Afghans often proudly refer to their country as “the graveyard of empires”. Today, unfortunately, it has become just a graveyard. The latest UN Report on Afghanistan chronicles the large and escalating human toll of its prolonged war. Afghanistan has also emerged as the primary source of regional instability.
The major catalysts for the current chaos in Afghanistan were: the 1979 Soviet intervention; the subsequent rise of religious extremism and terrorism; and the two wars fought by the US in Afghanistan — the first to support religious extremists against the Soviet Union and the second against the spawn of these extremists ie Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
After 15 years, the loss of thousands of lives and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, the US and its allies have been unable to eliminate Al Qaeda or defeat the Taliban. The unending violence unleashed by the ‘war on terror’ has, if anything, intensified the terrorist threat from Afghanistan.
US president Obama wanted to cut US losses and leave Afghanistan. He was prevented by his generals from doing so. They could not admit to being stymied by ra religious militants. They blamed Pakistani ‘safe havens’ and duplicity for their failure and pressed Pakistan to fight their fight. This remains the Washington consensus.
The continued presence of the US-Nato forces in Afghanistan serves several unstated goals: to prevent the collapse of the US-installed Kabul regime; to exert pressure on Pakistan and Iran in the context of counter-proliferation and other US regional objectives; to counter the rising influence of Russia and China in Afghanistan and the region.
Pakistan was a willing ally in America’s first Afghan war and a reluctant one in the second. The 2001 US invasion pushed many of the Afghan Taliban (as well as Al Qaeda terrorists) into Pakistan. Pakistan’s unpopular alliance with the US, and its early military operations in South Waziristan, fed extremism and eventually led to the creation of the so-called Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Pakistan’s initial actions in Swat and Fata were mainly against the TTP. But the Zarb-i-Azb operation in North Waziristan enveloped all the militant groups located there, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.
Most of the TTP and Afghan Taliban fighters have now moved to the vast ungoverned areas of Afghanistan. Although the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban distinction has been derided, there is a clear difference between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. The Afghan Taliban have a feasible political agenda: to secure or share power in Afghanistan. The TTP espouses the nihilistic aim of overthrowing the Pakistani state. The Afghan Taliban do not attack Pakistan; the TTP does — with the sponsorship of Afghan and Indian intelligence. The TTP is now also allied with the militant Islamic State group whereas the Afghan Taliban are fighting it.
IS has announced the extension of its ‘caliphate’ to the ‘Khorasan province’ (encompassing Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and Iran). It has found recruits mainly from the ranks of TTP, Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
The emergence of IS in Afghanistan and its attacks in Pakistan have alarmed Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian states. They fear that IS will use Afghanistan as a springboard to spread terrorism across the region.
Iran sees IS, with its extremist Sunni ideology, as a mortal enemy which it is fighting in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. As the ‘enemy of its enemy’, Iran has reportedly extended support to the Afghan Taliban.
Moscow has also established contacts with the Afghan Taliban. Russia recently hosted consultations on Afghanistan with Pakistan and China. It was only after protests from Kabul and New Delhi that they were invited to a subsequent meeting in Moscow. The US was not invited to either consultation. Russia is strongly suspicious of the US relationship with IS. Iran has openly accused the US of ‘creating’ IS.
China is also concerned because ETIM is associated with the TTP and now with IS. Apart from preventing destabilisation of Xinjiang province, China also wants to ensure that the threats emanating from Afghanistan do not disrupt the implementation of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One-Belt One-Road project, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
India has sought for decades to confront Pakistan with a two-front threat. The 2002 installation of the Northern Alliance-led regime in Kabul revived that possibility. As openly admitted by the Indian national security adviser, Ajit Doval, India is using Afghan territory to destabilise Pakistan by sponsoring TTP terrorism and Baloch insurgents. Despite the visible alliance between the TTP and IS, India will not easily give up its ‘assets’ in Afghanistan nor reverse its strategy. On the contrary, if the cross-border attacks on Pakistan are stopped, India’s former army chief has advocated unleashing unrestrained violence within Pakistan by having “Pakistanis kill Pakistanis”.
Appeasing Narendra Modi’s India will not avert India’s plans for widespread subversion and terrorism in Pakistan. This can be achieved by decisive action against the TTP and the eradication of India’s ‘sleeper cells’ within Pakistan.
The timely ECO summit in Islamabad demonstrated India’s failure to isolate Pakistan. The summit’s declaration illustrated the growing regional consensus that sustainable regional security requires an end to the Afghan chaos and that IS and its allies, like the TTP, must be opposed and eliminated.
The incoming Trump administration is now the wild card in the endeavour to create durable security in the region. Apart from its hostility towards Iran, the new administration has not pronounced its policies on Afghanistan, Pakistan or the region. Pakistan and other concerned states must seek to convince Washington that, one, peace in Afghanistan can be achieved only through a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban; two, IS and its associates, including the TTP, are the primary threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan and the region; and, three, India and its Afghan collaborators must be persuaded to terminate their support to these terrorists.
The current Afghan chaos was created by unilateral military interventions. Ending it needs active international cooperation.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN