Home South Asia Afghanistan Afghan safe havens – for poppies, politicians & power brokers

Afghan safe havens – for poppies, politicians & power brokers

power brokers
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Afrah Jamal |

The upgraded version of Afghan policy released in August 2017 was followed by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to the region in October. The stopover was unannounced – the location classified and the meeting lasted 2 hours. There was confusion whether it was held at Kabul in some government office or Bagram airbase in a fortified bunker. The state of insecurity may be behind the subterfuge.

Soon after, the Taliban attacked an army base, killing many Afghan soldiers justifying the paranoia. There had been six attacks the week before. More were to follow. The Taliban observe the surges and withdrawals – and adapt, while upping the ante. Nothing changes. Their confidence is unnerving given Kabul’s fortunes are changing for the better at least on the surface and the state seeks a new role for a war ravaged nation.

Afghanistan’s recovery would have to make room for all these complications and contradictions and factor in the internal and external dimensions of the conflict.

Afghanistan is now a member of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Additional firepower and military might have been promised. 58 Black Hawks costing more than a billion dollars have been set aside and six Afghans have qualified as UH-60 pilots. Moscow, Beijing and Delhi are also funneling development aid and are seeking to expand their economic footprint.

These will be interpreted as promising indicators – the security challenges however remain and the failed state predictions loom large. A quick recap of the new plan spells out a change in direction adding a few more boots on the ground, with a better trained Afghan security force as backup; it offers no timelines, promises to address Afghanistan’s drug problem and gives carte blanche to US Generals.

Read more: The Afghan policy in perspective

It also toys with proposals of mercenaries embedded in the ranks, asks India to expand its role while believing that putting Pakistan on notice would somehow expedite the peace process.

In the backdrop are 751 bombs dropped; a never-ending supply of enemy foot soldiers able to best a superior army, a security apparatus faced with rising cases of desertion in the ranks and the ones brave enough to stay find themselves in the Taliban’s crosshairs. The rest of the strategy remains under wraps, hidden even from U.S Senators, which in the event of Russian leaks appears prudent.

Quick fixes for the Internal Threats

What can this mix of old and new and borrowed strategy bring to the table given the scope of the problem and the limitations of its reach. When there is no single enemy – and an unforgiving terrain, and when the roots of Afghanistan’s problems stem from corruption, and palace intrigues, ethnic tensions, loss of territorial control, deteriorating security, trust deficit, flagging morale, a steady supply of drugs, and a brewing humanitarian crisis. 

Revisiting the brute force

The addition of A-29’s and UH-60 Black Hawks meant to boost Afghan airpower by enhancing their CAP and CAS capabilities is offset by the number of pilots who went AWOL while under training in the U.S since 2005; it has hit 6%. It is probably not the moral dilemma of bombing its own that keeps an Afghan pilot awake at night. They live in fear for their families’ safety and a female pilot who was to be the poster child for a modern Afghan air force sought asylum in the U.S instead.

Reuters predicts more war, poverty and extremism in the coming years on a world-wide scale and for Afghanistan’s coming elections to aggravate the tensions and fuel the violence. The chairman of IEC resigned after the IEC head was fired.

To forestall future desertions, Kabul reportedly asked under trainee pilots to offer family members as guarantors.  Their Pakistani counterparts who may have struggled to adapt to their counter-insurgency roles, when asked to conduct bombing runs over their villages would see any lingering doubts evaporate after the APS massacre of December 16th 2014.

Read more: Defeating Terrorism: Pakistan needs new “Road Maps” & a “Visionary Leadership”…?

The task of keeping the ‘Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ – ANDSF up and running reportedly presents a challenge because of the difficulties of convincing Afghan youth to enlist. But the bravery and heroism of the security personnel cannot be doubted.  Afghanistan’s best hope seems to be the ‘General Command of Police Special Units’ (GCPSU) – an elite police force that stands apart from the rest at the moment.  Afghan security forces continue to suffer heavy casualties.

Would the mercenaries wearing Afghan colors make up for the gaps in Afghan armed forces? Armed forces capable of making supply runs is still something. But how long can such an arrangement last? The lack of medevac facilities that prevent the rescue of wounded Afghans on the battlefield shows cutting-edge technology still needs to catch up with the needs on the ground.

The waning morale in the Afghan forces despite their superior strength, is offset by a rag tag army of insurgents emboldened by their successes, seemingly undeterred by the ‘terrain denial’ strategy underway where B-52’s are flying sorties to deliver payloads meant to level the field, deny cover and flush insurgents out in the open.  

In the midst of all this, the International Committee of Red Cross – ICRC has decided to scale back operations after three decades in the trenches raising questions regarding Afghanistan’s stability and future.

The deployment of brute force alone would not be expected to bring order to Afghanistan when the enemy is scattered, controls large swathes of Afghan territory and contests the other half. When it wears the cloak of invisibility, can strike with impunity and is able to penetrate the security forces. And when their money provides for many families and their guarantees of security are given more weight.

Stories, where Afghan insurgents use Pakistan based sanctuaries to plan attacks when there is so much ungovernable land free for the taking and a fence barring their way, seems ludicrous in this scenario. At the moment, Afghanistan appears to be the safest place for Taliban and their thriving drug empire with no shortage of benefactors funneling arms and money and using them as pawns in their power play.

Read more: The flaws in the master plan

Does the new plan account for losses incurred and time wasted due to rival nations running interference and covert relations between the Kremlin and Taliban for intelligence sharing against ISIS? Does it have any measures in place to prevent ISIS from gaining ascendency over Taliban because, of the two – Daesh is far more lethal.

