InternationalVolume 12 Issue # 18

No end to Afghanistan conflict in sight

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.