The long haul for Afghanistan

“You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you”, Rex Tillerson, former US Secretary of State challenging the Taliban, in one of his deliberations. If there is any one statement which explains the hopelessness and cluelessness of the US’ Afghan adventure, it is this one. This also indicates the undying hubris of the invader.

The desperation to resolve the Afghan crisis was never this obvious, as it is under the current administration in the US. President Trump wants America to be out while lo and behold many in his administration like to maintain the view of reduced presence in that land. The recent round of peace talks between US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban followed by the deadly attack in Kandahar province targeting the US General, Austin Scott Miller, clearly explains the complexities of the Afghan issue, which are not understood in properly. What is it that made Taliban carry out this attack shortly after, despite the ‘reported’ forthcoming American attitude in talks? Hasn’t it been in practice? Certainly! The last time when Murree Talks between Pakistan and the Taliban were expected to see a breakthrough, the death of Mullah Umar was made public. And it is to this day that despite spending billions on reconstruction and installing a government, the state apparatus seems to be in shambles. The US is maintaining its presence of 14000 troops or so, but isn’t it unjust to expect this small force to bring about peace when more than one hundred and thirty thousand were not able to do so, before them.

The recent Parliamentary elections are an example to quote. Across the country, electoral candidates were targeted and voting took place amidst attacks and bombings. But it is to people’s courage and aspirations for a change that they did come out to cast their ballots. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) Quarterly Report, “all provinces but Ghazni and Kandahar participated in the election. Approximately 2,500 candidates competed for 249 seats in the lower house of Parliament and at least 10 of the parliamentary candidates were killed prior to the election.” Regarding the state control and government influence, the report states, “As of July 2018, the Afghan government’s control or influence over Afghanistan’s districts fell to the lowest level (55.5percent) since SIGAR began receiving the data in November 2015… The ANDSF had 312,328 personnel in July 2018 (not including civilians), down 1,914 personnel since last quarter and down 8,827 personnel since the same period last year.”

The numbers and statistics about ratios of government and opposition control and writ of the state on the land differ from one official data to another. Many analysts say the figure for Taliban control is closer to 50percent, and a BBC study found that the insurgents were active in 70percent of the country. Taliban strategy defies zero-sum notions of control in any case, with even cities and district centers that are under government authority are surrounded by the Taliban. An hour long drive in any direction from Kabul might put an individual in Taliban controlled territory.

While the resolution of Afghan conflict remains to be a distant prospect, the new scheme to deliver the land from war comes in the form of ‘full/complete withdrawal” of foreign forces. Up till now, the US has been maintaining a reduced presence in order to support the national government and security forces required for reconstruction and restructuring but its minimum presence in Afghanistan also indicates the purpose of ‘policing’ the region.

The last time, the US withdrew its forces without creating a proper political and administrative setup, Afghanistan and the whole region fell into complete chaos. Now before doing it again, the US and its allies need to come out clearly and state their intentions in concrete terms about how they see the issue must be resolved. The complete withdrawal would not be a matter of problem to any state if the stakeholders together lay out the plans about how the state affairs in longer run will be managed. As expected, Afghanistan and its people await to see a peaceful resolution of the issue with proper system, infrastructure and right people in place to run the state post-transition.

Internally, both Afghan government and the warring faction are cognizant of the fact that given the changed dynamics of the land, none would be capable to run state affairs alone in a wholesome manner. Regionally, countries that have been supporting one ethnic faction over the other in the past would want an end to a war that fuels terrorism and civil war. But the question arises; will the US agree to withdraw its forces completely? If possible, who will it give its ‘policing’ role in the region? Will the US retract from its policy of keeping an irksome neighborhood within China’s and Russia’s backyard? The thought of a complete withdrawal might have crossed the minds of American policymakers many times in the last decade but the answer to it does not come easy. Being a global power with massive international stakes, the US needs a satellite entity in the region with the potential to grow into a ‘regional power’ at its minimum in the near future. But for rising powers submission to a superior undermines the status. So any state with power will submit itself to American dictate in the region, looks doubtful!

This article was originally published in Daily Times on November 14, 2018.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy

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