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Afghanistan Transition 2014: Discerned Probabilities

By Ahsan ur Rahman KHAN (Pakistan)

Afghanistan Transition 2014: Discerned Probabilities

Discernment of the probable form of the political transition of Afghanistan is one of the focal points of concern of the governments and public of Afghanistan, Pakistan and US, besides the regional countries and US’ major ISAF partners. Recent break down of the dialogue between US and Taliban – the two major ‘contenders’ in the transition issue – has once again stocked the lurking fears of ultimate failure of peaceful transition endeavours, which could result in very serious problems for a ‘safe’ withdrawal of US/NATO military, and a resumption of infighting in the country. There are also fears that even if US manages to ‘bring about’ some sort of governmental arrangement in 2014, it may not sustain. This particular fear is mostly based upon an oft-projected perception that Afghans – Pashtuns and others alike – lack the mindset for establishing an inclusive governmental arrangement in their multi-ethnic society. Though these fears are not totally unfounded, yet a very careful analysis of the situation does reflect a visible ray of hope too. Factually, the key for a realistic analysis in this highly complex issue lies in correctly discerning the ‘residual’ political ambitions of US and Taliban in the current and projected timeframe internal situation to evaluate the chances of agreement or otherwise between these two sets of ambitions – for, an agreement clearly presents much higher probability of a peaceful and sustainable transition, irrespective of the other  ‘stake-holding’ counties; and, obviously a disagreements presents the chances of gloom.

It is well known that US’ actual ambitions in invading Afghanistan were to attain its objectives of gaining geopolitical control of the energy-rich Eurasia, and then to gravitate its thus acquired geostrategic weight towards Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asian States, and Russia. For that purpose, US chose the dominantly Tajik group of Afghans, generally known as the Northern Alliance, to be the ‘Afghan segment’ of US’ war against the then Taliban government of the country. That was one of the very basic mistakes in US’ planning. There is no doubt that Northern Alliance was the traditional opponent of the Pashtun dominated Taliban, but the fact cannot be overlooked that all through Afghanistan’s history Pashtuns, being the dominant majority, have ruled the country. The only instance of Tajik’s rule was when Tajik leader Bacha Saqao captured Kabul, but he too was defeated and driven out by Pashtuns within one year. Similarly the Soviet implanted Northern Alliance government in Kabul also melted away when repeatedly attacked by the Taliban. And, US authorities obviously cannot be unmindful of the fact that their arrangement of installing and supporting a government in the country, composed basically of Northern Alliance and associated warlords with Mr. Hamid Karzai ‘presenting a Pashtun face’ of the government, has also not worked out despite over a decade of brutal US/NATO military operations. This aspect of US’ failure in deriving the desired results, from its own Northern Alliance and associated warlords combine governmental arrangement in Afghanistan despite massive application of military force for over a decade, is very important to be kept in mind while evaluating the probabilities related to the forthcoming transition which US wishes to bring about in the country.

It is evident that after trying its utmost in vain for over a decade, US had to acknowledge that it could not continue its military occupation of Afghanistan in the hope of a final subjugation of Taliban before withdrawing its operation-oriented military from that country. And that, under the by then developed severe pressure of its own public, it had to reduce its original ambitions to merely the attainment of certain ‘residual’ objectives – two of those are clearly discernable. First is the critical objective of arranging an assured ‘safe exit’ of its military personnel and material – for, any further loss of lives of their own kith and kin in Afghanistan is now simply beyond the US’ public to bear; and that, any loss of its military equipment, some of which is sensitive, is bound to badly tarnish its proclaimed ‘super power prestige’. Second is the vital objective of ‘salvaging’ at least some of the aspects of the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership arrangement agreed upon by presidents Obama and Karzai, albeit the fate of which still hangs in uncertainty. These two objectives are also of high significance in evaluation of the ‘transition issue’.

