Hedging Bets on the Taliban Regime

By Shaista Riaz, Research Associate at Pakistan House

There are major decisions that need to be made especially when we are witnessing a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The Afghani citizens and world leaders share one common dilemma, will the Taliban go back to its old ways or is it safe to trust the Taliban? Either way, the main goal should be to avert the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and gradually build a peaceful bridge between the Taliban and the rest of the world. This article aims to present an analysis of the current diplomatic setting affecting Afghanistan and provide brief recommendations.

Afghanistan in the last two decades built itself on an American model with no efforts to sustain it after the US left. According to more than 2000 pages of documents obtained by the Washington post, military commanders, diplomats, and aid workers revealed privately and in blunt terms, the US presence in Afghanistan to be an unclear mission, a failed strategy, and an effort to sway public opinion. For example, the Afghan government relied on foreign grants that financed around 75 percent of the public spending. This means that under the Taliban control that money will presumably dry up and the economy is poised to collapse. But it is not just about the foreign grants, the economy is danger from a major brain drain. Since the doctors, lawyers, and other skilled workers are fleeing the country, leaving Afghanistan with limited gains achieved in the past two decades. This is because the gains made under the US presence were not secured and the Afghan citizens are suddenly presented with a dilemma.
So, after twenty years of war in Afghanistan, many Afghans are left traumatized or have been killed by the Taliban, all while the overall sentiment is of deep betrayal. This sense of betrayal has emerged from the un-sustained efforts made by the US administration and by the US servicemen who executed those efforts, who are left questioning what it was all for. Hence, the US does have a clear obligation to take in the Afghan citizens who do not feel safe and grant them humanitarian parole.

Besides, China and Pakistan can play a major role by helping Afghanistan in its humanitarian crisis. Which could lead to stronger ties with the Afghan government. As Beijing is expected to recognise the Taliban regime, it may be futile to believe that the Central Asian states will not eventually recognize the Afghan government. One of the reasons for this possibility is because the Central Asian states have been an active part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Although the debt burden is increasing in Central Asia, the countries have become dependent on the vested interests of Russia and China. Regardless of the prospect, Beijing has created an economic dependency of Central Asian states on China. This raises a question as to what extent would the economic dependency of Central Asian states can affect their diplomatic decisions? The general idea does dictate that the economic leverage can dictate the political decisions of a country.

Since the discovery of valuable minerals in Afghanistan, the bordering countries can envision a greater outcome of BRI’s presence in Asia. Russia has maintained security presence in Central Asia. However, Russian officials are now downplaying the Taliban’s threats, this could be because a Taliban government would be simpler to work with than the UN-backed government that has now departed. There is no doubt that the Taliban will be a difficult partner for China. Significant uncertainty surrounds the Taliban leadership’s idea of Islamic beliefs, as well as how this may affect the group’s foreign policy, particularly toward its Central Asian neighbours.

Another dimension focuses on the trade relations of Afghanistan that could stabilise the country to some extent and serve as a bridge between Afghanistan and the rest of the world. This can be seen with regards to trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan that might result in revenue benefits on both sides. After prolonged uncertainty in Kabul, exporters from Pakistan have resumed supplying goods to Afghanistan. In particular, the rise in fruit export from Afghanistan has been noticeable. Hundreds of trucks lined the Khyber Pass, the key road that connects Pakistan and Afghanistan across the Torkham border. They are loaded with food and are ready to cross the border into Afghanistan’s eastern Jalalabad. Trucks usually carry cement, sugar, flour, cooking oil, salt, bananas, pomegranates and other food items to Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan’s Finance and Revenue Minister, Shaukat Tarin, told the Senate Standing Committee on Finance that trade with Afghanistan would now be in rupees in order for the government to save its dollar revenues. Thus, recognising the need for bilateral trade with Afghanistan would not only benefit Afghanistan’s stability but also allow countries to construct sustainable markets with the new Taliban regime.

