Three weeks ago in the middle of July, 14-year-old Fatemah Qaderyan took a selfie with her father at Herat airport, just before she flew to the US with Afghanistan’s all-girl robotics team to participate in the First Global Challenge international robotics competition. Mohammed Qaderyan had fully supported his daughter and her friends in their persistent efforts to get US visas, including lobbying with the press when the team was initially refused permission, and had seen them off with his blessings.
On August 2, Qaderyan was among 37 killed in a terrorist attack on Herat’s Shia Jawadya mosque. Just two weeks earlier, his daughter and the robotics team had returned home to a hero’s welcome — delighted with the certificate of “courageous achievement” that they had earned, and the praise that the American judges had showered on them.
Fatemah Qaderyan’s tragedy has devastated even Afghanistan, a country that is used to war and its horrors. President Ashraf Ghani visited the families of the Herat attack victims over the weekend. And in the US, asked if anything was going to change, National Security Advisor Lt Gen H R McMaster told MSNBC that “The President [Donald Trump] has also made clear that he, that we, need to see a change in the behaviour of those in the region, which includes those who are providing safe haven and support bases for the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others.
“This”, McMaster added, “is Pakistan, in particular, that we want to — that we want to really see a change and a reduction of their support for these groups. This is of course, you know, a very paradoxical situation, right, where Pakistan is taking great losses. They have fought very hard against these groups, but they’ve done so really only selectively”.
McMaster’s comments were chillingly similar to those made by Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar who, in an interview to The Indian Express recently in Kabul, said, “We cannot defeat the Taliban unless we defeat the sanctuaries and support structures outside Afghanistan, in Pakistan. “It is also clear why they are there (in Pakistan),” Atmar said. “The Pakistan strategic community never abandoned its plan to have Afghanistan more than a friendly neighbour. They want to have us as a client state… We find it so offensive to describe this in words, but we know it for what it is.”
Atmar, who was a close associate of the former Afghan President Najibullah, who was executed by the Taliban in 1996, said Afghanistan’s current situation reminded him of the late 1980s, when the mujahideen targeted the Soviets in the belief that cutting off Soviet support to the Afghan government would lead to its collapse. The May 31 truck bomb attack close to Kabul’s diplomatic quarter, carried out by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, Atmar said, had the express purpose of increasing the feeling of insecurity among foreign diplomats, and forcing them to abandon Afghanistan.
Atmar’s comments may turn out to be prophetic. On July 19, Trump told his officials he was deeply unhappy with America’s flawed strategy in Afghanistan. He pointed out that China’s growing economic involvement, especially in the mining sector, had meant that while Americans continued to die in their effort to stabilise Afghanistan, China was only interested in its profits. “We aren’t winning the war in Afghanistan,” Trump reportedly said. “We are losing it.”
Indeed, the attack in Herat that killed Fatemah Qaderyan’s father, as well as the fact that the Taliban now control some 95 out of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, means that the US is faced with a very difficult choice. The roll-call of deaths has been increasing — according to the UN, 11,418 people were killed in Afghanistan in 2015 and 2016, of which at least 24% are children, and 2017 has seen 1,700 deaths so far.
“This is war and we are at war, with Pakistan, a war for the very existence of our nation,” a senior Afghan security official told The Indian Express. Afghan security forces had been holding some frontlines against the Taliban at the cost of huge casualties, he said, adding that “neither the US, nor NATO, nor Iran, nor anyone else are agreed how to turn off the tap of terror which is located in Pakistan”.
Asked about the Islamic State, which has claimed the attack on the Shia mosque in Herat, the Afghan official said, “Who is ISIS? Different terrorist groups are using ISIS as a cover. ISIS has become a brand in Afghanistan. The groups are Haqqani, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Taliban. Terror has unfortunately become a weapon in the hands of some countries.”
Hanif Atmar said that he “strongly rejected” accusations that India was instigating regional tension in Afghanistan — a commonly heard comment from Pakistani analysts these days. But, according to a senior analyst with the American think tank Atlantic Council, if Trump does choose to pull out of the messy and costly war in Afghanistan, estimated at $ 1 trillion already (and goes ahead with firing the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John W Nicholson, as he is reported to have indicated to close aides), then chances are high that history will repeat itself in Kabul.
Like in the 1980s, Pakistan has returned to the centre of possible solutions to the Afghan conflict. Moscow has been ingratiating itself to Rawalpindi in the hope that a spillover of Taliban terror into Russia’s unstable southern provinces can be prevented. And Beijing, without firing a shot, has inveigled itself into several international dialogue processes, including a trilateral Russia-Afghanistan-China dialogue.
However, “if Trump sees the light”, the Afghan official said, and follows through with shutting down the terror infrastructure and funding sources inside Pakistan, his long-promised US policy review may yet get some teeth. As the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, India and the world will be looking to Trump to make some key decisions.