Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US, supported by its western allies, invaded Afghanistan with the stated aim of dismantling the Al Qaeda network, removing Taliban from power and creating a viable democratic state to deny terrorists a base to recruit, train and operate from. 17 years later, after having spent more than a trillion dollars and the death of tens of thousands, violence continues unabated in an inconclusive war in Afghanistan. Unmindful of the violence that continues to be unleashed by the Taliban to maintain pressure, Washington has initiated the process for a dialogue with the terror outfit. Now, it has abruptly announced the withdrawal of 7000 of its 14000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, possibly to convince the Taliban that it is serious about withdrawing its forces.
It is ironical that the US, much against its touted principle of no talks with terrorists, is now seeking the Taliban’s cooperation to end the war and is probably willing to accommodate the terror group within Afghanistan’s power structure, giving an impression that it is desperate to extricate itself. Needless to say, with the 2020 Presidential elections fast approaching, Trump is keen on fulfilling his election promise to end the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban has not responded to the US announcement of partial withdrawal. Instead, in an arrogant message, it has warned the US that if it did not leave Afghanistan it would meet the same fate as the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The Taliban has been consistent in this stand, having maintained an upper hand militarily. According to the latest quarterly report of the US Congress created office of the Afghanistan Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of July 31, 2018, the government of Afghanistan has uncontested control over only 56 percent of the territory, while 32 per cent is contested.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a Taliban representative who attended the Russia-organised meeting on November 09, 2018 on peace in Afghanistan, said: “Our demand for the peace process has two parts, the first part is with Americans; all those matters which are related to Americans like the withdrawal of their forces, the black list and officially recognizing our political office (in Qatar) and other issues which are related to the Americans; they should be discussed with the Americans; they should be discussed with America on the table. And, “Those matters which are related to the Afghan side which are mostly internal affairs like the future government, the constitution and there are many other issues; can be discussed with the Afghan side.” He also stated that the Taliban does not consider the current government in Afghanistan as legitimate.
The Taliban’s demands for peace in Afghanistan have been that all foreign troops must leave, full Islamic law and customs must be implemented, and the political system must not conflict with the Sharia. Wahid Mojdah, an analyst and former diplomatic aide under the Taliban regime from 1999 to 2001 says that the Taliban is not in a hurry and their “goals are religious, not political.”
In an effort to pressure the Trump administration as a part of its physiological warfare, the Taliban, in its capacity as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, has issued a 17000-word appeal to the American people asking them to pressure US officials to end the 17-year old conflict in Afghanistan.
Diplomatically, the Taliban has gained international recognition, thanks to the efforts of US, Russia and China to get them to the dialogue table. Rightly or wrongly, Russia and China have been viewing the Taliban as a counter to the Islamic State (ISIS), which latter they believe is the main and more toxic threat. With diplomats from different countries frequenting its office in Doha, the Taliban has further added value to its stock.
US – Taliban Dialogue
At the end of July 2018, the US reversed its longstanding policy that any peace process would be ‘Afghan owned and Afghan led’. Days after the Taliban had called on Afghans to boycott the scheduled parliamentary elections, Alice Wells, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of South and Central Asian affairs, met Taliban leaders in Doha. Paradoxically, the Taliban has appointed five former commanders who had spent more than a decade as prisoners in Guantanamo Bay as its representatives at the political office in Doha. The talks were held in the absence of any representatives from the ruling Afghan government.
On September 21, 2018, the US appointed Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Since his appointment, Khalilzad has been travelling to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in an effort to find a solution to end the Afghan war. He successfully advocated the postponement of the Presidential elections in order to focus attention on the peace process and protect it from political interference. The elections have now been postponed to 2019. It is possible that the postponement of elections was proposed to please the Taliban which is averse to it, being contrary to Islamic Law. Khalilzad held three days of talks with the Taliban from November 16 to 18, 2018 at Qatar. Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban governor of Herat, and Mohammed Fazel, a former Taliban military chief, attended these talks. Khairkhwa and Fazel were among five senior Taliban members released from Guantanamo Bay in 2014 in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban after walking off his base in Afghanistan in 2009.
The third meeting between US officials and the Taliban took place at Abu Dhabi from December 17 to 19, 2018. Apart from Khalilzad, representatives from Pakistan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia attended this Pakistan sponsored meeting. Taliban officials from the movement’s political headquarters in Qatar, two representatives sent by Mullah Yaqub, elder son of Taliban founder the late Mullah Mohammad Omar, and three representatives from the Haqqani Network were said to have been present. It is significant that among those who attended the meeting, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan were the only three countries that had recognised the Taliban government during its five-year rule from 1996 to 2001. After the meeting, Khalilzad gave an interview to Tolo News on December 20, 2018, which gives an indication of US thinking on its future course of action in Afghanistan. This raises a number of issues and concerns.
Is the Taliban in control of all the terror groups operating in Afghanistan?
