Afghanistan

Military quagmire

Print edition : November 25, 2016

May 25, 2014: President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops during a surprise visit to Bagram airfield near Kabul. Kabul has welcomed the U.S. decision to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan past 2016, vowing to respond to a resurgent Taliban "with full force". Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, flanked by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai, watches the live broadcast of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the presidential palace in Kabul on September 29 during the signing of the peace accord with his Hizb-i-Islami. Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP

A video screen shows live broadcast of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during a signing ceremony with the Afghan government on September 29. Photo: OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS

With the Barack Obama administration keen on retaining a military presence in Afghanistan in the form of permanent military bases, it will be difficult for the U.S. to extricate itself from the quagmire it finds itself in 15 years after it invaded the country.

THIS year marks the 15th anniversary of the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The United States military overthrew the Taliban government in Kabul and, with the help of the Northern Alliance and an assorted set of warlords, drove the Taliban out of the capital and other major Afghan cities. The George W. Bush administration was quick to declare victory and wasted no time in preparing for the next invasion, that of Iraq in 2003, expending billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. But almost 15 years hence, both Afghanistan and Iraq are in deep political and military turmoil. In Iraq, the country’s second biggest city, Mosul, fell into the hands of the Daesh, or Islamic State, in 2014, along with important cities such as Falluja and Ramadi.

In Afghanistan, within a few years of the U.S. occupation, the Taliban rebounded, despite the U.S. having spent more than $800 billion in the country since 2002. Before the U.S. intervention, there were very few cases of terrorism-related incidents in Afghanistan. But between 2002 and 2015, more than 9,000 terrorist attacks took place in the country, the majority of them after President Barack Obama ordered the “military surge” in Afghanistan in 2009. The U.S. has spent $113 billion in reconstruction efforts alone. But there is nothing much to show by way of results. Much of the money has been diverted to projects in urban areas, lining the pockets of politicians and warlords. Rural areas, where 70 per cent of Afghans live, were mostly ignored. Many of the projects have not even been completed. This has fuelled resentment and helped the Taliban. More than 2,000 Americans have lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed during and after the invasion of the country. According to most estimates, more than 300,000 Afghans have lost their lives as a result of the U.S. intervention and the rise of warlordism and crime since then. Ever since the Obama administration embraced “drone warfare” in a big way, Afghanistan has earned the distinction of being the “most drone-bombed” country in the world. The drone attacks have resulted in a lot of collateral damage, with the civilian population bearing the brunt of it.

However, it is only the continued U.S. military presence in the country that keeps the Taliban from taking over major cities. Around 10,000 U.S. troops still remain in Afghanistan, along with 5,000 troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries. Their presence was crucial for the removal of the Taliban from Kunduz. The Taliban managed to capture Kunduz twice from the central government in Kabul since the end of last year. Only two-thirds of the country today is under government control. The southern province of Oruzgan, according to recent reports, is on the verge of being overrun by the Taliban. According to a report submitted to the U.S. Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, the numbers of Afghan soldiers and police personnel leaving their posts and surrendering to the Taliban have increased in recent months. The Afghan National Army now has only 87 per cent of its authorised strength of 170,000. The Inspector General’s report confirmed that 33 out of Afghanistan’s 400 districts were under the control or influence of the Taliban; 116 districts were hotly contested.

The warlords aligned to the government, such as Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, are straining at the leash. Dostum, who claims the leadership of the Uzbek minority in the country, is now openly threatening rebellion from his base in the city of Mazhar-i-Sharif. He has fallen out with President Ashraf Ghani, alleging that he has been politically sidelined in Kabul. Ghani, on his part, has reminded the notorious Uzbek warlord that he could be made accountable for the war crimes he had committed since the early 1990s. It was Dostum who betrayed the last progressive President of Afghanistan, Mohammed Najibullah, to the bloodthirsty Afghan Mujahideen after the country fell into their hands in 1992.

The mujahideen had won the Afghan civil war of the 1970s and 1980s with the support of the U.S. and its regional allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. On July 3, 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter authorised the delivery of covert aid to religious fundamentalists and tribal warlords fighting against the left-wing government in Kabul. The U.S. also trained and financed hordes of fighters from Muslim countries who had converged on Pakistan to wage a “holy war” in Afghanistan against the secular government in Kabul.

Among the fighters trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and its current head Ayman al-Zawahiri. After the Taliban took over Kabul in the mid 1990s, it offered the Al Qaeda leadership refuge on Afghan territory. The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan blaming the Al Qaeda leadership based in Afghanistan for the 9/11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. It was in a way blowback for the U.S.’ original intervention in Afghanistan, which was then viewed as an anti-Soviet and anti-Communist crusade. Bin Laden was killed under dramatic circumstances by U.S. special forces in Pakistan. Zawahiri is said to be hiding somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in tribal areas. According to U.S. military experts, Al Qaeda has ceased to be a serious threat in Afghanistan for some time, with its numbers having been significantly reduced. After the U.S. invasion, most of its cadres fled to more hospitable climes in the Arabian peninsula and beyond. However, there are reports that with the intensification of fighting in Afghanistan, many of them are trickling back into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Many Al Qaeda fighters and supporters have switched allegiance to the Daesh.