The least we could do is help alleviate the humanitarian crisis which is only achievable once the countries recognise their priorities, that is to support the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime also needs to understand that its actions in Afghanistan will be the determining factor for achieving the trust of its Afghan citizens and of the world leaders. One of the ways to achieve stability in Afghanistan is through establishing bilateral trade and allowing the market forces to engage Afghanis in economic participation. Moreover, in order to settle the fear of Afghan citizens, the US, Pakistan, and China can encourage soft power diplomacy towards the Taliban for long-term gains from economic and security aspects. As for Central Asian states, it is advisable for them to work alongside the Taliban to ensure the progress of BRI investments in their countries.

China’s Interests in Afghanistan: Post U.S. Military Withdrawal

By Zara Qurban

Since the withdrawal of the U.S. troops and its European allies after decades of war in April 2021, Afghanistan is entangled in the wickedest kind of security. Afghanistan’s commandeering by the Taliban after the U.S. military withdrawal has presented the regional States with many new emerging challenges. An abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan has created a huge power vacuum and neighboring States are extending helping hands to avert the possible fall of Afghanistan.
Countries such as Pakistan, Russia, India, Iran and Turkey have their own grounds to intervene but now the global are on China including re-evaluating its persistent ‘non-interference’ policy. China was against the invasion of the U.S. military and also opposed the abrupt withdrawal stating that it will leave Afghanistan in mayhem. China’s Foreign Ministry said “the recent abrupt U.S. announcement of complete withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan has led to a succession of explosive attacks throughout the country, worsening the security situation and threatening peace and stability as well as people’s life and safety.”
Many spectators are considering the exchange of dialogues between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Taliban leaders an attempt by China to exert more influence in the region. But, China does not look at Afghanistan from the lens of prospects, the Chinese influence and involvement, especially after the U.S. military withdrawal, is all about the management of threats. Another observation entails that Chinese political and economic interest in Afghanistan revolve around the wariness of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for militant groups targeting China like the last time Taliban were in power.
Though Mullah Baradar and Wang Yi in Tianjin have been in contact for decades, the Taliban’s ideological agenda does not fit well with China. Andrew Small, Associate Senior Policy Fellow, states, “China certainly has substantial commercial and economic interests in the wider region, but they are minimal in Afghanistan itself. Its major investments there, the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya energy projects, have been in stasis for many years. There have been numerous discussions about Afghanistan’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative, including connections to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but Beijing’s view has been that, in Afghanistan, stability has to precede serious new economic commitments.” Other than copper, Afghanistan has untouched mines of minerals such as cobalt, iron, mercury and lithium which are estimated to the value of about $1 trillion.
In order to maintain better political and economic relations with Afghanistan, China offered to rebuild the infrastructure “by funneling funds directly to the group through Pakistan.” As a result to continuous exchange of dialogues and China’s commitment of support in Afghanistan, the spokesman for the Taliban Political Office in Qatar established that they recognize China “as a friend of Afghanistan”, he also stated that Taliban and Afghanistan will no longer provide refuge or safe haven to Muslim Uyghurs. On one occasion the Chinese foreign minister said that Taliban are expected “to play an important role in the progress of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”
China’s policy towards Afghanistan is primarily based on the security implications resulting from the U.S. and Taliban peace agreement, which China believes in not going in the right direction. The disturbances, instability and radicalization will eventually seep through the borders into China. As per the researchers based in Afghanistan, “through military assistance, China helped Kabul build its military mountain brigade in the Wakhan Corridor near Afghanistan’s northern Badakhshan province with the primary goal of preventing infiltration by the Islamic State into China.” It is believed that Beijing will keep close bilateral ties with Afghanistan in order to tightly manage any spill over into China by engaging all its diplomatic energies because it fears that the success of Taliban might encourage militant groups to carry out terror activities. If the security situation becomes better in Afghanistan, China is likely to go forward with more investment plans and programs but it will be very cautious.

One Day International Conference on “Afghanistan Crisis: What Lies Ahead?”

