Afghanistan 2010-2014: A Time of Truth

Ruslan Nadezhdin (Russia)

In June 2010, an impressive international forum was held in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. Many of those who took part felt that Afghanistan’s future military, political and economic development has finally been clarified and defined through 2014. The forum also addressed the establishment of a political dialogue with the “moderate” Taliban. The Taliban responded with a rocket attack on Kabul and, later, attacks on convoys delivering fuel to the international force.

However, the interest in Afghanistan’s future is sparked by the various approaches to the withdrawal dates of US forces—the main strike force of the international military contingent. President Obama gave the date as 2011, but the new American commander, General Petraeus, believes that Americans may need to remain beyond the date indicated by the President.

The main question being asked by the Afghans and everyone outside its borders who are concerned with Afghanistan in one way or another is—what will happen after the Americans leave? Will the Karzai administration hold onto power, and will the government forces succeed in defeating the Taliban or at least cause them significant damage? Or will it suffer the fate of President Najibullah’s regime, which collapsed under mujahedeen attacks after the Soviet 40th Army pulled out?

Avoiding predictions, we believe an analysis of the situation should consider several factors that might affect Afghanistan’s future.

The Taliban managed to hold onto its combat capability after having suffering defeat in late 2001. By taking shelter with their fellow Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, they conserved their strength and waited for the right moment to begin a new offensive. And while madrassa seminarians still join the anti-government forces, their main strike force this time is made up of tribal militias from Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan who decided to act under the banner of the movement that became known as the “Taliban.” And that is fundamentally changing the balance of power because historically in Afghanistan Pashtun militias from border tribes have proven to be a formidable force proficient in guerrilla warfare against foreign armies. “… The first war with England,” notes I. M. Reisner, “was borne entirely by the tribal militia,”[1] as was the second one.

Another factor playing into the hands of the Taliban is the increasing number of victims among the civilian population. The numerous “mistaken” missile and bomb strikes are causing increased discontent and protests by people demanding the immediate withdrawal of foreign forces. Similar sentiments are growing within the international coalition itself, and a number of countries have already announced their intention to withdraw their military forces or reduce their size. Considering that such anti-war sentiments are spreading in the United States itself, al-Qaeda leaders, particularly Ayman al-Zawahiri, are calling on Muslims to step up their pressure on the US government by demanding the speedy withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Given that the United States has withdrawn its combat units from Iraq and is promising to do the same in Afghanistan, we have to conclude that the ease with which Saddam Hussein and Mullah Mohammed Omar were overthrown ultimately failed to yield the anticipated results and only stirred up ethnic and religious strife in those countries.

Thus, Washington’s main goal—to punish the Taliban for harboring bin Laden, who organized a terrorist attack against the United States, capture him and bring him to justice—has not been achieved. Al-Qaeda and bin Laden remain out of reach, and the Taliban and new Islamic groups like Jaish Muslimin that keep emerging in Afghanistan are carrying out terrorist attacks in Kabul and in provincial centers.

The situation in Afghanistan today cannot be viewed separately from the situation in neighboring Pakistan. The unprecedented flooding that affected the northwest and central regions of the country (Swat, Khyber Pashtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, and others), that is, some of the areas where the Pakistani Taliban have been actively fighting government forces, has paradoxically given radical Islamist organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Society) the opportunity to use a tactic whereby it takes over part of the functions of the government, which was helpless against the raging elements, provide assistance to the affected population and thereby win its sympathy. And the tactic has worked. (That tactic was first used by the Muslim Brotherhood, which aided Egyptians affected by an earthquake in 1992. Radical Islamist ideologue Nasser bin Hamad al-Fahd recommended in The Management of Savagery that Islamists initially create chaos in a country and organize riots that can be directed against the government and exploited to strengthen their position in the society). [2]

A favorable environment for mobilizing the Taliban was created by the separatist sentiments of some non-Pashtun ethnic groups who favored a federal system for the country in contrast to the Pashtuns, who supported a unitary state with a strong central government.

The situation eventually split the country along ethnic and territorial lines. Moreover, the feudal lords, tribal elders, and former mujahedeen warlords who divided the country into spheres of influence are only nominally subject to Kabul and actually rule their fiefdoms as a law unto themselves. Governors appointed by the central government sometimes prefer to compromise with the Taliban rather than fight them. Not even officials in Kabul deny that a number of areas are under Taliban control. Under the circumstances, President Karzai’s efforts to open a dialogue with the “moderate Taliban” (if such actually exist) are turning out to be ineffective. And it is meaningless to negotiate with Mullah Omar and his inner circle, which is under bin Laden’s influence, because the Taliban view Karzai’s peace proposals as a sign of weakness and will continue increasing combat operations and organizing more terrorist attacks.