Turf battles between Daesh and Taliban

Terror attacks linked to the group have registered an increase in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in recent months. Hazaras were targeted in a Kabul attack some months ago. More than 50 people were killed during a peaceful protest Hazaras staged against the government in Kabul. Hazaras were targeted because they are Shias. The latest large-scale terror attack took place in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. The Daesh has claimed responsibility for the raid on a police training school in the city, which killed 63 people. The Daesh in Afghanistan has also been involved in turf battles with the Afghan Taliban. A faction of the Pakistan Taliban has already switched allegiance to the Daesh. This is ominous news for the subcontinent, especially as the political and military situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Kashmir theatre deteriorates. After militant groups consolidated their hold on Afghanistan in the 1990s, they shifted their focus to the Kashmir Valley.

The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, has shown not only its staying power but also its military tenacity. Its deep-rooted relationship with the Pakistani military establishment has no doubt helped it to a great extent. The Taliban has also been able to keep on fighting because of the grass-roots support it enjoys in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the country. Recent months have witnessed an escalation in fighting with the Afghan security forces resulting in high casualty rates. Between March and August, 4,500 Afghan police personnel and soldiers were killed and more than 8,000 wounded, according to figures provided by Afghan officials. The security services are now facing a serious recruitment problem. According to reports, the morale of the security forces, in the light of the recent reverses, is not very inspiring.

The Afghan people are also disillusioned with the rampant corruption and factionalism. When the Taliban was in power, it curtailed poppy cultivation and the opium trade; poppy cultivation was banned in 2000. Now, there is a boom in the illegal narcotics trade, with the Taliban using its share of the high revenues to finance its struggles. The warlords and politicians use part of their share to prop up private militias and salt away the rest of the revenues in Dubai and other safe havens.

The political establishment in Washington has been differentiating between the “good Taliban” and the “bad Taliban” for some time now, following the realisation that the Afghan Taliban could not be defeated militarily. At the height of the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan, more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops were deployed in Afghanistan. Obama, however, was forced to admit in the last year of his presidency that the “security situation remains precarious” in Afghanistan and that the Taliban remained a threat, “having gained ground in some cases”. In its desperate attempt to find an acceptable end to the political and military impasse in Afghanistan, the U.S. has again tried to get the peace talks kick-started.

Representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government met recently in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Encouraged by the U.S. and Pakistan, the two sides first started dialogue in 2013, but the talks broke down and the Taliban suspended all contacts with the U.S. after the killing of its leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor in a drone strike in May. A Taliban delegation is reported to have visited Islamabad in late October to brief the Pakistani political and military leadership about the progress made in the talks. The Taliban continues to insist that meaningful talks can begin only when all foreign troops depart from Afghan soil.

The U.S. and Pakistan have okayed the peace deal signed between the Afghan government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another notorious warlord with a lot of blood on his hands. Until recently, his group, the Hizb-i-Islami, was an ally of the Taliban. He is probably among the most unloved warlords in his country. He was responsible for the shelling of civilian areas in Kabul when it was in the hands of rival warlords in the early 1990s. He is known as the “butcher of Kabul”. A spokesman for the Hekmatyar group said the U.S. was aware of the negotiations between his group and the Afghan government. He expressed optimism that the U.S. government would lift all sanctions on Hekmatyar and the Hizb-i-Islami.

The Obama administration seems to be keen to declare victory in Afghanistan by cobbling together a government of disparate political and ethnic groups in Kabul. As recent developments indicate, groups such as the Taliban and the Hizb-i-Islami will be encouraged to join in. But with the Obama administration keen on retaining a military presence in Afghanistan in the form of permanent military bases, it will be difficult for the U.S. to extricate itself from the quagmire it finds itself in. Influential U.S. voices, including former Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, are calling for another military surge in Afghanistan. McChrystal and Petraeus were commanders of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and were part of a group of officials and experts who had issued a statement calling for an “enduring partnership” with Afghanistan.

The authors of the statement had claimed that a continued U.S. military presence was necessary to ensure stability in the region. They also argued that Afghanistan was critical for the conduct of military operations in the region. The U.S.’ main enemy in the region is Iran. Iran, China and Russia, which have stakes in the region, will have reasons to be worried if the U.S. extends its military occupation of Afghanistan. Interestingly, India is among the countries that would like the U.S. military to stay on in Afghanistan. New Delhi fears that if the Taliban comes back, Islamabad will regain its strategic depth in the region.

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