Out-of-the-box thinking needed to ease the pain of Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

“The international community must keep their attention on Afghanistan. It’s far from being over. It’s not the time to switch off”. Sadly, the plaintive voice of Jean-Nicolas Marti, outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan, is unlikely to ring loud in the world chancelleries, especially in the West, which is suffering from donor fatigue and is also hopelessly focused on several ‘hotspots’ ranging from Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the Islamic State to Ukraine and the ‘migrant crisis’.

Tha Taliban began their spring offensive with a bang killing 64 people on April 19

Taliban began their ‘spring offensive’ with a bang by killing 64 people in central Kabul on April 19

But Marti was spot on when he told Reuters, “The security situation has really deteriorated … and my prediction is a further deterioration. Potentially the 18 months ahead of us will be much tougher.”

The crux of the matter is whether it is not already too late to think of a renewed western engagement in Afghanistan. One primary motivation behind the devastating attack in the heart of Kabul city on April 19 by the Taliban was probably to warn the international community that it is prudent to cut losses and stay away. Over 64 people were killed and 350 injured in the attack.

The Taliban have begun their ‘spring offensive’ with a bang. Surely, as Marti points out, there is more horrific violence to come. The Taliban’s interest in the reconciliation process mooted by the multilateral group (Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China) must be at its lowest point.

Why not? They are sensing victory on own steam and probably feel they do not need largesse dished out by foreigners. A stunning analysis by the CNN last week noted,

  • The Taliban do look a lot like they are winning. It is a grotesque slow grind, their pursuit of victory… There are no simple culprits here. The government — in which President Ashraf Ghani shares power with the man he fought an election against, (Chief Executive Officer) Abdullah Abdullah — was hamstrung, many argue, by this communal rivalry from the start. The Afghan economy tanked as soon as NATO support ebbed. NATO’s departure meant an unavoidable collapse in security.
  • Little of this could have been avoided, but much of it was predictable. The West simply ran out of funds and appetite for the battle, and left Afghanistan to come to its own devices.
  • So what is left? The key plank of the U.S. and Afghan strategy remains a simple and likely idea that could have worked well if the Taliban were evenly matched on the battlefield: a negotiated settlement… But the Taliban’s current gains mean they are unlikely to imminently change their current disinterest in talks. Their ties to al Qaeda also make a long-term settlement… less likely.

The ground reality could be that the Taliban contest more territory than ever before since the overthrow of their regime in 2001. But, equally, the Taliban are not on the verge of victory. True, government forces lost at the rate of 1000 casualties dead and injured per month through last year (which is more than all the casualties Americans took during the 15-year war), but, equally, they still hold all the major cities and towns, while on the other hand, Taliban are unable to hold on to their gains of territory.

Perhaps, Plan B, a strategy aimed at preventing the Taliban from winning rather than defeating them, is at work already. But even this will require a significant increase in the US troop strength and a willingness to undertake combat missions.

The US commanders are clamoring for such an escalation, but with the pot boiling in Syria, Iraq and Libya – and potentially Yemen – and the South China showing great agitation (and the cold peace in Eurasia), it is hard to see President Barack Obama or even the next US president ordering a restart of the war in Afghanistan.

Tokenism is what can be expected at best. It means stalling an outright Taliban takeover. On the contrary, from the Taliban perspective, it makes sense to go for the kill during the coming 18-month period or so which will be the time taken for the next US president to settle in, take stock of the Afghan war and craft a new strategy. Marti’s assessment is also that.

Meanwhile, the fluidity of the Afghan political scene will not help matters. It is not only that the uneasy coalition between the president and the chief executive officer is hampering governance, but there is a constitutional deadlock today. The idea of constitutional reform has been shelved.

Washington has now deemed that the Ghani-Abdullah tandem will not end in September, as originally conceived, but is destined to run a full 5-year term. When Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced this diktat recently during his Kabul visit, there was uproar. Most Afghans see the present government in poor light.

Again, the parliamentary and local elections stand postponed. Arguably, the state structure in Syria or Iraq would appear to be more legitimate than Afghanistan today.

The recent confrontation in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the sensitive Amu Darya region between the followers of the two powerful northern warlords – Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Atta – flagged that the centre cannot hold much longer.

Paradoxically, Dostum also happens to be the first vice-president of the country and Atta the provincial governor and a key ally of chief executive officer Abdullah.

The bottom line is that Pakistan’s cooperation becomes more vital than ever to bring the war to an end. But, on the other hand, why should Pakistan rein in the Taliban when they are knocking at the gates of Kabul? And, will they listen at all even if Pakistan tries to?

If the reconciliation process under the quadrilateral framework is meandering, the real reason could be that neither Taliban nor Pakistan felt that their ‘legitimate’ demands have been accommodated by the ‘international community’.

If for the Taliban the bottom line is that the foreign occupation should end, for Pakistan, the fear of Indian influence in Kabul subsumes today all other considerations.

The US cannot oblige the Taliban, since a military foothold in the region is of strategic importance. On the other hand, given the US’ ‘defining partnership’ with India in the Asia-Pacific, Washington’s willingness or capacity to persuade New Delhi to lock on to a normalization process with Pakistan gets severely restricted – that is, assuming that the Hindu nationalists desire such normalization.

Indeed, Pakistani military’s interest in reining in the Taliban now becomes doubtful, being a ‘strategic asset’.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the regional powers – China, Russia and Iran – have begun adapting themselves to the situation. They keep line of communication open to the Taliban, while at the same time work with Kabul to safeguard their specific security interests as best as they can.

Some new formula will have to be found to ease the conflict situation. Perhaps, the initiative lies with the Pakistani military leadership to do some ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and explore the possibility of an innovative power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.

Chief Executive Officer Abdullah, a hugely ambitious (and capable) Tajik politician with a pan-Afghan profile, whose eyes have been set on the Afghan presidency for a very long time, is due to visit Pakistan.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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