Roadmap to ‘new’ Afghanistan

If there is a regime breakup in Kabul before the election, and state institutions fracture on ethnic lines, it is doubtful if the 2014 election can take place

With US combat forces leaving Afghanistan in 2014, much attention has focused on the capabilities of the Afghan Army to repulse a possible military push from the Pakistan side (by soldiers of extremism or official troops camouflaged as such) aimed at reinstalling the Taliban in power in Kabul.

The concern is valid. However, an Afghan lack in the security area can conceivably be made up with regional and international assistance.
In February 2007, when the Afghan National Army was still being built from scratch, a key leader of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) told this writer in his Kabul headquarters that a mainly Afghan force had beaten back an assembled Taliban host of nearly 10,000 men in Panjwayi, Kandahar, just months before in the course of Operation Baaz Tsuka (Falcon’s Summit). The Taliban, on that occasion, had departed from their trademark guerrilla tactics to engage in open warfare, a serious tactical mistake, and had committed fighters in such numbers.
In an interview published in the American journal Foreign Policy last September, recently retired Gen. John Allen, who commanded the ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, noted that the Afghans were now capable of leading operations “from the squad to the corps level”, and were now running “the entire spectrum of operations”. The Afghans “are really stepping up to the task”, the general said, though he noted the obvious difficulties — the need for the Afghan Army to have “sustainment” and “resupply” capabilities.
This provides room for guarded optimism. What can be way more troubling is the state of the country’s internal cohesion to which thoughtful Indians, and others (evidenced, say, in recent Delhi Policy Group confabulations involving regional interlocutors), have alluded. It is clear that the enemy at the gate can be pushed back only if a country stands united. This was also the lesson of March 1989.
Three months after the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan under President Najibullah licked a decent sized CIA-cum-ISI-backed force of tribal insurgents and camouflaged Pakistani regulars in the battle of Jalalabad. Dr Najibullah could hold on, although hobbled by the Soviet pullout.
The lessons are evident. Militarily, the Afghans cannot be taken lightly in their own terrain. Two, no internal political force was seeking to trip up Dr Najibullah’s military effort although the former “warlords” (in local parlance “jihadis”, as they had engaged in “jihad” against Soviet troops), were around. Some didn’t interfere, and some physically found themselves on the Pakistan side of the border.
What about now? The next election — to locate President Karzai’s successor — is due in April 2014. Such are the perceived uncertainties that many feel that Afghanistan will be back to square one in terms of civil-war-like fighting once the US leaves.
A Pakistan-backed invasion is unlikely before election is due as US combat troops wouldn’t have entirely withdrawn. But if there is a regime breakup in Kabul before the election (in which President Karzai cannot be a candidate, having done his two terms), and state institutions (especially the Army and the security directorate) fracture on ethnic lines (as some apprehend), it is doubtful the 2014 election can take place. And that should mean the termination of Afghanistan’s progress along the lines prescribed by the present democratic constitution, at least for the foreseeable future.
Three sets of political actors will be relevant. The Pakistan-based and Pakistan-controlled Afghan Taliban; the jihadis, who are ethnically varied and have mutual contradictions but can combine in certain situations; and — for want of a precise expression — the “new Afghanistan”, that vast constituency of mostly the new generation (and women) who significantly constitute the country’s altered social and economic landscape (with education opportunities and business and media freedoms), and are loathe to return to the Afghanistan of the Taliban or warlord past.
The complexity is as follows: The second and the third groups are both anti-Taliban, but they are also suspicious of one another. It is conceivable that if the Taliban do not come threatening with Pakistani arms, some jihadis could be tempted to deal with them in order to ward off a political challenge from the “new Afghanistan”.
The Taliban would probably hope for this — in the initial phase to return to become a co-sharer of power with others following negotiations (and without a military fight), and only afterward move to seize full control with the help of Pakistani weapons and political and military guidance, and possibly Chinese blessings as well as China has developed leverage through the ownership of mineral assets in Afghanistan.
The participation of Taliban representatives at the December 2012 Chantilly talks (ostensibly facilitated by a French think tank) in which some Northern Afghanistan jihadis also participated, and the interest shown by the Taliban and Pakistan in the Roadmap (leaked in November 2012) of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan that envisages offering the Taliban some posts of provincial governor without having to contest elections, points to the likely “negotiations first” approach of the Taliban/Pakistan.
Lest observers worry that the grimmest scenario will come to pass, we should understand that former jihadis militarily confronting “new Afghanistan” or one another, is by no means inevitable. It can be headed off through careful political handling. The jihadis have developed vested interests in the country’s new economy, which they would be keen to protect, their old militias have mostly faded away, and their weapons channels from neighbouring countries are in disrepair.
The many Afghan politicians, businessmen, journalists and others this writer has interacted with over some months keenly desire that India play a political role in Afghanistan in that it should use its goodwill with all sections — and its long-term stake in Afghanistan’s democratic future — to help various groups reach mutual accommodation so that the next election passes peacefully and the basic internal coherence is not surrendered. That is the key. Afghanistan knows India alone fits this role, not Iran, Russia, or China, though it may wish or need to combine with others. The US, eager to get the Taliban off its back as it withdraws, may be expected to be more solicitous of the Pakistan military than before. That rules it out more or less.

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