Asif Haroon Raja for Veterans Today, Islamabad
By the time Barak Obama completed his second term in office, the tenacious battle between the ISAF-ANSF and the Taliban had completed 15th year of the struggle, and had reached the stage of a stalemate which suited the Taliban. Soon after Donald J. Trump took over power in January 2017, General John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. recommend to him to dispatch a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan simply to maintain “a stalemate.”
That is, exactly what had happened in 2009, when General Stanley McChrystal had warned President Barack Obama that “mission failure” was likely unless he sent reinforcements! Obama did not ignore McChrystal’s recommendation; he tripled U.S. troop strength to a hundred thousand personnel. Strength of NATO was raised to 50,000.
However, the troop surge instead of making a difference in the battlefield, multiplied ISAF war casualties in Helmand and Nuristan battles to such an extent that Gen McChrystal was forced to make a change in military posture from forward to rearward.
Forward posts were vacated and the troops were shifted to the eight military bases and the entire rural belt of southern and eastern Afghanistan was abandoned. ISAF discarded boots on ground strategy and confined their role to providing air and intelligence support to the ANSF and to carryout selected search and destroy missions by the Special Forces.
Bunkering of the foreign troops and lack of capacity of the ANSF rived in several indiscipline problems enabled the Taliban to consolidate their positions in these areas which had all along been their bastions of power due to demographic preponderance of Pashtuns that had been sidelined. They soon gained the initiative and an upper edge over the ISAF and ANSF after they successfully carried out attacks in all parts of the country.
Another setback suffered by the US and its allies was the ouster of CIA-RAW-NDS backed TTP in Swat, Shangla, Malakand, Buner, Bajaur and South Waziristan (SW) as a result of Operations Rah-e-Rast and Rah-e-Nijat launched by Pak Army in 2009. Had the ISAF in line with the declared policy of ‘anvil and hammer’ provided the anvil along the border in SW, none of the TTP fighters and leaders could have escaped to Afghanistan. Pak military managed to clear 17 of the 18 administrative units under the control of the TTP in the northwest and thus gained an upper hand.
When Obama found that the occupying force is not capable of defeating the Taliban, he wisely announced the withdrawal of ISAF spread over 3 ½ years starting Jul 2011 and completing by end December 2014. This decision had annoyed the new ISAF Commander Gen Petraeus and the Pentagon. Petraeus announced an offensive in Kandahar in 2011, but subjected it to the clearance of North Waziristan (NW), the last bastion of the TTP and the alleged safe haven of the Haqqani network (HN).
Accordingly the US mounted excessive pressure on Islamabad to do the needful, but Gen Ashfaq Kayani astutely waited for the right moment to tackle the most difficult region and in his view, 2014 was the right year when the troop withdrawal of ISAF would be at its fag end. NW was cleared by the Army under Gen Raheel Sharif in 2015 starting June 2014, but after a brief pause, grumbling of US-Afghan nexus restarted.
Under heavy pressure from the Pentagon, government in Kabul and India, Obama reluctantly agreed to sign a bilateral agreement with the new unity government of Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah that had taken over in September 2014 and left behind a small force of 8400 troops called ‘Resolute Support Group’ (RSG) meant to provide technical, training, intelligence and air support to the ANSF as well as selected specialized operations.
The reasons put forward by Gen Nicholson for demanding additional troops were similar to his predecessors. He said that the current U.S. force levels are insufficient to keep the Taliban from regaining lost ground, particularly in the south, which has long been the Taliban’s heartland.
He blamed the Kabul government for most of the woes. In his view, Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah alliance was unnatural and hence dysfunctional owing to corruption, ineptness and in-house power struggle, preventing it from attending to the peoples issues.
He blamed the courts for failing to provide justice thereby enabling the Taliban to hold their Sharia based Qazi courts in rural areas and settle disputes speedily. He viewed the corrupt police poorly involved in crimes, drugs and cruelties. He had lot many complaints against the 195,000 strong Afghan National Army involved in green-over-blue attacks, selling weapons to Taliban and becoming their informers, and lacking in fighting spirit.
Besides his lamentation against internal power centres, he repeated the complaints of his predecessors of continued presence of safe havens of the Afghan Taliban and HN in Pakistan and the latter providing support to them. He held Pakistan responsible for the instability in Afghanistan saying that the safe havens help the insurgents to retreat whenever cornered, regroup and relaunch attacks.
He bluntly stated that unless this support base is dismantled, and Pakistan stops considering the Taliban as its strategic assets, the Taliban cannot be defeated. He also highlighted the provision of material support to the Taliban by Iran and Russia which had further worsened the security situation.
