Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 08, 2016
Worrying signals from Afghanistan Last Saturday, March 5, the Taliban rejected an invitation by the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (China, US, Pakistan and Afghanistan) to take part in talks aimed at bringing reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan. “We reject all such rumours (that the Taliban will participate in the talks) and unequivocally state that the leader of the Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting.” The Taliban also took the occasion to announce its demands: the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, the ending of the blacklisting of Taliban leaders and the release of its prisoners. The Taliban clearly feels that time is on its side and that given its battlefield gains, there was little point in negotiating with the Kabul government. This has serious implications for the security and stability of Afghanistan. The military situation Security is now  the most critical component of the efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. Without good security, the enormous effort of the US and its allies, and the Afghans, to combat the Taliban will be wasted. In addition, violent jihadi forces such as the Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and the Islamic State (Khorasan group) will gain an area which can be used to train terrorists for the coming generation. In October 2015, the US launched attack on two large Al Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan in the Shorabak District of Kandahar. The facilities, one as big as 30 sq kms had provision for basic and advanced training, physical fitness, arms training, use of explosives, chemistry to make improvised explosives and sniper training. The US got wind of this facility following a raid on another camp in the Barmal district of Paktika province. Documents from the stack seized by the US from Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Abbotabad reveal that the AQ militants had already been asked to move from northern Pakistan back to Afghanistan even while Osama was still alive. Likewise, according to SITE Intelligence Group, the IS (Khorasan group) has put up a video last month purporting to show their training camp in Afghanistan. Previously in January 2016, another video had been put up of a “Cubs of the Caliphate” Camp where young boys and teen-agers were being indoctrinated. According to the Long War Journal, there are at least three other training facilities belonging to the IS in the region. The US Forces and Resolute Support commander General John F Campbell has noted in Congressional testimony early last month that   “if we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse, than 2015.” From all indications, the security situation is still deteriorating. National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified  to the Senate Armed Services Committee  that the intelligence community assesses “fighting in 2016 will be more intense than 2015, continuing a decade-long trend of deteriorating security.” According to the US military,   30 per cent of the districts of the country are outside the control or influence of the government. In late February, the Afghan forces abandoned the districts of Now Zad and Musa Qala. As of now, of Helmand’s 14 districts, five are controlled by the Taliban and six heavily contested between them and the government. John F Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, Security (SIGAR) has raised serious questions about the Afghan forces capability to hold out based on his agency’s audit of the Afghan security forces. This is despite a $68 billion commitment by the US to building up Afghan security forces. At its height, US troops numbered 130,000. Now there are just 13,000 US and coalition forces who are part of the Resolute Support’s train, advise and assist mission. Almost all of these are at the level of Corps or regional police HQs and so there is not much contact at the tactical level. The ANSF has relied on the US for air support for its fighting forces. Even today they lack air assets to protect and support their forces (they have four A 29 Super Tucanos which are for aerial reconnaissance and some Mi-35s). In his testimony,  Gen Campbell said that it would take another 3 years before an Afghan Air Force could provide significant assistance to the Army. Stakeholders There are several stake-holders in the Afghan peace process—a larger group associated with the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process and the smaller one in the QCG. Countries like Iran have not evinced any special interest in the current processes, while Russia has been supportive of the Afghan government and is providing it limited military assistance. The US has signed a security support assistance with Afghan, but also drawn down its forces which were 130,000 at its peak. Initially the US wanted to bring the number down to around 5,000. But after the Taliban surge, the US has said that some 13,000 troops will remain for the near future.  Pakistan The key question is whether peace  would suit Pakistan’s longer term strategy in the region. A Taliban under its control has been the key to Islamabad’s salience on the AfPak issue in relation to both China and the US. Would Pakistan be willing to dilute its influence and work things along the lines suggested by the Afghan government, which essentially means working as a “loyal opposition” under the Afghan constitution. Speaking at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Affairs in Washington on Tuesday (March 1), Pakistan’s foreign affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz, acknowledged that the Taliban leadership lived in Pakistan and this factor was being used by Pakistan as a lever to push the peace talks. This was the first official acknowledgement of the well-known fact. But there was no information on the first round of talks and the Taliban representative said they had not received any invitation. Pakistan has the key levers in its hands and has more or less played its own game in the region.  