Unease over US’ Afghan withdrawal

G Parthasarathy | Updated on February 20, 2019 Published on February 20, 2019

Uncertain times A file picture of US soldiers in Afghanistan   -  REUTERS

Despite the upcoming elections, the government cannot take its eye off the key developments unfolding in Afghanistan

National attention is now focused on forthcoming Parliamentary elections. This is accompanied by national determination to respond strongly to the Pulwama outrage. A related foreign policy issue that requires careful monitoring is the forthcoming US withdrawal from Afghanistan. This withdrawal will inevitably lead to increasing Taliban control of Afghanistan, especially in the predominantly Pashtun dominated areas, bordering Pakistan.

Pakistani terrorist groups like the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (renamed later as the Jaish-e-Mohammed) established training camps in Southern Afghanistan, when the ISI-backed Taliban ruled Afghanistan till November 2001. The Taliban leadership colluded with the ISI during the hijacking of IC 814, to secure the release of three terrorists, including Jaish leader Maulana Masood Azhar, from Indian jails.

The proposed withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as the failure of yet another American military misadventure abroad. These serious misadventures in the past included politico-military debacles in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and Iraq. After 17 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the US-backed Afghan government today controls just over half the country, with the remaining areas either contested, or controlled by the Taliban. Roughly 40 security personnel are killed every day, with over 10,000 civilian casualties in 2018. The Taliban have also attacked major urban centres, including provincial capitals.

In these circumstances, the Ashraf Ghani-led government in Kabul is fearful of being ditched by the Trump Administration, with whom serious differences have developed on American insistence to postpone the next Presidential elections.

While US President Donald Trump is not popular in any major world capital, his desire to avoid any foreign military involvement and pull out of Afghanistan, enjoys widespread popular support domestically. The unseemly hurry with which Trump’s chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad is seeking to carry forward talks with the Taliban, facilitating an early American withdrawal, is evident. Gulf Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and their rival Qatar, are helping the American endeavour to execute a face saving withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Arab Gulf States are using a carrot and stick approach to compel Pakistan to back the American effort. With Pakistani foreign exchange reserves reaching a new low of $6 billion, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are providing Pakistan $12 billion to keep its economy to afloat.

While Pakistan may appear elated at the prospect of US withdrawal, expecting a Taliban takeover thereafter, there are now several imponderables in such a scenario, with the Iranians and Russians appearing set to move developments in a somewhat different direction. The Iranians appear to have persuaded the Taliban that Teheran can play a crucial role in making peace between the Taliban and Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Shia Hazara groups, across the Iran-Afghanistan border, after an American withdrawal. The Taliban were at war with these groups known as the “Northern Alliance,” when they were last in power.

The recent Conference on Afghan peace in Moscow was attended by prominent Afghan leaders former President Hamid Karzai (no great friend of the Americans), Hanif Atmar, who is set to contest the next Afghan Presidential elections and Tajik strongman Atta Mohammed Noor, together with members of the Taliban leadership. Moreover, with Mullah Baradar, who was jailed for years by the Pakistan Government, now playing a leading role in the Taliban, Pakistan cannot realistically expect that a Taliban-backed government will unquestioningly yield to diktats from Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The Russian-Iranian factor

The Russians and the Iranians appear to be outmanoeuvring the Americans in engaging the Taliban. Given Trump’s determination to withdraw American troops, Russian and Iranian moves to help the Taliban to live in peace with ethnic and sectarian minorities, could well provide the Americans a face saving exit from Afghanistan.

There is, paradoxically, a measure of complementarity in the aims of the US and Russia, when it comes to disregarding or marginalising the role of the present Ghani government, in fashioning a new architecture for governing Afghanistan. Moves in this direction could, however, also lead to a split in the Taliban, especially if the largely Pakistan-based Haqqani network remains a predominantly ISI proxy. Equally, excluding representatives of the Ghani government from talks with the Taliban, as both the Americans and Russians have done, is a recipe for continuing internal conflict.

The Taliban have never formally recognised the Durand Line as the International Border with Pakistan. The situation along Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan is further complicated by the emergence of a strong sense of Pashtun resentment and sub-nationalism, across the Durand Line. This alienation arises from the brutal operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, by the Pakistani military, in its much-touted Zarb-e-Azb operations.

Over one million Pashtuns were driven out of their homes and townships, which were reduced to rubble, by artillery and aerial bombing. Pashtun resentment runs deep, in these tribal areas. These sentiments are symbolised by the emergence of a nationalistic “Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement” (PTM) in the tribal areas across the Durand Line.

Complicating matters further for Pakistan, an estimated 3000-4000 armed members of the Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan, once protégés of the ISI, are now spread across Afghanistan. Their desire for revenge against the brutalities of the Pakistan army cannot be underestimated.

India will have to carefully monitor these developments, even as its leadership is fully focused on the coming general elections. The Taliban has a given some indications that it understands the importance of India’s role, especially in building the Chabahar Port and its economic assistance to Afghanistan.

There are, however, several challenges ahead for India, including the possibility of the Taliban returning to their medieval practices. But, these are issues, which can be handled with astute diplomacy and readiness to continue with our economic assistance, which has won us many friends in Afghanistan. Much will depend on the Taliban’s readiness to shed extremism and share power with others.

Amidst all these developments, Iran announced on February 12 that 28 Iranian soldiers were killed in a bomb blast near the Iran-Pakistan border. The Iranians vowed retribution. Iran’s Ambassador in Islamabad was summoned to the Foreign Office the next day, to receive a “strong protest” from Pakistan, claiming that six Pakistani soldiers had been killed and 14 seriously injured along the Pakistan-Iran border.

Meanwhile, Pakistan extended a red carpet welcome to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Salman in Islamabad. Pakistan appears insistent on promoting terrorism and provoking three of its neighbours — Iran, Afghanistan and India.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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Published on February 20, 2019
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