As The Western Powers Withdraw Afghanistan At A Crossroads
The withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan has left the troubled country in an undecided state. NATO alone had 1, 30,000 troops on the ground. By the year’s end this number will become around 12,000. Will this not leave a vacuum into which the forces of disruption—the Afghan Taliban—backed by their masters Pakistan’s Army are waiting to pounce?
Let us go back to briefly recount when, how and why Afghanistan descended into this mess. The first problem for Afghanistan happened when the British drew the Durand line dividing Afghanistan from India in 1893. The eastern portion of Afghanistan comprising two areas that later came to be called the Frontier Administered Tribal areas consisted of Pashtun tribes who lived in eastern Afghanistan. This constitutes two areas South and North Waziristan. The Pashtuns are a proud warrior tribe who live in eastern Afghanistan. They have a proud, peculiar code of tribal law that probably does not exist anywhere in the world of tribes. This is called Pashtunwali. Its distinctive code is that any insult has to be avenged to restore the honour of the tribe. However the unique feature of the code of Pashtunwali is that if a person asks for refuge from an enemy, without knowing that he is his enemy it has to be given! For example if there is a fight between two clans, A and B and in the fight if a member of clan B is injured and he escapes and accidentally stumbles on a house of clan A and asks for refuge without knowing that this is his enemy clan, he has to be given refuge and his wounds treated! The principle of this code is that when shelter is sought, then it has to be honoured even if it is an enemy asking for succour! This probably is an unique chapter in tribal lore the world over.
When the British drew the Durand line consigning a number of Pashtun clans to the then India, the Pashtuns were upset. Later this part of India became Pakistan. The trouble came when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, though it was a completely Muslim country. The Russians invaded Afghanistan because, when Communism came in Russia, they managed to set up a branch of the Communist party in Afghanistan located on its southern borders. Communism as a political philosophy is alien to Islam and the two political philosophies do not gel. When the Russian army invaded Afghanistan, more than three lakh Pashtuns from Afghanistan—men, women and children fled to Pakistan. The Pakistan Interior Minister at that time happened to belong to a sect of Islam borrowed from India called the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind (JUH). When India was divided into India and Pakistan the JUH sent a branch to Pakistan that came to be called the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The JUI turned out to be more rabid than the JUH. When the Afghan refugees landed, the Pakistan’s Interior Minister set up a large number of Madrasas of the JUI all over Pakistan. All the children of the Afghan refugees, several thousand were admitted to these JUI Madrasas. It was these Talibs, meaning students, who when they grew up became the Afghan Taliban. As and when they grew up in the JUI Madrasas they were indoctrinated into the JUI philosophy and then trained in guerilla warfare and then sent to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. This was organised by the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan (ISI)
When the Taliban was constituted in Pakistan, a Pashtun leader from Afghanistan was appointed as its Chief. He was Mullah Muhammad Omar, a quiet, reserved but hard core Pashtun of the JUI. He set up his head quarters in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan and this came to be called the Quetta Shura. This headquarters still exists in Quetta. It was the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of the Pakistan Army that organised this insurgency in Afghanistan and is continuing to oversee it. The Taliban were trained by the ISI of Pakistan. The ISI continues to control it.
The Taliban succeeded in literally defeating the Russian army and they retreated from Afghanistan. It was at this junction that the al-Qaeda attacked the United States by sending a few highly trained suicide bombers to the United States, who hijacked three planes and flew them into World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon, killing more than three thousand people. The United States then bombed the Taliban who had occupied Afghanistan as the al-Qaeda who had sent the suicide bombers were presumed to be based in Afghanistan. Very soon the United States invaded Afghanistan along with several European countries in a coalition and got bogged down into a slugfest with the Afghan Taliban. The United States also got several European countries to send contingents to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the last several years the United States and European coalition forces have raised and trained about four lakh Afghan troops to fight the Afghan Taliban. With more than four lakh US and European troops in Afghanistan for several years, there had been a large contingent of agencies from the United States and Europe in Afghanistan serving their troops. With the Forces now withdrawing these accessories are also packing up to leave. This is leaving a vacuum in the security and economic sphere in Afghanistan. The result is that there is going to be a big drop in the employment of local Afghans in serving all the foreign agencies and troops.
The Afghan Army trained by both the United States and European armies have come up to some standard, but I do not see them take on the Taliban controlled by the ISI of Pakistan. Besides, the Headquarters of the Afghan Taliban continue to be in Quetta, in Pakistan where the Chief, Mullah Omar stays.
The latest report from Afghanistan is that the Afghan Taliban is quite active. Taliban gunmen and a suicide bomber unleashed a wave of violence in the capital and beyond, killing six Afghan soldiers and wounding ten, aboard a Kabul bus, assassinating a Supreme Court official and shooting to death twelve men who were clearing land mines in Helmand province.
In the last month insurgents have claimed responsibility for attacks during performance in a Kabul High School, on a British embassy vehicle. Perhaps most unsettling, a suicide bomber infiltrated the Kabul Police Chief’s heavily fortified office just over a month ago in an attempt to kill him. This last incident particularly shows the poor professionalism of the local Afghan Police. The Taliban claimed all the incidents.
