While 2013 is at its fag end, so far there is no light at the end of the tunnel as far as breakthrough in US-Taliban peace talks is concerned. Stalemate has made the US position rickety. Although the US officials including Obama are repeatedly mentioning that Pakistan is a key country in the Afghan endgame, however, the American commentators gave the twirl that Pakistan has had a real change of heart and is now prepared to play a constructive role in negotiating an Afghan settlement. They tried to sell the thesis that Islamabad has eventually realized that so long as the Afghan war continues, Pakistan too will remain unstable and, therefore, only an Afghan settlement can resolve its own conflict with TTP insurgents. Secondly, an enduring Afghan settlement needs to be riveted to a broad-based power sharing arrangement that accommodates all Afghan groups. Thirdly, peace dividends are more to Pakistan’s strategic advantage than a continued pursuit of the military option of supporting the Taliban.
Apart from the tension of stalled peace talks with Taliban since last June because of Karzai’s misdoings, Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) has cropped up as yet another big issue for USA because of Karzai’s refusal to sign it. Karzai is insisting that the BSA will be signed by next elected President after the elections in April 2014. He is acting tough since he wants to extract personal favors from USA. Addicted to regular pocket money from CIA, he wants the same to continue even after he is out of power. Suffering from paranoia, BSA is the last card he holds. Once he signs it, he will have no leverage left to get things done his way.
Besides failure on political front and lingering problem of BSA, the US is beset with host of other problems in Afghanistan. Large number of seriously injured war veterans, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) cases and suicide cases are worrying the US military command. The rate at which troops are being hospitalized for mental health illness has risen by 87% since 2000. Every one in five who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffers from PTSD. 266,810 service members received traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2012. Suicide cases in the three military services started to surge up from 2006 and soared to 310 in 2009, 301 in 2011 and to a record 349 in 2012, far exceeding combat deaths in Afghanistan. There were 109 cases in first four months of 2013. One suicide has taken place every 18 hours. Attempted suicide cases are much higher.
Another perturbing factor is the IEDs which has caused much more fatalities and injuries upon the occupation forces and ANSF than combats. IED technology is continuously improved and changed to prevent detection. Even specially designed and thickly armor-plated armored vehicles are not safe from IEDs. NATO fatalities in Afghanistan have crossed the figure of 3300 which include 2500 American soldiers. Injured are well over 50,000. During the Vietnam War, fatality rate of US soldiers was very high and body bags streaming into USA disturbed the American people. Body bags became a major factor for the US administration to quit Vietnam hastily. The US is not much bothered about financial pressure, fatigue of troops, home pressure or fatalities; what concerns it the most is the seriously injured as a result of IEDs, PTSD cases, suicides and in-house attacks. These factors together with meltdown of economy, having suffered a loss of $ 6 trillion in war on terror, impelled Obama to announce drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.
Insiders’ attacks are another menace which is giving shudders to US military leaders. From January 01 to March 31, 2013, 172 attacks took place resulting in 140 fatalities and injuries to 208 ISAF soldiers. Attacks increased by 120% between 2011 and 2012. 2012 was the deadliest for ISAF in which NATO lost 63 soldiers and injury to 85 at the hands of insiders, mostly belonging to Afghan Local Police (ALP), in 48 attacks. In every combat death was on account of green-over-blue attacks. This trend scaled down in 2013 due to tough measures taken and reduction in interaction between ANSF and foreign troops. This was however at the cost of erosion of trust between 12-year old allies.
Defections from 350,000 strong ANSF are another source of worry for the US as well as Kabul government. The latest defection took place on October 20, 2013 in which Afghan Special Forces Commander joined Hizb-Islami taking with him guns and high-tech equipment. Desertion rate is very high and so is casualty rate. The US has so far invested $54 billion to arm, train and sustain ANSF but overall results are far from satisfactory.
Poor performance of ANSF upon which colossal amount has been spent by USA to make it an effective and efficient force is yet another cause of exasperation for the US. Majority of soldiers and policemen are addicted to drugs, they accept graft and other gratifications and are involved in discipline cases. Opium trade called Tariab is flourishing in Afghanistan because of involvement of higher ups in Kabul regime including present Karzai as well as Afghan warlords, CIA and other intelligence agencies. There was a high upsurge in drug trade in 2012/13 and it touched the figure of $3 trillion.
Notwithstanding that poppy cultivation is done in Afghanistan, the chemical and processing plant without which raw opium cannot be processed come from western countries. Poppy cultivation had been banned by the Taliban when they were in power and had brought the drug trade to almost zero level. Taliban are now also involved in drug trade especially in poppy rich Helmand to supplement their war effort. The US wants CIA and others to continue with this illegal trade but doesn’t tolerate Taliban to indulge in this trade. It was not an unwanted but a deliberate miscalculation, rather a blunder for which the world is paying a heavy price.
Creation of ALP called Arbaque under the Afghan Ministry of Interior was the brainchild of Gen David Petraeus. Every incumbent draws a monthly salary of 8-10,000 Afghanis. The force funded by the US had been drawn up on the pattern of tribal peace lashkars in tribal belt and settled areas to guard against militant threat in villages. The inductees are imparted just 2-3 weeks training and handed over a weapon. Over the years, this private force has been extensively armed over which the Interior Ministry or ANSF or NATO has little control. It has become a nuisance for Afghan regime and the creators since it is highly undisciplined and has become a huge security risk because it has been extensively infiltrated by Taliban.
In case of a political settlement with the Taliban in which Pakistan will be one of the major guarantors, the US will have to agree to exercise ‘zero option’ and also modify election rules in consultation with the Taliban, expedite releasing all prisoners and grant general amnesty. In case the left over 87000 troops of ISAF minus 10,000 depart by December 2014 without arriving at a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban, by mid-2015 the Taliban would establish their government in eastern and southern Afghanistan where they already enjoy complete sway, with Kandahar as capital of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Kabul will fall sometime in 2016 making Bagram base untenable. Although Afghanistan will split into two distinct parts on ethnic basis however, 2017 will see insurrectional war shifting entirely into northern Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance devoid of leadership will find it difficult to stop Taliban offensive and may once again get confined to Panjsher Valley, which had once become the unassailable den of Ahmad Shah Masood.
India which at present is in a domineering position in Afghanistan will find it exceedingly difficult to retain its heavy presence in all departments and strong influence after 2014 and is likely to wind up its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad and bulk of intelligence units deployed in major cities. Pakistan’s presence and influence on the other hand is likely to increase particularly in Pashtun inhabited regions. Pakistan will continue to play a constructive role in patching up differences and in forming a broad based government as it had done in the 1990s. China and Iran are also likely to play a productive role.
Apparently some thaw has occurred in Pak-US relations but the US reservations against Pakistan still exist. It refuses to cease drone attacks and continues to host Baloch absconding leaders in USA and espouses their separatist agenda. Sustained vile propaganda aimed at discrediting Pak Army and ISI, Raymond Davis incident, independent intelligence collection networks, Black Water, Abbottabad operation and unceasing intelligence operations crowned by Salala massacre without subsequent remorse, provocative attempts to get Dr. Shakil Afridi released, coercing Pakistan to cancel Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, refusing to stop drone war, deliberately killing Hakimullah Mehsud to scuttle peace process and withholding CSF cannot be termed as friendly acts by any score. Pakistan will have to tread its steps in 2014 with great amount of watchfulness, tact and discretion.
The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analyst. [email protected]