05 May 2016
Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz levers remained unpulled last month as the
Taliban kicked off the annual spring offensive with an attack in Kabul that
killed 37 people.” Residents near the site of attack.
“Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz levers remained unpulled last
month as the Taliban kicked off the annual spring offensive with an attack in
Kabul that killed 37 people.” Residents near the site of attack.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s 18-month engagement with Pakistan collapsed
under the stress of Pakistani recalcitrance, Taliban resurgence, and domestic
politics. While the result may be a short-term boost in India-Afghanistan ties,
longer-term trends are bleak. No one is fully committed to Afghanistan’s dysfunctional
government. Beijing is unwilling to use its leverage over Pakistan, Washington
is distracted, while Moscow and Tehran are hedging their bets. The idea of a
regional concert of powers to resolve the conflict, widely mooted at the
beginning of the Obama administration, is implausible today.
Ghani’s landmark speech at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) last May
seems a long time ago. “The problem, fundamentally, is not about peace with
Taliban,” he had said. “The problem is fundamentally about peace between
Pakistan and Afghanistan.” This was the premise of his controversial outreach
to Pakistan, including a personal trip to Rawalpindi and a bungled agreement
between the Afghan and Pakistani spy agencies. Mr. Ghani’s policy was borne not
of naivety, but the sober realisation that if Pakistan was the taproot of the
insurgency, it would also have to be the locus of diplomacy. The U.S. and China
agreed, each eager to stabilise Afghanistan for their own reasons. Last July,
Afghan government representatives even met senior Taliban figures in the
Pakistani town of Murree, though those talks collapsed after it turned out that
their backer, Mullah Omar, had long been a corpse. Even as violence grew
regardless, a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of the U.S., China,
Pakistan and Afghanistan was convened in January 2016 and met four times over
the following month.
on the Offensive
diplomacy, though well intentioned, was an exercise likely neither to last very
long nor to save its participants. In March, Pakistan’s hapless Foreign Affairs
Adviser Sartaj Aziz went off-script and admitted that the Taliban’s “leadership
is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here.
So we can use those levers to pressurise them”. This made it all the more
galling that violence had climbed steadily upwards. In September, the Taliban
took a city, Kunduz, for the first time since they were deposed in 2001. Mr.
Aziz’s levers remained unpulled last month as the Taliban kicked off the annual
spring offensive with an attack in Kabul that killed 37 people. In the past
week alone, the Taliban have applied ferocious pressure in the southern
province of Uruzgan, a gateway to Helmand and Kandahar to the south where the
government controls only the isolated capital. Between January and March 2016,
civilian deaths rose by 13 per cent compared to the same period in the previous
year, while the number of “complex and suicide attacks” rose by over a quarter.
had begun his outreach to Pakistan — incurring a severe political cost at home
— with the intention of easing pressure on his battered security forces and
creating some breathing space for the economy. He has almost nothing to show
for his efforts. And so, in a special joint session of Afghanistan’s parliament
last week, Mr. Ghani indicated a change of strategy, though not quite a
reversal in course, with his most sustained attack on Pakistan to date. The
President’s spokesman declared openly that “we want to use diplomatic
initiatives to isolate Pakistan at the regional and international levels”,
while Mr. Ghani, in only fractionally more coded language, reiterated that
“those who have failed to implement their commitments… are isolated more than
ever today”. The insurgents, he insisted, “are the vanguard of other
countries”. Notably, however, the President caveated his language on the
insurgents themselves, attacking only “some Taliban”.
It has been
fashionable amongst Indian commentators to proclaim support for “Afghan-led”
diplomacy while excoriating a supposedly Western tendency to divide militants
into the proverbial “good” and “bad” Taliban. In fact, Mr. Ghani — like Hamid
Karzai before him — made precisely this distinction, drawing a sharp line
between “slaves of foreigners” on the one hand, and “those Taliban who are
willing to cooperate with their country” on the other. This taxonomy of the
Taliban — Pakistani proxies versus nationalist jihadists — was a deliberate
effort to leave the door ajar for direct talks, while seeking to shut out
Pakistan. “We will pursue peace,” said Mr. Ghani, “only through Afghan
channels”. A day after Mr. Ghani’s fiery speech, his spokesman was more
specific. “We are aware that Taliban delegations are in Pakistan,” he said,
“but we will not go there until Pakistan fulfils the promises that they made.”
The contrast with the May 2015 USIP speech could not be clearer.
Ghani’s strategy is less so. Does he hope to drive a wedge between pragmatic
and hard-line factions of the insurgency, coaxing more flexible elements into
direct talks? Some Taliban sources suggest that leader Mullah Mansour commands
the loyalty of only 55-60 per cent of the movement. And according to Afghan
analysts, last year’s talks in Murree widened rifts that were emerging in
recent years over the peace process. The Taliban’s Doha office — whose leader
Tayyab Agha later resigned — refused to go to Murree, while others were furious
that Pakistan broke its promise to keep the meeting secret. Yet members of the
Doha office, naturally those best placed to talk to Kabul without Pakistani
officials breathing down their neck, were reportedly part of the Taliban
delegation Mr. Ghani’s spokesman was referring to. In short, it is far from
obvious that Mr. Ghani has a feasible route around Pakistan’s Inter-Services
Intelligence. Moreover, the Taliban although suffering high casualties too,
seem buoyed by battlefield successes and show little apparent interest in
all this mean at the regional level? Certainly, New Delhi has an opportunity to
build on November’s historic agreement to transfer attack helicopters to Kabul.
It should seize it. But this can’t change the fundamentals. The Afghan
government cannot endure — economically, politically, or militarily — with the
war at its current pitch, the economy in its present shape, and Afghan politics
in such dysfunction.
powers realise this, which is why countries like Iran and Russia have deepened
engagement with the insurgency. Iran has sheltered key Taliban factions in the
city of Mashhad; one of Mansour’s rivals, Mullah Rasool, has even urged
Tehran’s involvement in peace talks. Meanwhile, Russia’s special envoy to
Afghanistan recently acknowledged that “we and the Taliban have channels for
exchanging information”. “The Taliban interest,” he added, “objectively
coincides with ours” — a reference to the Islamic State’s growing presence.
None of these countries, of course, wishes to see a Taliban takeover. But they
can see the writing on the wall, and are hedging accordingly.
long-term, the Afghan government’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Pakistan and
the Taliban will depend on two factors above all. First, how committed is the
U.S.? U.S troops numbers are due to fall by over two-fifths, from 9,800 to
5,500, in January 2017. President Obama may well reverse this decision in his
last month in office, and NATO may reassess its own Resolute Support Mission at
its summit in Warsaw this July. But will Mr. Obama’s successor and Congress
keep picking up the annual $4 billion tab for the Afghan National Security
Forces beyond 2017? This will depend on a second factor: whether Afghanistan’s
political elite can pull it together. Key posts — including defence and
intelligence — remain filled by caretakers, while major reforms are unlikely to
be completed by a looming September deadline that was part of the U.S.-brokered
accord for the unity government. As Mr. Ghani himself told parliament, “We can
secure victory over the enemy on the battlefield only by introducing reforms
and creating cleaner institutions.” Perhaps his new approach to Pakistan, by
narrowing divisions at home, will help him in this Sisyphean task.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow of the
Royal United Services Institute, London.