One-day international conference on “Afghanistan Crisis: What Lies Ahead?” was organized by Pakistan House on Monday, March 19, 2018 at a local hotel in Islamabad. The conference mainly focused on understanding various factors of instability in Afghanistan and how Pak-Afghan alliance can better serve economic, security and peace in the region. The conference also aimed to identify the possible measures that how Afghanistan can address Pakistan’s concerns about India’s negative presence on its soil and how Pakistan can help countering economic and security challenges that are relevant for the regional stability. An effort was made to develop a solution based approach, in order to assess future policy options.

The dignitaries of the conference included, Lt Gen Asif Yasin Malik HI (M) (Retd.), former Defence Secretary, Dr Abdul Baqi Amin Director General, Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies (CSRS), Kabul, Mr Jean-Francois Cautain Ambassador, Delegation to the European Union to Pakistan, Ambassador Syed Abrar Hussain (Retd.), former Ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan, Mr Rahimullah Yousafzai Resident Editor, The News International, Peshawar and Correspondent BBC World Service, Maj. Robert Gallimore (Retd.) Defence Analyst, Brig Ishaq Ahmed (Retd.), Director, International Security, SASSI, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee, General Ehsan ul Haq (Retd.), HI (M) NI (M), Lt. Gen Khalid Rabbani (Retd.), former MD, Army Welfare Trust, Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, Founder and Chairman of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan, Dr. Khurram Iqbal, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, National Defence University, Islamabad.

Lt Gen Asif Yasin Malik HI (M) (Retd.), former Defence Secretary, in his opening remarks said that Afghanistan is more important to Pakistan than any other country in the region. He argued that unstable Afghanistan is a great threat for Pakistan and instability in Afghanistan is a direct threat to CPEC. He recommended that border control should be strengthened in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries should take extra steps for bilateral trade and Pakistan has to assure that its soil should not be used against Afghanistan.

Dr Abdul Baqi Amin Director General, Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies (CSRS) added that the people and government of Pakistan have helped Afghanistan with the most difficult conditions during the battle of the Soviet Union, with more than five million Afghan refugees in their homeland, and so far, about two million Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan. He argued that good governance in both countries was badly damaged by political instability and failed to properly manage the facilities in the two countries. For this reason, both countries are struggling for good governance. The necessity of governance for the people of both countries is urgent and fundamental, and the people of both neighboring countries are severely affected by the lack of good governance. He stressed that serious efforts need to be made to build trust between the two countries. In his view, negotiations against each other should be stopped. The door to dialogue and understanding should be left open forever and all the demands will be clearly discussed with each other. Civil society organizations should play a constructive role in resolving tensions between the two countries, especially search centers should play an effective role in expressing the consequences of tensions between the two countries, try to convince the politicians of the need for regional cooperation to be a positive influence on decision-making directions.

Mr Jean-Francois Cautain Ambassador, Delegation to the European Union to Pakistan, suggested that the safety of the population in both countries is important. Suspension of dialogue between the two states should be eradicated. We should focus on the economy and security to solve the Afghan crisis.

Rana Athar Javed, DG Pakistan House argued that reconciliation and negotiation would become the only way forward as the loss of lives and property in Afghanistan has marred the aspirations of emerging Afghan youth. The US and its allies need to provide a comprehensive support system, and they should allow a regional stability approach involving China, Russia, and Iran. On principles, Pakistan does not object to India’s role in helping Afghanistan’s development sector, but Afghanistan must address Pakistan’s genuine concerns about India’s support to foreign militants especially TTP. The Pak-Afghan alliance in eliminating the network of foreign militants on Afghan soil is vital. He concluded that the issue of border management should be resolved through implementing mutually agreed immigration regulations.

Maj. Robert Gallimore (Retd.) Defence Analyst, stressed that the situation in 2018, is very different, India is pouring money into Kabul and into plethora of proxy actors across Afghanistan, using Afghan soil to destabilize Pakistan. In his view, Indo-Afghan alliance offers very little benefit to India beyond frightening Pakistan. What Kabul and Islamabad must do is to learn how to manage the borders effectively so that the border mismanagement does not affect the wider security of the region.

Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, Founder and Chairman of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan, said that India has used Afghanistan against Pakistan and certain elements in Afghan Government are supporting that. Neighboring countries and Afghan Talibans have to sit together to solve this problem and have to engage in Productive dialogue efforts.

Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee, General Ehsan ul Haq (Retd.), HI (M) NI (M) concluded the event by suggesting that no two countries can be compared in their identical ties with any other country. First the US and the Taliban have never had a fundamental problem, they always said that they are struggling against foreign occupation and they must end linkages with outer extremist networks and foreign forces, and should accept Afghan Constitution. There are three parties to the conflict. The Afghan Government, Taliban and Pakistan. The US must put its conditions on the table for withdrawal from Afghanistan The dialogue must be robust and back channeled between US and Taliban. The ceasefire must come unilaterally from US and the Afghan government.

Slumber of Winter’s Sojourn

By Harriss Ali Akakhail

Winters, across Afghanistan are exacting and extremely harsh at northern side of the country. All major passes and gorges, running north to south and east to west are frozen at this fall and the limited number of access roads in Afghanistan is mostly out of order for vehicles to be play upon it. This climatic change makes the curves over war graphs goes down well and both varying sides i.e talibans and Afghan / Foreign forces takes a deep slumber, to regroup and recuperate well before the start of next spring.

For last 11 years, since the time talibans have announced and launched proper fighting seasons in a year, war commences in Afghanistan well at end of April in a calendar year and spikes up pace till November, amounting to almost 7 months duration. When the fighting season ends, talibans fizzle out for a slumber of winter’s sojourn along with their families, wounded ones recuperates and those who left for eternal abode are being prayed upon. This is the time when talibans elders sits and calculates expenses, dead, injured, attrition ratio, areas gained and lost along with future predictions and game plans. Winters are crucial in a sense that money earned from drug protection routes all over the year are filled in the coffers and payments are done to the weapon suppliers over the black market. While on the other hand afghan and foreign forces also gets off the hook from talibans onslaught and takes time out to rest, revise modules, check on financial exercises, look after the injured, count on the dead ones and jot down future course of actions. So all in all, winters in Afghanistan are actually the time when there is complete lock down from the horrors of war and mayhem of bloodbath.

After US President Donald trump announced his afghan policy review in late august 2017, present winter does not seems to be the one like observer have gauged in last 11 years. During this fall, U.S. /NATO forces are doubling the size of Afghan Special Forces, amounting to 37,000 in numbers, as they seek a future where victories against talibans and ISIS are attained by Afghan Special Forces. In this regard, few months back an Afghan Special Forces corp is also being raised at Kabul. This Special Forces corp is now being backed up by air assets like turbo prop A-29 super Tucanno close air support aircrafts and MD-530F attack helicopters along with Cessna 208 caravan aircraft for intelligence and resonance purposes. This corp size strength shall be ready by all means till the month of April this year, when the fresh fighting seasons beings. Also during this fall, close to 6000 additional U.S. / NATO troops are in process of landing and getting adjusted to Afghanistan’s war. One more vivid change by this fall is that every night there are 8 to 10 daring air raids over Taliban and ISIS-K (khurasan) hideouts across Afghanistan by US Special Forces operators followed by relentless drone and Jet airstrikes. Indeed it’s giving sleepless nights to the talibans / ISIS-K fighters and the old fashion sojourn in winters is a forgone story now. Spike in night raids and drone strikes was perceived after U.S president gave complete leverage to his forces to attain victory by best of all means. Till now, numerical exercises of night raids / drone strikes have earned few dividends to U.S. forces in Afghanistan like the killing of talibans Special Forces commander, Haji Nasir and Al Qaeda important commander, Umer Khitab.

