Afghanistan: Packing the Bags but Where to Go?
Photo Credit: Chayanika Saxena
By Chayanika Saxena

Afghanistan: Packing the Bags but Where to Go?

Jan. 14, 2019  |     |  0 comments

In the time that passed between my previous article and this, I had the chance to visit Kabul. On my first trip to Afghanistan which I had, so far, researched from distance, both the urgency of negotiations and the deteriorating security situation in the country were palpable. In fact, the three days of heavily guarded stay in the compound of the American University of Afghanistan meant that I could not make it to the city of Kabul even once. There was something insecure about the security measures that were taken to “protect” me.

One’s stay in Kabul, however long or short it might be, is enough for one to realize that peace and stability are still a far cry for this country. Staying in what looked like modified shipping containers, my first thought as I saw this structure was about an eerie temporariness that seems to have engulfed the country. There is something about Kabul that lacks permanence and its uncertainty about tomorrow is written all over the walls. But then, even the walls are not permanent in Kabul except for maybe the blast walls that betray the city’s growing sense of insecurity as they pop-up everywhere and scale new heights.

AUAF Graffiti After Attack (Photo Credit: Chayanika Saxena)

Yet there I was as a foreigner living in a fortress; an alien to the system the citizens of this country have to endure on a daily basis. Not that my own hometown, the capital city of India, New Delhi, is any safer. In fact, according to reports, India happens to be the worst place for one to be born as a woman. But, I was told, that this insecurity is of a different kind and is, perhaps, incomparable with the existential struggles that the ordinary men and women of Kabul (and Afghanistan) have to face on a daily basis.

The American House of Disorder

In the light of this realization, when I evaluate the finicky moves being taken in the name of negotiations, I feel concerned about the people of Afghanistan some of who had fed me, kept me safe and treated me to their famed mehmaan-nawaazi (special treatment for the guests). The US, which has promised to take Afghanistan out of “stone age”, has not managed to do much in terms of ensuring the achievement of the basics that make a state worth its name — stability, peace, and security. And led by a rather uppity and unpredictable President whose decisions are often made public on Twitter than through official speeches, the US has once again forced the people of Afghanistan into depths of uncertainty.

The much speculated but officially unannounced decision to withdraw half of the American troops present in Afghanistan, reducing their count from 14,000 to 7,000, has sent shockwaves across the world. Save for Pakistan and a few other countries that could rejoice the eventual American exit, the potential downsizing of US’ troops have not only induced a sense of panic but has also invited disagreements and retaliatory measures. Even within the US itself, the dissonance within the establishment is evident.

Resigning from his position as the Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, in his public resignation made his disagreement with the President clear. He went on to state “you (Trump) have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.” It is believed that he resigned because of his disapproval of Trump’s decision to pull out the troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Darulaman and Security Blip (Photo Credit: Chayanika Saxena)

The Pentagon, on the other hand, is yet to receive any formal intimation from the White House on the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. However, the military establishment has voiced its opinion on this potential proposition in negative. In the Pentagon’s strategy paper, the American Department of Defense has categorically stated that it would like to continue to “apply direct and indirect military pressure on the Taliban while supporting nascent efforts for peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan”. The presence of combatting, offensive troops in its opinion is required because any complacency on America’s part will have an adverse impact on its “global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living”.

Pulling Out or Pulling the Plug

Coming in the backdrop of America’s revived, and seemingly desperate, push for peace, Trump’s abrupt announcement about troop withdrawal is unlikely to have an enabling impact either on the peace process or its outcome. While it may be read as a confidence-building measure, it holds little evident promise for the people of Afghanistan or for the larger counter-insurgency movement.

At a time when the government of Afghanistan appears to be on a losing wicket, the speculation about the American troop drawdown will have a deleterious impact not only on its morale but that of Afghans as well. Not only has the country lost almost 44% of its territory to the Taliban, but the economic, political and social indicators also do not speak convincingly about the health of Afghanistan as a nation-state. And, from the looks of it, the Taliban is not in the mood to give up any time soon. On the contrary, its intention to take over the peace process is becoming increasingly evident.

