What’s the real military situation in Afghanistan today ?

By Salman Rafi Sheikh

On March 19, 2015 New York Times reported that the Afghan peace process was still a long-cherished dream since the Taliban are unable to resolve their “internal differences” over the question of holding a dialogue with the U.S. and its allies.  It further reported that since peace couldn’t be expected to take shape under such a scenario, the Afghan government, as well as U.S. officials, were mulling the possibility of yet another year of “bloody fighting with the insurgents.” Reflecting this situation, the Times report had an ‘apt’ title: More U.S. Troops Seen Staying in Afghanistan

The scenario depicted by the U.S. newspaper callously allows for an extension of America’s longest war, into not just one more year of “bloody fighting,” but many more years of bloodshed. The reported rifts within the Taliban on the dialogue issue also gives a misleading impression that this is the only possible and the real reason for the prevailing crisis in Afghanistan.  Not only does it not take into account the very counter-productive effects of the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil, it also takes the Taliban’s so-called “internal differences” too literally. It obscures the latent aspects of the current phase of the war and its significance relative to geopolitical changes taking place around Afghanistan. The current phase of the Afghan war is not important merely due to Afghanistan itself; it is much more connected than ever to the U.S. policies towards the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Given the geo-strategic environment prevailing in the Middle Eastern region (the rise of the ISIL) and the catastrophe that U.S. post-war plans faced in Iraq, it seems the U.S. would take pains not to repeat that story in Afghanistan — a country that Washington still covets to undercut Russian and Chinese influence in Central and South Asian regions. Notwithstanding  that the Afghan Taliban are still holding areas under their control and are constantly attacking, there are other factors supporting the notion of a longer stay for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. One is Afghanistan’s increased importance, during last year or so, as a base for military action (and support to “allied” states in Central Asia and Caucasus) due to the situation in Ukraine. In this respect, Afghanistan provides the nearest and the most suitable place for such operations. It’s apparent that military action requires not only territory — it also requires troops on the ground.

As the Times noted in the same report, U.S. officials were already close to concluding that the current U.S. contingent of 10,000 troops and thousands of civilian contractors would be needed in Afghanistan till at least the end of 2016. Not only this, the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed between the USA and Afghanistan in 2014 also offers the option of increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan as and when needed. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that the U.S. would choose to increase  the number of its troops on the Afghan soil to buttress its position vis-à-vis Russia in Ukraine.

Apart from deteriorating security situation to the south and west of Afghanistan, the security and political situation inside Afghanistan itself doesn’t lend itself to a change in the current U.S. position. The Afghan Taliban are not only in control of  crucial areas such as Qandahar, they are also becoming more and more potent in conducting attacks on U.S.-trained Afghan forces. In the second week of April, for instance, the Taliban killed, wounded or kidnapped at least 33 soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Jurm district of north-eastern Badakhshan province. The northern province of Badakhshan, it should be kept in mind, has been a relatively peaceful area vs. other unstable and war-torn areas of the country. The incident not only indicates the strength of the Taliban. It also reflects their territorial reach. This shatters the myth of peace and stability in Afghanistan. A look at Taliban attacks over the last eight months or so would show that they’ve found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, as well as other crucial provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.

This and many other such incidents are also indicative of the virtual failure of the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy which required a strong Afghan Army, capable of replacing the U.S./NATO force in post-2014 Afghanistan. To reach this goal, Washington had poured at least $65 billion into building up, training and equipping Afghan National Security Forces so they could hold their own against the insurgents once the U.S. soldiers and their allies departed. However, more than a decade later, that plan, along with the Afghan National Security Forces, seems to be slowly falling apart. With this is the collapse of U.S. hopes for an Afghanistan that could act as a useful base for the former’s larger geo-strategic operations.  It’s for this reason that the U.S., too, has come to realize the impossibility of establishing peace in Afghanistan without involving the Taliban in it — hence, the US’s new definition of the Taliban as “insurgents” rather than “terrorists.”

My intention is not to defend any of the actors in Afghanistan. But we must acknowledge the reality on the ground. The Taliban are very powerful. At the same time, this is not to suggest that they’re going to capture Kabul and take Afghanistan back to 1990s.

Today’s situation in Afghanistan is quite different from the 1990s. Back then, after the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan was left in the lurch. The power vacuum created by the departing Soviets was eventually filled by the Taliban. Currently, there’s no power vacuum of that kind. Moreover, Kabul enjoys the support of the U.S. and many other nations who are categorically opposed to the Taliban retaking Afghanistan. However, the Taliban do have the capacity to sustain insurgency, perhaps, for an indefinite period of time. This is the most troubling aspect for the U.S. and its allies. That’s because they can’t afford to keep fighting simultaneously on multiple fronts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

Therefore, the one possible way out for the U.S. and its allies (and the one occupying most of their attention) is to negotiate with the Taliban. The will allow the U.S. to extend its stay in Afghanistan for at least a few more years. But the question of negotiations isn’t an easy one for the U.S. to resolve. If nothing else, it mainly requires the Taliban to agree to the existence of certain U.S. military basis in Afghanistan — a demand the Taliban most vehemently oppose.

It’s obvious from the Times report that the dialogue with the Taliban is on hold, if it hasn’t failed entirely. Therefore, the U.S. has few options other than involving regional states such as Pakistan, Iran and China in resolving the Taliban conundrum.

The Taliban have welcomed China’s involvement. They sent a delegate to China to discuss issues related to Afghanistan and the current regional situation, sources close to Taliban told the AIP or Afghan Islamic Press. A Taliban official, who requested anonymity, also confirmed the visit of the Taliban officials to China, saying, “The purpose of the trip was to share the Islamic Emirate’s stance with China.”  The visit of the Taliban delegation to China came shortly after the newly-elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani paid a four-day official trip to China. If this was not enough, the Chinese ambassador to Kabul reportedly offered, in a meeting with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, to use China’s influence with Pakistan in the peace process. All the major actors involved in the Afghan war, in fact, are looking to China for help. An example is a meeting was held in London in December 2014 where officials from China, Afghanistan and the U.S. met to discuss a future course of action in the war. It was the first time that these three nations convened to seek ways to establish “peace” in Afghanistan.

The above analysis quite clearly reflects the three-pronged strategy the U.S. is pursuing in Afghanistan at the moment. It’s trying to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban, it’s trying to keep Afghanistan militarized for as long as possible, and it’s trying to regionalize the Afghan problem by specifically bringing in China — an actor which until recently was the least politically active player in Afghanistan.

No matter what China does, there are givens that can’t be erased.  To sum up, the Taliban are a still powerful force. So long as they’re on the ground, the U.S. can’t hope to impose any “peace” deal on Afghanistan. This means the Afghan war will continue for years to come. The Afghan people will also continue to suffer if the U.S. persists with its demand for Afghan military bases. This, instead of focusing on establishing a power-sharing arrangement between the civilian government and the Taliban.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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  • IBN E ASHFAQ

    The situation in Afghanistan will eventually be decided by the ability to hold boots on the ground. NATO and the US may last another year or two. By 2017 Afghanistan will be very different from that of today. As Afghan national army (ANA) will disintegrate or become much less effective, given its high rate of desertions and casualties.