Spearhead Analysis – 03.04.2017
By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
The year so far, has been saturated with a stream of terror attacks across the Afghan-Pak region. Besides the early dawning of this years fighting season, the Taliban and the Afghan forces are reported to have been engaged in constant clashes.
The most recent concern has emanated in the quest for Sangin in Helmand– a crucial poppy harvesting zone and a key regional drug trade route. Many reports claim that most of Helmand is now under the Taliban control while Kunduz, Faryab, Farah are areas of focus.
However, speaking on the current defeat , the governor of Helmand has shared a view that though the security forces have retreated, they are working on a plan to retake control.
Compounding that– IS-khorasan has not shied away from making its own mark this year.
The attack on Sardar Daud Khan military hospital caused complete disarray.
Pakistan also fell victim to a series of terror attacks, caused by elements which fled the country due to the on-going counterterror operations. Following those attacks, Pakistani armed forces informed US and Afghanistan about cross border operations against terrorist sanctuaries as well as significant steps for border management and control.
Many voices in the US military involved in Afghanistan are of the view that there is a coalition between groups such as ISK, TTP and IMU. But, at the same time another observation highlighted by both General Nicholson and Votel is that there has not been any significant influx of IS members from Syria and Iraq into the region–so far. Thus, essentially leading to the possibility of these regional terror groups morphing their outlook to harness support.
However, amidst the crises –a US version of a civil-military divide is also becoming apparent in regards to countering terror and in turn the Afghan policy.
The views of the generals expressed during the recent Armed Services Committee hearing;— wary of the multifaceted challenges on ground– appear to be requesting for a more wholesome approach– they have signalled a commitment to stay longer; have requested for more troops, have asked for a continuation or expedition of the planning for peace which entails a focus on health, education and good governance, the strengthening of indigenous forces was highlighted; which entails enhancing their capabilities and training; the prevailing anti-Muslim stance was viewed as a threat to coalition with indigenous forces.
Lastly– the crucial need to engage with neighbours was raised by General Votel– in his discourse the inadequate collaboration with regional players increases the risks of misunderstandings stemming from fleeing elements inadvertently finding sanctuaries in closely knitted geographical proximities. While speaking of Afghan-Pak region- he hoped to work closely with the COAS.
But, a significant portion of the civilian leadership has been largely silent on the issue of a troop surge- so far; and contrastingly– appears to be disregarding certain regional realities– is instead eager to dilute core supporting systems of the US missions abroad; while giving the solution an increasingly militaristic taste and inadvertently seems to be digging a ditch around its troops on ground.
One of the main themes of the Trump campaign was a sterner fight against terror. Those commitments were recently, reiterated by the US secretary of State.. But, the growing complexities of the situation are coupled with frustrated attempts to take drastic policy shifts in order to just somehow be done with this mess.
Predominantly, the basic question raised by McCain recently needs to be answered ‘What objectives is the US trying to achieve in the Central region’.
In this elaborate game of whack a mole; the very strategy of prepare, pursue and prevail appears challenged. Presently, the main actor in Afghanistan– the US–appears to be torn between differingviews on the Afghan situation.
The regional dynamics have morphed since 2001; therefore the multiple voices are driven by various prisms of concerns; such as: the rise of China, the balance between India-Pakistan, Turkey’s uncertain relations with the EU and Russian-Chinese reconciliation initiatives.
Whereas, countering terror– which was designated as the essential requirement to pursue further objectives– is a word that seems lost in translation.
The US for its part– seems to be committed in propping up the Afghan security forces, it continues to be engaged in operations against Al Qaeda, IS and terrorist organisations; on the other hand it is engaged in subduing Taliban or other anti-government forces and at the same time somehow hoping to retain its interests in the region.
But, the dangers of spillovers due to this long war –coupled with diverse national interests is compelling regional players to carve out their own methods to resolve the crises. This is further stirring up paranoias. One such a paranoia: is the concern over Iranian and Russian overtures to Taliban along with active reaching out to the Afghan government — which many view as a way to undermine US– while disregarding threats to crucial respective national securities which are increasingly at stake.
A systematic streamlining of the issue has become a necessity; in order to contain the crises from spreading globally.
In the recent times, there has also been a growing acknowledgement from voices in the US to expedite a political settlement in Afghanistan in order to bring one aspect of the issue to an end, many also think that Taliban is an element which can no longer be overlooked from this process. Despite, some attempts in the past the results have not been fruitful for various reasons.
Pakistan, wary of local dynamics and concerned about spillovers onto its territory — has on several occasions suggested the same solution. And has offered to facilitate the reconciliation process amongst all Afghan factions including the government. To attain that goal — it has been involved with various such mechanisms. Though the status for US on the upcoming Russian led regional talks remains undecided—it seems to be heading for a ‘no’.
US initiatives against groups such as IS and Al Qaeda are said to be unilateral– but it has been noted that a closer collaboration took place between the two countries recently, which led to results in the form of some successful eliminations. An improved cooperation and collaboration between the two countries to eradicate terror groups is a necessity.
Least to say– frustration at such a delicate time would likely create more disastrous outcomes andis most likely increase gaps for terror to exploit.
A situation best summed up by an Afghan analyst who stated that: –though the ideologies perpetrated by groups like IS is against the Afghan creed, but the rapidly deteriorating social conditions due to ongoing wars– is likely to lead to interest in the handsome packages offered by these groups.
There is no doubt that the end state sought by the US is extrication from Afghanistan but without jeopardizing the gains made through enormous expenditure and loss of lives. The US now believes that the Afghan Taliban have a purely domestic agenda therefore reconciliation that mainstreams them politically is the best and perhaps the only option. This will reduce the space and liberty of action of the IS and the many other affiliated groups in the Taliban controlled areas and lead to convergence between US, Afghan and Pakistan’s interests. This will also end the uncertainty that leads to ‘hedging policies’. This push for reconciliation is likely to be preceded by a surge to give teeth and sustainability to the Afghan government and its security forces. There are reports that 300 US Marines have already been sent to Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support Mission—train, support and assist. All this may happen in the next few months. Richard Olson the former ambassador to Pakistan and special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan has made a strong push for reconciliation in a recent article advocating US direct engagement with the Taliban to see if the US requirements and Taliban demands can be reconciled. The US Secretary of State in a recent address has more or less confirmed the surge and reconciliation strategy. It is now up to Pakistan to determine its own interest and act to correctly position itself before the opportunity is lost and a far more dangerous situation results if the US strategy fails. Pakistan needs good bilateral relationships with the US and Afghanistan.