Afghanistan: A Grim Winter and New Year Ahead?

Published: Mon, 12/21/2015 - 07:45 Updated: Tue, 12/22/2015 - 12:16

Shrinivasrao S. Sohoni Kabul

The Afghan Winter

By December end, Afghanistan’s craggy peaks and mountain slopes, and then Kabul’s avenues, gracious mosques, parks, deciduous trees, and gardens, glisten and shimmer overlain by pristine snow.

With azure skies on sunny days, the magnificent beauty of the scenes on view may take one’s breath away; but underlying the picturesque vistas, swirl realities bitter, painful, and sinister.

The Afghan Winter is harsh and protracted. In sub-zero temperatures, excruciating hardships and personal tragedies are borne by the poor: frozen to the bone having to scrounge for fuel-wood, coal, and bread, and shore up rickety dwellings against sleet, rain, and icy wind.

This year though, the general public reckons impending extreme weather conditions as the least cause for anxiety.

More immediately menacing to all are Afghanistan’s external enemies, already disrupting and destabilizing national life.

The consequent deterioration in the Afghan economy and national security has made life acutely precarious for all, whatever their station.

Even as DAESH keeps the international community’s attention largely riveted on Europe, Iraq, and Syria, the West seems to favor serving Afghanistan up as a long-awaited and delicious ‘chapali kebab’: to Pakistan.

 

The Taliban Menace

 

Justifying drastic reduction of US force presence in Afghanistan, the current tenant of the White House airily used the phrase “remnants of Taliban”: as if the Taliban had ceased to be a material threat to the Afghan people. (Might his observation have pertained only to the level of threat the Taliban pose to US interests?)

The plain fact however is that the menace posed by the Taliban now looms greater, and is more proximate and vicious than at any time since 2001 to Afghanistan and countries in the region; other than Pakistan its mentor.

Terrorism and armed insurgency endanger people in all 34 Provinces of the country. Unlike in the past, people in Afghanistan’s urbanized centers and capital city Kabul are also under dire and constant threat. Constitutional authorities, Government agencies, security installations, roadway networks, key public services, and so on, are liable to be hit at any time. No one, neither Afghan nor expatriate, neither man, woman or child, can be presumed out of danger in Afghanistan.

Such a disturbing and rapidly aggravating situation is the direct result of the Obama Administration’s fawning indulgence of Pakistan.

Overruling professional diplomatic, military and intelligence advice, the White House implemented a policy of not striking Taliban sanctuaries and Taliban leaders in Pakistan though informed in granular detail about them.

The WH continues to release to Pakistan substantial consignments of state of art weaponry, military equipment, training and orientation support, and financial aid.

Additionally, as early as in January, 2015, the US Government at the level of the White House drew a distinction between the Taliban and ISIS, terming the Taliban “an insurgency” as different from ISIS which it recognized as a terrorist group.  This signaled a posture of toleration and acceptance regarding Pakistan’s nurture of the Taliban and its deployment in Afghanistan.

In September 2015, the Taliban’s fierce and complex assault on Kunduz, its occupation of that city, and holding hostage a population of 300,000, amply demonstrated Taliban capacity to mount and execute multipronged mass attacks, that too in a region well-North of its headquarters East of the Durand Line.

Also exposed was how seriously the Afghan National Security Forces remain handicapped by having only meager airpower assets at their disposal, and having to rely on Coalition authorities for air support. (Lack of airpower with ANSF had enabled and facilitated the Taliban capture of Kunduz; and the Coalition airpower controllers’ sluggish response to ANSF calls for airpower support, had delayed the recapture of the city).

Afghan National Security Forces, fighting relentlessly, as usual displaying spectacular acts of individual bravery, eventually evicted the Taliban from the city’s congested and densely populated urban localities - but not before a heavy toll of casualties and immense damage to civic infrastructure had been incurred.

Lessons from Kunduz

Among the serious lessons absorbed by the ANSF from this episode, are the following:

i)                    Pakistan Armed Forces military officers and other ranks, deployed with the Taliban, are more numerous and conspicuous than before.

ii)                   Taliban insurgency and terrorism has been exponentially intensified by its controllers in Pakistan.

iii)                 The enemy is markedly better-resourced now in terms of number of fighters, range and quality of assault equipment, mobility, and firepower.

iv)                 Instances have come to light of airlifts being provided by Pakistani aircraft to contingents of the enemy;

v)                  Coalition airpower assets cannot be counted upon to respond with alacrity to requisitions by the ANSF;

vi)                 On the enemy capturing a major urban center, use of airpower entails a forbidding scale of collateral civilian casualties and heavy damage to civic infrastructure;

vii)               The enemy now seeks to strike fear and awe in the local citizenry by resorting to brutalities;

viii)              The enemy has done away with any effort to “win hearts and minds” of the populace via acts of magnanimity or religiosity.

