First the situation as it obtains at present. Backed to the hilt by the Pakistan military-ISI combine and with secure sanctuaries across the border the Taliban are clearly in the ascendant. They are able to hit almost any place at will with suicide bombers and carry out attacks in strength in selected places. Drug monies provide funds and the Pakistan army arms, intelligence and logistics. They have all the advantages of the attacker being able to choose the time and place of their next incursion at will.
Does this mean that the Taliban as a force are superior to the Afghan National Army? It is not the case. The latter’s mandate is to hold and defend the entire territory of Afghanistan. An onerous task under the prevailing conditions where their principal backers the United States keep reducing their forces, down to 9,000 as per the latest tweet of President Trump. Under the circumstances ANA has done and is doing an amazing job. With sufficient backing they have the ability and will to keep the Taliban at bay and prevent the Taliban from overrunning the country.
The average Afghan dreads what lies ahead for him and his country. They hear loud and clear the statements coming from the representatives of the Taliban in Doha and elsewhere. Here is a statement attributed to the Taliban Emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhandzada. He said that the Taliban do not believe in power sharing, will expel foreign forces, dissolve the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) and implement Shariah. What will happen to the women who are now educated and finding their place in Afghan society?
A word about the myth circulating around the world of Afghanistan being the slayer of empires. Not exactly so on deeper examination. The first such empire, Great Britain, actually had the upper hand in Afghanistan for over seven decades up to the time that they were the masters of undivided India. They quit India in 1947 after dividing the subcontinent. Towards the end of the 20th century they imposed the Durand Line that still holds.
The Russians did a fair amount of good work in Afghanistan including education and women's emancipation. They were defeated by Zbignew Brezinski's strategy of Islamic jihad to oust the communists that haunts the US and the world to this day. Added to that, the sanctuary provided to the mujahideen by Pakistan and the massive military support to them. With only slight hyperbole veterans of the time recall that William Casey the CIA chief spent more time in Peshawar during the campaign to oust the Russians than at Langley, the CIA headquarters in Virginia. In the process he gave the ISI a free run of the premises. The latter made full use of the opportunity to probe every secret activity of the CIA in different parts of the world, especially the region around Afghanistan. That knowledge is still used by the Pakistan ISI to confront the CIA when they hold the former’s feet to the fire from time to time: “We know many of your secrets, so lay off”.
The next were the Americans. President George W Bush instead of consolidating in Afghanistan after the spectacular capture of Kabul by the Northern Alliance and eliminating all remnants of Al Qaeda, Taliban and ISI influence took his eye off the ball and went and attacked Saddam Hussein in Iraq with consequences from which the Middle East has not recovered to this day.
President Barrack Obama made a blunder setting down the time table for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan while agreeing to send in additional troops as requested by the local commanders. From that time on the Taliban felt confident that they simply had to wait it out while inflicting casualties on the US troops whenever they could.
The American deployment in Afghanistan for nearly two decades has not been an abysmal failure. Doubtless they have suffered heavy casualties and expended enormous wealth and have not been able to keep the Taliban in check. However, enormous progress has been made by the people of Afghanistan in modernization, agriculture, infrastructure, and above all women’s education and emancipation. The latter dread the prospect of a Taliban take-over, again pushing them to the dark ages.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was invited to meet the US President in Washington in the second half of July 2019. He was accompanied by two generals including General Bajwa the army chief. Were they minders or tagged along for negotiations with their US counterparts on what exactly they would be able to deliver in Afghanistan after the reset of Pakistan- US relations that has been trumpeted in Pakistan have taken place based on the great bonhomie displayed between the Pakistan prime minister and President Donald Trump. Pakistan has been made many promises for greater financial and even military support from the US provided the former does “much more”.
The question remains whether Pakistan can do much more. The Pakistan prime minister in an interview at USIP in Washington revealed that Pakistan had forty terrorist groups operating in his country with 30,000 to 40,000 terrorists who had fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In the same interview he went on to add that they were being disarmed. Was the prime minister being naïve or serious! The Punjab tanzeems with Lashkar-e-Tayaba at the top have become too big for the Pakistan state, more pertinently the Punjabi army to disarm them. The Punjabi army could run riot suppressing opponents in the provinces of Baluchistan and the tribal areas by using tanks, heavy artillery, F-16 aircraft and helicopter gunships as freely as they wanted. There was no check on them. Large-scale destruction and collateral damage were of no consequence. In fact a few million people were displaced. They still languish without rehabilitation.
Punjab tanzeems in Punjab are an altogether different kettle of fish. Children from poor families send a few boys to the army and an equal number of siblings to the tanzeems. Who is going to kill whom? These tanzeems can paralyse Lahore, Islamabad and other Punjab cities at will. In the past they have been mobilized effectively against the Nawaz Sharif government. Can the Punjabi army use heavy weapons against them in Punjab cities where the terrorist fighters are more than a match in hand-to-hand fighting in built up areas with the army? General Bajwa and his generals are well aware of it. The Lal Masjid attack that led to the downfall of General Musharraf is a memory that continues to haunt the generals. Mr. Imran Khan, as is his wont was tilting at windmills. For details of the Punjab tanzeems attention is drawn to the article that appeared in The Statesman, New Delhi under the title “Have the Pakistan Tanzeems become too hot to Handle”? (March 15, 2019).
Having been involved intimately with every aspect of Pakistan since the partition of India when Pakistan was co-opted to become part of SEATO and CENTO and then even more so during the US assistance in getting the Russians out of Afghanistan the Americans still have not understood the basics of either the make-up or the internal situation that prevails in Pakistan. It is not Pakistan that is backing the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is only the Punjabi army and ISI. Baluchistan wants independence from Pakistan. Amazingly the Punjab army has agreed to raise a division paid for the by the Chinese for deployment in Baluchistan to kill Baluchs – citizens of Pakistan – who oppose the sale of Gwadar to China. Even more remarkably President Trump instead of helping them – in keeping with US interest in the region - in a bizarre turnaround has declared the Baluchistan Liberation Army as terrorists. People are wondering about the quid pro quo by General Bajwa and the prime minister. Sind province of Pakistan, were it to be given half a chance, would secede from Pakistan. Lately the Pashtuns have starting agitating for greater freedom. Outside Punjab and even within people of Pakistan are fed up with the high-handedness with which the Punjab army has been indulging in extra-judicial killings in the other provinces. Thousand, even tens of thousands have disappeared with zero accountability.
President Trump said, ‘I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves’. Imran Khan assured cooperation. While Mr. Trump is wool-gathering the US establishment has to realize that with slight change of strategy and understanding of the reality of Pakistan their dilemma would recede, leaving the Americans free to pull out when they want and to the extent they want. President Trump’s statement that ‘I could win that war in a week, I just don’t want to kill 10 million people’ was typical of his handling of difficult situation. He had threatened something similar with Iran. Had his predecessors and the US generals in Afghanistan not been blinded by the Pakistan Punjab army and ISI they could have righted the situation with ease had they gone all out in the manner indicated by President Trump with just one-hundredth the effort to flatten the Haqqani and other terrorist organizations operating with ISI backing from a belt 50 kilometres deep from the Afghan border. They might still be impelled to do so, once the reality of the situation is grasped by them.