In its latest offensive, the Taliban targeted a government compound in Kabul on December 24, 2018 killing more than 40 people and injuring 10 in a series of suicide and gun attacks. That it decided to hit a compound that houses the National Authority for People with Disabilities and Martyrs’ Families is telling for its inherent irony. Claiming to be waging a “holy war” for the people of Afghanistan, its attack on the facilities meant for those who were afflicted in the course of decades-long struggle speaks volumes about its double-standards on issues of martyrdom. What it also hints at is that the Taliban is no longer interested in negotiating from a position of strength alone. Rather, it wants to establish its control over the process in a manner that makes the negotiations more about it than peace per se. In these circumstances, it would not be surprising if the so-called “red lines” such as adherence to the constitution of Afghanistan, women’s rights, etc. are either watered-down or in the worst case, removed.

Fighting Back, But for Whom?

The government of Afghanistan led by President Ashraf Ghani has responded to such speculations in a uniquely nationalist fashion. To begin with, the government’s concern at being sidelined in the US-led peace process was demonstrated by Ghani at the Geneva Conference that was organized in November 2018. Distinguishing between a false and genuine sense of urgency, the President of Afghanistan was essentially criticizing the fast pace at which Zalmay Khalilzad has been conducting the peace negotiations. That the Taliban refused to even acknowledge the presence of the Afghan government’s delegates at the meeting in Abu Dhabi was bound to upset those in power in the country. And, so it did.

In what appears to be a calculated move, Ghani has selected two staunchly anti-Taliban and pro-war faces to run his defense and interior ministries — Asadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh respectively. The purpose, apparently, is to send a signal at two levels — international and domestic. This posturing, consequently, carries a lot of symbolic weight and which may, in the future, reap material benefits, particularly for Ghani.

Massoud, Afghanistan’s National Hero (Photo Credit: Chayanika Saxena)

Internationally, the selection of these former intelligence officers to key positions in the Ghani cabinet, who are vocally anti-Pakistan and believe that military victory over the Taliban is possible, conveys a message that the government Afghanistan has a mind of its own. In choosing people who are at odds with Khalilzad’s mandate, this looks like Afghanistan’s way of reclaiming its space in the recent American-led negotiations that have clearly neglected it.

Domestically, this move has something to say about the internal politics of Afghanistan — that this shuffle is nothing new and is merely an attempt to keep the power circulating among the Pashtuns of the west. According to a source, the changes in (key) ministerial positions closer to the election dates has become kind of a norm in the country. Moreover, this co-optation looks more like a political deal between Ghani and his competitor, Hanif Atmar, to accommodate each other’s political interests. Per my source, one can see the traces of the backdoor dealings that had taken place between the former President Hamid Karzai and Ghani to keep the former in power for two full tenures. History is merely repeating itself this time around too.

Jittery India, Confident China

Having been neglected by the American-led peace negotiations all this while, the murmurs of a possible troop withdrawal had to obviously disconcert India. It looked like that the country had once again lost the game while the importance of Pakistan to all this has been in ascendance despite all the American strictness. However, the forthcoming participation by Khalilzad in the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi might soothe some nerves, although it would be wise to not to keep the hopes for clarification too high. Maybe it is in the light of this realization that India has intensified discussions with other stakeholders, including China and Russia, to reiterate their collective stance in ensuring that the peace process in Afghanistan is both Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.

China, on the other hand, is taking concrete measures to strengthen the Beijing-Islamabad-Kabul trilateral by bridging the trust gap between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much like Saudi Arabia, which is said to be acting as a guarantor in the talks between the US and the Taliban, China too has assumed for itself a similar role of mediation between these two neighboring countries in South Asia. To this effect, not only has it concluded multiple security agreements with both Afghanistan and Pakistan but has also supported former’s bid for reconciliation at forums like the UN.

In the meantime, Afghanistan’s meandering path to peace has taken a few more turns once again with the destination still far away. The end to overt violence in Afghanistan through ceasefires can be effective only when the lateral forms of troubles are addressed through intra-Afghan consensus. Here I agree with Ghani when he says that enduring peace cannot be achieved in a hurry. For it to be sustainable, the peace which is attained has to be inclusive. But how much longer will it still take for this war-ravaged country to see the dawn of the day? Geopolitical will and statesmanship hold the answer to it.

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