Talking about earlier troop surge in 2009 as to why it didn’t succeed, he argued that Obama benefited the Taliban and handicapped the ISAF after he announced the drawdown plan just two years later. The commencement of withdrawal in July 2011 bolstered the spirits of the Taliban and demoralized the ANSF and the people of Afghanistan. The withdrawing troops had no heart left to indulge in fighting and wanted to return home in one piece.
He admitted the heavy toll of casualties suffered by the Afghan Army losing 6785 soldiers between January 1 and November 12, 2016 and injuries to 11,777. He praised the ANA supported by airpower for preventing the Taliban from overrunning the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah and Kunduz, and their inability to contest the rural areas. He however, didn’t tell the whole truth.
Devoid of air protection, and fearing heavy casualties on account of strafing and bombings by the jets, the Taliban after seizing the provincial capitals had abandoned them. More so, control of Taliban over rural areas adjacent to Pakistan imply control over strategic highways connecting Torkham and Chaman crossing points with the Afghan provincial capitals, the only two routes for providing supplies to foreign troops.
Like the contention of Gen McChrystal, Nicholson also assessed that rolling back the Taliban would probably require a deployment of at least a hundred thousand troops, but without an attached timeline. He hastened to add that even then rolling back the Taliban would not be possible as long as Pakistan continued to provide them a lifeline. Scapegoating Pakistan has been the traditional excuse of all the US military commanders to hide their failures.
Abundant resources together with plentiful air assets, sophisticated technology and 360,000 well trained and equipped ANSF supported by 18000 RSG troops should have been more than enough for Gen Nicholson to at least contain the ragtag Taliban. Instead he sought 20-30,000 additional troops, and trainers to train Afghan air force only to maintain the stalemate and to retain control over provincial capitals, that too conditional to dismantlement of safe havens in Pakistan about which till to-date no proof has been furnished. He wanted more Afghan pilots to train on A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft that can provide close-air support to troops in combat. He also desired full control of field commanders over use of jet missions and drones.
To make his appeal convincing, he sounded a warning that failure to beef up the RSG and to consider departing would amount to squandering away all that Washington had sought to achieve in the region since the 9/11 attacks and would pave the way for the Taliban to takeover power and for the re-entry of Al-Qaeda and Daesh.
And when all his wishes were granted by Trump after he announced his new Afghan policy on August 22, 2017, and the US adopted a threatening posture against Pakistan to restrain it from its alleged support to the Taliban, Nicholson could do nothing to contain the offensive of the Taliban and continued to lose space. Attacks on major cities including Kabul and other provincial capitals like Jalalabad and Ghazni intensified.
The Taliban now exercise full control over 54% territory where they have shadow governors and 20% areas are being contested. ANSF and civil casualties in 2017-18 have touched alarming figures. No ground battle has been won by the Afghan Army and hardly any suicide attack or raid could be pre-empted. Between 2016 and 2018, it has suffered 40,000 fatalities.
Continued deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan refusing to do more forced Trump administration to seek peace talks which it had arrogantly rejected earlier on. Encouraged by the 3-day ceasefire during the Eidul Fitr in June 2018, the US relented to the demand of Taliban to hold direct talks with them at Doha and the first session was held in July 2018. Zalmay Khalilzad was dispatched as the special US envoy to expedite peace process and arrive at a political settlement as early as possible. He kept trying to convince the Taliban leadership to include the Afghan government in future talks but couldn’t make any headway since the Taliban consider it an illegitimate puppet regime imposed by USA.
The next round of inconclusive talks were again held at Doha in November 2018 in which the Taliban insisted on release of their prisoners, removing their leaders from blacklist and letting them move freely, and lastly giving a firm timeframe of exit of foreign troops. Zalmay insisted on immediate and unconditional 6-month ceasefire to be able to hold presidential election in April 2019, retention of 2-3 military bases and the constitution framed by USA and the Afghan government, and to include Kabul regime in peace process. He added another demand of release of Prof Kevin King because of which the Taliban called off the talks.
The third two-day session was held at UAE starting December 17, duly facilitated by Pakistan which was also attended by reps from HN, KSA and Pakistan. Taliban wanted Pakistan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and UAE to act as guarantors for the peace accord. Inclusion of Afghan government remained a sticking point due to which no breakthrough could be achieved. The agenda for future talks was however reduced to two points only – the US to give exact schedule of complete withdrawal of occupying forces, and the Taliban to give an assurance that Afghan soil will not be allowed for terrorism against any other country.
Sensing that UAE, KSA and Pakistan were pressurizing the Taliban to agree to talk with the Kabul government, the Taliban cancelled the next session at Islamabad where Zalmay stayed on for four days, but ultimately on the persuasion of Pakistan, the Taliban agreed to hold talks at Doha on 21 January which were stretched to six days and ultimately a breakthrough was achieved on 26 January. The Taliban team was headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who had recently been released by Pakistan.
