Sushant Sareen, Senior Fellow, VIF
The spring of 2015 was always going to be ‘hot’ in Afghanistan. The Taliban had already made clear their intention to bring the Ashraf Ghani government to its knees. It was also going to test the mettle of the Afghan National Army (ANA) which for the first time was going to face the Taliban without the support of the US-led ISAF. And if truth be told, things haven’t quite gone the way of the Afghan state. Even though there has been no major reverses for the Afghan army, the Taliban have through their unrelenting attacks managed to shake the confidence in the ability of the Afghan state to survive. Not only have the Taliban managed to strike, practically at will, in the heart of Kabul, they have also managed to significantly shift the theatre of war to the North, an area which was supposed to be safe from them.
For India, the situation in Afghanistan is both a cause for concern and consternation. Although India had reconciled itself to the President Ashraf Ghani throwing in his lot with Pakistan, there was a sense that sooner rather than later he would realise his folly (much like his predecessor) and reach out for support to India, which was now ready to provide the military assistance that Afghanistan had been seeking for so long. But increasingly, it seems that not only has Ghani got stuck in the quicksand of Pakistan out of which he seems unable to extricate himself, India too has not moved out of the mode of ‘strategic pause’ that Ghani’s gambit had forced on it. By now it should have been clear in New Delhi which way things are moving in Afghanistan. But so far India like other countries doesn’t seem ready to give up on Ghani. Instead of taking the lead to build up the anti-Taliban forces for the inevitable fight that is staring everyone in the face, India remains in a wait and watch mode even as the grounds is slipping not just from under Ghani’s feet but also under the feet of those who intend to stand up to the Taliban.
Paradoxically, the ferocity and brazenness of Taliban attacks and their expanding the war theatre to the predominantly non-Pashtun North Afghanistan is directly proportional to the appeasement policy followed by President Ashraf Ghani towards Pakistan. In other words, the more Ghani concedes ground to Pakistan – the latest being an agreement between the intelligence agencies of the two countries which not only involves NDS officials being 'trained' by ISI but worse, NDS and ISI working together to rehabilitate Pakistan's image in Afghanistan – the more the Taliban seem to ratchet up the violence inside Afghanistan. Equally important is the fact that the more the Pakistani civil and military authorities condemn Taliban violence – they have even gone to the extent of calling it terrorism – and declare that Afghanistan’s enemies are Pakistan’s enemies and pledge action against Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan, the more the Taliban seem to become active inside Afghanistan. Clearly, the ground situation suggests that Ghani’s great gamble on Pakistan is failing and Afghanistan is starting to unravel. The future of Afghanistan increasingly seems a toss-up between either a civil war or a Taliban takeover.
Ghani putting all his money on Pakistan was understandable. Since Pakistan controlled, directed and provided sanctuaries to Taliban, if he managed to win over Pakistan, it would solve most of his problems. Apparently, this was also the playbook given to him by the Americans. But after having conceded on every Pakistani demand and despite leaning over backward to accommodate Pakistan, things are only going from bad to worse. Part of the reason for this in internal Ghani’s domestic political support, like his election, is dodgy. Worse, his overtures to Pakistan has alienated many of those who had reconciled to him despite the ‘industrial scale fraud’ in the Presidential election. Compounding the problem has been his effort to Pashtunise the government, administration and army. Not only has this riled the non-Pashtuns but also divided the Pashtuns. The Durrani Pashtuns are cut up with him because he has concentrated power among Ghilzai Pashtuns. Politics apart, the economy is running on empty. Afghanistan is not a viable state without external assistance, which has been drying up. He cannot run the country with the resources he has. There is no certainty if the international community will continue to pick the tab for running Afghanistan endlessly because at the end of the day Afghanistan has really nothing to offer in return.
Even as his internal position has got severely compromised, he hasn’t got anything other than verbal assurances from Pakistan. The Pakistani playbook is more complicated than Ghani’s. While they are making a show of standing with Ghani, it just doesn’t make sense for Pakistan to give up the Taliban option, even less so after having supported and sustained them for 14 years and just when they are on the verge of victory. Pakistan appears to be playing a double-game: they are making the right noises to Ghani and getting what they want from him for nothing more than nice sounding but empty assurances; at the same time winking at the Taliban to continue what they are doing. At the diplomatic level, the Pakistanis are making efforts to rehabilitate the Taliban and reduce any reservations that the pivotal countries in the region – China, Iran, Central Asian States, the countries like UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – may harbour about them. Militarily, the extension of conflict to the North is aimed at ensuring that potential spoilers – the erstwhile Northern Alliance – are vanquished before they can regroup and pose a potent challenge to the Taliban.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have their own playbook. They are wary of Pakistan double-crossing them. It suits them to raise their military operations because not only does it strengthen their negotiating position, it also provides them an opportunity to confront Pakistan and rest of the world with a fait accompli and prevent any possible double-cross by Pakistan. Equally important, the Taliban also need to guard against the potential challenge from IS and the best way to do this is by remaining active militarily.
As things stand, Ghani’s gamble has failed and he is now seen by most Afghans as a liability, or worse a Shah Shuja. Alongside him, the Chief Executive Dr Abdullah has also become damaged goods in the eyes of his supporters who are furious with his kowtowing to everything that Ghani and the Americans are proposing. The anti-Taliban forces, which includes the bulk of Afghanistan's population cutting across regions and ethnicities, are now girding up for a fight for their existence. But they are not getting the support they need from anywhere. In the end, whether they are able to keep the Taliban at bay, or they get swept aside by the Taliban, Afghanistan is going to go through yet another paroxysm of violence. The recent spike in violence is just the start of things to come.
Published Date: 22nd May 2015, Image Source: www.telegraph.co.uk