US forces commanders in Afghanistan and afghan top leadership in particular have always complained about a quarter of Taliban fighters, mostly the top leadership, fizzling out to afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during winters for a low activity life oscillating between their families. They claim that winters is an opportune time to pluck these high value targets but limitations bounds them as they are not in afghanistan. But this time, that’s even not the case as Pakistan have strict check and balance system over the borders. Proper visa restrictions are imposed for incoming Afghans and process of registration of all refuges living inside Pakistan have been complete. So, gone are the days of such hypothetical claims and this fall, afghan Taliban top tier shall all be there, inside Afghanistan and it’s up to US intelligence to be agile enough to nab these wanted men.

Then, exceptions are always there, there may be few amongst the top Taliban leadership who would still reside over in Pakistan and that’s the real bone of contention presently tangled between U.S. and Pakistan. As U.S. asks Pakistan to nab them and hand them over while Pakistan recoils back that, we don’t have any information of their movements inside Pakistan and if you have any knowhow of it, identify and we shall act on it. Over numerous occasions in past 3 months, intelligence was shared by U.S. and Pakistani forces promptly acted but to no avail except for one case when the Canadian / US couple was released from the clutches of Haqqanies near Kohat city of Khyber Pukhtoonkhuwa province.

How well this strategy of preparations at this fall like strengthening the strength of afghan commandos along with air assets and relentless aerial bomb runs would be deduced within next few months’ time but during the present course, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan needs to realize that killing top 5 or 10 of Taliban won’t be a bounty over here as they need to focus more on the lines of communications and logistics of Taliban. From where they get an ample supply of weapons and explosives, that question needs to be addressed. Pressurizing Pakistan to get the top 5 wont draw a relative desired results as alternative command structure always persists within Taliban ranks. If one commander dies, within no time the next takes over and he paddles the accelerator with more vigor. A prime example in this this regard would be of Taliban ameer, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor or Haqqanies influential commander Sangeen Zadran as when they both got a hit from a drone strike at different occasions but within no time alternative leadership filled the vacuum.

Harriss Ali Akakhail

The writer is a visiting fellow at Pakistan House and a renowned Journalist & expert on Afghan affairs. He can be reached at haris_k_9@hotmail.com.

The American Intent- Afghanistan

The American Intent- Afghanistan

The Trump policy for Afg-Pak is not new yet it is not old, as Trump was of the view that the US must disengage from Afghan issue and his election campaign or election slogan was to focus on internal matters instead the outside world, which got him into the white house. Recalling his earlier speeches and policy briefs, exit from Afghanistan was a priority and repeatedly stated yet the new Afghan and Pakistan policy emerged, stating induction of more forces and asking Pakistan to do more, an old rhetoric. The worry remains, what is the American intent and why?

Prior to twin tower attacks the CIA was in contact with Ahmed Shah Masood and his other leaders, planning an invasion of Afghanistan to rid populace from Taliban and elimination of OBL network in Afghanistan. CIA had established its base in Kulyab, Tajikistan and in collaboration with Northern Alliance were chalking out strategy for military attack which Ahmed Shah Masood was resisting and asking for the support rather allowing the American forces to invade Afghanistan. Two days prior to 9/11, ASM was killed, the only hurdle against US military adventure and by the end of 2001, operation enduring freedom was launched with objectives still not known to the world. With OBL no more alive, Taliban regime vanished in days, the US forces are still operating in Afghanistan, the longest US war is still on and may continue till foreseeable future in history.

Today it has become evident to the world that the American intent was not only OBL/ Al-Qaeda, nor was it removal of Taliban regime, but the larger objectives were much different. The question remains, was it containment of China, check on Russian influence, close proximity to Iran to respond quickly,  Pakistan Nuclear capping efforts, the Central Asian energy wealth  or the efforts to remain unipolar, that Afghanistan is still under US occupation.

Trump policy

Over one and a half decade, Afghanistan remains highly insecure, Taliban have gained strength instead of having been over powered, ISIS, Khurasan chapter has become a serious threat and is making further grounds, Afghan national security forces (ANSF) are yet not strong and trained adequately to operate independently, Unity Government in Kabul is more fragile and inefficient then Taliban regime. IED attacks, suicide bombing, target killing, air attacks and ground operations by LEAs, is everyday happening, resulting in loss to lives, damage to property and economic down fall.

