Thursday, August 18, 2016

The ‘unsolvable’ Afghan conundrum - the war in Afghanistan has morphed. It’s not about al-Qaeda or Taliban anymore. It’s about Russia which has considerably changed the dynamics of conflict in the Middle East

The Afghan government is heavily dependent on the US military and economic assistance for its survival and provoking the Taliban by projecting them as foreign enemies is President Ashraf Ghani’s strategy to extend the war and perpetuate his rule. No one bothers about the losses and pain suffered by ordinary Afghans as fighting prevents harvesting and agricultural prices soar. They wonder when the U.S. forces will pull out and this bloody war will end. That will happen only after the resolution of the Syrian conflict. As things stand now, for the U.S., the war in Afghanistan has morphed. It’s not about al-Qaeda or Taliban anymore. It’s about Russia which has considerably changed the dynamics of conflict in the Middle East.

With Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani planning an “extended war” against the Taliban and the U.S. all set to keep almost 8,500 troops there for training security forces in counter-terrorism operations, the unfortunate country is going to witness more guerrilla raids, suicide blasts and large-scale attacks on cities.

The Ghani government recently failed to persuade the Haqqani network to join a peace deal and this most lethal group of Afghan Taliban will mount more attacks and do everything to throw all prospects of a political dialogue in the dustbin of power-politics.

For the common Afghan, the war has already stretched too far and caused severe losses. Fighting has prevented harvesting in key agricultural areas like Kunduz and food prices have shot up.  Kunduz provides 61% of the rice harvest and 12% of the wheat yield.

The negative impact of fighting is felt in the whole of northern Afghanistan and now even in Kabul where rice is retailing at 120 afghani (US$ 1.80) per kg compared with 80 afghani in the same period last year. Wheat is fetching 30 afghani per kg compared with 20 afghani in 2014.

Hakeem Ullah, a veteran Afghan political worker in Kabul, said to Asia Times: “This is a very serious problems for us, Afghans. We are unable to buy even basic livelihood. With unemployment rising, business down, and cities being pounded despite the presence of a large number of foreign and local troops, my question is how this conflict will end.”

Ullah, who has living through 37 years of war, was unable to answer his own question.

“The government and Taliban have caused us pain and losses and the Americans continue to play them against each other for their own mafadat (interests)”, he said sitting in a local road-side tea-house where one can always meet people ready to share a first-hand account of the long war.

Many Afghans I met were asking the same question: when will this bloody war end?

That war is not going to end anytime sooner is a thought widely shared by many Afghans.

President Ghani’s idea of an “extended war” and subsequent designation of the Taliban as “foreign enemies” is not only going to stir the Taliban into stubborn militant action, but also going to provide him with the much needed anchor he needs to ensure his own stay as president.

Were the U.S. forces to leave, the Taliban will certainly be able to capture Kabul and establish their rule. With the departure of U.S. forces would also the end all aid Afghanistan is now receiving to run even its day-to-day arrangements. This, as some American sources revealed, explains Ghani’s extensive lobbying in the U.S. for a longer stay of the forces and a basic change in their mission too.

Projection of the Taliban as “foreign enemies” for the support they receive from neighbors like Pakistan and Iran signifies that a negotiated end of the war cannot be reached in Afghanistan. Why engage in a dialogue with “foreign enemies” and why not just kill them all? This seems to be the dominant “logic” of the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.

No wonder U.S. President Barack Obama has not only upped the number of troops to stay in Afghanistan but also increased their area of activity and operations. As such,  not only has Obama sanctioned more drone strikes but also given the US military wider latitude to support Afghan forces, both in the air and on the ground.

For the U.S.’ own sake, it is in its interest to prolong its stay in Afghanistan for many more years. The dynamics of conflict in the Middle East has considerably changed due to the emergence of Russia as a player capable of wielding immense political influence and working the situation against the U.S. and its allies at the same time. It has practically ended the U.S.’ traditional domination in the region, forcing it to rethink about its exit from Afghanistan.

With Russia maintaining strong military presence in Syria and now in Iran too (this week, its long-range Tu-22M3 bombers delivered their first airstrikes on terrorist targets in Syria from an Iranian airbase and the head of Iran’s National Security Council termed the Moscow-Tehran cooperation in Syria as “strategic”), the U.S. finds it crucial to counter-balance it by keeping its own force in Russia’s backyard i.e., Central Asia.

According to retired US Army Colonel, Lawrence Wilkerson, the US has to stay in Afghanistan for another 50 years, not because the “war on terror” is expanding or that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are yet to be defeated.

To quote him, “the war in Afghanistan has morphed; it’s not about al-Qaeda anymore, and it’s not about the Taliban anymore. It’s about China; Russia – the soft underbelly which is mostly Muslim of Russia; about Pakistan; about Iran; about Syria; about Iraq; about whether a Kurdistan is stood up or not; and ultimately about oil, water and energy in general. And the US presence in Afghanistan, I’ll predict right now, will not go away for another half-century… And it will grow, it will not decrease.”

According to a Pakistan security agency source, “Reading the US activities in Afghanistan, it appears more likely that US is bent upon dictating its own designed peace settlement to ensure retention of its politico-military hold on the country, even if at the cost of continuing disability in the country and in the region.”

‘Instability’ defines Afghanistan’s current ground situation and the US drone strike that killed Taliban supremo Mullah Mansour only added to it.

According to some well-informed sources on the internal dynamics of the Afghan Talban network, the Taliban rank and file and whoever is chosen as their new supreme leader would not hold talks with the Afghan government, which is heavily dependent on the US military and economic assistance for its survival.

The new Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is not only a hardliner but also known for his fatwas (religious pronouncements) to justify the Taliban insurgency.

What we should, in this whole context, expect is conflict-escalation. To a great extent, Afghanistan’s future is now linked with the Middle East. If war in Syria continues as intensely as it is going today, the U.S. would not exit from Afghanistan too.

On the other hand, resolution of the conflict in Syria through political dialogue may also influence, if not altogether determine, resolution of the apparently unsolvable conundrum that is Afghanistan today.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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