To add to these hard ground realities, there are many more problem areas which de-limit US’ options for arranging the transition. Many credible publications clearly indicate those problems. One of those is from Anthony H. Cordesman. It is titled ‘Afghanistan from 2012-2014: Is A Successful Transition Possible?’, published by Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) on 19 June 2012. Right in the beginning of his publication, Cordesman mentions that US’ plan of transition in Afghanistan lacks the crucial requirement of planning i.e. a clear definition of the mission. And. while referring to President Obama’s speech of 1 May 2012 in which Obama announced the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, Cordesman made certain very important observations: “President Obama’s latest definition of “transition” was far more modest than the ambitious goals for transformation and regional stability the US and its allies initially set in 2002, and it still left many of the key aspects of “transition” undefined. — It did not provide any specific goals for development, democracy, or human rights”; —- “The President did make it clear that “transition” would not mean an end to long-term US support of Afghanistan”; —- “However, the President did not call for the defeat of the Taliban and other insurgents, and did not call for the total elimination of all forms of terrorist presence”; and “The definition of “transition,” and the US mission in Afghanistan, had become conditional, and would be determined by the course of events, rather than defined as a set of specific goals”. The first observation regarding President Obama’s latest (2012) definition of transition being far more modest than the ambitious goals set out in 2002, corroborates the earlier mentioned discernment of US’ compulsion to be content with the much scaled down ‘residual ambition’ of attaining just the couple of rather ‘limited’ objectives. The observation that President Obama left many aspects of transition undefined, even leaving out the mention of defeating Taliban, clearly showed that the current US’ strategy is ‘open-ended’, focusing mainly on establishing such a political transition arrangement which may assure attainment of its two aforementioned ‘residual objectives’ irrespective of the form and manner of formulation of the government, (even if Taliban form or lead the government). The reason for this major change in US’ strategy can be easily understood by having a careful look at the challenges faced by US.

The most significant of the transition challenges faced by US has been pointed out by Cordesman: “As noted earlier, the challenge is not to have a “good” or “honest” election between 212 (2012) and 2014, it is to create an effective Afghan leadership and political structure”. And obviously, that requirement can only be met if the upcoming Afghanistan government meets two fundamental conditions:

(1) that it is considered by the majority of Afghans as corruption-free and competent to work for the socio-economic alleviation of the masses; and

(2) that it is capable of establishing and maintaining law and order during and after US/NATO military withdrawal.

For that purpose, US has two options, either to bring about a governmental arrangement based upon the Northern Alliance and associated warlords, supported by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); or to have a government based upon or led by Taliban. However, the chances of US adopting the Northern Alliance group option have become very low. That is so, because despite being in the government with full US/NATO support for over a decade Northern Alliance has not only failed to deliver, it has also caused the germination of severe governance problems. Their poor governance capacity is clearly elaborated even in the US’ Department of Defence Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, April 2012. It highlights, “However, the capacity of the Afghan Government and the extension of effective governance and rule of law have been limited by multiple factors, including widespread corruption, limited human capacity, and uneven concentration of power among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains and threaten the legitimacy and long-term viability of the Afghan Government”. This finding leaves no doubt about the incapacity of any government formed or led by Northern Alliance in both the aspects of assuring the required security (law and order) and political viability.

