G Parthasarathy

Afghans brave guns to come out and vote

G Parthasarathy | Updated on October 31, 2018

Afghan polls Women turned out in significant number to vote   -  REUTERS

India will face its biggest diplomatic challenge when the Presidential elections are held in Afghanistan next year

The resilience and courage of the people of Afghanistan was evident in recent Parliamentary elections held on October 21. While there are varying estimates about the number of eligible voters in the country, an estimated 4 million voters, comprising around 33 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote, braving Taliban threats, bomb explosions, suicide bombers and mortar shells. Over 170 voters were killed, or wounded.

What was particularly noteworthy was the significant turnout of women voters, estimated as over 30 per cent of those registered. Nothing shames the Taliban and their medieval practices regarding women more, than the large turnout of women voters.

Interestingly, while the Afghan government controlled 229 districts with 56.3 per cent of the population, 59 districts with 14.5 per cent of the population were under Taliban control, with control of 119 districts, comprising 29.2 per cent of the population, being contested, during the elections.

Barely three days before the elections, the Southern Afghan city of Kandahar witnessed a murderous Taliban attack, demonstrating the uncertainty in the loyalties of individual members of the armed forces and police, because of infiltration of Taliban cadres, into their ranks. The attack occurred at a meeting between the US Commander General Austin Miller and Provincial Governor Zalmai Wesa.

Two Afghan bodyguards opened fire, killing the Governor, his Police Chief General Abdul Raziq, who had conducted anti-Taliban actions ruthlessly and successfully for over a decade, and the Provincial Intelligence Chief. Brigadier General Jeffrey Smiley, who was accompanying the US Commander, was seriously wounded.

The attack on the Governor, Police Chief and the US Army Commander, in Kandahar, has immense symbolic significance, given Kandahar’s historical and spiritual importance to the Taliban. The main Mosque in Kandahar, described as the “Shrine of the Cloak,” houses what is believed to be the cloak worn by Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam.

Ahmed Shah Durrani, who is regarded as the founder of Afghanistan and its national hero, brought the cloak to Kandahar from Bukhara in Uzbekistan, in 1768. This was done just a few years after Ahmed Shah’s victory in the Third battle of Panipat, in 1761, which extended Pashtun control over the whole of what is today Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland, north of the Sutlej.

When Mullah Omar reached Kandahar, with Pakistani backing, in January 1996, he sought to emphasise his legitimacy by blasphemously appearing in public, donning the cloak of the Prophet. Control, or appearances of control, over the Kandahar Mosque is symbolically more important to the Taliban, than even control of Kabul!

Hence, the relentless Taliban attacks on Kandahar, where we now have an Indian Consulate. Few in India, unfortunately, recognise or appreciate, the dangers our Diplomats and Staff in our diplomatic and Consular missions and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police face daily in Afghanistan.

With Presidential elections scheduled and likely to be held in the first half of 2019 in Afghanistan, India has to realise that the greatest diplomatic and strategic challenges it is going to face in coming months, are going to arise in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s game

With Imran Khan, popularly known as “Taliban Khan,” now heading the civilian government in Pakistan , it is clear that more than ever before, that the Pakistan army’s hard-core Islamists are going to call the shots in Afghanistan. Establishing a Taliban-dominated set up in Afghanistan is going to remain their highest priority. They are going to be emboldened by the fact that virtually every external power that matters — the US, EU, Russia, China and Iran are quite reconciled, one way or another, to ”accommodating” the Taliban.

This is their thinking at a time, when the Taliban impetuously seizes control over urban centres like Ghazni and shows little interest in negotiating with the Afghan government.

The role of external powers in the Afghan cauldron is also getting more complex. US President Donald Trump was soon dissuaded from his stated desire to pack up and leave from Afghanistan, when he was told that if he did so, he would be judged by many of his countrymen, as a ”weak” President who “lost” Afghanistan.

He has, since then, on the advice of Defence Secretary Mattis, augmented US Air Power, especially in the use of attack helicopter gunships, which can play a crucial role in dealing with Taliban attacks. He has, more or less, frozen US troop levels, but kept options open for a “face-saving” withdrawal.

The shrewd and savvy Zalmay Khalilzad, an American of Afghan origin, who played a leading role in Afghanistan during the Bush Administration, has been made the Special Envoy for talks with the Taliban, which he initiated recently in Qatar.

Interestingly, in the meantime, Pakistan has released a founding member of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is a leader it had distrusted and incarcerated, since 2010. The Taliban has welcomed Baradar’s release. He could well play an important role in talks with the Taliban, which can realistically pick up steam, only after Afghanistan’s Presidential elections in 2019.

‘Duplicitous’ roles

Both Russia and China have played duplicitous roles in Afghanistan. Russia has made friends with the Taliban and even reportedly supplied it with weapons. Pakistan has mid-wifed secret Chinese contacts with the Taliban, for over a decade now. Russia, China and Pakistan are playing a dubious game of diverting attention away from Taliban depredations.

They are trying to make the world believe that the real terrorist challenge in Afghanistan comes not from the Taliban, but from the “Daesh ” (Islamic State), which has regrouped in Afghanistan.

Americans wanting to leave Afghanistan in hurry have conveniently bought this dubious argument. China also has other worries, based on its fears that its Muslim Uighurs, whom it is treating brutally, could well cross the border, seek shelter in Afghanistan and threaten Beijing’s internal security.

One hopes that with the growing election fervour as India approaches forthcoming national elections, New Delhi will not ignore developments in Afghanistan.

A Pakistan backed takeover of large tracts of Afghan territory, as the Americans ponder over getting a face saving “exit strategy” from Afghanistan, has to be thwarted. One hopes that Afghan leaders will put aside personal rivalries and face the challenges posed by Pakistan and the Taliban, unitedly.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would be well advised to see, even as the Afghan Armed forces are strengthened and their morale restored, that powerful regional satraps like Provincial Governor of Balkh, Atta Mohammad Noor are fully associated in what should be a united and coordinated effort to meet coming challenges.

The writer is former High Commissioner of Pakistan

Published on October 31, 2018

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