Unfortunately the internal instability in Afghanistan is not subsiding. On the contrary, the security situation is threatening the near collapsed National Unity Government in Kabul. In comparison, Taliban are getting stronger and bolder. Though divided in different factions and its leader Haibatullah Akhundzada not enjoying Mullah Omar like unstinted loyalty, Taliban are being wooed by China, Russia and Iran. Increasingly these powers have started treating Taliban more as a credible political force than as a bunch of armed terrorists.
Why are Taliban getting this attention? Is it their invincibility or their newfound utility against Daish and its allies? Or is it the unspeakable dictate of the new Great Game involving multiple objectives for participating states?
What is obvious is that a) NATO and the US could not defeat Taliban and their allies in the 15-year war. The Western-backed government in Kabul now controls less than 60 percent of the country and its writ is destined to shrink further in coming months, b) the US has not yet completed the review of its Afghanistan policy and thus created a situation which Russia, China Iran and anti-Afghan government elements can more easily exploit to their advantages. c) Russia has renewed its interest in Afghanistan and is not shy of offending the Afghan and the US governments by supporting Taliban as a political force and their main demand for evacuation of foreign troops from Afghanistan, d) Pakistan has shown willingness to participate in all peace processes but without compromising on the primacy of direct bilateral talks, disallowing other states the right to verify the implementation phases of the agreed decisions, and e) Taliban do not want to waste the opportunity to improve their bargaining position in a tangible way by rushing into peace dialogue with the Afghan government.
The Afghan dynamics are so complex that one can safely conclude that partly all these elements are at work, sometimes in parallel, raising prospects for meaningful talks and most of the time in opposite direction, nullifying each other’s efforts to bring peace in the region.
The proposed April 10 Moscow meeting, despite positive signals from Russia and Pakistan, is unlikely to make any headway. The new row between the Kabul government and the Russian Federation over the latter’s support for Taliban’s call for withdrawal of foreign troops from the country is likely to harden the Afghan stance against the inclusion of Taliban in any capacity in the Moscow peace initiative. Afghanistan said that Kabul has the sovereignty to decide the matter and that no one else has the right to dictate terms or issue instructions regarding the same. Russian special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov earlier said during an interview that, “Of course it’s justified for the Taliban to oppose the foreign military presence.” Kabulov further added, “Who’s in favor? Name me one neighboring state that supports it.”
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has already claimed (April 3) that they would press their advantage during the current spring offensive in the provinces of Helmand and Oruzgan in the south, Farah and Faryab in the west, and Sar-e Pul and Kunduz in the north. He said the Taliban would focus on capturing provincial capitals. It is in public knowledge that the security situation has dramatically worsened as U.S. troops — numbering more than 100,000 in 2011 — began to withdraw and hand over the fight against the Taliban to Afghan National Army and National Police. Multiple areas that were once considered safe soon fell into chaos. The Afghan government is trying desperately to persuade President Donald Trump for greater US military and economic support. Its incessant efforts are not paying off.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that the administration is reviewing Afghanistan policy, and military leadership seemingly supports a troop increase, though Defense Secretary James Mattis has not decided what his recommendation will be. President Trump, for his part, shows little interest in the war in Afghanistan. No one knows whether President Trump would accept Gen. John W. Nicholson’s proposal to send additional troops.
The delay in wrapping up the Afghan policy is enigmatic. It has given rise to different conspiracy theories. But it is naive to think that the Trump administration can afford the ensuing stagnation and deteriorating security situation in a region where US has lost 2,351 Americans. As the media reports suggest, the Afghanistan situation was a major topic of discussion during the last month’s (March 24) meeting between US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. “They talked a lot about Afghanistan…and the need to try to get it…just finish it (the war).” But, why Americans have decided to reject participation in regional states’ emerging collective efforts to promote peace prospects is inexplicable. Does the new US administration seriously believe that America and its allies with much smaller troops and diminished financial resources can resolve the Afghan imbroglio to the advantage of the Afghan Government? Regretfully, if it is the case, the US arrogance needs to undergo reality test.
President Ashraf Ghani’s February talks with President Trump, the first time since his inauguration on January 20, focused on the security situation in Afghanistan. The US military officials have accused Russia and Iran of providing weapons to Taliban in order to strengthen their links with them. Russia has been blamed for complicating the geopolitical alignments in Asia. Therefore, Pakistan alone is no longer held out as the spoiler.
Nevertheless, apart from Afghan officials, some former US officials, such as the former US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Olson, continue to allege that Pakistan still allowed the Afghan Taliban to use its soil as its ‘core strategic asset’ and is unlikely to abandon the terrorist groups since its Afghan policy is focused on “geo-strategic maneuvering” against India and following strategic depth in Afghanistan. He is convinced that Pakistan will not shun the safe sanctuaries for Afghan Taliban. He feels that despite heavy US pressures and significant blandishments, Islamabad has never abandoned the Taliban-nurturing policy and the use of its soil against Kabul.
One wonders why such people refuse to see the little progress Pakistan and Afghanistan have made after the London meeting between Advisor to the Prime Minister Sartaj Aziz and National Security Advisor Mohammad Haneef Atmar. Though the mistrust is deep, the rhetoric is not backed by tangible actions. Both governments have now developed a clearer perception and understanding of each other’s expectations and in/ability to deliver some of these.
Taliban are important for Pakistan but far off from being the core strategic element of its current Afghan policy, especially in the wake of changing strategic landscape in Afghanistan. The US also pursued contacts with the Taliban in recent years but its efforts failed in achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan. How can then Pakistan alone achieve which the Afghan government, ISAF and the US together could not?
Afghanistan has lived cheek by jowl with Russia. In the 19th century one could understand Russian inability to Russianize Afghanistan and get access to warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Now that the world order is marked by the emergence of multiple powers, Russia or any other country can influence Afghan thoughts, policies and soul to the extent Afghans let them do it.
Majority of the Afghan people want peace and jobs. They show no interest in the ‘New Great Game’. For them, each regional and outside power is trying to create an extra space for its economic interests and increased geopolitical influence to outdo its rival. As long as this outdoing is acceptable to vested interests, which are benefitting from the status quo, the region will remain unstable. Both directly affected countries namely Pakistan and Afghanistan may be weak and badly governed but are not up for grab. But unless they correct the fault lines dividing them, their peoples will continue to suffer.
The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org