It is noteworthy that these remarks of US’ official document are rather mild. The severity of the adverse conditions has been elaborated more clearly in many other documents and reports. The report of UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan, titled ‘Corruption in Afghanistan: Recent Patterns and Trends’, of December 2012 presents the factual position by highlighting that corruption is seen by Afghans as one of the most urgent challenges facing their country; that the delivery of public services remains severely affected by bribery in Afghanistan; and that in 2012 half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service and the total cost of bribes paid to public officials amounted to US$ 3.9 billion which amounted to an increase of 40 per cent between 2009 and 2012. And regarding the actual state of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) the fact is that while their numerical strength has risen quite a lot, their operational worthiness suffers from serious problems. CNN’s report, titled ‘Are the Afghans Really Ready to Take over Security?’ dated 20 June 2013, brings to fore that despite its remarkable growth rate, ANSF has faced soaring casualties, rising attrition and desertion rates, Taliban infiltration, illiteracy and corruption, and a desertion rate of as much as 10 percent. In addition, elements of the ANSF are riddled with sexual and drug abuse, extortion, routine kidnapping, and they are often complicit in insider attacks. Factually the desertion rate in ANSF appears to be still higher, as mentioned in Daily The News of 6 February 2013, “ISAF figures suggest that 27% of Afghan Army deserted in the year 2012, 16.8% of Afghan Police and 14% of Afghan Air Force. Most of them allegedly join the insurgents along with their weapons and in some cases vehicle too.

It is obvious that the Taliban leadership is also fully aware of these ground realities, and is expected to formulate its political ambitions relating to the transition issue capitalising on this situation. However, the question remains whether the Taliban would use this situation to force US to accept their much ambitious hard line political demands, or would they prefer a rational approach?

Matthieu Aikins, a journalist based in Kabul has referred to and commented upon a classified report of US’ officials relating to Taliban in Afghanistan, in his article of 9 March 2013. That secret report, of US’ officials at Bagram base in Afghanistan, is based upon the information obtained from the captured insurgents, and it provides quite credible insight into the ground realities, within the framework of which Taliban leadership is more likely to formulate its strategy relating to the transition issue. This report was meant for circulation in ISAF. It is titled “State of the Taliban“, 6 January 2012 (Secret/Re. ISAF). . Some of the excerpts of that report, which provide the required insight, are:

“In the last year there has been unprecedented interest, even from GIRoA (Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) members, in joining the insurgent cause. Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over GIRoA, usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders. The effectiveness of Taliban governance allows for increased recruitment rates which, subsequently, bolsters their ability to replace losses”;

“Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their contol (control) of Afghanistan is inevitable. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset”;

“Since 2010, Taliban strategic messaging has focused increasingly on redefining the Taliban “Emirate” as a legitimate government. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a relative moderate and reputed pragmatist, serves as the Taliban’s deputy commander, directly subordinate only to Mullah Mohammad Omar”;

“Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, have publicly related a somewhat clearer and more consistent vision for a future Taliban government in Afghanistan, one which ostensibly advocates acceptance of all Afghan ethnic groups and distances the group from international extremism”;

“The Taliban have publicly relayed their intention to include all Afghan tribes, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashai and Pashtuns in their efforts to rebuild Afghanistan”;

“Throughout Afghanistan, formal and informal agreements between Taliban, Arbakai militias and Afghan intelligence, police and army units have long been a common occurrence”;

“The weapons bazaar in Miram Shah, Pakisan, is increasingly inundated with rifles, pistols and heavy weapons which have been sold by Afghan security forces. Captured photographs of Taliban personnel riding openly in the green Ford Ranger pickup trucks of the Afghan Army are commonplace throughout Afghanistan. These vehicles and weapons were once only acquired on the battlefield. They are now regularly sold or donated by Afghan security forces”;

“Overall contact between Taliban and GIRoA leaders also appears to have increased in the last two years. —– Small, yet quantifiable gestures of support are provided as evidence of the GIRoA official’s interest in cooperation”.

It is known that in many areas of the country, under their de-facto control, Taliban are managing the local affairs. In that context it is significant to note that by this time Taliban have brought in many changes in their pre-2001 system of governance. The mentioned report of US’ officials elaborates those changes comprehensively. In brief, it mentions that in the last two years Taliban leadership continued to refocus from military operations to the establishment of alternative civilian governance.

While Taliban military operations continue to gain media attention, their growing ability to provide essential governmental services has become a strong source of appeal for Afghans.