ix)                 ANSF’s paucity of airpower assets emboldens the enemy to launch mass attacks across a broad range of targets, and aim to overrun and capture major urban centers in Afghanistan.

x)                  The Taliban is in a position to mount multi-pronged mass attacks at more than one major urban center simultaneously.

xi)                 Afghanistan’s north-south road communication corridors to and from the strategic Salang Pass Tunnel, and north across the Amu Darya and east into the Wakhan Corridor, can be interdicted by the enemy.

Driven from Kunduz City, the Taliban have regrouped and entrenched in Qala-e-Zast and Dast-e-Archi Districts of Kunduz Province. Several other strategic districts are reported dominated by Taliban: notably: Warduj district in eastern Badakhshan Province,  Ghormah district in Faryab Province, Nawa district in Ghazni Province, and Baghra and Destaw districts in Helmand Province. These are now enemy strongholds, well-supplied with war materiel, and can be bases for attacks on key urban centers, security installations, and communication infrastructure.

‘DAESH’

Elements identifying themselves as of the “Islamic State”, better termed ‘DAESH’, have committed and claimed atrocities calculated to appall even battle-hardened Afghan soldiers inured to gruesome sights.

Following arrests of some students for writing ISIS slogans on city walls, security circles have shared concerns about Islamic State propaganda being disseminated, using social media, aimed at radicalizing and recruiting students of Kabul University and other educational institutions.

DAESH in Afghanistan does not consist of Arabs, nor is it reported resourced or managed by DAESH leadership in West Asia/North Africa.

Sundry extraterritorial mercenaries, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uighur, and W. Punjabi are reported by Afghan sources to have appeared for employment. This phenomenon is routine as Afghanistan, through history, has drawn and provided a pool of military labor available to the highest bidder.

In Afghanistan the ‘Islamic State’ (DAESH) with its black flag with a white-lettered Kalima, is generally regarded as an identity created by the ISI to regroup and reposition some of its Taliban gangs.

This is done with an eye to propaganda that Taliban strength has declined, and that Pakistan has effectively compelled a reduction and retraction of Taliban presence in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s doing so interlocks neatly with US President Barak Husain Obama’s factually specious averment that the Taliban threat had abated. 

Sagging Afghan Economy

Afghanistan’s war-economy-bubble, inflated since the US intervention in October 2001, has now all but folded with the US’s revised strategic posture in Afghanistan involving closure of US-led “Operation Enduring Freedom”, and a shrunken Coalition force presence.

Financial aid tranches pledged grandiosely to Afghanistan by a range of governments at the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, have not materialized as promised.

There is great reluctance in the international community to part with funds for donation to Afghanistan.

FDI (foreign direct investment) has dwindled to barely a trickle.

Foreign aid agencies and INGOs have drastically scaled down operations.

Real estate values and rentals have fallen. Business is down and out.

Unemployment has risen.

Supplies of essential commodities are uncertain and inadequate.

Commodity prices rule high above what the masses can afford.

Crime and general lawlessness is endemic and has peaked.

Contraband Trade, however, Booms

The narcotics trade is booming, surmounting previous years’ peaks of Afghan poppy-based heroin production and export volumes to Europe, Russia, Central Asia, China, Pakistan, and South-East Asia.

Also booming is the contraband export of precious stones, rare earths, antiquities, exotic animal skins and hides, and the evil of abductions and human-trafficking.

Some shadowy entities are thus certainly reaping unprecedented scales of illicit profits, while the Afghan masses suffer privations and stare at a gloomy future.

Should all this not be sufficiently disturbing, there is now serious worry over the likelihood of having to undergo outright subjugation under an enemy power, Pakistan, - directly or through its rapacious auxiliaries.

Fears of having to suffer deprivation, humiliation, and death, under a revengeful Taliban regime, torment the public mind.

There is frantic movement underway in all Provinces of people leaving Afghanistan as early as they can via legal and illegal channels.

Formation of the New Unity Government: Qui Bono? Who Gained? 

US National Interests 

In November 2014, the US represented by Secretary of State John Kerry skillfully contrived formation of the extra-Constitutional ‘New Unity Government’.

The requirement from the US side was the newly installed President’s instantly signing - on the very afternoon of being sworn in, - the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and the Status of Forces Agreement (SoF) with US-led NATO – previously shelved by President Karzai.

