January 01, 2019
ollowing the attacks of September 11 , 2001, the US, supported by its Western allies, invaded Afghanistan with the stated aim of dismantling the Al Qaeda network, removing the Taliban from power and establishing a viable democratic state to deny terrorists a base from which to recruit, train and operate. 17 Years on, after investing more than a trillion dollars and tens of thousands of deaths, bloodshed persists unabated in an ongoing war in Afghanistan. Unconscious of the violence that the Taliban continues to unleash to maintain pressure, Washington has begun the process of dialog with the terror outfit. Now, it has unexpectedly declared the withdrawal of 7000 of its 14,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, likely to convince the Taliban that it is serious about withdrawing their forces.
This is ironic that the US is now seeking the Taliban’s support to end the war, going against its supposed policy of no talks with terrorists, and is undoubtedly able to accommodate the terror group within the power structure of Afghanistan, giving the appearance that it is desperate to extricate itself. Needless to say, with the presidential elections quickly approaching in 2020, Trump is eager to fulfill his vow to end the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban did not respond to the US partial withdrawal announcement. Instead, it’s told the US in an arrogant letter that if it didn’t leave Afghanistan it would face the same fate as the former Soviet Union.
In this stand the Taliban was strong, having retained a military upper hand. According to the latest quarterly report of the U.S. Congress created office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of July 31 , 2018, the government of Afghanistan had uncontested control over only 56 per cent of the territory, while 32 per cent are contested.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a Taliban representative who attended the Russia-organized meeting on peace in Afghanistan on 9 November 2018, said: “Our demand for the peace process has two parts, the first part is with the Americans; all matters relating to the Americans, such as the withdrawal of their forces, the blacklist and the official recognition of our position. And, “Those issues that are mostly internal issues related to the Afghan side, such as the future government, the constitution, and there are many other issues; they can be discussed with the Afghan side.” He also said that the Taliban does not consider the current government in Afghanistan as legitimate.
The Taliban’s demands for peace in Afghanistan have been that all foreign troops must leave, full Islamic law and customs must be enforced, and the Sharia must not conflict with the political system. An analyst and former diplomatic assistant under the Taliban regime from 1999 to 2001, Wahid Mojdah says the Taliban are not in a hurry and their “goals are religious, not political.”
In an attempt to pressure the Trump administration as part of its physiological warfare, the Taliban has released a 17,000-word appeal to the American people in its capacity as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ asking them to persuade US officials to end the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has gained international recognition diplomatically, thanks to the efforts of the U.S., Russia and China to get them to the dialog table. The Taliban is rightly or wrongly perceived by Russia and China as a response to the Islamic State (ISIS), which they consider to be the key and most toxic threat. With diplomats from various countries frequenting their Doha office, the Taliban has added further value to their stock.
US – Taliban Dialogue
At the end of July 2018, the US reversed its longstanding policy that any peace process would be ‘Afghan owned and Afghan led’. Days after the Taliban had called on Afghans to boycott the scheduled parliamentary elections, Alice Wells, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of South and Central Asian affairs, met Taliban leaders in Doha. Paradoxically, the Taliban has appointed five former commanders who had spent more than a decade as prisoners in Guantanamo Bay as its representatives at the political office in Doha. The talks were held in the absence of any representatives from the ruling Afghan government.
On September 21, 2018, the US appointed Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Since his appointment, Khalilzad has been travelling to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in an effort to find a solution to end the Afghan war. He successfully advocated the postponement of the Presidential elections in order to focus attention on the peace process and protect it from political interference. The elections have now been postponed to 2019. It is possible that the postponement of elections was proposed to please the Taliban which is averse to it, being contrary to Islamic Law. Khalilzad held three days of talks with the Taliban from November 16 to 18, 2018 at Qatar. Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mohammed Fazel, a former Taliban military chief, attended these talks. Khairkhwa and Fazel were among five senior Taliban members released from Guantanamo Bay in 2014 in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban after walking off his base in Afghanistan in 2009.
The third meeting between US officials and the Taliban took place at Abu Dhabi from December 17 to 19, 2018. Apart from Khalilzad, representatives from Pakistan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia attended this Pakistan sponsored meeting. Taliban officials from the movement’s political headquarters in Qatar, two representatives sent by Mullah Yaqub, elder son of Taliban founder the late Mullah Mohammad Omar, and three representatives from the Haqqani Network were said to have been present. It is significant that among those who attended the meeting, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan were the only three countries that had recognised the Taliban government during its five-year rule from 1996 to 2001. After the meeting, Khalilzad gave an interview to Tolo News on December 20, 2018, which gives an indication of US thinking on its future course of action in Afghanistan. This raises a number of issues and concerns.
Is the Taliban in control of all the terror groups operating in Afghanistan?
