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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 20 New Delhi May 4, 2019

Winding up the End-game in Afghanistan

Sunday 5 May 2019

by Apratim Mukarji

The Great Game in Afghanistan, in which the United States has acted as the leader of the team and involves mutually adversarial players like Pakistan and Iran as well as consensually competitive Russia and China, is now converted into an end-game under President Donald Trump. The President has repeatedly declared his firm resolve to get out of the country as quickly as he can manage, and the course of events over the last two years or so confirms this reading of his words.

The reason why the US is in such a hurry is clear to all.To quote an American analysis, by any reasonable estimate, the monetary and human costs of the US-led war on terror has been considerable. As found out by political scientists at Brown University, the numbers have been astronomical. The university’s Cost of War Project calculates that Washington will be spending approximately $ 5.9 trillion between 2001 (when the Al-Qaeda-Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan) and 2019, the current year.A break-up of the expenditure includes over $ 2 tn. in overseas contingency operations, $ 924 billion in homeland security spending, and $ 353 bn. in medical and disability care for American troops serving overseas conflict zones. The conclusion is that when the interest to be paid on the borrowed funds is taken into account, the American people will be shouldering the cumulative debt for decades to come.(Daniel R. DePetris, ‘The War on Terror’s Total Cost : $ 5,900,000,000,000’, The National Interest, January 12, 2019)

The world knows only too well that this massive expenditure is being borne by the US Administration not because the world’s most powerful nation has lost sleep over the Afghans’ continuing tale of horror at the hands of the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) plus a plethora of splinter terrorist groups but because the Americans were living in terror in their home country. Thus, the test of the enormous and frightfully expensive exercise lies in making the United States’ homeland security fool-proof.

And what is the score on that account? Taking a hard look at the terrorism problem over many decades, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Transnational Threats Project discovered that the number of Salafi-jihadist fighters has increased by 270 per cent since 2001 (the year the Al-Qaeda-Taliban regime fell in Afghanistan). In 2018, there were sixty-seven jihadist groups operating around the world, a 180 per cent hike since 2001. The number of fighters could be as high as 280,000, “the highest in forty years”. Moreover, quashing the claim of many authorities in the US claiming success for the anti-terror operations, many of these jihadists reside in countries, such as, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, which have been invaded by the US and/or bombed over the last seventeen years.

Are the Americans feeling safer than before? Not by a long shot. An October 2017-dated Charles Koch Institute/ Real Clear Defence survey found that a plurality of American (43 per cent) and war veterans (41 per cent) believe that the US foreign policy over the last twenty years has actually made the counry less safe—a result not really conducive to what US policy-makers are looking for.

There is no other way to describe the American decision (followed by haste) to vacate Afghanistan than by reemphasising a virtual and unacknolwedged defeat at the hands of the Taliban. But the United States’ internal assess-ments have been quite candid. For example, the US Defense Department’s own metrics suggest that Afghanistan’s insurgents are nowhere near losing. The percentage of the country’s 407 districts under government control has declined from 66 per cent in May, 2016, to 53.8 per cent by by the end of March, 2019. (Al Jazeera, Explosion, Taliban attack kill dozens across Afghanistan, March 30, 2019)

It is important to note that control of territory in the prevailing Afghan military environment does not connote a complete and unshakable authority, for control switches quickly, some-times as swiftly as the following day or week. There have been scores of instances when Afghan soldiers, trained and armed and, sometimes led by, American and (earlier NATO officers) have displayed exemplary courage and strength and won back lost territories. It should also be acknowledhed that a major boost for the Afghan Army and police is the massive air support the Americans provide to government operations.