From keeping Mullah Omar’s death secret, to keeping an iron control on the Taliban leadership, it is working on an endgame which is to see the establishment of a government in Kabul which is close to Pakistan. India Since 2001, US policy has  focused on Pakistan being the key enabler of its Afghan policy. As a result it has  conferred a “major non-NATO ally” status on Pakistan and been a major funder of the country. Between 2002-2015, Pakistan has received $31 billion in US aid, of which $17 billion is military assistance. On the other hand it has  reached out to India to construct a longer-term geopolitical relationship which has an eastern orientation. Indian policy in Afghanistan has varied over time. Beginning with mild support to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, to the backing of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, New Delhi has now rested its policy under the US umbrella. As a consequence, India has today  more or less ignored the salience of Pakistan in Washington’s AfPak regional calculus. For the present, it continues to moor its Afghan policy on the US, but it continues to retain strong ties with the erstwhile Northern Alliance figures, it has also built strong ties with Hamid Karzai. After the failure of his Pakistan outreach, President Ghani, too, has moved to rebuild bridges with India. It was during the visit of his NSA Hanif Atmar, in November 2015 that India announced the transfer of four Mi-35 gunships to Afghanistan. Other unspecified Indian aid is also being routed to the Afghan forces through third countries. China Perhaps the most important role in the current process is being played by China. Barring India, China has credibility with all the actors—the Afghan government, Taliban, Pakistan, the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. China has been keen to play a role in the issue for three reasons— First, as part of its more expansive vision of relations with its neighbours which it wants to buttress through enhanced communications and trade links (CPEC),  second, as a defensive measure against the spread of Islamism into Xinjiang and third, to see off the US military presence in the region. These trends culminated in Beijing hosting the Heart of Asia multilateral in  October 2014. At this conference, with President Ghani in attendance, China proposed the setting up of a forum to restart stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This forum would have representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Taliban. The forum idea did not catch on but in November, Beijing received Qari Din Mohammed from the Doha office. In Feb 2015, in Islamabad, Chinese foreign minister officially announced China its willingness to serve as a mediator.  Feb 2015, China facilitated a meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. At the end of 2014, it appeared as though Beijing was readying to play a major role in the Afghanistan issue. Qi Jianguo Deputy Chief of General Staff with responsibility for intelligence and foreign affairs visited Kabul, as did Guo Shengkun, Minister  for Public Security, Sun Yuxi was appointed special envoy but then as Andrew Small has noted, nothing happened. Beijing was an observer in the Murree process meeting on July 7, 2015. In November, in a bid to revive the process, Chinese special envoy Deng Xijun offered to host a meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but purely as a facilitator, not mediator. He was quoted as calling the Taliban as “one of the main forces in Afghanistan’s political arena.”  With its own initiatives drying up, China rejoined the US-led process which resulted in the creation of the QCG. At the end of February, one of the senior-most figures in the Chinese military, General Fang Fenghui who is a member of the Central Military Commission and the Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the CMC visited Kabul. He met President Ghani and told the Afghan side that Chine was willing to push for closer military cooperation with Afghanistan and promote regional development through the One Belt One Road initiative. The Afghan NSA Hanif Atmar asked China for military aid, including transport and logistics aircraft, and mobile radars. Peace processes The present peace processes in Afghanistan have their origins in Track II processes that have taken place in Doha, Dubai, Oslo and Urumqi. In these events the Taliban representatives usually put on a reasonable face and claim that their goal is really to safeguard the “lives, honour and properties” of Afghans. But, as their failed effort to occupy Kunduz revealed, little has changed in their reactionary world view. Their starting point for the present set of efforts can be placed at October 2013 when with US acquiescence, the Taliban opened a political office in Doha, Qatar. In 2014, the Taliban successfully persuaded the US, which was desperate to start peace negotiations to release five top Taliban commanders with Al Qaeda links for Bowe Bergdahl, a US deserter.  However, even at that time, their leaders  made it clear that the prisoner exchange would not help the peace process since the outfit did not believe in the peace process. The current developments have their origin in the so-called Murree or the  2+2+1 process on Afghanistan initiated in July 7, 2015. In this meeting, the US and China sat as observers in a meeting in which the Pakistan government and the Afghan government sought to bring around the Taliban. Implicit in the process was the belief that Islamabad was the key actor and had the responsibility to not only bring the Taliban to the table, but to deliver a ceasefire in Afghanistan. The meeting was underscored by Afghan President Ghani’s controversial outreach to Pakistan which included an MOU between the Afghan National Directorate of Security and the Pakistani ISI. As we now know that things did not quite work out that way. The second round which was scheduled to be held on July 31 was called off following the revelation that Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban had died two years earlier. This led to a factional struggle which has split the Taliban and also raised the spectre of the IS in Afghanistan. It has also dented