“Our longest war will come to a responsible end,” declared US President Barack Obama during his Christmas address, reiterating to his domestic audience a commitment to bring the war in Afghanistan to a closure. What precisely was implied by “a responsible end” to the war and how this would be achieved remains unclear.
The Taliban, on their part, were quick to seize the opportunity and pointed to US withdrawal as a sign of “defeat”. However, speaking two months later, the new US Defence Secretary, Ash Carter on his visit to Kabul on February 21, 2014 signalled a recaliberation of strategy. He hinted possibility of slowing down the pace of whitting down the remaining 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan. The decission to pause and recaliberate American strategy, significantly comes close on on heels of significant foreign policy shifts in Kabul and attempts to reinvigorate a stalled process of negotiations with the Taliban.
A cursory glance at Afghanistan’s security, economic and political landscape gives us an idea of the extremely challenging and volatile environment. On the political front, the country has surmounted formiddable odds to achieve its first peaceful transfer of power through the ballot. However, the fractured nature of the the political verdict has on one hand demonstrated Afghans ability to strike out political compromise under difficult conditions but on the other it has delivered a executive sharply divided along political lines and has so far been unable to deliever a fully functional cabinet. The paralysis in government has hit the Afghan economy, already suffering from shrinkage of war economy, with growth for 2015 being projected at zero per cent.
How the unity government strikes an internal balance will in turn determine in long run its ability to carry forth a range of bold policy initiatives through political consensus. It would also to an extent impact morale on the battlefield.
Since assuming charge Ghani’s government has noticeably attempted to recaliberate Kabul’s foreign policy agenda, by attempting to secure close ties with Beijing- his first choice for embarking on a foreign visit- a close ally of Islamabad. He has followed it up with trips to Saudi Arabia and subsequently Pakistan, aiming to consolidate the ground for finding a negotiated settlement to the country’s long running conflict. Distinctly edged out from his current foreign policy agenda have been relations with New Delhi. The tone in this direction set in the fairly early stages of his Presidency, when in October 2014 in a carefully caliberated move to build bridges with Rawalpindi Ghani suspended a deal with India to supply heavy weaponary. This was followed up with a symbolic yet powerful gesture of sending six Afghan Army officers for training in Pakistan for the first time. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, visited Kabul twice since the Peshawar school attack in December 2014, assuring Kabul of delievering the Taliban to the peace table in return for helping target Tehrek-i-Taliban Pakistan alleged to be in Afghanistan. Unofficially though Rawalpindi’s demands are widely believed to encompass a more exhaustive set of demands, notable being a drastic scaling down of Indian presence in Afghanistan, particularly along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and to deny sanctuary and/ or any form of support to Baloch seperatists. Notably Kabul has also not racheted up the issue of Pakistan forcibly repatriating thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan in violation of international refugee law.
These policy re-alignments, with defacto approval from Washington, have not gone un-noticed in the capital of Afghanistan’s largest regional donor, India. Political banter in New Delhi regarding Ghani’s camp having ’stolen the election’ from Abdullah Abdullah-percieved to be friendly to New Delhi- in the second round had fostered anxiety. The new government’s policy re-alignments, particularly attempts to build bridges with Rawalpindi have caused unease in Delhi. India realizes the need for a political settlement to the ongoing conflict and the potentially seminal role Pakistan could play given its geographical, economic and cultural linkages as well as its stakes in the outcome. However the question to reflect on is that would the current level of policy re-alignment e sufficent in actually engineering a paradigm shift in ground realities is hard to say with certainity.
Consider for instance the fact that while the process of renewed negotiations with the Taliban is still in its nascent stages, situation on the ground indicates that the Taliban will continue testing their strength on the battleground. Consider for instance the fact that since taking taking charge of the country´s security, the ANSF has been increasingly engaging the Taliban on the battlefield, backed significantly by NATO air support. This amongst others is evidenced, albeit negatively, by an alarming 22% increase in the number of civilian casualties for 2014 according to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), making it the deadliest year for civilians since 2009. Particularly noteworthy is UNAMA’s observation that “For the first time since 2009, more Afghan civilians were killed and injured in ground engagements than by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or any other tactic.” This is telling as ground operations soared by 54 per cent, making them the leading cause of civilian deaths, with government forces and the Taliban responsible for 14 per cent and 72 per cent of civilian casualties respectively. The international military forces were responsible for 2 per cent of casualties.
The number of ANSF casualties too have spiked by 6.5 percent in 2014 – a figure seen as “unsustainably high” in the long run. Worryingly enough inspite of a spike in both civilian and military casualties as well as injuries there has been a marked 18 percent decline in the number of patients accessing medical services, attributed to a deteriorating security environment. The number of internally displaced by clashes between ANSF and the Taliban conflict have also been on the rise. Humanitarian agencies expect little relief for civilians in 2015 from affects of a seemingly conflict with International Committee of the Red Cross requesting donors for a record US $ 1.68 billion- making Afghanistan its largest operation after Syria.
The figures above on one hand point to a growing determination on part of the ANSF on the battlefield to take on the Taliban but they also point to two other trends: first, that conflict appears likely to escalate further in 2015 as the Taliban are likely to try and leverage strength on the battlefield on the negotiating table. To this end they appear, not unsurprisingly, to enjoy full support from their patrons in Rawalpindi. The recent statement of Pervez Musharraf, provides a window into official line of thinking: “The world must realize that we may not like the face of Mullah Omar…but that is how life is, that is what Afghanistan is”.
Second, the low casualty figures attributed to international military forces, a figure expected to dip further in 2015, draws our attention to the changing nature of the conflict. As international forces retreat increasingly into training and advisory roles the conflict will increasingly pitt Afghans against one another.
Against backdrop of increasing levels of violence is a new element, namely the reported inroads being made by ISIS. The abduction of 30 Shia-Hazara civilians in February 2015 in Zabul is believed to be the handiwork of members affiliated to ISIS. While few weeks earlier the Kabul government announced the killing of the ISIS head Mullah Abdul Rauf in an operation in southwest Afghanistan. The NATO and US too have acknowledged a nascent ISIS presence in the country, a cause of concern in long run. While it may be early days to speculate on the outcome of negotiations with the Taliban there lurks the danger of ISIS banner serving as a powerful magnet for splinter groups of the Taliban (or other radical groups operating in the region) to jettison negotiations and continue fighting under the ISIS banner.
The US decision to revisit the pace of its troop withdrawal indicates an element of concern at escalating levels of violence in Afghanistan; fears of a an arc of instability stretching from the Middle East to south Asia and uncertainty concerning the fate of Pakistani brokered negotiations with the Taliban. As levels of violence spike and uncertainty persists India watches over developments with anxiety and unease. In February 2015 India declined US $100 million promised in 2013 for rail, raod and port connectivity project between Iran and Afghanistan. However such measures are unlikely to carry India very far. New Delhi needs to carefuly craft its response to a volatile and rapidly changing socio-political dnamic of Afghanistan and the region. While rightly being supportive of a Afghan led resolution to the ongoing conflict for New Delhi to have effective leverages it must broaden its political reach within Afghanistan and capitalize on recent attempts at reconfiguration of Washington’s ties with Tehran whom India described as “neighbours without borders”.
(The author is an independent analyst and a Lecturer in Conflict Studies at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Germany. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )
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