Taliban have thus developed widespread appeal by returning to simple, values-based administration with overlapping systems of checks and balances to ensure at least the appearance of incorruptibility. It has been achieved through the civilian commission system, which is designed to provide local, Sharia-based government, unbiased mediation, judicial systems free of corruption, as well as an independent voice for civilians who have issues with the Taliban military command.  People are allowed to complain, which is investigated by an independent team which reports directly to the Talban Central Shura.

Civilian commissioners are chosen for their impartiality and local respectability by leaders who are echelons above local Taliban military commanders. — One of the strengths of the civilian commission system is its flexibility in which Taliban provincial governors are free to establish a civilian commission system which suits the needs of their assigned province. People have reported their satisfaction with the system.

The US’ officials report also mentions another significant aspect, i.e. the way of thinking of Afghans. It highlights that “in Afghanistan, the term “liberal values” often equates to civil-war-era lawlessness and chaos, sexual permissiveness and a promotion of secularism. Even relative moderates equate the term “democracy” to liberal, Western values. Democracy, education, religious tolerance , and women’s rights were all common Soviet propaganda themes during the 1979-1989 occupation.

Such themes are largely dismissed in Afghanistan as being concerns of the “red faces,” as the British, Russians and Americans are commonly labeled.

However, combined GIRoA/ ISAF efforts to educate the public on the true definition or societal value of democracy, secularism, tolerance, liberal values and women’s rights have tended, thus far, to be disregarded outright”.

Further more direct and credible reading of Taliban leadership’s way of thinking and ambitions, relating to most aspects of transition (cease fire, elections, formation of government, US’ post-2014 presence in the country, etc.),  were reported in a paper published by the well-known Royal United Service Institute  (RUSI), titled ‘Taliban Perspective on Reconciliation’, September 2012. This paper is based upon the report of RUSI’s team of experts. The team comprised of Michael Semple, Fellow at the Carr Center on Human Rights, Harvard University, and a former deputy to the European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan,  Anatol Lieven Professor of Terrorism and International Relations, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, Theo Farrell Professor of War in the Modern World, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and Rudra Chaudhuri Lecturer in Strategic Studies and South Asian Security, Department of War Studies, King’s College London. The team interviewed four senior interlocutors who referred primarily to the Quetta Shura of Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar which is, as they all confirmed, is the primary vehicle driving the insurgency, and in their view, continues to enjoy the allegiance of other key groups dotting the insurgent landscape. Those interlocutors were: (1) a former Taliban minister familiar with the workings of the Quetta Shura’s Political Committee and closely associated with Mullah Mohammad Omar, (2) a  former Taliban deputy minister and a founding member of the Taliban, (3) a senior former mujahedeen commander and lead negotiator for the Taliban who has never been part of the Taliban but had negotiated key deals between the Taliban and other non-Taliban groups in the 1990s, and (4) an Afghan mediator with extensive experience in negotiating with the Taliban as recently as the late 2000s, and has never officially been part of the Taliban.

It is a comprehensive report. The main aspects of the input provided by the interlocutors, as presented in the paper, are reflected in the following of its excerpts: 

