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Reflections on Events in Afghanistan | M K Bhadrakumar

Friday 20 August 2021, by M K Bhadrakumar

( August 16-17, 2021)

1. Collapse of the Afghan Army

Social media reported that at the Kabul residence of the Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib who post-haste fled to Tajikistan on Saturday with President Ashraf Ghani, three Toyota Landcruiser SUVs were found stacked with American dollar bills.

Mohib was the shadow king of Afghanistan. He controlled the country’s defence budget. In the coming year, he would have handled over $3 billion, which the US has earmarked as assistance for the Afghan armed forces. The Taliban spoiled his party.

The mystery of the Afghan armed forces losing the will to fight is actually no mystery at all. The main reason has been the misappropriation of defence budget. In Ghani’s set-up, Mohib, his trusted flunky, controlled the Defence Ministry — not the Defence Minister — and he obviously did well for himself — and probably Ghani too. Time will tell.

The soldiers seldom received their full pay as officers pocketed the money and that explained the high rate of desertion from enlisted men. Soldiers often flogged their US-supplied weapons in the black market to earn a living.

Simply put, the army lost the will to fight for a decrepit government that lacked legitimacy, was inept and indifferent to people’s needs and grievances — and a leadership it held in contempt.

The contrast with the Afghan army built by the Soviets in the early 1980s couldn’t be sharper. Najibullah held out for three years after the Soviet troop withdrawal and stepped down only when Moscow cut off all assistance — even wheat flour to make bread. The army was disciplined, well-trained and politically indoctrinated, and the officer corps trained in the Soviet military academies commanded respect.

The Battle of Jalalabad (1989) stands out as its finest hour when Pakistan masterminded a siege on the city to capture it as seat for the Mujahideen provisional government, but failed.

Over the past twenty years, the US supposedly trained the Afghan army by NATO standards, 300000 strong, but when the battle was joined in May, it began crumbling under Taliban pressure.

When corruption eats into the vitals of a nation, the state structures decompose and collapse. And when the leadership loses respect of the people, the war is lost.

At the famous Mehdi Hasan show on MSNBC today, Afghan ambassador to Washington Ms. Adela Raz said that Ghani and his cronies simply emptied the Afghan Treasury and left with the loot. The Afghan finance minister Khalid Payenda’s resignation and escape from Kabul on August 11 falls in perspective! The poor man feared the day of reckoning. He didn’t even say where he was heading.

India’s policymakers couldn’t have been unaware that a cabal was ruling Afghanistan but deliberately chose to ignore it. This is incomprehensible. India stuck out its neck as recently as last Monday to set the stage for Ghani’s government to project itself to the international audience from the UN Security Council podium. It ignored a formal request from Pakistan to participate in the UN SC discussion so that Ghani’s people had a field day!

The best hope is that no interest groups existed within the Indian establishment, as happened to the US. The Washington Post has exposed that the Pentagon commanders lied and the ‘forever war’ continued. Evidently, a gravy train was running through Kabul.

Such things happen when the covert agencies of the state stand above law. A nexus formed between Kabul bigwigs like NSA Mohib and decrepit rogue elements within the US military and they thwarted all attempts to end this war. The disconcerting fact is, in India too, a determined lobby advocated the ‘forever war’ against all logic, and Mohib was our man in Kabul, too.

2. The green shoots of politics are reappearing

The explosion of life is unstoppable. The first buds are edging their roots from the dirt no sooner than Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on Sunday, without telling anyone, carrying a massive loot of ill-begotten wealth stolen from his people. And the green shoots of political recovery are appearing.

Tense and urgent care is needed. The region is rallying. Pakistan has taken the lead.

On Sunday afternoon, a galaxy of senior Afghan politicians, largely drawn from the erstwhile Northern Alliance of the late 1990s, arrived in Islamabad to cogitate with the Pakistani leadership regarding the mainstreaming of the Taliban. The delegation comprised three top figures from Panjshir Valley, veteran Hazara leaders, the Jamiat-e Islami, Afghan Parliament (including, interestingly, the eldest son of the Tajik leader from Mazar-i-Sharif Mohammed Atta Noor.)

Without doubt, it is a spectacular development that Pakistan is hosting the top leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, which spearheaded the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s. Put differently, with Ghani out of the way, the non-Taliban Afghan ‘opposition’ whom he had variously marginalised, humiliated or ignored during his maverick, corrupt dispensation, is surging.

By the way, Russian embassy spokesman in Kabul Nikita Ishchenko has given on record a graphic account of Ghani’s shameful escapade: “As for the collapse of the (outgoing) regime, it is most eloquently characterised by the way Ghani fled Afghanistan. Four cars were full of money, they tried to stuff another part of the money into a helicopter, but not all of it fit. And some of the money was left lying on the tarmac.”

Equally, it is a stunning display of the crucial role only Pakistan can play in today’s circumstances to facilitate national reconciliation in Afghanistan and nudge it towards the culture of inclusive politics. The Afghan politicians appreciate the significant shifts that have come over Pakistan’s policies and its regional strategy that enhance its credentials to be peacemaker.

Pakistan urged the Afghan delegation to seek a broad-based and comprehensive political settlement of the Afghan issue and to commence a comprehensive political dialogue as immediate step aimed at creating a peaceful, united, democratic, stable country.

Alongside, Pakistan’s National Security Council, the country’s apex civilian-military policymaking body chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, reiterated on Monday that an inclusive political settlement is the only way forward, representing all Afghan ethnic groups.

Clearly, the developments in Islamabad cannot be seen in isolation. Amidst the botched-up evacuation of American diplomats from Kabul, President Biden underscored on Monday that in the period ahead in Afghanistan, the US hopes “to lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and our humanitarian aid”; will “push for regional diplomacy”; influence the dynamics with “our economic tools” while steering clear of “nation-building”; and, “maintain a laser-focus on our counterterrorism missions”.

It is an audacious speech. Biden held the ground on his controversial troop withdrawal decision. His grating roar was addressed to the domestic audience but what emerges from his speech is the melancholy retreat of America to concentrate on “significant vital interests in the world that we cannot afford to ignore.”

To be sure, the locus of peacemaking has significantly shifted to the regional states. Taliban senses it and scrupulously refrains from precipitate actions. Meanwhile, the “coordinating group” of former president Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is acting as a bridge across the void created by Ghani’s flight.

Inevitably, Pakistan has a centrality, but the role of Iran, China and Russia will also be important. The immediate effort is to create a transitional government. Taliban appears to be amenable to a broad-based, representative arrangement.

India should summarily abandon its contrived narrative built on animus against Pakistan and recognise these new stirrings. Liberated from the Faustian deal with Ghani and his circle as well as the American yoke, Indian diplomacy should renew networking with Afghan elites who were kept out of power.

A closure of the Mission in Kabul will be a Himalayan blunder at this historic juncture when the wheels of diplomacy and politics are set to accelerate in Afghanistan. Normal politics is poised to grow a little each day, and the dust of thirty years hanging lifeless in the air is going to settle down. Retrenchment will only damage India’s interests and isolate it in the region.

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