These instruments were necessary for the US to continue the desired NATO and US force presence in preferred locations and posture in Afghanistan, with all requisite immunities and operational freedoms.

Secondly, preserving the image of an Afghan State functioning was also required: i.e. with a new President in place, and the accoutrements of key Constitutional bodies like the Government, Parliament, and the Supreme Court: in order to be able to claim that the US-led international community had not failed in achieving its State-building mission in Afghanistan; - the “peaceful transition of power” being the latest proof of success.

Such a mirage also suited Pakistan with a view to: i) Obscure its planned phased-upgradation and intensification of infiltration and domination of Afghanistan via the Taliban; ii) Maximize  illicit opium-based narcotics exports out of Afghanistan, especially to European markets; and iii) Maximize illicit extraction and exports out of Afghanistan rare earths, strategic minerals, gem stones, and other natural resources. 

Major Concessions Secured by Pakistan 

The greatest frustrations of the NUG and the people of Afghanistan have been with Afghanistan’s traditional adversary: Pakistan.

President Ghani, disregarding cautionary advice from experienced minds, had from the outset of his term rushed into making a bee-line to Pakistan offering a range of far-reaching concessions. His expectations were of thus winning Pakistan (GHQ ‘Pindi’s) cooperation to bring Peace and Security to Afghanistan.

Ghani, though uninvited and unexpected, visited GHQ Rawalpindi on his own volition to meet Pakistan’s COAS and the top military brass.

Afghan National Army (ANA) and other security agencies were thereafter directed to coordinate with Pakistan as junior partners for action against insurgent groups operating against Pakistan from the Afghan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

Afghanistan’s premier intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was compelled to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with its longstanding adversary: Pakistan’s notorious ISI.

The terms of this agreement included a commitment on the part of the NDS to conduct psywar operations to improve the image of the ISI in Afghan public perceptions. Officers of the NDS were shuffled around, and some dismissed, all as dictated by the ISI. NDS operations, objected to by the ISI, were peremptorily shut down. Sensitive equipment belonging to the NDS was discarded or kept inoperative.

Pakistani goods were allowed tariff-free transit through Afghanistan without reciprocal concession to Afghanistan. Prime industrial plots in Jalalabad were offered to Pakistani industrial enterprises at throwaway prices or even free of cost.

Hopes of Pakistan curbing let alone deactivating the Taliban, however, came to a nought.  GHQ ‘Pindi would have none of that. Instead, the terrorist activities were exponentially intensified with a frontal attack on Afghanistan’s Parliament and a twelve-day series of major complex attack incidents in Kabul and a plethora of other strikes. 

The New Unity Government Failed the Afghan People 

Now more than a year into his current job, President Ghani suffers a credibility deficit, even as he puts on a brave face and vents rage and admonitions frequently.

Having authored a book ‘Fixing Failed States’, he had magisterially lectured audiences the world over on that subject, but all his plans and efforts since September 2014 to fix Afghanistan, now lie in shambles.

The Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has done little of note in any area of substantive governance beyond contributing an elegant sartorial presence gracing ceremonial occasions.

The Afghan Parliament has outrun its Constitutional term by more than a year, and is functioning only on ad hoc basis, there being no other alternative. There is no possibility of Parliamentary elections being held at any time in the foreseeable future.

Similarly, though elections for the Provincial Assemblies for all 34 Provinces were held in April 2014 (along with the Presidential Elections) the results have not yet been declared, and for all practical purposes been held null and void. There are no plans for elections de novo.

All Judges of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice, are functioning on an ad hoc basis without necessary confirmations by Parliament.

(As mentioned, Parliament itself is operating on ad hoc basis.)

The majority of Cabinet Ministers and other Article 64 appointees function sans necessary confirmation of Parliament. This includes the Defence Minister.

Pakistan (GHQ ‘Pindi)’s not-so Secret Pleasure

Pakistan, with its national security and foreign policy establishment located in Army HQs, ‘Pindi,   under the dictates of its military leadership, is the one country far from anxious and actually quite pleased the way things are in Afghanistan.

With de facto endorsement and active material support of the US, Saudi Arabia, and China (and their respective allies), Pakistan has established itself as the pre-eminent force dictating kinetic events in Afghanistan.

This makes for Pakistan’s substantial control over Afghanistan-based narcotics trade and other contraband extractions and illicit exports.

It also enables Pakistan’s exerting heavy influence in and over all key organs of the Afghan State, especially the office of the President and the Government, as also key Provincial agencies and sensitive institutions responsible for national security, foreign policy, and the economy. 

Acute Concern of Countries in Afghanistan’s Neighborhood: near and Further Afield

Landlocked, Afghanistan shares a border with six countries in a circle around it: Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan; (India on cartographic depictions).