The Taliban has a number of splinter groups and there are conflicts of interests among them. The fact that Mullah Yaqub was asked to send two representatives to the Pakistan sponsored talks in Abu Dhabi and three representatives of the Haqqani Network were present in the same meeting says it all. When Mullah Omar’s death became public knowledge, his son Mullah Yaqub is said to have walked out of the meeting convened to appoint Mullah Mansoor as the successor. Will Haqqani Network and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS which has its own factions, fall in line with the Taliban? Given internal rivalries between various factions and terror groups, will accommodating the Taliban within the power structure of Afghanistan end terror and bring peace to the country and to its people?
Larger issues being ignored at the peril of long term peace in the region.
The US, Russia and China seem to be ignoring or misreading the larger issues of the conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban, who refer to themselves as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, are a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement. The conflict in Afghanistan is not borne out of differences between the Afghan Government and the Taliban to be settled by peace talks. It is a conflict of ideology, faith and beliefs. The Taliban wants to govern the country under Islamic Law and not under a man-made Constitution. Till date, it has not cut off its links with the Al Qaeda. It is also noteworthy that there has not been any major fight between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIL in Afghanistan. They seem to be silently accommodating each other, though many believe that ISIL and Taliban are rivals. Their hidden agenda is to establish a Pan Islamic Caliphate in Afghanistan and beyond governed by Sharia Law. Pakistan, with the tacit support of a few Sunni Muslim countries, is seeking to institute its own control on Afghanistan through the Taliban as its proxy to achieve its larger geopolitical objectives. What we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is not an isolated incident limited to the country. This malady has affected a number of countries cutting across continents in one form or the other. The Islamic movement cannot be contained within the borders of Afghanistan.
Has the Security Situation in Afghanistan changed?
“What we are doing is preventing the homeland from being attacked,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the nominee to lead CENTCOM, during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 04, 2018. Speaking about withdrawal and the military capabilities of the Afghan Security Forces, he stated “If we left precipitously right now, they would not be able to successfully defend their country……” Has this situation changed?
While in power, the Taliban had allowed militants from around the world to congregate in Afghanistan and facilitated the Al Qaeda to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. Are there any guarantees that the Taliban will prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a base and a terrorist haven to take forward Islamic Jihad beyond Afghanistan?
The US perhaps realises that it has lost the war and has no chance of winning. It probably doesn’t matter to Trump as to who rules Afghanistan or how its people are governed. He seems to have reconciled himself to the fact that Afghanistan may become an ‘Islamic Emirate of Taliban’ with Sharia Law being imposed with or without the consent of the people. Being far away, Trump probably hopes that the US will be spared a renewed jihadi threat.
Some analysts think the Pakistan-Russia-China nexus will control Afghanistan through the Taliban, Pakistan’s proxy. In the initial stages, that may be true. But once the Taliban consolidates themselves and prepares to begin their next step, they ‘re bound to lose control. The Taliban may even attempt to establish an Islamic State in Pakistan in accordance with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s first guidelines for jihad, in which he states: “In Pakistan, the struggle against them complements the struggle for Afghanistan’s liberation from American occupation; then it seeks to create a safe haven for the Mujahideen in Pakistan, which can then be used as a launch pad for the struggle of establishing an Islamic system in Pakistan.” In his envisioned model for the state of Pakistan in the book Sapeeda-e-Sahar Aur Timtamata Chiragh, Zawahiri writes: “The state called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is, in no way, an Islamic state; neither in terms of the ideological base (its constitution) nor its practices… Time is not far away when Islam will gain dominance in South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular.”
Since the US has announced its partial withdrawal from Afghanistan and is likely to withdraw completely, it may fall to Russia to be responsible for ensuring that Afghanistan does not go the Jihadi way. Though China has its security establishment in Afghanistan’s Badakshan Province, it is unclear how far it will get involved in preventing a terror state from being established.
With the Taliban establishing their base in the North, it is likely that once they consolidate their position, the country-based terrorists will be able to push forward the North Jihadi movement across the Amu Darya to link up with militant groups in the Ferghana Valley. This area is densely populated and shared by deeply religious people between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and its splinter groups Akramiylar and Hizb un-Nusrat, as well as Uzun Soqol (Long Beards), Nurcular, Tabligh Jamaat, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizballah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Central Asia (IMCA), and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) are all active in the area.
Instead of waiting for the situation to deteriorate, it’s time to think through the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the possibilities of the US launched fruitful peace talks, and their responses should go wrong. India wasn’t invited, and as such, to peace talks. Apart from keeping a close watch on militants’ developments and movements in and out of Afghanistan, it may not be taking any active part in the present. The so-called Jihadi movement unlikely to sway Indian Muslims including those in the Valley. However, should the Taliban take control of Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to be prepared to channel some of the Kashmir Valley-based Afghan terror groups. The government would do well to activate its strategic communications machinery to keep people informed about the events in Afghanistan and its implications, especially those in the Valley, in order to counteract Pakistani propaganda that is bound to gather steam as events unfold.