Afghanistan 2017. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Auteur: 
Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 
4/11/2017

Afghanistan 2017. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Foreword

13,000 NATO and US troops are currently in Afghanistan with a limited mission: to train and support Afghan Forces in their fight against the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Regional powers are dealing with the Taliban trying to outdo each other in a new “Great Game”, reminiscent of the the struggle between the Russian and British Empires since the 19th Century. Pakistan is accused of being the main supporter of the Afghan Taliban and playing a double game, while Iran and Russia (and recently China) have already established clandestine links with the Taliban in an anti-Islamic State strategy.

The devastating suicide bombings in Kabul in the last few months have led to further paralysis of the economy, with Afghanistan fast moving from a failing state to a failed state. The International Peace Conference held in Kabul on 6 June 2017 had no positive outcome with President Ashraf Ghani accused by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah of arrogance, incompetence and playing the ethnic card in a deeply divided country.

The international community is unable to deal with such situation: the real tragedy is that the most distant states – but not the neighbours – seem keen to wash their hands of Afghanistan.

And while the White House is considering sending more troops – with a fair number of private military contractors – the Taliban have written an open letter to Trump offering their advice on how to turn the last page of the Afghanistan book.

Current Situation

The withdrawal of international combat troops (around 100,000) between 2011 and in 2014 left a fragile security environment and a struggling national economy. Since the disputed 2014 presidential election, friction between the two halves of the “National Unity Government” has prevented the government from implementing widely supported reforms, notably against corruption and maladministration. This has deepened public discontent and questions over the government's legitimacy.

The ten top troops contributing nations are currently: US (by far the largest contributor), Italy, Germany, Georgia, Turkey, Romania, UK, Australia, Czech Republic, Poland. The security situation in Afghanistan remains challenging. The Afghan Defence Forces are improving but the rate of their development is affected by a range of complex challenges, not least the nature and strength of an insurgency made up not only of the Taliban but also of the Islamic State and other minor opposing organizations.

The Afghan government is unable to establish sovereignty throughout the country. The Taliban keeps attacking and are controlling around 40% of the overall territory but are unable to return to power. The resulting stalemate is closely monitored by Pakistan that is fearing a political solution increasing Indian influence in the region. The Islamic State, after being defeated in Iraq and Syria, is establishing a strong presence in Afghanistan. All kinds of networks and power brokers are involved in the lucrative opium trade.

The US and NATO, despite a couple of trillion dollars invested thus far, have little confidence that the Afghan government can survive if they withdraw.

This is why Washington is considering to send more troops, asking NATO to do more as well.

The strategy's goal is to expand governance and security throughout Afghanistan and, in turn, set the conditions for progress on a political settlement with the Taliban.

The Islamic State

The US and NATO decreased role in Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency together with a weak and divided central government has made Afghanistan an easy prey not only for regional capitals but also for the Islamic State .

The Islamic State's announcement of the creation of its Khorasan province branch in Afghanistan in 2015, destined to expand into Central Asia, Southern Asia and China's Xinjiang region, provided Russia, Iran and China with the opportunity to make contacts with the Taliban.

Conspiracy theories in Russia, Iran and China paint the Islamic State as an American or Western creation aimed at destabilising their countries.

The emergence of the Islamic State posed a serious challenge to the supremacy of the Taliban but also encouraged Iran, Russia and China, fearful of the Islamic State expansion, to review their policies and open dialogue with the Taliban.

The role of Pakistan

Pakistan is characterized by domestic turmoil, crises, and the tense relation with the US and NATO. Life is made worse for the man on the street due to the critical economic situation, lack of energy, industry collapsing, insurgency in border provinces (North West and Baluchistan), growing intolerance to Muslim Shias and minorities (Christians, Indus, Sikhs, Ismailis). Pakistan's Afghan policy is dictated by the military and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with no meaningful input from the civilian government. For sure, a Pakistan's resource is the presence on its soil of the Afghan Taliban leadership, a card which Islamabad is yet unwilling to play so as to push top Taliban leaders to negotiate with Kabul and US and start the reconciliation process. The Afghan Taliban are also supported by Pakistani religious groups and ordinary people: an enormously large support structure willing to provide combatants to fight Americans.

After losing three wars with India, Pakistan still considers Afghanistan its strategic depth in regard to India in the event of a military confrontation which could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. This is why in the 1990s Pakistan, worried for the chaotic situation in its own backyard (Afghanistan) caused by the continuous fighting among warlords after the Russian withdrawal, created the Taliban so as to “bring about peace in Afghanistan”.

Nowadays Pakistan has still security concerns due to the US military presence in Afghanistan, the Indian influence on that country, and the role of their neighbors seeking influence there.

The Taliban

The Taliban are being used to put pressure on the Afghan government and its US/NATO allies and to increase the influence of Russia, Iran and China currently outdoing one another in a regional competition.

