US’s deepening Afghan quagmire

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US’s deepening Afghan quagmire

A US withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan is likely to bring down the Kabul regime. The belief that this will not affect American fortunes is untenable

The recent joint attack by the Islamic State (IS) and Taliban, which killed over 50 persons in Afghanistan’s Mirzawalan village in the northern Sar-e-Pul Province, was the third joint operation by the two organisations in recent times. This suggests a significant turn in their relationship. They had, until recently, clashed regularly in search of supremacy ever since the IS established a foothold in eastern Afghanistan in 2015. The already beleaguered Afghan Government would find itself in serious difficulty if the new-found cooperation continues.

Also meriting attention is the report that the massacre occurred after the Afghan Local Police (ALP) guarding the village was overcome in a 48-hour-long battle. The positive side here is that, unlike on many past occasions, when uniformed forces fled at the beginning of trouble, the ALP fought. More important, this is not the first time when the Afghan Army and the other constituents of the security forces have shown a willingness to fight.

The negative aspect is that the unit was defeated. This could be because it was heavily outnumbered, and/or because of the known weaknesses afflicting the Afghan security forces—poor leadership and inadequate training, weapons and equipment. Unless the insufficiencies in each of these areas are addressed, one cannot rule out the possibility of the Afghan forces going under.

The Taliban have, of late, been increasing the scale and frequency of their terror attacks to demoralise the Afghan public and Government forces. Its truck bomb attack in the diplomatic quarter in Kabul on May 31 killed over 150 and wounded over 300 persons. It was followed by another in the same city that killed over 30 persons and injured over 40 on June 25. On August 2, an IS attack on the Shia Jawadia mosque in Herat was initially estimated to have killed, according to one estimate, over 50 persons and wounded over 60.

These are only a few of the numerous recent attacks by the Taliban, IS and Al Qaeda which have terrorised people over large swathes of Afghanistan. As a result, the Government has been losing control over increasingly large tracts. Its survival may eventually be threatened if the tide does not turn. Almost everything here would depend on the United States’ role. The tide may turn if it reinforces its troops and widens the latter’s area of operations against the Taliban and other groups. Withdrawal of American military presence will cause widespread demoralisation among Afghanistan’s public, the Government and the security forces and remove critical stiffening from the ranks of the latter, making them unable to hold their own against the relentlessly advancing forces of the Haqqani network, the Taliban, IS and Al Qaeda, backed by Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the United States’ role has been marked by a lack of resolution, faulty assessment of ground realities, and an unwillingness to seriously deal with Pakistan’s provision of support and sanctuary to the Taliban, which has enabled the latter to survive and strike back. The most striking example of Washington’s failure to read ground realities was its invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was launched partly on the totally unwarranted assumption by President George Bush Jr and his aides that the Afghan war had been won and military forces and equipment, critically important for victory against the Taliban, could be diverted to Iraq.

This diversion undermined the gains in the campaign against the Taliban, who had been driven to the wall, and enabled them to stage a comeback. US President Donald Trump, who is pondering a new Afghanistan policy and a radical shake-up of his national security team, has talked of firing General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan. He has yet to approve the Pentagon’s new Afghanistan war strategy which includes the addition of up to 4,000 new American troops to expand the training of Afghan military forces and beef-up US counter-terrorism operations. There has also been consultation with countries like India, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran.

The point is simple. A US withdrawal now is likely to bring down the present Kabul regime sooner than later. The belief that this will not affect American fortunes is untenable. Given the jihadi goal of worldwide establishment of shari'ah rule, a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will once again become an exporter of terror, which in turn may lead to another 9/11.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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