The Taliban has a number of splinter groups and there are conflicts of interests among them. The fact that Mullah Yaqub was asked to send two representatives to the Pakistan sponsored talks in Abu Dhabi and three representatives of the Haqqani Network were present in the same meeting says it all. When Mullah Omar’s death became public knowledge, his son Mullah Yaqub is said to have walked out of the meeting convened to appoint Mullah Mansoor as the successor. Will Haqqani Network and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS which has its own factions, fall in line with the Taliban? Given internal rivalries between various factions and terror groups, will accommodating the Taliban within the power structure of Afghanistan end terror and bring peace to the country and to its people?
Larger issues being ignored at the peril of long term peace in the region.
The US, Russia and China seem to be ignoring or misreading the larger issues of the conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban, who refer to themselves as the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, are a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement. The conflict in Afghanistan is not borne out of differences between the Afghan Government and the Taliban to be settled by peace talks. It is a conflict of ideology, faith and beliefs. The Taliban wants to govern the country under Islamic Law and not under a man-made Constitution. Till date, it has not cut off its links with the Al Qaeda. It is also noteworthy that there has not been any major fight between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIL in Afghanistan. They seem to be silently accommodating each other, though many believe that ISIL and Taliban are rivals. Their hidden agenda is to establish a Pan Islamic Caliphate in Afghanistan and beyond governed by Sharia Law. Pakistan, with the tacit support of a few Sunni Muslim countries, is seeking to institute its own control on Afghanistan through the Taliban as its proxy to achieve its larger geopolitical objectives. What we are witnessing today in Afghanistan is not an isolated incident limited to the country. This malady has affected a number of countries cutting across continents in one form or the other. The Islamic movement cannot be contained within the borders of Afghanistan.
Has the Security Situation in Afghanistan changed?
“What we are doing is preventing the homeland from being attacked,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the nominee to lead CENTCOM, during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on December 04, 2018. Speaking about withdrawal and the military capabilities of the Afghan Security Forces, he stated “If we left precipitously right now, they would not be able to successfully defend their country……” Has this situation changed?
While in power, the Taliban had allowed militants from around the world to congregate in Afghanistan and facilitated the Al Qaeda to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks. Are there any guarantees that the Taliban will prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a base and a terrorist haven to take forward Islamic Jihad beyond Afghanistan?
The US perhaps realises that it has lost the war and has no chance of winning. It probably doesn’t matter to Trump as to who rules Afghanistan or how its people are governed. He seems to have reconciled himself to the fact that Afghanistan may become an ‘Islamic Emirate of Taliban’ with Sharia Law being imposed with or without the consent of the people. Being far away, Trump probably hopes that the US will be spared a renewed jihadi threat.
Some analysts are of the opinion that the Pakistan-Russia-China nexus will control Afghanistan through Pakistan’s proxy, the Taliban. This may be true in the initial stages. But once the Taliban consolidates itself and prepares itself to launch its next phase, they are bound to lose control. The Taliban may even attempt to establish an Islamic State in Pakistan in keeping with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s first guidelines for jihad, wherein he states: “In Pakistan, the struggle against them complements the fight for the liberation of Afghanistan from American occupation; then it aims at creating a safe haven for the Mujahideen in Pakistan, which can then be used as a launching pad for the struggle of establishing an Islamic system in Pakistan.” In his envisioned model for the state of Pakistan in the book Sapeeda-e-Sahar Aur Timtamata Chiragh, Zawahiri writes: “The state called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is, in no way, an Islamic state; neither in terms of the ideological base (its constitution) nor its practices… Time is not far away when Islam will gain dominance in South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular.”
Since the US has announced its partial withdrawal from Afghanistan and may probably withdraw completely, the responsibility to ensure that Afghanistan does not go the Jihadi way may fall on Russia. Though China has its security establishment in Badakshan Province of Afghanistan, it is not clear as to how far it will get involved in preventing the establishment of a terror state.
With the Taliban having established its base in the North, the chances are that once it consolidates its position, terrorists based in the country may take forward the Jihadi movement Northwards across the Amu Darya to link up with militant groups in the Ferghana Valley. This area is densely populated with deeply religious people, and is shared between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and its splinter groups Akramiylar and Hizb un-Nusrat, as well as Uzun Soqol (Long Beards), Nurcular, Tabligh Jamaat, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizballah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Central Asia (IMCA), and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) are all active in the area.
Rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate, it is time to think through the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the possibilities of the US initiated Peace Talks fructifying, and its responses should things go wrong. India has not been invited for peace talks and as such. Apart from keeping a close watch on the developments and movements of militants in and out of Afghanistan, it may not take any active part for the present. Indian Muslims including those in the Valley are unlikely to be swayed by the so called Jihadi movement. However, should Taliban take control of Afghanistan, the country needs to be prepared for Pakistan channelling some of the Afghan based terror groups to the Kashmir Valley. The Government would do well to activate its strategic communications machinery to keep the people, especially those in the Valley, informed about the happenings in Afghanistan and its implications so as to counter Pakistani propaganda which is bound to gather steam as events unfold.