Have the Western powers decided to give up Afghanistan to the Taliban?
I have been following the situation in Afghanistan for the last many years and I have written papers on the developing situation in Afghanistan from time to time. For the last few years, I had an uneasy feeling that the Western powers were going to concede the ground situation in Afghanistan to the Taliban. This feeling was confirmed after the surprise attack on Kunduz by the Taliban a year ago, when they overran the town. I think, that was a turning point, when the local people, who did not want an extremist group like the Taliban ruling them, lost confidence that the government could protect them.
Pakistan’s role in the Afghan Insurgency.
It is not that the West has reduced the aid to the Afghan Government. The Afghan Government has received one of the highest amounts of foreign assistance per capita on a par with the West Bank, Gaza and Liberia. The United States alone has spent five hundred billion dollars on its Afghanistan mission since 2002, most of it on military operations. About a fifth of this amount — one hundred and thirteen million dollars was on reconstruction. Yet, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world — more than ten million people live below the poverty line and three quarters of the population is illiterate, according to the World Bank.
In the beginning when operations started against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, they fled in disarray. Thousands of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters surrendered in Northern Afghanistan. They had lost the support of the local population. All of them fled to Pakistan and there, they were allowed to regroup and the Pakistan Army trained the young Afghan men, in how to make pressure cooker bombs, filled with ball bearings and suicide belts and later truck bombs and sent them back to Afghanistan by the hundreds.
Despite years of denial by Pakistan, it is now widely understood that the Taliban has all this time been mentored and equipped by the Pakistan ISI. Yet the United States has failed to end Pakistan’s long flirtation with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Nearly a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts are under the control of the Taliban. Pakistan’s powerful army and Intelligence services have for years given support to the Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network and relied on them to protect Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and prevent India from increasing its influence there.
The United States forces began their bombing campaign in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on October 7, 2001. Despite this long campaign of bombing, sometimes it feels we are back to square one. The recent draw down of the United States Military has been drastic-from over 1,00,000 troops a few years ago to a force of just 8500 today. This has had a very negative impact on the Afghan economy as bases and assistance programmes have closed. Thousands of Afghans have become jobless as bases and assistance programmes have closed. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Taliban are on the offensive in the countryside, threatening to overrun several provincial towns and staging huge bombings in the capital.
Afghan forces have been bearing the brunt, suffering unsustainable casualties. Communities, talk of hundreds of coffins returning from the front lines. Civilians have suffered no less-thousands of families have been displaced anew by fighting. Business executives have been selling off their property and whole families have swelled the refugee columns heading to Europe!
The political climate has changed too, as Afghans sense the declining United States influence. There is a resemblance to the situation prevailing when the Soviets were beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. The Taliban, supported by Pakistan’s ISI seem intent on repeating that scenario, hoping to seize control of a section of territory along the Pakistan border and declare an Islamic emirate once more.
Is it the end game in Afghanistan?
For those of us who have been following the war in Afghanistan and also studying Pakistan and the role of the ISI, the sudden surprise attack on Kunduz, the quick retreat of the Afghan forces and the reaction by the United States forces to take back Kunduz appeared like a dress rehearsal carried out by the Taliban. The message was clear, that the end game had begun in Afghanistan.
Over the years, the United States policy was to train the Afghan Army and gradually replace their forces with the newly trained Afghan Army units. Those of us who have been following the fighting in Afghanistan could easily conclude that the Afghan
Army units were no patch to the motivation and determination of the insurgent Taliban and the Haqqani network. It was only a question of time before the insurgent Taliban gained the upper hand. And that is exactly what has happened.
The first test case was the sudden attack by the Taliban on Kunduz last year. The United States troops who were based in Kunduz were taken by surprise when the Taliban suddenly attacked their positions. They hastily retreated, regrouped and counter attacked. Before they could hit back, the Taliban quietly retreated. It was a kind of dress rehearsal by the Taliban, to tell the United States, that they could hit them anywhere, as they chose. When we read about the Kunduz debacle, it was clear that it was a warning that the Taliban could hit any where they wanted. Before the United States forces could counter, the Taliban withdrew from Kunduz. To those of us who had been operating against insurgent groups in the North-east and Kashmir, the sudden surprise attack on Kunduz, the quick occupation of all the defences, and then a quiet retreat from the town, before the United States forces could regroup and counter attack was a demonstration by the Taliban that it was testing the United States forces and the Afghan Army and stealing a march on them. The message was clear. This was a rehearsal, and we could read the message of the Taliban and the Haqqani network — “Next time we will capture Kunduz and drive you out.”
It appears that after the Taliban over-running the town of Kunduz last year, many Afghans have lost confidence that their Government could protect them.
“There is an end of an era feel here in Afghanistan”- writes Carlotta Gall probably the most experienced of western journalists who had covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade.
If the Taliban secures eastern Afghanistan, where the Pashtuns live, They would have got control over the main Pashtun homeland in Afghanistan. The three other parts of Afghanistan are the Tajik, Uzbek and Herat provinces to the west of the Pashtun area bordering Pakistan. The Tajik and Uzbek are both Jamaat-e-Islami and are bitterly opposed to the Taliban and the Pashtuns who are Jamaat-e-Ulema-I-Islam (JUI). The Heratis are Shia and are also bitterly opposed to the Taliban and the Pashtuns who are followers of the JUI.
A Foreign Service officer of the United States who had served in Afghanistan as the ambassador of the United States during the peak of the Taliban operations, had published a paper after his tenure, suggesting that Afghanistan should be partitioned into two. The eastern most part, the homeland of the Pashtuns was to be one country and the rest to the west covering the homeland of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Heratis was to be another new country. This was an eminently reasonable suggestion. The Pashtuns were all from the Jammat-e-Ulema-I Islam (JUI), a hardline sect of Islam, which was also the sect of the Taliban who were operating from their base in Quetta in Pakistan and trying to subvert Afghanistan. Separating them from the rest of Afghanistan was a very reasonable suggestion. The rest of Afghanistan included the Tajiks, all Jammat-e-Isalmi, the Uzbeks also Jammat-e-Islami and further west the Heratis all Shia, would form another country. This was an eminently sensible suggestion as the three entities, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Heratis got along very well together.
Now that the stage seems to be set for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan and for the United States and other United Nations countries to abandon Afghanistan, it is best that the country is divided into a Pashtun dominated eastern portion bordering Pakistan and a conglomeration of the Tajik , Uzbek and Heratis into a new country. This will naturally be not at all acceptable to the Pashtuns who have been dominating Afghanistan. They will want to dominate the whole of Afghanistan and impose their religious order.
The United Nations and the Western nations should consider this. This will ensure that peace will prevail in this region after years of strife.
(The writer is former Director General, BSF.)
By E N RAmmohan