  1. Renunciation of international terrorism and the likes of Al-Qaida can be considered ‘a given’, but it has to be built as a process into a comprehensive peace settlement.
  2. Agreeing to the continuation of drone attacks would be extremely difficult for the Taliban, even if remaining Al- Qaida figures were identified.
  3. No Taliban leader has publicly endorsed the idea of a ceasefire; however it is plausible that the Taliban may support a ceasefire in the right circumstances.
  4. There was no buy-in whatsoever for accepting the Afghan constitution as it is currently lettered and represented, because it is seen as lending authority to the Present Karzai regime; however this issue could be dealt with if the narrative around acceptance presently seen as one akin to surrender is changed, and if the constitution were to be approved by a Loya Jirga or an assembly of sorts with representation from the Taliban.
  5. Taliban have no problem with the idea of parliament or elections. What they may want is some form of clerical role in Afghan government, but without executive authority. Further, the Taliban would want a centralised and undivided state, and would oppose a federal structure.
  6. Regarding formulation of post-conflict government, Taliban felt there was no real foundation for elections in Afghanistan, President Karzai was utterly corrupt and could not be relied upon to deliver clean elections, besides that Taliban cannot support a government run by Karzai. Hence, if an agreement was to be reached, there could be a suggestion that an interim period of three years would be needed between a nominal agreement and elections, which Taliban representatives would campaign like any other candidates.
  7. Taliban may work with other members of the parliament, but there is no chance of working with Hamid Karzai, his family members, and all others who have record of corruption. Since a key imperative for the Taliban in government would be to root out corruption, hence the question is not ‘who the Taliban will work with’, but ‘who is willing and able to work with the Taliban.’
  8. The Taliban are prepared to accept a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, provided that US military bases and continuing presence of soldiers would be acceptable to a level that does not impinge on Afghans independence and religion. The prospect of the US military operating in Afghanistan up to 2024 out of five primary military bases (Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul) could be agreed through negotiation; however Taliban would need to consider this in the context of what is best for Afghan national security.
  9. The US’ presence would be acceptable if it contributed to Afghan security, but not if the Americans launch attacks against neighbours – such as Iran and Pakistan – from Afghanistan.

The foregoing credible information provides a very clear understanding of the ‘actual’ prevailing ground realities in Afghanistan, within the framework of which US and Taliban have to strive for the fulfillment of  their ‘remaining ambitions’ of achieving their ‘residual objectives’. If it is thoughtfully pondered upon in perspective for analysis, it becomes easier to discern the probabilities related to the Afghanistan transition 2014. It makes it clear that on the one hand US has an ‘insurmountable compulsion’ to withdraw safely as planned (critical objective). Besides that US also desires to retain its ‘foot-hold’ in the country in the form of military assistance for training and security alongwith certain of the bases, and some economic assistance. US is in no position to revisit its decision to withdraw as planned, even if it has to accept the re-admission of Taliban in the leading political role, and to compromise a bit in its objective of retaining its ‘foot-hold’. The other matters, like the procedure of forming the next government, its form, etc. may at the most be the ‘bargaining chips’. On the other hand, Taliban have a ‘priority preference’ of bringing an end to the US/NATO military operations to provide the much needed relief to the ‘war-weary’ masses, in a manner that Afghans’ national sovereignty and their ingrained Islamic and traditional values are not impinged (critical objective). However, this is not an ‘insurmountable pressure’ like the one with US – for, Taliban can afford to continue their guerilla operations due to obvious reasons, but US cannot afford to prolong its war. This is a very strong ‘bargaining leverage’ with the Taliban. Those aspects in which Taliban are not likely to compromise are not many. They are not prepared to accept any form of cease-fire, or any other related action, which may appear to Afghans as ‘surrender’. They cannot accept any US’ demand like blanket immunity for US personnel from Afghanistan’s law, or any other such demand which violates Afghans’ sovereignty and their Islamic and traditional values. They are also not likely to accept politically working with Hamid Karzai, his close relatives and others known for corruption. Very obviously, compromise on these by Taliban will be like committing ‘political suicide’. In the rest of the aspects of transition issue, Taliban are more likely not to be rigid, although they may use each of the aspects as ‘bargaining chip’. In essence, therefore, there is a clear ray of hope that US and Taliban, propelled by the ‘marriage of expediency’ (US’ insurmountable pressure and Taliban’s priority preference), will ultimately succeed in arranging the Afghanistan transition, though the proceedings are likely to be ‘anxiously lengthy’, interspersed with many alarming situations. The only ‘disrupting danger’ to such a settlement could be from the known ‘transition spoilers’, who do not want US/NATO to implement their withdrawal as planned.

Brigadier (Retd.) Dr. Ahsan ur Rahman Khan is a post-retirement PhD, and a research-analyst from Pakistan. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily coincide with one’s of the ORIENTAL REVIEW editorial.

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