Terrorist attacks by the Taliban in January 2018 have set off alarm bells internationally, with growing doubts about the ability of the Afghan government to exercise even a measure of control over large tracts of the country, including Kabul. The last year was traumatic, with an estimated 30,000 personnel of the Afghan National Army being killed.
An attack on an army camp near the northern provincial capital Mazar-e-Sharif, widely regarded as an anti-Taliban stronghold, resulted in the deaths of over 140 soldiers in September 2017. The past month saw three major terrorist attacks by the Taliban and the Islamic State in Kabul. The first Taliban attack was on the heavily protected and avowedly impregnable Intercontinental Hotel, resulting in 22 fatalities. An attack by a Taliban suicide bomber in an ambulance in the heart of the capital followed: 104 Afghans perished. The month ended with an attack in Kabul by the Islamic State on an army academy, leading to the death of 14 soldiers.
Recipe for trouble
International concern has been accentuated by the political controversies that have plagued Afghanistan since the presidential elections in 2014, which led to the imperious American Secretary of State John Kerry hurriedly brokering an agreement by which Ashraf Ghani became president and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, was appointed ‘chief executive’. This arrangement is not constitutional. There is no clearly defined demarcation of powers. It is thus a recipe for problems of governance and political management.
Evidently unwilling to seek constitutional legitimacy through the traditional Afghan practice of convening a meeting of a Loya Jirgah, the government has since invited internal challenges from powerful regional leaders. These include the popular and powerful Tajik governor of the northern Balkh province, Atta Mohammed Noor, the Uzbek warlord and first vice-president Rashid Dostum, the deputy to the Afghan CEO Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, and foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani. How all this will play out in the parliamentary elections, already delayed by three years, and the presidential elections in 2019, remains to be seen.
These developments are occurring at a time when Pakistan’s civilian government led by a political nonentity, Prime Minster Syed Khaqan Abbasi, has neither the status nor the authority to challenge the powerful military establishment, which is determined to destabilise the Kabul government through enhanced support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Trump administration threatened to attack Taliban bases in Afghanistan, prompting a Pakistani response that any attack by drones across the international border would be resisted and the drones shot down. Pakistan evidently believes that the Trump administration will not carry out the threat of military strikes across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the face of its own threats that it will close the only route for supplies to American forces in Afghanistan.
While Trump has repeatedly warned Pakistan of serious consequences for sponsoring terrorism, the Pakistan military evidently believes that like in case of his repeated threats to North Korea and China, Trump will back off from doing anything serious or drastic, militarily.
A new dimension has, however, now arisen with CIA director Mike Pompeo spelling out what the US would do if Pakistan refused to act against the Taliban and turned down US calls to destroy Taliban “safe havens” in Pakistan. Pompeo bluntly asserted: “In the absence of the Pakistanis achieving that, we are going to do everything we can to make sure the safe havens no longer exist.” This suggests that the US would pursue using a wide range of options — overt and covert — to achieve its aims.
In the meantime, Trump has made it clear that ‘talks’ with the Taliban are ruled out as long as it persists with resorting to terrorism. This is a significant change from the policy of the Obama administration, which walked into the Pakistani-Chinese trap of promoting direct and unconditional dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, thereby putting the Taliban on the same level as the Afghan government, instead of compelling the Taliban to first end its terrorist activities.
Pakistan’s policy in its relations with India and Afghanistan is, after all, to compel the neighbouring countries to give legitimacy to the terrorists and terrorism it backs, by direct and unconditional dialogue.
While India has spelt out details of the future economic assistance and military training it will be providing to Afghanistan, there is now need for New Delhi and Kabul to work more closely on the issue of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan, particularly in shaping US and international pressure on Pakistan, The US decision to end bilateral economic and military assistance to Pakistan is totally inadequate despite the fact that Pakistan faces a serious shortage of foreign exchange, arising from a growing trade deficit. The US should be persuaded to work with its European allies, Japan, major oil producers like Saudi Arabia, and international financial institutions to withhold economic assistance to Pakistan. The much-touted Chinese ‘assistance’ to Pakistan exclusively involves the provision of Chinese machinery, currency and workers for identified projects. It will not add to Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves. On the contrary, Chinese ‘aid’ will soon start depleting Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves, when repayments to it commence.
Pakistan and its Taliban protégés will feel the squeeze only when economic pressures are combined with growing isolation through pressure brought about by India, Afghanistan and the US working together. Pakistan should be made to realise that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. The Obama administration erred seriously when it encouraged Qatar to permit the Taliban to open an office on its soil, thereby giving it international legitimacy. Qatar has to be persuaded to close the Taliban office. Others like Saudi Arabia and the UAE should be persuaded to ban the entry of Taliban supporters, and monitor and confiscate the financial assets of pro-Taliban elements. These issues require close coordination between Washington, New Delhi and Kabul.
Most importantly, Afghans should be encouraged to put their differences aside and seek mutual understanding and reconciliation if they are to succeed in overcoming the Pakistan/Taliban challenge.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan