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Rumblings in Afghanistan

Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane, April 27, 2015, 12:05 IST

AN ASSESSMENT OF STRIFE

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani will be on his first official visit to India starting today. The visit comes amidst a growing perception that the new Afghan unity government, in the hope that Pakistan would prevail on moving the Taliban in the direction of a negotiated settlement, has made many overtures towards Pakistan.

With the Pakistan angle in view, we can expect several commentaries over the next few days on how India can revive its presence in Afghanistan. However, before setting any expectations from this visit, it is necessary to take a long, hard look at the ongoing political undercurrents in Afghanistan.

The run-up to the 2014 presidential elections saw political compromises by both Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in order to expand their respective support bases in an electorate divided largely on ethnic lines. Ghani, a Kucci – nomadic Pashtuns who have little territory under control – tried to gain the support of some groups in the Taliban. On the other hand, Abdullah, whose support base is predominantly Tajik, courted elements from the other major player - Pakistan.

Once a unity government took shape, it was imperative that the interest of all sides be taken into account. President Ghani visited Pakistan and met Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif at the latter’s office. He withdrew his predecessor’s request for Indian arms and refrained from any gesture which could be interpreted, by Pakistan, as pro-India. With Pakistan weighing in so heavily, the original script appeared to be for the Taliban to be allowed to exercise some degree of control in districts along the Durand line.

In Tajik-dominated Badakhshan, a 250 strong unit of the Taliban mounted a series of coordinated attacks on security forces on April 10, inflicting over 70 casualties. Alarmingly, there were reports that Islamic State (IS) fighters were with the Taliban and had raised the IS black flag over the Afghan National Army compound in Jurm. Acting Defence Minister Sher Mohammad Karimi, briefing parliamentarians, admitted that locals, in certain areas in Jurm and Warduj districts of Badakshan, had shifted loyalties to Taliban, IS and other insurgent groups following the attacks. Fawzia Kofi, a prominent lawmaker from Badakshan, conceded that the situation “will only get worse”.

The response to the reemerging fault lines so far has been inadequate. There are no positive developments in the Pakistani driven attempts at reconciliation. It is six months now since the Pakistan army chief indicated that they would bring the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. In February 2015, Pakistan military sources claimed that Akhtar Mansour, head of the Taliban’s political wing, had agreed to talk with the Ghani government.

But recent reports suggest that those on the ground, led by Abdul Qayum Zakir, the Taliban’s overall military commander, are bent on fighting Kabul. This hardline faction continues to insist on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops as a precondition. However, Ghani, during his recent US visit pressed for the continued presence of US troops, something Pakistan is also rumoured to quietly press for.

The latest development has been the publication of a 5,000 word biographical essay of Mullah Omar, the purpose for which appears to be to emphasise that he is the Amirul Momineen and the unquestioned leader of the Taliban. This is seen as an attempt by the ISI to project that Omar is alive and well and in command.

It is amply clear that Pakistan is ramping up pressure on the Taliban to engage with Kabul. After first prevailing on Akhtar Mansour to agree to talks, it is now indicating that Mullah Omar continues to be relevant. The ineffectiveness of these responses have fuelled fears that Pakistan’s control over the Taliban is overstated and that its fiat is essentially limited to elements of the Haqqani network and some Quetta Shura leaders whose families reside in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s domestic concerns
The hardline faction of the Taliban could add to Pakistan’s domestic concerns as well. It is in Pakistan’s perceived self-interest to have the Taliban in some form of control in the districts along the Durand line. But the equation changes if the Taliban regains control of Kabul. It is not in Pakistan’s interests, for this could spark off conflicts with the north and create more instability along the Durand line.

Domestically, the government’s national security apparatus has been found wanting, with the Ghani administration unable to name a permanent defence minister. The window of opportunity is narrowing with domestic opposition mounting to President Ghani’s overtures towards Pakistan.

All of this suggests the beginning of a more intense and widespread fighting season. Eventually, it is the internal dynamics of the Taliban coupled with the resolve of the Pakistan and Afghan governments which will determine the future course of the negotiations. And it is with this lens of the prevailing precarious situation in Afghanistan that we need to see the Afghan president’s visit to India. At this juncture, Ghani is likely to tread very softly when it comes to any decision that could have an impact on the Pakistan brokered talks with the Taliban.

Under the given circumstances, Ghani will use this visit to seek economic assistance from India. India’s economic clout gives it the strength to take a cold, hard look at its own interests and that of its biggest asset in Afghanistan – the Afghan people. India must do more to retain that constituency without being over sensitive to external factors or ethnic considerations. India’s commitment to the Afghan people and to the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) will be the key indicators to look at in the days ahead.

(Arni, a retired intelligence officer, and Kotasthane work on geostrategic affairs at the Takshashila Institution)

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