All of these countries with the exception of one are apprehensive over the worsening situation in Afghanistan and the implication thereof to their own national security, foreign policy goals, and economic interests; so are countries in what the Afghan President terms “Afghanistan’s near neighborhood”, and countries further afield, including Russia. 

The Prospect Ahead 

Extrapolating current trends, it is evident that, by the end of 2016 if not earlier, unless there is a major pivot in US foreign policy, Pakistan will continue to accumulate greater power and influence over Afghanistan’s affairs in all major sectors of national interest.

The situation is ripening for Pakistan to initiate a serious effort to negotiate insertion of its nominees in Afghanistan’s governance structures: at all levels, and on a major scale, and on its terms.

Gen Raheel Sharif’s agenda in Washington on November 15-20 and the understandings reached there had this objective uppermost.

Intrinsic thereto were Pakistani requests to the US Establishment for pressure to be exerted by the US “using its good offices” on the Afghanistan national security and foreign policy establishment, especially the chiefs of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and National Security Council; and key Afghan politicians and opinion-makers, to get them to cooperate in the matter of Pakistan’s moves initiating the net round of “Peace Talks” with the Taliban. Lip service will of course continue to be paid to the concept of an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned Peace Process”.

It is noteworthy that the doughty chief of the NDS, Rahmatullah Nabil, was squeezed out of office.

Pakistan also moved the US and the UK to bring pressure to bear on India to be open to improving relations with Pakistan, and not oppose or create complications to obstruct initiatives invented by Pakistan towards ushering “peace” in Afghanistan.

With Islamabad being the venue of the Conference of Foreign Ministers of countries in the ‘Heart of Asia Process’, Pakistan, as expected, fully  utilized the occasion to obtain wider regional endorsement for the ‘Peace Process’ that it has conceived to serve its purposes.

The trilateral meeting between President Ghani, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, held with the prior endorsement of the US and the UK, nudged this process further forward.

The incentive offered to the US, to extend support to this game plan is obviously multi-dimensional: including e.g. assured facilitation and safeguarding of US-military presence in Afghanistan, and undisturbed resupply logistics,  and assured over-flight facility through Pakistan airspace; assurance of support to facilitate the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-(India) gas pipeline (a long-cherished goal of US corporate interests); and politically valuable potential for claiming and projecting before the US electorate Peace in Afghanistan as a major foreign policy success in the run up to the next Presidential elections in the US.

Regimes in China, and Saudi Arabia, similarly envisage far-reaching advantages accruing to them from the standpoint of their respective strategic interests in Pakistan’s being allowed overlordship in Afghanistan.

The Saudis, wedded to Wahhabism, look to spreading that creed vigorously across Afghanistan and into the Central Asian Republics, Russia, and Chinese Turkestan (Xingjian Province).

The Chinese, on the other hand, look to prosecuting their ambitious pipeline/road and rail projects to their West and South-West, and curbing political Islam in Xingjian Province.

Evidently, in the assessments of these important powers, GHQ ‘Pindi’s ascendance as their de facto regional satrap in Afghanistan, appears advisable.

The sinister intertwined nexus, one of incredibly malignant potency, looms: of Terrorism, Violent Extremism, and the Narcotics Trade under de facto Pakistan control of Afghanistan.

This posits a multidimensional lethal challenge to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, as well as to countries in the region and beyond.

Will the Afghan people and its patriotic leaders fall in the trap-pit of bogus machinations dressed up and advertized as “a historic Peace Process” choreographed and staged by Pakistan?

Noteworthy here is also the point that, it is not beyond Pakistan, should it consider it expedient, to precipitate confusion and disturbances and contrive an abrupt exit of President Ghani.

What if such a situation comes to pass?  Would either the Uzbek leader, First Vice President Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, or the Second Vice President, a Hazara, be acceptable as Head of State and Government, to the Pashtun/Pakhtun community? In the ensuing destabilized situation, what might be the chances that Pakistan intervenes militarily: ostensibly to “restore public order and safeguard the Afghan people and their interests”?

General HQs, Rawalpindi, may well contemplate the prospects of Pakistan’s having entered the cusp of a spectacular and historic conquest of Afghanistan.

However, the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. (The saying is adapted from a line in “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns: “The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley,”)

History from ancient times has shown that, unlike the West Punjabis of Pakistan, the Afghan people fight tenaciously against aggression to preserve their freedom and dignity.

Time will tell how Afghans of all regions, ethnicities, and religious denominations rally and stand by their country, when confronted by challenges in what appears a grim winter ahead.