The Afghanistan Puzzle

Spearhead Analysis – 24.05.2017

From all accounts and reports the conclusions are that the internal situation in Afghanistan is not good. The coalition government in Afghanistan—never a cohesive entity—remains fractured within and beleaguered by the increasingly assertive warlords and the Afghan Taliban who control more than 50% of Afghan territory with capacity to carry out deadly attacks in Afghan government controlled urban areas. Poppy production is at an all-time high. This massive failure drives the urge to pin all blame on Pakistan—an expedient policy but one that has few takers. The problem is within Afghanistan and it is there that it has to be resolved—with, of course, outside help and support.

The US and NATO have poured millions into Afghanistan, sacrificed lives and tried to install democracy, stabilize the country, defeat the Taliban and end or severely reduce poppy cultivation. There have been military surges, initiatives for reconciliation, reconstruction teams use of massive fire power—most recently the MOAB attack—and sustained efforts to bring the Afghan security forces to a capacity level to resist the Afghan Taliban operations. The result is the present situation that prevails in Afghanistan. Failure, but by no means total failure. There is a coalition government in Kabul and there is a segment of Afghans who are dedicated and determined to bring democracy to their country and stabilize it for socio-economic progress. The Afghan Security Forces still have potential. The US presence and support continues and is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Though the political situation in Washington remains rocky the indications are that a ‘new’ policy for Afghanistan is in the works. This policy, like others before it, has the core thrust of enhanced military force to change the stagnating status quo by reducing Taliban gains and defeating or at least effectively containing them. This means more US and NATO troops on the ground and significant increase in fire power—ground and air. This muscular response is in line with President Trumps macho thinking and was expected– and from some statements it is apparent that a similar hard line approach may be in the offing for Pakistan and that this approach will be over a wide spectrum to exert coercive pressure. The absence of any mention of Pakistan in the US-Arab Summit in Riyadh is significant in this context considering that Pakistan was and is frontline against terror and supportive of Afghan stability that it actively seeks, that it was one of three Muslim states there with democratic credentials and that it was, in fact is, the only Muslim state with nuclear weapons. Pakistan needs to factor in all future possibilities in its preparations for and responses to the changing environment.

The major issue that has dogged the Afghanistan scenario all along has been the uncertainty over the end game in Afghanistan. It is this factor that leads to hedging policies by regional powers who are wary of giving up all the cards they hold because they fear being short changed and left with no options. This has happened before and they think it can happen again especially with decisive success nowhere in sight and more of the same very much in sight. It is apparent that with the policy now emerging the uncertainty is going to continue and perhaps increase. The Russia initiative or the Moscow Process as it is being dubbed stresses reconciliation as the answer to the Afghan Government-Warlords-Afghan Taliban standoff but with US absence this process is unlikely to gain traction. It, however, remains an important forum. The fact that Afghan elections are due in 2019, and that Hekmatyar may be a factor in the political scene, further complicates the situation. As far as Pakistan is concerned the directions are clear. Pakistan needs to fortify itself against Afghan –Indian collusion for subversion, continue outreach to Afghanistan at the highest political level, continue military operations to clear FATA, push the FATA reforms agenda and continue its multi-agency operations for internal stability and security. Pakistan also needs to strive for US-Afghan-Pakistan cooperation based on the major convergence for a stable and secure Afghanistan with no sanctuaries for IS, Al Qaeda, TTP or any other militant outfit.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual).