Pakistan gaining strategic stronghold in Afghanistan

Pakistan gaining strategic stronghold in Afghanistan

The horrific suicide bomb attack in Kabul on May 31 that left 150 dead, and subsequent similar attacks at a funeral a few days later briefly brought Afghanistan back into the news. But only briefly since the British elections, the string of terrorists’ attacks in that country and general consternation with Trump’s antics and shenanigans meant that Afghanistan soon receded from public attention. This has meant that Pakistan’s game of gaining ‘strategic depth’ has gained substantial traction and the constitutional framework set in motion with the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 is in real danger of unravelling.

America’s failure to stabilise Afghanistan has led to a general sense of fatigue about that country as reflected in the minuscule coverage of the terrible acts of terrorists’ violence that has grown unabated in recent years. America has also been distracted by its domestic political wrangling that marked the presidential election campaign, and has worsened with the coming into office of Donald Trump. This has allowed Pakistan to rearrange regional power equations quite dramatically, ably supported by China who brought in the Russians onto the same side. While the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has made its appearance in the eastern Afghan province of Nangrahar, its influence and ability to launch terrorist strikes has been exaggerated to achieve this. American missteps and the Iranian tendency to adventurism has meant that over the past decade, Iran and the Taliban have become close tactical allies. The result is that despite stepped up terrorists attacks aimed at civilians, the Taliban is being presented by these countries as a moderate player that should have a key role in any peace process.

Russia has admitted to opening up lines of communications to the Taliban and even initiated a dialogue process along with China and Pakistan leaving out the government of Afghanistan. The Afghan government strongly objected and had to be brought in along with regional stakeholders, India and Iran. Neither the US, the main military and economic player in Afghanistan, nor NATO were part of these talks. Russia took the stand that while violence was unacceptable, the Taliban were very much relevant players. Expectedly, the talks went nowhere but in retrospect, helped build the case that it was the Taliban alone who held the veto over any attempted peace process.

The disputed elections of 2014 led to the US-backed uneasy coalition between President Ashraf Ghani and his challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who was given a new title, chief executive; but if anything, dissonance in governance has only enlarged. Initially Ghani made bold moves to placate Pakistan in the belief that it would lead to peace. What Afghanistan saw was increased violence, especially suicide attacks on civilians in crowded places leading to hundreds of causalities. The aim of damaging the credibility of the Afghan government by showing up its inability to protect its citizens was achieved very substantially. This has allowed Pakistan to emerge as the key interlocutor on behalf of the Taliban even as it continued to deny that it had anything to do with them. Exhaustion and distraction meant that the US and other western countries were happy to buy this fiction if it allowed them to quietly exit Afghanistan.

President Ghani’s failure to build a cohesive and inclusive government, or to establish working relations with parliament, whose term has incidentally expired, has meant that the Afghan government is internally hobbled and unable to deliver on good governance. The agreement that set up the National Unity Government with Dr Abdullah in 2014 required that within two years the constitution would be amended to provide for a prime minister, has not happened. The largely non-Pashtun Jamiat from whose ranks Abdullah, foreign minister Rabbani and many more joined the government, has started speaking up as an opposition party. They led a big anti-government demonstration two days after the May 31 terrorist attacks leading to police firing with six dead including the son of the deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament. The next day, at his funeral, attended by Abdullah, Rabbani and others, three bombs went off killing nine persons. Jamiat leaders like Governor Atta of Balkh blamed persons within the government for the complicity in the May 31 bomb blast. And for the same reason, Rabbani boycotted his own government’s Kabul Peace Process presided over by President Ghani.

Trump’s effectively ceding leadership to China on many fronts has meant that Pakistan is emboldened enough to try and push the Afghan government hard enough for them to acknowledge that Pakistan would have de facto control over Afghan affairs, something it tried to do after 1989 Russian withdrawal. At present, the momentum seems to be favouring them as neither is the Afghan government a united one, nor are the Afghan security forces, despite their bravery, in a condition to take the initiative back from the Taliban. If these trends are not reversed, Afghanistan could see increased violence that could potentially spill over its borders.

Shakti Sinha is director, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi and distinguished fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL)