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Afghanistan
 
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No end to Afghanistan conflict in sight

 
Raza Khan

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In a heavy attack by the Afghan Taliban on April 21, more than 150 Afghan
National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel were killed in the northern
Balkh province capital Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban, who owned the attack
claimed they killed 500 soldiers. Although the death toll given by the Taliban
may not be true but the original figure of casualties could ultimately
be more than what the Afghanistan government has provided. The attack
was made on an Afghan army base when soldiers were busy in offering
their Friday prayers. The Taliban attackers entered the base masquerading
as army personnel and they were able to cross two checkpoints without
impediment
The Taliban attack on the ANSF base in Mazar-e-Sharif with such a
heavy death toll has yet again exposed the capacity and performance of
Afghan state forces. If the ANSF lose so many personnel in a single attack
by an insurgent group then it raises many questions first of which is
whether such a military force is capable of defending the country. In other
words, if an army cannot defend its own personnel and looses so many of
them in just one attack how can it provide security to the state and its people?
Afghan security forces, beset by killings, desertions and non-existent
"ghost soldiers" on the payroll, have been struggling to beat back the Taliban
since US-led NATO troops ended their combat mission in December
2014.
There is also another very important aspect to the attack by the Taliban
on Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban have never been a force to reckon with in
northern Afghanistan, particularly Balkh province. The reason has beenthat the Taliban are predominantly ethnically Pakhtuns while northern
Afghanistan, including Balkh province, is mostly inhabited by Uzbeks and
Turkmen ethnic groups. Balkh has been home to an Uzbek population
and its ferocious warlords like Abdul Rasheed Dostum, who is presently
Afghan Vice President, have kept the Taliban away from the province.
Even during the heyday of the Taliban (1996-2001), Abdul Rasheed Dostum
kept the former at bay. Now when the ANSF numbering more than
300,000 personnel along with around 10, 000 US forces having sophisticated
weaponry and military technology, could not stop the Taliban to
enter into areas which traditionally have not been their stronghold, then
this is a clear indication of the growing strength and capacity of the Taliban.
Secondly, if the Taliban are making inroads into non-Pakhtun territory
and staging huge attacks, this could only be done under a well thought out
strategy. Through these attacks they want to alienate the local population,
comprising of non-Pakhtuns, from the state and its security forces. This is,
indeed, a very clever strategy by the Taliban, but this does not augur well
for the future of Afghanistan. This situation would strengthen the forces,
which have been calling for dividing Afghanistan on ethnic lines. Because
in case the Taliban are able to put the state forces on the defensive in
northern Afghanistan, separatist feelings would be strengthened among
the inhabitants of these regions of the country, as they do not have any
love for the Taliban.
In this situation the Afghan state has to act decisively. Either it has to
completely overhaul its counter-insurgency strategy, because the existing
and previous strategies to defeat the Taliban insurgency, or at least neutralize
it, have failed. If this is not possible, then there is a need to come
up with a completely new negotiations strategy with the Taliban, by the
Afghan state. The second strategy is quite viable, as the Taliban may be
an insurgent group but it is also a very visible political reality inside
Afghanistan, as they have a huge number of supporters and sympathizers
among the Afghan population. However, the Afghan security-intelligence
establishment is the biggest hurdle in the way of the Kabul-Taliban peace
negotiations. The political government of Afghanistan may be sincere and
may feel the need for negotiations with the Taliban, but the security and
intelligence establishment of Afghanistan does not want to facilitate the
process or even let it happen at all. The reason is that the present Afghan
security and intelligence establishment is disproportionately staffed by non-
Pakhtuns and they hate the Taliban. Secondly, most of the members of
the establishment served under the previous communist Afghan regimes
and they consider that if the Taliban enter the power corridors through the
process of negotiations, that would be at the altar of their personal and
group interests. In this situation, the solution lies with a strong and effective
Afghan president and his administration. Here again, the Afghan president
Ashraf Ghani is facing problems. His chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah
has serious differences with him.
In another important development in Afghanistan, the US military
dropped the world biggest non-nuclear "mother of all bombs" (MOAB) in
Achin district of eastern Nangarhar province, close to the Pakistan border.
The bomb targeted the underground hideouts of the global terrorist organization
Islamic State (IS) locally known as Daesh. There have been reports
that 96 IS fighters were killed in the bomb attack.
Insofar as the US dropping of the mother of all bombs on the IS hideouts
in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan is concerned, irrespective of
the collateral damage it must have caused, it was needed. Because the
IS has been growing as a critical threat in Afghanistan. So far, the Afghan
state has completely failed to counter the threat of the IS. But more than
the capacity issue, there is a problem of intention. It is now more than evident
that the Afghan security and intelligence establishment has been in
collaboration with IS operatives to facilitate their presence inside
Afghanistan. The establishment wants to use the IS as a counterforce to
the Taliban, as well as to carry out terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.
In this situation, the US, which has a military presence in Afghanistan
and is ultimately responsible for the security of the state, dropping of
bombs to root out the IS threat become indispensable. Although certain
human rights groups have condemned the use of the non-nuclear bomb
in Afghanistan, but they are not aware of the threat on the ground. But the
local Afghans have suffered gravely at the hands of the IS operatives and
they wanted their state to come to their rescue and several demands of
their government in this regard have been made, but to no avail. So when
the US dropped the bomb, the local community leaders welcomed it.
These leaders have called the massive bomb "very successful" and are
pleased with the results. The US has about 8,400 troops in the country,
with about another 5,000 from NATO allies assisting the Afghan forces in
the war against the Taliban and other armed groups.
With the Afghan insurgency growing and the US military activities in
Afghanistan also escalating, there seem no near end to the insurgency
and conflict in Afghanistan.


 

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