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Do not ignore the Taliban

New Delhi should deepen its ties with the government led by Ashraf Ghani as he looks to distance himself from Pakistan. But with the Taliban resurgence, India must hedge all bets

Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s 18-month engagement with Pakistan collapsed under the stress of Pakistani recalcitrance, Taliban resurgence, and domestic politics. While the result may be a short-term boost in India-Afghanistan ties, longer-term trends are bleak. No one is fully committed to Afghanistan’s dysfunctional government. Beijing is unwilling to use its leverage over Pakistan, Washington is distracted, while Moscow and Tehran are hedging their bets. The idea of a regional concert of powers to resolve the conflict, widely mooted at the beginning of the Obama administration, is implausible today.

President Ghani’s landmark speech at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) last May seems a long time ago. “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with Taliban,” he had said. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan.” This was the premise of his controversial outreach to Pakistan, including a personal trip to Rawalpindi and a bungled agreement between the Afghan and Pakistani spy agencies. Mr. Ghani’s policy was borne not of naivety, but the sober realisation that if Pakistan was the taproot of the insurgency, it would also have to be the locus of diplomacy. The U.S. and China agreed, each eager to stabilise Afghanistan for their own reasons. Last July, Afghan government representatives even met senior Taliban figures in the Pakistani town of Murree, though those talks collapsed after it turned out that their backer, Mullah Omar, had long been a corpse. Even as violence grew regardless, a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan was convened in January 2016 and met four times over the following month.

Taliban on the offensive;

But this diplomacy, though well intentioned, was an exercise likely neither to last very long nor to save its participants. In March, Pakistan’s hapless Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz went off-script and admitted that the Taliban’s “leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurise them”. This made it all the more galling that violence had climbed steadily upwards. In September, the Taliban took a city, Kunduz, for the first time since they were deposed in 2001. Mr. Aziz’s levers remained unpulled last month as the Taliban kicked off the annual spring offensive with an attack in Kabul that killed 37 people. In the past week alone, the Taliban have applied ferocious pressure in the southern province of Uruzgan, a gateway to Helmand and Kandahar to the south where the government controls only the isolated capital. Between January and March 2016, civilian deaths rose by 13 per cent compared to the same period in the previous year, while the number of “complex and suicide attacks” rose by over a quarter.

Mr. Ghani had begun his outreach to Pakistan — incurring a severe political cost at home — with the intention of easing pressure on his battered security forces and creating some breathing space for the economy. He has almost nothing to show for his efforts. And so, in a special joint session of Afghanistan’s parliament last week, Mr. Ghani indicated a change of strategy, though not quite a reversal in course, with his most sustained attack on Pakistan to date. The President’s spokesman declared openly that “we want to use diplomatic initiatives to isolate Pakistan at the regional and international levels”, while Mr. Ghani, in only fractionally more coded language, reiterated that “those who have failed to implement their commitments… are isolated more than ever today”. The insurgents, he insisted, “are the vanguard of other countries”. Notably, however, the President caveated his language on the insurgents themselves, attacking only “some Taliban”.

It has been fashionable amongst Indian commentators to proclaim support for “Afghan-led” diplomacy while excoriating a supposedly Western tendency to divide militants into the proverbial “good” and “bad” Taliban. In fact, Mr. Ghani — like Hamid Karzai before him — made precisely this distinction, drawing a sharp line between “slaves of foreigners” on the one hand, and “those Taliban who are willing to cooperate with their country” on the other. This taxonomy of the Taliban — Pakistani proxies versus nationalist jihadists — was a deliberate effort to leave the door ajar for direct talks, while seeking to shut out Pakistan. “We will pursue peace,” said Mr. Ghani, “only through Afghan channels”. A day after Mr. Ghani’s fiery speech, his spokesman was more specific. “We are aware that Taliban delegations are in Pakistan,” he said, “but we will not go there until Pakistan fulfils the promises that they made.” The contrast with the May 2015 USIP speech could not be clearer.

But Mr. Ghani’s strategy is less so. Does he hope to drive a wedge between pragmatic and hard-line factions of the insurgency, coaxing more flexible elements into direct talks? Some Taliban sources suggest that leader Mullah Mansour commands the loyalty of only 55-60 per cent of the movement. And according to Afghan analysts, last year’s talks in Murree widened rifts that were emerging in recent years over the peace process. The Taliban’s Doha office — whose leader Tayyab Agha later resigned — refused to go to Murree, while others were furious that Pakistan broke its promise to keep the meeting secret. Yet members of the Doha office, naturally those best placed to talk to Kabul without Pakistani officials breathing down their neck, were reportedly part of the Taliban delegation Mr. Ghani’s spokesman was referring to. In short, it is far from obvious that Mr. Ghani has a feasible route around Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Moreover, the Taliban, although suffering high casualties too, seem buoyed by battlefield successes and show little apparent interest in direct talks.

Regional implications;

What does all this mean at the regional level? Certainly, New Delhi has an opportunity to build on November’s historic agreement to transfer attack helicopters to Kabul. It should seize it. But this can’t change the fundamentals. The Afghan government cannot endure — economically, politically, or militarily — with the war at its current pitch, the economy in its present shape, and Afghan politics in such dysfunction.

Regional powers realise this, which is why countries like Iran and Russia have deepened engagement with the insurgency. Iran has sheltered key Taliban factions in the city of Mashhad; one of Mansour’s rivals, Mullah Rasool, has even urged Tehran’s involvement in peace talks. Meanwhile, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan recently acknowledged that “we and the Taliban have channels for exchanging information”. “The Taliban interest,” he added, “objectively coincides with ours” — a reference to the Islamic State’s growing presence. None of these countries, of course, wishes to see a Taliban takeover. But they can see the writing on the wall, and are hedging accordingly.

In the long-term, the Afghan government’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Pakistan and the Taliban will depend on two factors above all. First, how committed is the U.S.? U.S. troops numbers are due to fall by over two-fifths, from 9,800 to 5,500, in January 2017. President Obama may well reverse this decision in his last month in office, and NATO may reassess its own Resolute Support Mission at its summit in Warsaw this July. But will Mr. Obama’s successor and Congress keep picking up the annual $4 billion tab for the Afghan National Security Forces beyond 2017? This will depend on a second factor: whether Afghanistan’s political elite can pull it together. Key posts — including defence and intelligence — remain filled by caretakers, while major reforms are unlikely to be completed by a looming September deadline that was part of the U.S.-brokered accord for the unity government. As Mr. Ghani himself told parliament, “We can secure victory over the enemy on the battlefield only by introducing reforms and creating cleaner institutions.” Perhaps his new approach to Pakistan, by narrowing divisions at home, will help him in this Sisyphean task.

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, London.

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