U.S. Commander General Nicholson talked about deploying an incremental strategy indicating that by this time “next year social and diplomatic pressure will be increased on the Taliban.” He also issues a hopeful prognosis, “….the Taliban cannot win in the face of pressures that I outlined”, adding that “their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance, or die”. Some form of negotiated settlement with the enemy had been indicated earlier that intended to engage with the moderate elements in Taliban ranks.

8 billion dollars have ben poured into their anti drug efforts. The opium business is booming and accounts for some 60% of the Taliban’s funding. It has been likened to a glorified drug cartel that provides security to the farmers’ etc.

The General also maintains that “with pressure on their sanctuaries outside the country, with military pressure inside the country…..we believe that significant portions of the Taliban will then choose to rejoin society.”  Forcing the enemy to the negotiating table would be from a position of strength where Afghan state can dictate its own terms and be free to implement its progressive vision. The Taliban’s power comes from access to the factories churning out recruits, its sponsors, ability to hide and patience to wait out the foreign occupation.

What gives the generals such confidence this time around and without tangible results? Pakistan once claimed the Taliban were on the run in Swat valley and they were. The insurgents ran off to seek shelter, regrouped and pretty soon ran back. And it was only after a long drawn out campaign and numerous setbacks, the Pakistani state regained lost ground. And even then they could not afford complacency with Afghanistan ablaze and Washington on the warpath.

Read more: Pakistan: Fixing religious fault-lines in the age of ISIS..?

A beleaguered Afghan state struggling to deal with an influx of refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan, and ISIS poised to replace Taliban as the primary threat faces overwhelming odds while a group of stakeholders and allies converge over Afghanistan with differing agendas. And all this unfolds in the neighborhood of two nuclear armed nations.

Neighborhood Watch

Pakistan also faced problems when the military campaigns dislodged the insurgents and with them the lucrative incentives that allowed menial laborers to profit enormously who then ended up losing their livelihoods and their cash cows. The need to go in and rebuild their lives was a crucial aspect of the battle.

The concept of a joint task force, checkpoints and cooperation with Pakistani counterparts takes care of porous borders. Many more issues remain that keep the pot simmering and caution against premature celebrations.

The recent unveiling of Waziristan as a venue for sporting events provides a small model for success. It was not just military intervention but across the board actions that yielded results – it was the officers, who fought on the battle field alongside their men; most have been on the frontline, and have taken on the Taliban and Daesh.  It was engagement with the tribes affected most by the insurgencies and to some extent de-weaponisation that drives along the tribal belt as part of the National Action Plan.

Pakistan’s role comes up often as a destabilizing force and an unreliable agent. Recent events like the rescue mission that liberated US-Canadian family from the clutches of Haqqanis by Pak forces testify to the importance of intelligence sharing and coordinated operations. The post rescue op cost the lives of Pak soldiers. The men who died in the aftermath when they went after the Haqqani handlers might wonder at the analysts who insisted on calling it a magic trick implying that back door dealing was involved and links with Haqqanis secured their release.

The concept of a joint task force, checkpoints and cooperation with Pakistani counterparts takes care of porous borders. Many more issues remain that keep the pot simmering and caution against premature celebrations. The heroin trade has already been identified as a major stumbling block in weaning the beneficiaries from Taliban’s influence given the money involved and cover of security provided that will evaporate once the insurgents are defanged.

Read more: The Afghan policy in perspective

Afghanistan in recovery

This time, a ‘War on Drugs ‘ label has also been tacked upon the new Afghan strategy and an F-22 Raptor took out a drug lab in its first combat mission in ‘Operation Jagged Knife’. Reports, however point to collateral damage and argue how such missions have little impact on the production and capability. Others comment on the futility of such strikes given how easy such labs are to replace. Afghan A-29s and U.S. B-52s have also been given a free hand to engage with enemy combatants but the use of Raptors has been seen as overkill.

The insurgents ran off to seek shelter, regrouped and pretty soon ran back. And it was only after a long drawn out campaign and numerous setbacks, the Pakistani state regained lost ground.

Since 2001, 8 billion dollars have ben poured into their anti drug efforts. The opium business is booming and accounts for some 60% of the Taliban’s funding. It has been likened to a glorified drug cartel that provides security to the farmers’ etc. Afghanistan has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest poppy harvester and cultivator – production hit record levels by 2017. It provides employment to 235,000 people and makes up for 57% of household income. It funds insurgencies and keeps the locals enslaved. Where there are drugs there will be corruption all around and resistance from within.

Humanitarian Crisis

Infighting between the Afghan state vs. Taliban and Taliban vs. Deash dislodged a sizeable population inevitably creating a humanitarian crisis. Since January, around 85,059 people have been displaced in the country’s eastern region, constituting 24 percent of the displacements across Afghanistan in 2017”. In the midst of all this, the International Committee of Red Cross – ICRC has decided to scale back operations after three decades in the trenches raising questions regarding Afghanistan’s stability and future.

Read more: Pakistan’s contributions for the uplift of Afghan people

Political Stability

It may be in everyone’s interest to prevent the fragmentation of Afghanistan but they have different ideas about securing their interests. Afghanistan’s recovery would have to make room for all these complications and contradictions and factor in the internal and external dimensions of the conflict. Reuters predicts more war, poverty and extremism in the coming years on a world-wide scale and for Afghanistan’s coming elections to aggravate the tensions and fuel the violence. The chairman of Independent Election Commission (IEC) resigned after the IEC head was fired. The Election and Transparency Watch of Afghanistan (ETWA) sees the IEC incapable of holding elections or adopting reforms. A leadership crisis atop everything else would be a tragic setback. Afghans deserve better.

Afrah Jamal is a freelance writer. She is the editor of “In Conversation with Legends – History in Session”. She had also been writing for Daily Times, Lahore, and was the editor of Social Pages, Karachi. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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