockets of territory actually under insurgent control.
As usual, the Afghan government has blamed the Haqqani Network for the attack, basing its claim on the confession of a few captured insurgents—even though its responsibility is officially accepted by the Afghan Taliban leadership. However, the NATO command is yet to confirm whether the Haqqani Network was behind this attack.
At least until last month, the US and the Taliban were holding talks—a process that began well over a year ago through German mediation, with marginal successes in the form of de-listing Taliban leaders from the UN Security Council’s list of most wanted terrorists, as well as Taliban’s decision to open a liaison in Qatar to take the peace process forward and their offer to negotiate a prisoner swap agreement with the US. Perhaps legal complications pertaining to the release of three Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison prevented the Obama Administration to meet Taliban expectations on the issue, thereby compelling Taliban to unilaterally withdraw from talks.
Thus, it makes sense to contextualise Taliban’s offensive in the Afghan capital in the failure of their talks with the US—which had unnerved the Karzai government, since it felt being left out of the process. After Taliban announced to open an office in Qatar, President Karzai approached Saudi Arabia to facilitate Afghan reconciliation.
For its part, Pakistan may also not like to be by-passed in any move, Afghan or American, to make peace with the Taliban. Pakistan’s peculiar ethnic and geographical bond with Afghanistan is the primary constraint that leaves it with little choice but to be fully involved in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan may have sought ‘strategic depth’ in the war-torn country in the past, but it currently professes an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” reconciliation process.
The first implication of Taliban’s symbolic start of the spring offensive, with a brazen attack on Kabul, is for the US bid to unilaterally make peace with them, without taking the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, two key stake-holders of Afghan peace, into confidence.
Its second, and more important, implication is for the scheduled, on-going withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan. The actual reason for this withdrawal lies in increasing unaffordability of the war for the US and its Western allies. This war in in its 11th year, its cost is unbearable for recession-hit Western economies, and then public opinion in all of the countries fighting the war, including the US, has effectively turned anti-war.
The political justification being advanced by the US for this withdrawal contradicts the actual reason. Senior Pentagon leadership has repeatedly claimed that the US troops surge has reversed the momentum of Taliban insurgency. Obama Administration officials, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have gradually built the peace discourse, while saying that in the end peace is made with the enemies. Therefore, the current situation, when Taliban have abandoned the peace process and resumed the war option, puts in jeopardy the planned withdrawal of US and NATO troops by 2014.
As part of the withdrawal process, the US troops’ level in September will come to the same level as it was prior to their 2009 surge; that is, 68,000—down from some 100,000 last year. By then, there will be well over 330,000 Afghan security forces to take over the security responsibility from the US and NATO troops that are withdrawn.
However, it is questionable whether the Afghan army and police will be able to hold on to the territory handed over to them by international forces. For instance, Helmand has been one of Taliban’s strongholds in the south, and around 10,000 US troops will hand over its security to Afghan forces by September.
If Taliban are able to attack Kabul so easily, taking shelter in under-construction buildings and keeping the well-guarded city hostage for almost a day, how can they be prevented from re-taking Helmand a provincial stronghold from local troops lacking in resolve and capability?
In the aftermath of the Taliban attack on Kabul, US and NATO commanders are reportedly planning to launch their own counter-offensive this spring to deny the Taliban access to important routes into the Afghan capital—by limiting their hold over Ghazni province that links the Afghan south with Kabul and insurgency-ridden eastern provinces, or intensifying the fight in eastern Paktia or Paktika provinces.
A counter-offensive whose aim is only to secure Kabul from Taliban attacks does not fit anywhere in the stated military strategy of the US and NATO to defeat the forces of insurgency so that security condition in Afghanistan is ripe enough during the transition period of 2012-2014 for enforcing peace by Afghan security forces in subsequent years.
If over a decade since its initiation, the objective of the war has come down to defending Kabul, then we can safely visualise where Afghanistan may be heading to, once foreign troops withdraw and if Afghan security forces fail to deliver at least as much security as US and NATO forces do in the Afghan capital and across the Afghan territory.
What the US and the West seem to desire now is to extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire as soon as possible. One by one, US allies in the war, with Australia being the latest case, are announcing to speed up the withdrawal of their troops. The proposed US strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan, despite recent progress on issues such as night raids, is also in jeopardy due to the US unwillingness to tangibly commit itself to the post-2014 Afghan security and development project.
In the absence of any peace settlement before 2014, there is a danger that Afghanistan may re-enter the era of civil war, perhaps more horrific than the one that prevailed in the aftermath of the Soviet troops withdrawal in 1989—with its neighbours playing their respective deadly games in the process.
The options for making peace in Afghanistan are getting limited by the day. And the primary reason for this is the war itself—a war that was avoidable in the first place, a war that should not have allowed the Northern Alliance to capture power in Afghanistan and subsequently dominate its security, politics and economy at the expense of the country’s Pashtun majority.
It is only by reversing the post-Taliban order in a manner that Pashtun grievances are effectively addressed and Taliban, who are essentially Pashtun, share power with other Pashtun and minority groups that have emerged as important stake holders in the country’s governance.
The US and NATO forces must withdraw from Afghanistan, not because of reasons internal to their countries, but for stabilising a country that has eventually become unstable primarily because of US-NATO intervention. Only a peace process that keeps Afghan interests at heart, and does not ignore the interests of countries, as important as Pakistan, in stable and peaceful Afghanistan, can secure a smooth US/NATO exit.
—The article includes excerpts from a presentation the author made at the 26th annual conference of British Association of South Asian Studies (BASAS) at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, April 12, 2012.