“The Taliban attacks within Afghanistan reached unprecedented levels in 2014. Moreover, while Washington proclaims that any process of “reconciliation” between the Taliban and the Afghan Government will be “Afghan led and Afghan driven,” the reality is that Rawalpindi will ensure that the entire “reconciliation” process will be controlled and driven by the ISI”, says the author.

American military interventions in recent times – be these in Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya, or Iraq -have undermined regional stability and left deep scars on the body politic of these countries. The society and the body politic of America have felt the tremors of these misadventures. The American military intervention in Afghanistan, code-named
“Operation Enduring Freedom”, commenced in the aftermath of 9/11. Its combat role ended 13 years later on December 31, 2014. The Americans tried to win “Operation Enduring Freedom” cheaply, outsourcing many operations to the erstwhile Northern Alliance. Adversaries comprising the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaida, thousands of Islamic radicals from the Arab world, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China’s Xinjiang province and ISI-linked Pakistani terrorist groups escaped across the Durand Line, to safe havens under ISI protection, in Pakistan.

The US has paid a heavy price for this folly. Some 2,200 of its soldiers were killed in combat, suffering heavy losses in the last four years after it became evident that it was pulling out. As the US was winding down its military presence and transferring combat responsibilities to the Afghan National Army (ANA), an emboldened Taliban and its Chechen, Uzbek, Uighur and Turkmen allies have emerged from their Pakistani safe havens and moved northwards. In subsequent fighting 4,600 Afghan soldiers were killed in combat in 2014 alone. The Afghan army cannot obviously afford such heavy casualties continuously, if morale is to be sustained. Its available tactical air support and air transport infrastructure are woefully inadequate. The Afghans do not have air assets which were available to the NATO forces.

Apart from what is happening in southern Afghanistan, Taliban-affiliated groups are now increasing their activities in northern Afghanistan, along its borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China’s Xinjiang province. Afghanistan’s northern provinces like Kunduz, Faryab and Takhar have seen increased attacks by the Taliban allies, from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These Central Asian countries are getting increasingly concerned about the security situation along their borders. American forces are scheduled to be halved in 2015 and reduced to a token presence, just sufficient to protect American diplomatic missions by the end of 2016. Not surprisingly, President Ashraf Ghani has asked the US to review its withdrawal schedule.

Afghanistan’s southern provinces, bordering the disputed Durand Line with Pakistan, are increasingly ungovernable. Following Gen Raheel Sharif’s assault on the Pashtuns in Pakistan’s tribal areas, over one million Pashtun tribals have fled their homes in Pakistan, with an estimated 2, 50,000 fleeing into neighboring Afghanistan. If Mullah Omar, his Taliban associates and Sirajuddin Haqqani’s terrorist outfit are finding safe havens in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah and his followers in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) appear to have disappeared into the wilderness, in Afghanistan. Senator Kerry will likely secure a waiver on legislative requirements that Pakistan has stopped assistance to terrorist groups operating against Afghanistan and India, to enable the flow of American aid to Pakistan. The reality, however, is that even after the Peshawar massacre of schoolchildren, terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, Jaish e Mohammed and Lashkar e taiba receive safe haven and support in Pakistan.

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Despite professed American understanding of a “change of heart” in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the reality remains that Mullah Omar is still leading the Afghan Taliban from a safe house in Karachi. The day-to-day conduct of operations in Afghanistan has reportedly been transferred by the ISI to one of his deputies, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. The Taliban attacks within Afghanistan reached unprecedented levels in 2014. Moreover, while Washington proclaims that any process of
“reconciliation” between the Taliban and the Afghan Government will be “Afghan led and Afghan driven,” the reality is that Rawalpindi will ensure that the entire
“reconciliation” process will be controlled and driven by the ISI. China, now endorsed by the US as the new “Good Samaritan” to facilitate Afghan “reconciliation,” has maintained ISI-facilitated links with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura. Beijing will naturally endorse the wishes of its “all-weather friend,” Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, which are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to which India was recently admitted, can expect little from this organization to deal effectively with their concerns, given the fact that China has been now joined by Pakistan as a member of the SCO. Given its growing economic woes and sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, Russia will have little choice, but to fall in line with China, though its special envoy Zamir Kabulov has expressed Moscow’s readiness to supply weapons to Kabul “when it will be necessary to supply them”. Past Russian policy has been to supply weapons to Kabul on strictly commercial terms.

Adding to the prevailing uncertainty is the fact that Afghanistan is today ruled not by the provisions of its Constitution, but by a patchwork coalition of two formerly implacable political foes, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The political gridlock in Kabul is tight. After the presidential elections, which were internationally regarded as neither free nor fair, the ruling duo, stitched together by Senator John Kerry, took months just to agree on the names of new ministers.

India can obviously not countenance the return of an ISI-backed Taliban order in Afghanistan. The US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement envisages the possibility of a US military presence “until the end of 2024 and beyond.” Will it be realistic to expect a war-weary US and its NATO partners, now heavily focused on combating ISIL and radical groups across the Islamic world ranging from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon, to Somalia and Nigeria, to continue to bail out a politically unstable Afghanistan? Will the Americans and their allies continue providing Afghanistan adequate air support, weapons and financial assistance amounting to $5-10 billion annually?

These are realities we cannot gloss over. A thorough review of issues like safety and security of Indian nationals and our missions in Afghanistan, access and connectivity through Iran and completion of assistance projects like Salma Dam and Afghan Parliament, has to be undertaken.

By G Parthasarathy (The author is a career diplomat and author. He remained envoy of India to many countries, including Pakistan and was spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office)

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