The “moderate” Taliban might possibly enter peace negotiations if US and NATO forces were to win a few major victories over the Taliban with the support of government troops.

Of course, the Taliban should not be demonized. It would be incorrect to assume that all Pashtuns support and look forward to their return to power and the establishment of what the newspaper Mashal calls “Holy Fascism” and the transformation of Afghanistan into a center of international terrorism led by bin Laden. The Afghans have very bitter memories of their rule, when people lived in fear of repression and violence disguised by Islamist slogans.

Is there a way out of the Afghan deadlock? One aspect of the mentality of Afghans who are tired of 30 years of war and are waiting for its conclusion is germane to the prospects for a peaceful solution of the conflict. The Afghan scholar Sayed Abdullah Kazim has this to say about it: “A common trait of our people is that we have never ended a war without peacekeeping mediators because, according to tradition, for one side to stop fighting and initiate negotiations is seen as weakness, as defeat, and is considered a disgrace. Therefore, Afghans traditionally resort to mediation by peacekeepers who separate the warring factions. A Loya Jirga—a grand assembly—usually functions as that institution.”

Today, however, the current Loya Jirga is not an institution whose decisions would be binding on all ethnic groups. Tajik leaders say that the Loya Jirga is just a Pashtun tribal gathering, and they refuse to acknowledge its decisions. After analyzing the reasons why numerous jirgas have failed to stop the war, Kazim believes that, first of all, they failed because of a loss of trust in the institution and the incompetence of its members, as well as interference by outside forces.[3] Perhaps now we need other, more effective tools with both military and economic aspects to influence the opposing sides.

And finally: the unprecedented meeting in 2010 between President Dmitry Medvedev and the heads of three Asian nations—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan— allows us to draw the following conclusions. First, Russia still has respect and influence in Asia, and it is difficult to imagine solving regional problems without Moscow’s cooperation. Second, the leaders of those countries most likely were inspired to travel to Russia by their extreme concern about the increasing level of activity by Islamic radicals, who will attempt to seize power in those countries after the Americans leave Afghanistan. The signs that they are stepping up their activities are quite remarkable: recent terrorist attacks in Kabul, Lahore, Quetta, Khujand and Dushanbe, as well as attacks by Islamists on Tajik government forces.

These fears are not unfounded—analysis of the domestic political situation in all three countries raises concern about the weakness of their central governments and increased opposition that is clearly influenced by Islamists, from the Taliban and Islamist parties in Pakistan, and al-Qaeda, to Hizb-ut-Tahrir in central Asia. That is why the current leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan are rushing to extract promises from Moscow to support them in the event that armed Islamist insurgencies occur with the argument that Russia’s security will be threatened by the emergence of an “Islamist belt” on its southern borders.

Of course, a visit to Russia by the leaders of three Muslim countries provides an additional opportunity to improve relations with the Islamic world; still, involvement in this contentious region, especially military engagement, could entail unpredictable consequences. Acting on its paramount national interests, however, Russia could function as a peacekeeping mediator, possibly in conjunction with such other influential countries in the region as India and China—the more so because there are countries in the region willing to become involved in the Afghan conflict. In October 2010, an official Iranian delegation took part for the first time in a NATO conference that discussed a strategy for transferring responsibility for security and stability in the country to the Afghans themselves. That was a clear sign that the Iranian government, which previously had pushed for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and refused to participate in the International Contact Group on Afghanistan, has decided to change its tactics and intends to play a more active role in Afghanistan’s future. Iran’s secret transfer of cash amounting to 980 million euros to Kabul in 2010 shows how serious their intentions are.

Ruslan Nadezhdin is a historian, orientalist and political scientist.

[1] I. M. Reisner. Independent Afghanistan [Nezavisimyy Afganistan], Moscow: 1929, с. 79

[2] Abu Bakr Naji. Idarat al-Tawahush. Trans. by William McCants, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point: http://ctc.usma.edu/publications/pdf/Management_of_Savagery.pdf.

[3] Sayed Abdullah Kazim. Afganistan Dar Telseme Deyreye Sheitani Mosibat, Peshawar: 1997, pp. 64-66.

Source: New Eastern Outlook

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