The Taliban see their expanding regional portfolio and diplomatic push as evidence of their “legitimate struggle” to achieve power in Afghanistan. In exchange for Russia, Iran and China's support to rid Afghanistan of foreign forces, the Taliban are ready to eradicate the Islamic State from Afghanistan and to prevent foreign militants from using Afghanistan against these states.

In this context the Taliban have offered their advice in an open letter to the US President by resorting to Twitter and urging him to heed their thoughts on Afghanistan: “We have noticed that you have understood the errors of your predecessors and have resolved to thoroughly rethink your new strategy in Afghanistan”. Bottom line, they suggest a complete withdrawal bringing and end to an inherited war that has made Afghanistan less stable and more corrupt. They warn against the use of private military contractors and assure that the Afghan people have no ill-intention towards the Americans bur warn that they are good at defeating those who violate their sanctuaries.

Is resorting to Twitter an indication that education and literacy are not any more a taboo and that the Taliban have learned from the past mistake of isolating themselves from modernisation? They are now facing a new challenge. In the areas they control, people now expect life-changing improvements like healthcare and electricity – a lasting legacy of the billions of dollars poured in with foreign forces to rebuild Afghanistan after 9/11. How will the Taliban cope with that shift?

Considerations

A daily victim of terrorism with regional and transnational roots, Afghanistan has repeatedly reminded its neighbours and the broader international community that terrorism – fed by state and non-state sponsored radicalism – hardly recognizes borders but transcends them across the globe. Afghanistan doesn't distinguish between terrorist attacks at home and those that have taken civilian lives in the US, Europe, Iran, Russia, Turkey, China, India, and the Middle East. Afghans have long felt the pain of terrorism victims in these nations and continue to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country and the rest of the world against the inter-wined threats of terrorism and radicalism. Nowadays Afghan Forces are fighting some 20 different terrorist group across Afghanistan. The country remains the regional and global front-line in the fight against terrorism, narcotics and criminality. Between 2015 and 2017, 75,000 innocent Afghans, including women and children, have been killed and wounded, due to non-stop terrorist attacks on Afghan villages, towns, cities, as well as public and private institutions.

Only reconciliation can avoid an ultimate debacle for the Afghan Army and an apocalyptic conclusion: a scenario that neither the regime nor the Taliban and neighboring states want– for it entails total destruction and a potentially never-ending civil war. Only the Islamic State and other terrorist groups who fear losing their sanctuaries would want such outcome, and they will do everything in their power to sabotage a peace deal between Kabul, the Taliban and neighboring states. In addition, none of the regional powers is economically or politically strong enough to determine the outcome in Afghanistan on its own, so they need to cooperate with the consciousness that if Afghanistan is a failing state, so will be most of its neighbors.

What is needed is a genuine neutral mediator who can help all the elements in this complex equation. The UN, the EU or individual non-controversial countries such as Norway or Sweden, with international support behind them, could play such a role.

There is much at stake for the Afghans and for the rest of the world, including the future of the Islamic State, the safety of nuclear-armed Pakistan and an overarching deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

Conclusions

More troops may provide military commanders with more tactical options, but it is unlikely to change the basic dynamic of the conflict. It will remain a military stalemate until there is a political breakthrough. But, to achieve it, two strategically important things need to happen. First, to make the mission more politically sustainable. Second, to be much tougher on Pakistan: there is no prospect of success in Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan's duplicity. Pakistan at the same time is a safe haven for Afghan Taliban' leadership and enjoys a special status as a non-NATO alliance partner, thus receiving billions of dollars in aid.

Afghanistan wishes to become an area of cooperation among all regional and global stakeholders. This requires that the Afghan state is strengthened by state actors against all non-state actors, including the Taliban. The Afghan people, 80% of whom reject the Taliban, want their democratic state-building process to succeed, with the continued support of the United States and Afghanistan’s neighbors.

After defeating and neutralizing the Islamic State, the Afghan government must try to pursue a political settlement with the Taliban, who accept the country’s basic conditions for peace talks. Any measurable degree of success in this effort is to be coordinated with the regional powers, facilitated by Afghanistan’s international partners and verified by a third party, such as the United Nations.

The Taliban must realize that they cannot win militarily. Afghans’ message to them is clear: “The Afghan government and people want peace; they seek to achieve peace through direct talks with the authoritative leadership of the Taliban; and the best venue for their face-to-face peace talks is in Afghanistan or at a location mutually acceptable to both sides”.

Recent peace processes, including the one between the Colombian government and FARC, illustrate the fact that when sources of support for terrorism dry up, militants would automatically be compelled to opt for a win-win political solution through peace talks.

What the International Community has to avoid is that Afghanistan plunge into anarchy and become a safe haven for terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking with lethal consequences for mankind: the Western world, in particular, has to ensure its commitment and support in order not to nullify the huge human and financial resources so far devoted in the recovery process of the country.

One last thing: Afghans are in the fight. They are not looking to anyone else to do the fighting for them. They are proud people who want to defend their own country. And they are taking significant casualties. At the same time they want, need and deserve our assistance.

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