Deteriorating Security Situation in Afghanistan
When the Taliban attacked Kunduz and captured the town for a short period, this author had written a paper on the debacle in Kunduz that concluded that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. The United Nation’s forces reoccupied Kunduz, more as a result of the Taliban withdrawing from Kunduz, after they had proved their point that they could capture it. The condition in Afghanistan is steadily deteriorating.
An year after NATO concluded its combat mission in Afghanistan it retained 13,000 odd soldiers to train, advice and assist Afghan forces who were to take the lead in fighting the Taliban. The United States contributed half of the foreign troops, with an additional 3000 deployed on Counter Terrorism operations. A year has since passed and the results do not look good at all.
The situation as of today
The security situation has sharply declined and the future does not look hopeful at all. As the foreign forces departed, the Taliban increased its pressure by a strong spring offensive. The United States had pushed the Taliban out of power in 2001. Today, they have made a comeback and now control sizeable territory in Afghanistan. The last attack was the capture of Kunduz by the Taliban in September 2015, a raid on the Kandahar airport recently which resulted in several casualties and the killing of six United States personnel near Bagram air base on 21 December 2015.
Helmand has always been the soft underbelly of Afghanistan. It is also the district where the maximum poppy is harvested. The British were given this very touchy district because of their skills in fighting insurgency. Regrettably they did not do well at all and when the United States did a revaluation, the British did not get a good chit for their tenure. In fact the British left it worse than when they first took it. After the British left, Helmand has deteriorated still further. Helmand was captured from the Taliban in 2009 with both the United States and Britain taking a number of casualties. Today, the Taliban control the key districts of Musa Qala and Sangin in Helmand. The United States lost a soldier in a recent encounter in the Nod Ali district. Capturing Helmand is very important for the Taliban, because they will derive a share of the money that comes from drugs produced there.
Of the 400 districts in Afghanistan, the Taliban control ten and is contesting another ten. The Afghan army is stressed as last year they took 28 per cent more losses than the previous year. They took 16,000 casualties of whom 7000 were fatal. The current fighting strength of the Taliban is estimated at between 40,000 to 60,000. The reason for the escalating violence is because the quality of governance is very poor. The present government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah though much better than the previous government of Hamid Karzai is still too disjointed to be effective. The United States also lack a long term strategy. Mr. Ashraf Ghani has been trying to engage with Pakistan and this has not found favour with his deputy Abdullah Abdullah. This is understandable as it is Pakistan that has been hosting the Taliban and training and equipping them.
Sangin is the latest epicenter in the seesaw fight in Afghanistan between the NATO forces and the Taliban. The town has for years seen fierce fighting between the NATO forces and the Taliban. Both the British and the United States have had high death tolls in the fighting in this province. Besides securing a base for the Taliban, its loss will be a psychological blow for both the British and the Americans. Residents of Sangin reported that at least half the town is in Taliban’s control. Resupply of troops in Sangin is again by air. Local elders reported that the Afghan forces did not have enough supplies and even ammunition. The Taliban reportedly stormed government buildings and killed three officials. There are also reports that some troops had defected to the Taliban. There appears to be very poor coordination between the Police, Army and Afghan Special forces. The situation marginally improved after an air strike on 28 December.
Sangin is psychologically important for both the United States and British forces, as more than hundred of their troops died when they prevented the Taliban from capturing Sangin. In the earlier deployment it was the British who were deployed in Helmand till a year back and their presence is reassuring for the Afghans. The Taliban is concentrating on Helmand province because of its poppy cultivation, a super cash crop for Afghanistan. Control of Helmand was won over the past decade after fierce battles by British and United States troops, and both took a number of casualties. When they departed in 2014, the government ‘s hold began to slip as the Taliban began a pincer movement, closing in from the north and south towards the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and over running some of the rural bases in the province.
An action plan for Afghanistan
This author thinks that the lessons to be learnt in Afghanistan by a close study of the operations when troops from the United States and Britain were operating under the NATO command are very clear. The first lesson is that the Taliban was based in Pakistan and was getting trained there and supplied with weapons and ammunition. The Afghan Taliban are Pashtuns and live in eastern Afghanistan and also in the Frontier Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The head quarter of the Taliban was in Quetta in Pakistan where their then chief Mullah Omar used to live. A section of the Taliban was then hived off by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan who were overseeing the operations in Afghanistan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was created. The main base of the Afghan Taliban is in eastern Afghanistan. Since the eastern districts of Afghanistan are Pashtun dominated, the Afghan Taliban are based in their homeland and are protected by their own tribe. The western districts of Afghanistan have three different ethnic groups, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and in the west the Heratis, who are Shia. The Tajiks and the Uzbeks are both Sunni, Jamaat-e-Islami and are totally opposed to the Taliban who are Jamat-e-Ulema-e Islam, based in the eastern districts of Afghanistan bordering the Frontier Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
When the NATO forces were leaving Afghanistan, the United States ambassador in Afghanistan had come up with a plan to divide the country in to two regions, eastern Afghanistan comprising the Pashtuns and Western Afghanistan comprising the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Heratis. The Tajiks and Uzbeks are Sunnis but are Jamaat-e-Islami, while the Heratis are Shia. The eastern areas of Afghanistan occupied by the Pashtuns are Jamat-e-Ulema –Islam the same religious cult as of the Taliban. When this was postulated many years ago, this author believed that it was eminently sensible to divide Pakistan along religious lines-one moderate and another extremist.
One can perceive, seeing the way Afghanistan is deteriorating it is time to revive the scheme of dividing Afghanistan as was suggested some years ago. The logic is that if Afghanistan is divided into two parts, the eastern part populated by Pashtuns, who are from the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam, while the three western districts are Tajik and Uzbek, both Jamat-e-Islami while the western most Herat are Shias. These three groups do not trust the Pashtuns and on the religious plane the Pashtuns are on one side while the Tajiks, and Uzbeks and Heratis are on an opposite side. There are also Pashtuns in the FATA which is across the border in Pakistan. There is a very good bond between the Pashtuns in eastern Afghanistan and the Pashtuns in FATA. The Taliban was born in FATA with its first recruits being from the Pashtuns in FATA and the Pashtuns in eastern Afghanistan. Both are also Jamat-e-Ulema-i- Islam. The idea put forward by the then United States Ambassador was therefore based on sound common sense. It was not acceptable then. Today after years of fruitless fighting and hundreds of soldiers of the West killed in Afghanistan, the West and the United Nations should reconsider the plan put forward by the United States several years ago to divide Afghanistan into two countries with the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Heratis forming a country in the west and the Pashtuns forming another country in the east bordering Pakistan. There will be peace in the western part. In the east there should be peace in the Pashtun districts. Of course the Pashtuns in the east will try to invade the western part, but the United Nations deployed in between could keep them apart till passions cool.
By E N RAmmohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF.)