the Afghan outreach to Pakistan since instead of a ceasefire, we saw a Taliban offensive across Afghanistan which included an attack in Kunduz and a bombing campaign in Kabul which even targeted the Parliament. Pugwash The Taliban have preferred to put across their viewpoint through the  Pugwash-sponsored conference in Doha on Jan 24th. (Pugwash had organised conferences in Dubai Sep 2012, Jan 2013, Doha May 2015 ) in this track II, Taliban wanted the  establishment of an official address, removal of UN sanctions, removal of names of Taliban from black list, release of prisoners and end to propaganda against them. At the same time they called for the withdrawal of foreign forces and the restoration of the Islamic Emirate. The Taliban seem to prefer to use the non-governmental Pugwash forum over that of the QCG where they are not represented. The Afghan government on the other hand does not send its officials to the Pugwash. Quadrilateral Cooperation Group To re-establish the talks, a parallel quadrilateral process was launched in December 2015 in a 2+2 format (China and the US guaranteeing outcomes arrived at by Pakistan and Afghanistan). So far four rounds of meetings of the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) have taken place (Islamabad, December 2015, Islamabad, Jan 11, Kabul 18 Jan and Kabul 23 Feb). It was in the second meeting that a roadmap for direct talk between the authorised representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban groups was established “for stipulating the stages and steps in the process.” (pl note “groups”) . An Islamabad-datelined news item by Xinhua noted that in the first QCG meeting in January, “parameters of shared responsibilities” of all the parties was laid out.  The second meeting deliberated on the document. Following the February 23 meeting, a virtual ultimatum was been sent to the Taliban to return to the table or face military heat through the combined efforts of the Afghan forces and their foreign partners. A five-para joint press release noted, President Ghani’s statement calling on the Taliban to take up “direct talks” with government of Afghanistan. The QCG endorsed and “expressed strong support” for the direct talks and invited them for the first round of direct talks in Islamabad  in the first week of March. They also set up a Pak-Afghan bilateral joint working group which would work with the ulema of the two countries in the reconciliation process. However, the Taliban has rejected the demand for talks and have left the QCG process in a quandary. Future prospects The outright rejection of the QCG is a serious setback to the 2+2 group. The Taliban’s rejection is not surprising. The Taliban has in recent months always maintained that the prospects of peace in the country were remote as long as foreign forces continued to remain in the region. They have seen talks as a means of extracting concessions from the US which they know is eager to leave the area. They are not even willing to meet even the basic US requirement of cutting ties with the Al Qaeda and have not held out any  assurance of breaking with the AQ. Indeed, following the establishment of Mullah Akhtar Mansour as the new chief of the Taliban, AQ chief Ayman Al Zawahiri has pledged allegiance to him and his pledge has been accepted by the Taliban leader. In a statement in its website Voice of Jihad on January 28, Taliban noted that “The Islamic Emirate has not readily embraced death and destruction for the sake of some silly ministerial posts or a share of power.” They said they would continue to strive to re-establish the Islamic Emirate. The reasons for holding out could well be tactical. The Taliban are doing well on the ground and would not want to jeopardise their gains. On the other hand, given the factional fighting, following the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death, the two main factions may be seeking to capture the high ground by reverting to the Taliban’s old line—that they will not talk directly with the Afghan government before all foreign troops pulled out of the country. The QCG strategy rests entirely on Islamabad’s ability to bring the Taliban (both the Akhtar Mansour and the Muhammad Rasul factions) to the table, as well as ensure a sharp draw down of violence in Afghanistan. The problem is that unlike the 2+2+1 process in Murree, the QCG is a 2+2 process with the Taliban being invited to participate or face military pressure. Given the Afghan forces capacities, it is difficult to see how military pressure could be exercised. The only way that the Taliban could face the heat on the ground is through Pakistan on which it is dependent on supplies and sanctuary. But that is not likely to happen unless China and the US bring pressure to bear on Islamabad. For the present, New Delhi is a peripheral player working in cooperation with Washington, even though under the Russia-India-China meetings, the three countries consult each other on Afghanistan. New Delhi is part of the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process and will host the next summit in India. It is also a new member of SCO, though that organisation has no special Afghanistan outreach. Lacking any traction with Pakistan and the Taliban, India is more or less on the side-lines of the QCG process. There is talk, though, of Afghanistan mooting a 6+1 process in which Kabul would engage India, Russia, Iran, three players who have significant interests in Afghanistan and are out of the QCG, with the US, China and Pakistan. One of the most important goals of the international community is to restore peace in Afghanistan and ensure that it does not become a training ground for a new generation of Islamist militants. This has direct implications for countries like the US, China, India, Iran and Russia which have faced Islamist attacks in the past. The present situation where the Taliban is split, the IS seeking to establish itself and the Afghan forces unable to assert their authority, clearly does not bode well.
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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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