Afghanistan’s Irresolvable Conflict: Destructive Obsession with Everything Strategic
Photo Credit: AP
By Chayanika Saxena

Afghanistan’s Irresolvable Conflict: Destructive Obsession with Everything Strategic

Sep. 11, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Straddling two vital regions — Central and South Asia — Afghanistan had been a transit hub for the trade routes that had proliferated in the ancient and medieval past. Having been a “land-bridge,” the change in the fortunes of this country happened with a shift in the international imagination of Afghanistan from being a catalyst of interactions to a buffer zone limiting regional spill-overs. The seemingly irresolvable conflict that has marred Afghanistan today, in part, can be attributed this transformation of global and regional discourse about its geo-political location on the mental map of the world. The strategic prioritization of Afghanistan for the world over its political, economic and cultural development for itself has been at the heart of the things that continue to go wrong here.

From a Roundabout of Trade to a Buffer Zone

The imagination of Afghanistan as a strategic joystick has dented the international operations that have been carried out since 2001. Since the emphasis has been on securing Afghanistan as a strategic buffer zone, the conflict in Afghanistan, which should have been solved for itself, has gotten entangled with the desires and aspirations of third states. As a result, the conflict in Afghanistan persists and the efforts to deal with it continue to be ill-focused. In its current form under the Trump administration, the focus is once again about counter-terrorism and not counter-insurgency, privileging strategic imperatives over the more urgent political and tactical goals.

An instructive example of such deficient and short-lived interest in tactics and the larger political environment was the wrapping up of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now a wound-up affair with no effective replacement, PRTs introduced practices to promote development through security and security through development in formal and institutionalized ways. They could be seen as force multipliers whose aim was to deliver in the short-term so as to promote long-term confidence in the domestic government and become a bridge connecting the tactical requirements with larger political goals. But once again, the constitution of the PRT network was hamstrung by the absence of an overarching, coordinated mandate. Led by different participating countries in different regions of Afghanistan, the German model of PRT was very often different from the American model which was in turn out of sync with the British version in the absence of a determined political goal. Thus, what could have been a successful model of reconstruction, PRTs could not feed much into the larger political system of Afghanistan, if the international operations had any in mind at all.

Strategic Failure, Political Doom

While the eventual failure of PRTs was symptomatic of the deficiencies in the larger international efforts, these deficiencies had a spill-over effect in Afghanistan much to the detriment of the post-conflict reconstruction efforts there. Taking advantage of the international rumble, the local players in Afghanistan created and bolstered their own coteries of support by picking sides. And these were not just restricted to states but also to non-state actors, such as Al-Qaeda, which recently called the “blessed emirate of Taliban as a core part of the resurrected Caliphate.”

Alliances in Afghanistan are notorious for their lack of durability, and are often described as shifting lines in the sand. The regional warlords, who were reclaiming their space following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, saw the international efforts as important opportunities to bolster their own interests. This resulted in what I have elsewhere described as “centripetally centrifugal” tendencies in Afghanistan, where an attempt was made to grab power and resources from the center by the regional warlords not with the intent of ruling the center but to rule their regions better. What emerged as a result were warlords who had become the self-appointed custodians of the provinces (see Balkh, Jowzan) and who challenged the central government’s authority to preside over them. What more? They are expanding their aspirations and plan to assume central roles, including that of the President, by boasting of ethnic and regional voter support.

Leaving the political development of Afghanistan to the local players under Trump’s so-called “new” Afghan agenda has been like the washing off of hands of a shoddy performance.