Afghan forces have suffered a record number of casualties this year and the Taliban have made advances beyond their usual rural stronghold, challenging district centres and establishing front lines in areas, where they once relied on guerilla tactics. This clearly shows that the Taliban has not been defeated, but conversely are resurging in Afghanistan.
The plain fact is that despite all the deployment of troops from the United States and European countries, the Taliban has not been neutralised. As the troops from the United States and Europe are leaving in instalments, the Taliban is poised to regroup and re-establish its control on Afghanistan. I do not see the Afghan Army being in any way capable of taking on the Taliban on their own and establishing control on their country.
The initial reason for sending British, United States and other troops to Afghanistan back in 2001 was to eliminate the al-Qaeda bases in the country that had made 9/11 possible. But over the years the operation morphed into a complex overblown high maintenance coalition of 1, 40, 000 soldiers from more than 40 nations. Now we are faced with another question as on December 31, the day fixed for the completion of withdrawal of NATO combat troops from Afghanistan approaches, what will be left behind?
If there is one lesson to be learnt from the rise of the ISIS in Iraq, it is that hasty or mismanaged withdrawals which will return to haunt you. Public opinion in the United States and Europe is that they are tired of military expeditions that seem to create more problems than they solve, that strain western budgets and leave an obligation to prop up weak states in remote parts of the world. Against this backdrop, Afghanistan could all too easily be allowed to become a forgotten cause. That must not happen.
The United States administration and some of its allies appear acutely aware of the risks of closing down western involvement in Afghanistan too quickly. In 2011, the United States left Iraq stating that we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq. Three years on Iraq is the theatre of a new international military engagement as the ISIS carves out swathes of land and attracts jihadists from around the world.
A similar scenario in Afghanistan is the stuff of nightmares. The United States is retaining just 10,000 odd soldiers in Afghan-istan. The picture emerging is far too dangerous.
In fact the situation in Afghanistan is perilous.
A similar scenario in Afghanistan will be the stuff of nightmares for the United States as it is only retaining 10,000 odd soldiers in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is perilous to say the least. The fate of millions of Afghan women will be at stake if the Taliban is allowed to return to power. Western policy should not be short-sighted. Financial aid, commitment to bolster security and strong regional diplomacy will all be required if Afghanistan is not to regress into turmoil again.
Having discussed about what should be done, let us examine the reality of the situation in Afghanistan. In a large swath of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, four years after the United States troop surge helped make such places relatively secure, they are back under threat from the insurgents. The fighting in Helmand province, in the southern part of the country has been particularly deadly, with more than 1,300 security force members killed from June till November of 2014. It has been so bad, that the ninety bed hospital for the war wounded in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, was nearly full in December 2014. Half of the wounded are Afghan Police officials. It is rumoured that the Quetta Shura is making a big push to raise their flags over three districts by January 2015! The United States forces and their close air support have been withdrawn from the field, and the Afghan forces have been holding on, but they are taking punishingly heavy losses.
The Taliban offensive in northern parts of Helmand province began in earnest in June 2014, after the last United States troops pulled out and has continued at a fierce tempo. 1952 war related casualties have been treated at the Emergency hospital in Lashkar Gah through the end of October, of which one thousand were combatants. The insurgents even managed to infiltrate the Afghan National Army’s main base in Helmand, province, camp Shorab Maidan, formerly camp Bastion, Britain’s main base in Helmand. The British handed over the base a month ago when it was attacked. It had taken three days to subdue the attack.
Afghanistan has lost more than 5,000 police officers and soldiers in the fighting this year. Civilian deaths in 2014 have exceeded 10,000. In Helmand, the fighting has been heavier in Sangin, where the insurgents remain within a mile of the Government buildings in the district centre. It has also been fierce in the districts of Musa Qala. Kajahi and Nowzad and recently in Marja district, an area that had been thoroughly pacified by the United States Marines in 2010. In Sangin, the Police said that only the asphalt road is under their control. Everything else is Taliban said Samiullah, a Police officer in Sangin.
From the very dismal picture that emerges from the assessment of the insurgent situation it is not difficult to draw a conclusion. Despite the massive deployment of the Armed Forces of the United States and of the European countries, the situation in Afghanistan is still very far from any reasonable kind of normalcy. The Taliban is far from being contained. It appears that the Taliban has only been suppressed to some extent and now are gathering steam to engage the Afghan Army and Police with renewed vigour as soon as the armies of the United States and the European countries withdraw. I am afraid Afghanistan will regress within days if not weeks and the Taliban will not only take control again, but will decimate both the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police. I do not visualise the Afghan Army or Police will be capable of keeping control of their country.
It is imperative that the United Nations makes a fresh assessment of the situation and continues to deploy troops from western countries till the Taliban is decimated completely before handing over Afghanistan to their Army and Police forces. Further the United Nations should direct Pakistan to dismantle the Quetta Shura and deport Mullah Omar to Afghanistan and direct Pakistan not to meddle with their neighbour Afghanistan.
By E N Rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF)