NATO leaders bid a symbolic farewell to Afghanistan at its summit in Brussels on 14 June 2021 and Afghanistan remains a ‘Mission Unaccomplished’.
By Col Ronnie Rajkumar,
Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL, the two-decade US war in Afghanistan, finally ends on 11 September 2021. The ‘forever’ war has exacted a colossal toll in blood and treasure – 2,243 US troops and 1,144 of allied NATO forces KIA (killed In Action), USD 2.26 T expended on the war-fighting effort and the cost to Afghan lives staggering but as the US withdraws from a war that has become a strategic stalemate, Afghanistan has been bequeathed with a legacy of continued volatility with the quest for enduring peace yet aa elusive. NATO leaders bid a symbolic farewell to Afghanistan at its summit in Brussels on 14 June 2021 and Afghanistan remains a ‘Mission Unaccomplished’.
The Afghan National Defiance Security Forces (ANDSF comprising of the Afghan National Army, Air Force and a variety of police forces number 2,88,702 (assessed at 1,80,000 combat personnel each day) has been trained, equipped, logistically sustained and supported as an extension of US war doctrine to wage the war the US way. ‘Shona Ba Shona’ (Shoulder to Shoulder) was the new catch phrase. However, since January 2014 when the US and NATO ceased all combat operations (ISAF) and transitioned to a training role (RSM), the ANDSF was increasingly on the backfoot in stand-alone encounters, skirmishes and tactical engagements. In the overall battlefield picture, unit to unit and engagement to engagement, the Taliban proved to be more cohesive, much fiercer and with the will to die. So, in the run-up to the day when US boots finally leave Afghan soil and in the murky period thereafter, will the ANDSF be able to provide that bulwark against the Taliban onslaught? A sad commentary by General Mark Miley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who describes the Afghan military and police as “reasonably well equipped, reasonably well trained, reasonably well led”. The future of Afghanistan does seem to hinge on the military ability of the ANDSF to contain and repulse a fierce offensive by the Taliban in the next few months or will they fold with cataclysmic effect on the future of the country, hopes of peace and the stability of the entire region.
As per reliable estimates, the Taliban fields a strength of 2, 00,000 with 60,000 core fighters (mobile units based in Pakistan), 90,000 local militias and uncounted facilitators and support elements. Any peace deal will require the disarmament and demobilization of the Taliban and their integration into the ANDSF. There is a proposal to introduce the war-tested tool of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration which requires monitoring by a neutral body like the UN) to amalgamate the Taliban into the ANDSF. The major issue here is that the Taliban are a Pashtun-majority group while the ANDSF is officered and manned by a Tajik-heavy hierarchical structure. While the Taliban group does advocate for a unified national army, the war has been fought for far too long and has been far too bitter to let bygones-be-bygones and rankles deep in the rank and file of both sides. This animosity driven by ethnicity may lead to many Taliban fighters refusing to join the mainstream or to surrender their weapons and to join the ranks of hard-core renegade Taliban fighters who label any deal with the government as anathema. These roving armed groups of battle-hardened fighters, in addition to the ISKP who remain unsubdued and operationally active, are a viable threat to the security of the region and they could align with regional terror organizations like the LeT, ISKP or AQ (IP) and gravitate to other conflict zones like Kashmir. Aided by some countries in the region, this outcome is most likely to be a certainty rather than a chance.
The fabric of Afghanistan’s security and socio-economic terrain is dominated by warlords. Located mainly in their ethnic strongholds in Northern, Western and Central Afghanistan, they wield power, command loyalty and exercise almost feudal control over their fiefdoms and most field a small army of armed irregulars. Predominantly Tajik by ethnicity, these warlords share a common bond of intense antipathy towards the Taliban and have fought alongside Ahmad Shah Masood under the banner of the Northern Alliance to evict the Taliban from the country in 2000 – 01. Many warlords have sought legitimacy in the present-day democratic set-up of the Republic by entering the political and administrative arena and now occupy posts of influence and power in the parliament and the ANDSF. This will prove to be the greatest stumbling block in any negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban as the Taliban will demand control of certain powerful ministerial chairs (ministries of interior, external affairs, defence, finance, economy, education, religious affairs are some of them) that will be vehemently opposed by the sitting Tajik bloc. Finding a middle-ground here is, to say the least, difficult and unpalatable after years of split blood and seeing each other over the sights of an AK 47 Assault Rifle. Where it goes from here is too early to predict but the ingredients of a civil war are already at hand.
Since the signing of the Peace Treaty in Doha in 2020, the Taliban have continued with their time-tested policy of ‘Talk and Fight’. The Group envisages to hold the high – ground in territorial control by the time the US forces leave and post-2020, the Taliban in a renewed aggressive campaign across Afghanistan, control most of the rural areas and threaten five provincial capitals (34 provinces). Out of 497 districts, the Taliban control 87 and contest 214. Afghanistan now resembles an archipelago of government-held enclaves’ mainly urban centres and communication hubs while the Taliban control the surrounding rural areas. The ring will close in around Kabul. The Taliban has now announced that the security and safety of embassies / consulates and airports is the responsibility of the Afghan government but no involvement of foreign troops will be permitted (Turkey volunteered to undertake the protection of airports but was turned down). This is relevant when we understand that the linch – pin of Taliban strategy is to strangulate Kabul by the capture / control of the arterial and vital MSRs (Main Supply Routes) coming into Kabul. The control of any two of these MSRs will signal a clear and present danger to Kabul and a possible offensive on the capital without necessarily the capitulation of the city but the occupation and control of the suburbs / neighbouring agglomeration of villages to exert pressure for the collapse of law and order, paralyze government function and trigger mass evacuation / desertion of the ANDSF. Such an incursion may reforge powerful alliances between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and possibly the Hazaras to rally in a rejuvenated Northern Alliance that will ignite the fuse for a devastating and destabilizing civil war and resonate throughout South and Central Asia.
There is some hard thinking being done by the US and NATO to address this problem of an Afghanistan sans the protective umbrella of western military forces. The US is wary of a resurgence of AQ and myriad terror groups that will now seek refuge in Afghanistan under Taliban patronage and a World Towers 2.0. Thus the requirement of locating drone launch strips (strike and surveillance) / air bases (air strikes and insertion of Special Forces) in a neighbouring country becomes an operational imperative. There are reports of high level discussions between the US and Pak to seek permission for the use of Pak territory for these bases. The incentives that may be given by the US will be massive and it remains to be seen if this will see a cooling of the Pak – China “All Weather Friend’ rhetoric.
India has committed well-nigh USD 3 Billion for infrastructural development in Afghanistan in addition to show – case projects like the construction of the new Afghan Parliament building and the Salma Dam. Militarily, we have gifted the AAF with two MI 24 attack helicopters. It is in our best interests to continue with this soft – power diplomacy and avoid putting boots on the ground which will forfeit to us the good will of the Afghans who consider India as their ‘Bhaijans”.
(The author is a retired Army officer with 33 years. After retirement in 2008, he worked with an international consultancy in Afghanistan as the Divisional Security Advisor based in Kabul. Trained in Kabul in COIN (US) and Country Security Management (Netherland), he has extensive ground experience of 11 years in Afghanistan and the region. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)