Consequently, instead of establishing a united and unified (which is not the same as centralised) policy and command, different stakeholders in this conflict have created a fractious environment. Instead of being a picture of coordinated efforts to turn the wheel for Afghanistan, what this country currently has in place is a landscape of disjointed institutions and practices that have not reconstructed Afghanistan much. The most evident manifestation of the things-gone-wrong in Afghanistan is its fledgling government, which after a recent spate of attacks in the capital city of Kabul, was rattled further by resignations and subsequent blame games. The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, is reportedly at odds with almost everyone in his government, including the Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, and most recently, his former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The peace process in Afghanistan has rarely been conducted for itself: it has often been conducted on behalf of Afghanistan even as the clamor for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process has always been around. The fact that the Taliban was kept out of the post-2001 negotiations reflected both international arrogance and absurdity as it chose not to engage with the primary antagonist of the conflict. By willingly discarding that golden hour when the international forces did have an upper-hand over the Taliban, they already made the foundations of the post-conflict reconstruction weak. What is the end result? Afghanistan is far from being a post-conflict country.

Multiple rounds of peace processes have been held by different countries and under different banners, but none has come to fruition in any substantive manner. The recently postponed Moscow Peace Process has been one of the umpteenth attempts made to pave the path for reconciliation in Afghanistan. While it looked promising initially, especially as it managed to give India, Pakistan, China, Iran, and the Taliban the same platform for discussions, the American reluctance to join this process and Afghanistan’s withdrawal from it has stopped it in its tracks. The Eid truce offered by the government of Afghanistan and reciprocated by the Taliban has not gone beyond its moment in history.

Having launched its spring offensive, Al-Khandaq, in April this year, the Taliban’s decision to halt its attacks on civilians during the three days of Eid festivities did not come to stand for much as far as the larger peace process is concerned. Instead, the Taliban went ahead to lay siege on the town of Ghazni, whose capitulation to the forces by the Taliban and its later recovery by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was reminiscent of the debacle that was faced in Kunduz in 2015. The Taliban’s attacks on the security personnel, both Afghan and foreign, have continued unabatedly with the most recent incident being reported from Badghis and Takhar where 19 Afghan National Army soldiers and 8 police officers were killed.

The Taliban has not stopped at this. In its recent announcement, it declared that it will no longer provide safe passage to the Red Cross in response to ICRC’s purported neglect of the Taliban soldiers in the prisons of Afghanistan. It is important to note that the ICRC had already scaled down its presence in Afghanistan following the attacks on its staff last year. All this does not bode well for the humanitarian operations in Afghanistan as constant attacks on international aid workers have compelled organizations such as Doctors Without Borders to wind up their operations.

The capital of Afghanistan too has been reeling under attacks. Targeted by the so-called Islamic State, areas populated by the Shia minority in the capital city have suffered a particularly massive rise in attacks. In two separate incidents in less than a month, the IS claimed to have attacked a tuition center and conducted twin blasts in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi, a Shia locality. Close to 60 people were killed in the attacks while more than 70 people sustained injuries.

Wishful Thinking

In a so-called surprise visit to Afghanistan on September 7, 2018, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis was quoted saying: “right now, we have more indications that reconciliation is no longer just a shimmer out there, no longer just a mirage. It now has some framework, there’s some open lines of communication.” According to reports, Mattis had arrived in Afghanistan to take a stock of the “progress on talks with the Taliban.” Having failed to make the Taliban stick to and extend its Eid truce followed by the collapse of the Moscow Peace Process because of Afghanistan’s denial to talk to a defiant Taliban, it is clear that there is little progress on that front. In the light of apparent evidence that points toward a dead end, Mattis’ statement about the presence of a framework sounds like wishful thinking at best and phony at worst.

Notwithstanding the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as a US Special Advisor on Afghanistan and the parleys between the American and Pakistani administrations, there is not much that hints at the emergence of anything concrete in the days to come. While the US-led forces would like to convince the Taliban that there is no military end to the conflict, this group, especially in the emerging geo-political dynamics such as the purported support it receives from Iran and Russia, knows the game better. Leaving the political development of Afghanistan to the local players under Trump’s so-called “new” Afghan agenda has been like the washing off of hands of a shoddy performance. It once again goes on to show that the re-development of Afghanistan — politically, economically, and culturally — continues to be superseded by strategic priorities. So long as this remains the case, Afghanistan’s transition from an in-conflict to a post-conflict country will never be achieved.

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