US waking up to ground reality in Afghanistan : The Tribune India

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US waking up to ground reality in Afghanistan

The most important understanding between the United States and the Taliban, which facilitated the pullout of American forces, was that the Taliban would ensure no militant attacks on the US emanate from the Afghan soil. It is evident from the terms of the US-Taliban agreement that the survival of the Taliban has become far more important to the US interests than anything else.

US waking up to ground reality in Afghanistan

Debatable: Will the Afghan govt be able to checkmate the Taliban? Reuters



Lt Gen NPS Hira (retd)

former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

EVEN as Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has blamed the speedy pullout of American troops for the worsening violence in his country, the Taliban have captured parts of the northern belt, an erstwhile stronghold of the Northern Alliance, thereby isolating the area from its old support bases in the Central Asian Republics. The Taliban have also captured important border crossings. From India’s perspective, what’s worrying is the change in the US stance.

American President Joe Biden said recently that though the US was not going to walk away and would help Afghanistan’s armed forces, his own conclusion was that peace could be achieved only if the Afghan Government found a modus vivendi with the Taliban.

The most important understanding between the US and the Taliban, which facilitated the pullout of American forces, was that the Taliban would ensure no militant attacks on the US emanate from the Afghan soil. It is evident from the terms of the US-Taliban agreement that the survival of the Taliban has become far more important to the US interests than anything else.

The first part of Biden’s statement needs to be read in the context that the US does not want to be seen by the world as having let down its ally of the past 20 years. It is also problematic for Biden to be seen as someone not supporting a democratically elected government or showing concern for human rights of the Afghans and Afghan women’s plight.

An analysis of the US-Taliban deal reveals that the long-term implications of the agreement are not limited to the facilitation of the withdrawal of US forces. Given the growing strength of the Taliban, the US has made a deal which helps it take care of its strategic interests in the region. At any point of time in future, the US cannot afford to act against the Taliban and thereby compromise its own interests in Afghanistan, unless the Taliban do something to harm US interests.

Another key issue is the US’s search for bases in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan. It is being seen as a ray of hope that the US forces may still be available to support the Afghan Government against the Taliban, if the need arises. It is really not so. The US’s primary purpose behind this effort is to carry out operations against the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, if the Taliban are not able to deal with them on their own. The US may act from these bases against the Taliban only if it sees the Taliban becoming hostile to US interests.

The Taliban, too, will need US help for nation-building, if they become a major player in the government. In simple terms, it may not appear to be so on the face of it, but in real terms, the US and the Taliban have struck a deal. This deal makes a lot of sense for the US. Not only does it take care of its threat of terrorism, but also this is, perhaps, the only way the US can neutralise the growing Chinese, Russian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan.

Another important question is whether the Afghan Government would be able to checkmate the Taliban. The only currency in the hands of the Taliban all along has been the use of force. There are some indications that all may not be well with the Taliban operations.

Their problem is not very different from the one which the Afghan army has faced all along in the past: that Afghanistan is a very rough country, extending over 650,000 sq km. An army of barely two lakh-plus was never good enough for the conduct of counter-insurgency operations in such a vast area and to keep it under its domination.

As a result, see-saw battles between the Afghan forces and the Taliban have been going on all along in the recent past. The Taliban used to capture some towns to make a statement and eventually had to withdraw under pressure of the ANA and the latter, too, did not have the forces to hold the recaptured localities forever.

The Taliban already find themselves stretched across the vast areas they have captured. They just cannot go on at the same speed. In the balance sheet of forces rallied against the Taliban are eight important warlords as well, though none of them appear to be of the calibre of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The ANA is supported by the Afghan Air Force, but, unfortunately, the ANA is not a professional army, like, say the Indian Army. Its biggest problems are nepotism and lack of discipline within the army. It has already capitulated at some places. The silver lining for the ANA is the large number of Tajik officers and men who are brave fighters and would not like to surrender. However, Pashtun officers and men may not be willing to pay the same price in their fight against the Taliban.

The Taliban will struggle to capture and hold on to the bigger cities, but they are fairly competent to control the lines of communication, which will turn vital as the seizure of cities starts. The Taliban can wait, reorganise and keep hitting.

It is pertinent to take note of the change in Ashraf Ghani’s stance. He has stated that “there might be a need to rebalance the situation and the larger goal of the government is to arrive at a political settlement in Afghanistan.” Evidently, he has realised the limits of the military power at his disposal and the implications of the US policy which is no more favourable to him. This is an acceptance of reality from a man who was not willing to cede space to the Taliban.

The Taliban victories have eroded Indian influence, too. Since we did not send troops to fight the Taliban, the latter do not have a major grudge against India. In the past, the Taliban sounded fairly positive towards India, even at the cost of annoying Pakistan.

India has opened the dialogue with the Taliban through backchannels. A recent statement from a Taliban spokesperson that India needs to be impartial to both the Taliban and the Afghan government looks to pose a new challenge. The larger question today is: how far is India prepared to go? What is our national interest? Is India willing to formally recognise a future Afghan set-up, even if it is Taliban-dominated? It may be wise to do so as it may help solve some of our problems and is a way to get the Taliban to moderate its stance on issues of our concern. These issues need to be debated at home and conveyed to the Taliban, lest we are overtaken by the events once again.


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