Will the new American policy of bashing Pakistan yield positive results, will the induction of additional American troops result in improvement of law and order? Is Pakistan abetting Taliban, sheltering and supporting Haqqanis, a terrorist sponsor country and using proxies in Afghanistan? Is Pakistan not doing enough or has not done more than its capacity in war against terrorism. These are very hard questions, whose critical analysis leads to the conclusive outcome that no one country can be blamed for the failure of international response to Afghan crisis.

The American failure in Afghanistan has to be attributed to some and those who may be the next target. Pakistan remains to be on target list owing to its nuclear military capabilities and a probable threat to the American alliance, if allowed to grow beyond certain limits. Therefore the US must maintain certain security levels in Afghanistan to allow un-questioned American presence. The rise and falls in the security graph throughout sixteen years, points towards stated scenario existence and persistence.

Another important observation is that the vested powers have not allowed or made grounds for the peaceful settlement and negotiating the war. Since October 2001, when international forces invaded Afghanistan, all efforts have been initiated towards killing and over powering of the opponents. Peace and reconciliation has not been the priory or objective, therefore all efforts were directed towards continuation of war and success of American policy. This was not a well thought out policy, had it been, the situation in Afghanistan would have been different. Result is that Taliban have re-emerged to fight back, are striking all over, strategic, economic and military targets have been repeatedly targeted with success.

All efforts towards peace and stability have been mal treated either by targeting the leadership who were involved in the process or the trust levels have been breached so that no progress could be made. Taliban demands have never been given due consideration like release of some of the leaders from custody, taking names out of UN watch lists or considering a road map for drawdown from Afghanistan. Process through Qatar office never made headway. Murree initiative was stalled through untimely information leak of Mullah Omar’s death. Killing of Mullah Mansoor was yet another step expanding the trust deficit. Moscow’s effort to broker peace is also not making headway because US cannot and will not allow any other country to take credit. Series of track two are in the market, spending sums of money, yet the process seems to be a futile effort.

The foreseeable days in Afghanistan are hazy towards peace, with fresh forces in the battle field how can one expect peace. Not a single effort of Afghan peace process is making headway. Is peace the objective, if yes, who is working towards peace, if no, who all are benefiting out of war. The answer is simple, has the US attained her objectives, NO. Is India a regional hegemonic state and influencing events in the region, yes to some extent, still need more space and strength. The US is allowing and supplementing Indian dreams, Indo- US defense deal is one good indicator, besides Trump new policy of enhancing Indian role in Afghanistan is making peace a dream.

Options for peace in Afghanistan are limited and none should lead through continuation of war. Taliban can never be completely eliminated as they are from the Afghan soil and will re-emerge. Sixteen years of international efforts and Afghan security apparatus is still infant. Afghan economy is far from being taken as self-sustained, no effort has been initiated towards economic stability. With such state, no short term resolve can bring peace and war is a short term step towards peace.

Negotiating peace with Taliban is the only option. Regional solution and Afghan sought resole is the answer. The directly affected are the regional and neighboring states and not the US, UK, or Japan. Pakistan, Iran, china, Russia and Afghanistan are the losing players, therefore resolve will come through effort from regional countries and not through super and mini super states. Taliban will have to be brought to the negotiating table through accepting some of their demands and accepting them as political entity. Taliban are a reality to reckon with therefore must be engaged and accepted as such

Pakistan and Iran will have to get out of their favorites and work towards larger goals. The US must exit as sixteen years are long enough to prove that they have failed to bring peace. Russia and China should exert maximum to muster peace. India has to accept that she is not a super power and must work towards economic stability rather proxies in Pakistan through Afghanistan. Finally the Afghans have to look inward instead of blaming neighbors and change their belief that world owes them everything even peace.

Brig Ishaq Ahmed

Brig Ishaq Ahmed (retd)

An expert on Afghan and International Security Affairs