Proxies: Tools of geopolitics – Mian Sana

Taliban are no longer afraid of US and NATO weaponry. They have suffered bombardment, carpet strafing, drone attacks, internal bloody desertions motivated by money and power greed.

Whatever little fear was lurking in the back of their minds, went gasping when the exasperated new US administration dropped GBU-43 MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb) on militants in eastern Afghanistan. It is one of the largest conventional weapons ever used in combat, during an operation apparently against ISIS militants by US anywhere in conflict zones.

No doubt, Taliban would be aware, if not fully but marginally, that a bomb of that magnitude would have multidimensional long-term consequences for Afghans, the environment and fauna, for water sources and soil.  They took the human and material loss in their stride.

Interestingly, the mainstream Afghan leaders condemned the bombing as a war escalatory move. Widely, it was speculated that that Trump’s defence advisers were planning military operations against armed anti-government groups in Afghanistan. And that President Trump may not pursue diplomatic solution, keeping in view the growing Russian and Iranian alleged collaboration with Taliban.

A sharp warning to the US administration came from Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president, who declared the bombing an “inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country”. For him, the victim was his country, not ISIS, as claimed by the US defence officials.

Taliban already think that they have won the war. In their view, if 120,000 US troops could not stop their advances and failed to root out terrorism from Afghanistan, what difference a force of 9,000 plus a few thousands additional forces would make if they come.

The US calls the current situation as “stalemate”. This contention is challenged by independent American think tanks as “an outright US defeat”. On top of it, anti US and anti Afghan government terrorists, including Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other militant networks are getting stronger, both in Afghan public perception and control of territory. A February report by the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) confirmed that the insurgency “controls, contests or influences” at least 171 districts and the Kabul government had authority over no more than 52 percent of the country.

Obviously concerned over increased instability, the US has recently called on regional countries, including Russia and Pakistan, not to support Taliban in their bid to “perpetuate the very long war” in Afghanistan. “No one should support armed resistance against the Afghan government and the Afghan people”, McMaster said in his April visit to Afghanistan.

McMaster knows the war-ravaged Afghanistan very well. He is aware why Taliban continue to succeed. He knows how miserably the US government has failed to produce an effective Afghan National Security forces despite spending vast sums on their training over many years.

Unfortunately, his bromides hide the truth and try to shift the blame of failure first to Pakistan, followed by Russian and Iran. This is not new. On Mar 29, 2017 Shepard Smith reported Joseph Votel, CENTCOM Commander, telling the U.S Congress, it is “fair to assume” that Russia is providing support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in terms of weapons or other things that may be there. I believe what Russia is … attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world”.

Conveniently ignoring its strategic mistakes, the US administration engaged in the 16-year old conflict has the audacity   to ask countries in the region to “play a productive role, a positive role and to help the Afghan people end the war”.  The Russian Federation is being blamed to forge alliance with China, Iran and Pakistan to “resurrect its own interest” by “engaging Taliban and leading a new diplomatic effort, with or without U.S. support”. Trump will be the third consecutive president who will deal with Afghanistan issue.

What US administration thinks is a positive or constructive role is generally considered a loathsome ploy by regional powers designed to perpetuate its continued stay in the strategically located region to checkmate new alliances posing threats to US geostrategic designs. This US approach refuses to admit that the putting up the National Unity Government in Kabul was un-constitutional and a flawed experiment.

America is an important player in the end game in Afghanistan. But ” Mission Accomplished” in Afghanistan would not come at US terms and conditions alone. The US administration will have to give up its “obsession” to accomplish which it considers best for Afghanistan, its people and its neighbors. Defeating ISIS is a noble cause, considered so by Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Arab countries. But none of them are ready to hammer out a compromise long-term workable solution.

Nearly everyone acknowledges that Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only countries, which have suffered the most due to prolonged violence and terrorism in the region. None more than these two countries would want peace and stability. If so, why not first support building up sustained direct dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Let them collaborate with each other to sort out or reconcile the competing factions within Afghanistan.

If the fighting has to end in Afghanistan, the aim should be to allow Afghan people to choose how they want to build new Afghanistan. Models of development can be suggested but not forced on them merely because they need outside money to rebuild their country.

Within Kabul, a broad political settlement that reconciles ethnic mosaic may offer a long-term solution to the Afghan morass. With better border management by Afghan and Pakistani forces and increased intelligence sharing, it is possible to effectively destroy the so-called Taliban’s ability to use Pakistani territory as a sanctuary or the crossing over of TTP and India sponsored insurgent networks from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Once a decision is taken in principle that no proxies should be allowed, it is then a diplomatic challenge and not a military operation for governments in Islamabad and Kabul.

None other than non-state actors, terrorists and warlords and their associates in drug mafia find the continued chaos and insurgency beneficial. With peace and negotiation only, a lasting political and security framework can be evolved by neighbors of Afghanistan with full support of regional and major outside powers. If the blame game has to continue, shifting from Pakistan to Russian belligerence or Iranian terrorist networks, then Trump may not the last US President to find success in the proverbial graveyard of the marauding empires.

In the meanwhile, the relevant stakeholders have to be extremely watchful of outside interference and the adverse effects of the aggressive posturing of Russia and the US against each other on Afghan soil. If not managed in an appropriate manner, it could ignite new deadly proxies on Afghan soil.

This will, in turn, hit Pakistan very badly. Although Pakistan has been in touch with the Trump administration, it should continue impressing upon the US to play a role in trying to help ease bilateral tensions in the region. President Trump may not keep up his initial offer of mediation between Pakistan and India. Pakistan should not feel discouraged. Similar exercise should also be carried out with the Russians. Indian Prime Minister is visiting Moscow and Washington in June and on card are big projects and investments, apart from comprehensive talk on strategic matters.

The writer is a former Ambassador who can be contacted at


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