Resurgent Taliban and Afghan fragility

Afghan Taliban has made psychological, territorial gains since most US troops have withdrawn from war.

The deadliest attack till date at an Afghan military base in Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province has not only diverted world attention away from the so-called ‘mother of all bombs’ but also raised disturbing questions about the ability of the Afghan army to defend itself against determined Taliban advances. The brutality of the Taliban-claimed massacre, that killed more than 150 Afghan soldiers, has prompted the Afghan defence minister and army chief to resign from their positions.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis clearly underlined the frightening challenge before the Afghan army when he said, “2017 is going to be another tough year.” Advocating more troops and more money in order to help the Afghan army defeat its enemies and keep control of the territory, General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, had already asserted early this year that the war in Afghanistan has reached a ‘stalemate.’

The Trump administration’s policy on Afghanistan has remained in a quandary so far. This attack must put Afghanistan back on top of the national security agenda for President Donald Trump, who has been delaying the decision whether to deploy more American troops in a war that has entered its 16th year.

The Afghan Taliban has been challenging the resolve and resources of the Afghan army over the last few years. It continues to make substantial psychological and territorial gains, since most of the American troops have withdrawn from war-ravaged Afghanistan.

By mounting multiple attacks on high-profile government institutions, the Taliban has been sending a clear message to the fragile Afghan government as well as the Afghan populace that no place in the country lies outside its reach.

Disturbingly, the Taliban is continuously expanding its hold on the countryside, which rem­ains wracked by instability. Why has the Afghan army not been able to confront the Tali­ban deci­sively? The fault lies as much wi­th the government for being unable to overhaul its internal dynamics, as with the Afg­han military which is afflicted with longstanding problems including corruption and desertion. The Taliban’s attack, which is part of its campaign to subvert and demoralise the Afghan security forces, has demonstrated its ability to strike anywhere anytime.

All attempts by the Ashraf Ghani government to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban have proved futile. The reasons are obvious. Pakistan, the most important mediator, has its own plans which run cou­nter to the declared objectives of the Afghan government. In fact, Pakistani conduct is an example of Freudian self-deception, where it nurtures a “victim mentality” as a sufferer of terrorism and extremism.

And yet, a strong streak of realism has ensured that Pakistan’s security establishment has a clear vision of its aims in Afghanistan: a subservient regime in Kabul, acquisition of the ‘strategic depth’, and subversion of Pushtun nationalism. 

Afghan Taliban has stubbornly refused to make any compromise as their leadership believes that the group is making strong gains on the ground. Afghan Taliban enjoys some unbeatable tactical and operational advantages — they can retreat to their safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and they also enjoy protection from the Haqqani network in places which have often proven to be out of the American reach.

Russia’s re-entry

As US generals and diplomats struggle to resolve the manifold ‘Afghan conundrums,’ they are being forced to take note of the strategic reality that has emer­ged from Russia’s re-entry into the Afghan theatre. Russia’s rec­ent behaviour has hugely exacerbated the prevailing confusion, as seen in the just conclu-
ded regional conference on Afg­hanistan in Moscow on April 15.

There can be little dispute that the emergence of Pakistan-China-Russia axis in Afghanis­tan for ostensibly fighting the IS has actually ended up weakening the legitimacy of the government while leading to greater acceptance of the Taliban.

Unfortunate for regional peace and stability, the Taliban is being viewed by the Russian policymakers as a tool for flexing its geopolitical muscle against the US. Moscow’s intention to provide the indispensable aegis for mediating efforts in the Afg­han reconciliation process without some level of blessing from the US is doomed to failure.  

Without altering the balance of power on the ground, the Afghan government cannot think of having a lasting solution to the conflict. If the international community is keen to avoid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the US and its allies must help Afghan security forces by providing them with more resources and training.

Similarly, India should also be ready to shoulder greater responsibilities if its intelligence agencies come to the conclusion that a future Afghan government, in which the Taliban is significantly represented, would remain implacably hostile to Indian interests.

Whether one likes it or not, America’s security presence in Afghanistan has to be tolerated, at least during the Trump presidency. Russia must sincerely work on supporting the global counter-terrorism alliance since the war against radical jihadist terrorism cannot be won without a peaceful Afghanistan.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University, Jodhpur)

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