The war in Afghanistan is dragging and one does not know when and how it is going to end. At present, the Taliban insurgents are upbeat and the Afghan army is becoming increasingly demoralised and crestfallen. Recently, the Taliban fighters launched a sudden attack on Ghazni, and occupied the city centre.
Ghazni is strategically located at a distance of about 150km from Kabul. They could be pushed back after four days of intense fighting backed by a number of strikes by American war planes. Government forces also suffered heavy losses. According to UN estimates, about 160 civilians were killed. A large number of Government buildings were severely damaged.
The Ghazni attack dealt a heavy blow to the already dwindling prestige of the Afghan government. America’s hope that after the withdrawal of its forces, the Afghan army will be able to take charge of the situation and hold back the Taliban, is gradually receding. There is also another problem. The operating budget of the Afghan national security forces is to the tune of $ 6.5 billion, more than twice the entire federal expenditure of Afghanistan.
Most of the money comes from the United States. With President Trump now keen to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, it remains to be seen how long the US will be willing to defend Afghanistan if its advisers and soldiers continue to get killed in action. It takes time and a lot of money to build up an efficient army.
One major factor that is hampering the Afghan government’s successful drive against the Taliban insurgents is corruption and infighting within the government of Ashraf Ghani. With all-pervasive corruption, Afghanistan has become a kleptocratic state where every government posting and promotion depends on power and patronage.
Some of the powerful warlords fighting against the Taliban have become bywords for corruption and misgovernance. No wonder, to many Afghans, Taliban, despite their cruelty and bigotry, present a more agreeable face. To quote from an article in The Economist, “Regional commanders and other officials switch off their mobile phones at night so as not to receive any calls to provide reinforcements.” This shows the extent of demoralization.
In such a difficult situation, President Ashraf Ghani is now desperately seeking peace. But so far, the Taliban has rebuffed the peace offers of a “puppet government.” Overcoming the earlier inhibitions, America has opened up backchannel discussions with the Taliban, and appears to have concurred with the perception that reconciliation with the Taliban is necessary. The militants will have to be accommodated. But the irony is that many of the battle-scarred insurgents are now getting tired of a long war and are willing to settle for peace. Many of them are not happy with their sequestered leader Haibatullah Akhunzadda.
But peace in Afghanistan depends on the cooperation and understanding among other interested powers. There are pulls and counter pulls. So long, Pakistan, in quest for “strategic depth”, had wanted Taliban ruled Afghanistan as a puppet state. It has given up that blue sky ambition and now wants an Afghan Government which will not become an ally of India and is hostile to Pakistan. It now realises that without stabilisation in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s stability and peace will be in peril. Already the Pakistani Taliban, hiding in sanctuaries in Afghanistan, are launching deadly terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
America is exerting pressure on Pakistan to discontinue support to the Haqqani network. The response of the new government in Pakistan will be eagerly watched. General Dunford, Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, was outspoken but when he said that providing sanctuaries to the terrorists by Pakistan, will be the single biggest factor that would lead to the failure of the coalition.
But Pakistan has deep, immutable strategic interests that entail maintaining ties with Taliban. This explains why Pakistan has not taken any determined action against the Haqqani network. The Generals fear that with a friendly Afghanistan, India will meddle in Pakistan and support the rebels in Baluchistan. Hence, Pakistan will continue to support Haqqani and other groups, which can bolster its interest of keeping India at bay in Afghanistan.
The neighbouring power, China, quietly wants access to the rich mineral and oil resources in Afghanistan. China’s National Petroleum Company has won rights to explore and develop oilfields in Amu Dariya basin in Afghanistan, which has enormous oil reserves.
China also wants peace and stability in Afghanistan so that there are no unsettling repercussions among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. Russia and Iran have also thrown their hat into the ring. They are supporting Taliban with a view to counteracting the common enemy ~ the Islamic State, which is seeking a foothold in Afghanistan. Russia also wants to settle scores with the United States.
As a counter-blast to peace talks between Taliban and the USA in Qatar, it has decided to hold peace talks of its own. This conflict among outside powers will intensify bloodshed, and make peace more elusive in Afghanistan. India has to watch the situation carefully and chalk out its course of action. It has reasons to feel unhappy with American efforts towards reconciliation with Taliban. Mainstreaming of the Taliban is fraught with risks as they are unlikely to keep quiet after they join the government.
Afghanistan is of great strategic importance to India. If civil war breaks out there, India’s strategic alliance with it may create problems. India’s Foreign Secretary will be visiting Kabul, and is likely to urge Ashraf Ghani to end the bitter infighting within the government, indeed the bickering that is hampering a united stand against the Taliban.
Another factor is the US pressure on India to send ground troops to prevent a Taliban takeover. India has so far refused to do so. It is not clear how the situation in Afghanistan is going to unfold. It seems that the long night of war and violence is not going to end anytime soon.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences; former Director-General, National Human Rights Commission; and former Director, National Police Academy.