Nevertheless, it is now beyond debate that the Taliban have achieved an overall military dominance,a position of strength from which it cannot be easily dislodged. When one reads this conclusion in conjunction with the other, that the cost of waging the war has become prohibitive, one can begin to appreciate the logic behind the American decision. This has been put succinctly in the following comment, “Districts have been retaken (by both the sides) only to be lost shortly thereafter,largely resulting in the conflict’s current relative stalemate. However,since the US drawdown of peak forces in 2011, the Taliban (have) unquestionably been resurgent.” (FDD’s Long War Journal, Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan, created by Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowsky, Another way of understanding the methodology of this assessment is the term coined for the purpose, “contested”. A contested district is one the centre of which is controlled by government forces and the fringes by the Taliban or it may be one which is taken by one side and then re-taken by the rival and the process continues, putting the lives of the civilians to extreme peril in the process. But this also helps us realise the cardinal truth of the present-day Afghanistan, that there is a stalemate in the military situation with the Taliban on the ascendance, and that this situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

Reading the situation correctly nearly a year ago, Gen. Joseph Votel, leading the US Central Command, said that the Taliban “cannot win militarily” despite an uptick in attacks. “The message I would send to the Taliban is that they cannot win militarily. The international coalition, led by the United States, is focussed on providing the military pressure,in conjunction with social pressure and diplomatic pressure, that will force them to come to the table.” He also urged the militants to accept the “very generous offer” made by the Afghan President Ashraff Ghani who offered unconditional peace talks accom-panied by a cease-fire, recognition of the Taliban as a political party and the release of some prisoners, among other incentives. However, when the preliminary negotiations bagan later in the year, the Taliban did not care for the ceasefire offer (implying their confidence) and attacks on government forces and civilians, including foreigners, have continued well into the current year. In the midst of all these disruptions and negativity by the insurgents, the talks between the Taliban and the Americans have continued,with the telling absence of the Afghan Government on the insistence of the winning side.

Perhaps the most significant statement issued since the talks began came from the Taliban, who said on March 8, 2019, that “Everyone is aware that detailed discussions are taking place in the Qutari capital of Doha between the negotiation team of (the) Islamic Emirate (Taliban) and the United States regarding the complete indepen-dence and sovereignty of our beloved homeland Afghanistan. Since the issue of Afghanistan has two aspects with one being foreign and the other internal, the current negotiations concern the foreign aspect which is related to the United States. This phase is about fleshing out the details of the two issues which were agreed upon in the last round of talks in January, the withdrawal of all occupying forces from Afghanistan and not allowing Afghanistan to harm others. Comprehensive discussions are taking place about these two subjects. Other issues that have an internal aspect and are not tied to the United States have not been held under discussions. As some individuals and circles are trying to connect other topics to these discussions, they are either unaware or are pursuing an agenda. No one should pay any heed to the rumours of these self-interested circles.”

As we have already noted, the present negotiations have the backing of a number of countries that hold high stakes in the future of Afghanistan, such as, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, India, and the Central Asian republics, apart from other global investors in the country like Australia and Japan. The situation is so much conditioned by the Taliban’s undisputed ascendancy in the last few years that nobody is questioning the legitimacy of the talks despite the forced absence of the Afghan Government, which is recognised by the international community and elected democratically. Even though unspoken, there are deep concerns over the future of the massive, far-reaching political, economic, social reforms and development already functional and also in the pipeline if and when the Taliban join in the governance. But the consensus is that peace has become imperative before other necessities and once peace is achieved, these can be addressed in a conducive atmosphere.

In these developments, the Taliban are the clear winner irrespective of what transpires eventually. But there is another winner as well, Pakistan, which is playing its hand expertly. Current reports say that after ensuring that the United States is forced to enter talks with the Taliban on an equal footing, Islamabad is now so subtly guiding the rebels in negotiating with American diplomats that its imprint is not visible to the outsider. A Reuters report said that while Pakistan is keen to avoid any overt display of influence on them, the Taliban are also careful to avoid any sign of such a connection. But, perhaps the truth was spoken by a US diplomat who commented that the talks would not have been possible without Pakistan’s help.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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