The US has in principle agreed to issue a timetable of withdrawal of troops which will be completed in next 18 months. It must have agreed to quit with bag and baggage without leaving any stay-behind group. It has agreed to remove Taliban leaders from blacklist, lift ban on their movement and to release prisoners. The Taliban agreed to release US prisoners, provide safe exit to withdrawing troops and held an assurance that they will neither support terrorism or will harbor any terrorists group in Afghanistan. They added that in the last 18 years, the Taliban have never been found involved in any terror attack including 9/11.
It was also mutually agreed that the future government in Kabul will disconnect ties with the TTP and Baluch insurgents and not work against Pakistan’s interests. They have also assured that once the agreement is finalized and signed duly countersigned by Pakistan, KSA and UAE as guarantors, they will hold talks with Ashraf Ghani’s team and work out modalities for the future interim government which will remain functional for three years.
There are still many a slip between the cup and the lip because of the negative role of the spoilers that have all along scuttled peace process owing to their vested interests. The Afghan National Alliance (ANA) government having remained in power at a stretch from end 2001 would like to extract maximum from the power sharing formula with the Taliban. India would also like to maintain its influence in the country where it has invested over $ 2 billion. Likewise, it is the desire of Washington to install a friendly government in Kabul which may not be possible if Taliban call all the shots. Similar are the priorities of Iran that has remained aligned with ANA. Subject to approval of the Doha draft agreement by Kabul and Washington, another meeting will be held between the US team and Taliban team headed by Mullah Baradar at Doha in February to sign formal agreement.
For all practical purposes, the US has lost the war in Afghanistan. It can neither contain, roll them back nor defeat the Taliban, nor can it work out a peace deal with the Taliban at its own, or can exit safely and honorably. Its strategy to tire the Taliban and force them to seek peace from position of weakness didn’t work. The US finds itself badly stuck in its self-created mess which it cannot clear.
The reality has finally dawned upon the US leadership that there is no military solution to the Afghan imbroglio. The ANSF and RSG are incapable of confronting the Taliban offensive, which is well poised to gain control over some important capital cities like Ghazni and Helmand.
The Taliban cannot achieve victory as long as they suffer from the handicap of air defence. But the stalemate is in their favor since time and casualty factors favor them.
While the occupying forces have no cause to justify their prolonged occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban have a superior cause to wage a struggle to free their country.
As long as the ANSF supported by airpower of the RSG can hold on to major cities where two-thirds of the population reside, the Kabul regime can survive. The day the Taliban procure surface to air missiles, the Taliban will acquire the military capability to hold on to captured cities, thereby overturning the balance in their favor. It had happened when the Mujahideen were given stinger missiles in 1987 which forced the Soviets to quit.
The Taliban are no more diplomatically isolated since today they enjoy the support of Russia, China, Pakistan, KSA, UAE and Qatar. Central Asian Republics are also not as antagonist as they were in the past.
Conversely, the US is getting isolated and unpopular. Its troops are getting weary and so is the US which is spending $ 45 billion a year in fighting this futile war and has already sunk $ 1.5 trillion without achieving any of its objectives. Over 2000 troops have lost their lives and another 20,000 have sustained injuries. Suicide rate has intensified while post stress disorder cases have reached alarming proportions.
The US position has become weaker after its decision to pullout from Syria and its indication to pullout 7000 troops from Afghanistan this year. This trend has boosted the Taliban and their bargaining power and that is why they withstood pressure and stuck to their demands firmly and ultimately succeeded in making the sole super power to bend and withdraw.
Pakistan which has all along been distrusted, castigated, whipped and punished is now being cajoled and won over by the overweening USA. Besides helping in finalizing the peace agreement with the Taliban, Pakistan is the only country which provides land-based exit routes to the withdrawing US troops and their heavy baggage, and also providing a bridge to the US for its future contacts with Kabul and Central Asia.
Worried about Russia and China filling the power vacuum after its departure, Washington want a friendly government in Kabul, and to maintain a reasonable influence in the region.
Given the change in fortunes, victory of Taliban and their return to power is a foregone conclusion. It is to be seen how well Pakistan plays its cards in playing a role in avoiding the recurrence of violence of the 1990s, in cultivating best of relations with the Taliban to ensure secure western border, and mainstreaming them in regional and global geo-economic politics.
Pakistan must insist upon the US, the West as well as the international community to help establish a broad-based transition government in Kabul, which can conduct fair and free elections and to reconstruct and rehabilitate war torn Afghanistan.
In case the peace deal is taken to its logical end, Pakistan will be a big gainer and India as well as its proxies based in Afghanistan big losers.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence and security analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. Takes part in TV talk shows. [email protected]