Can Ghani and Modi stop the Taliban’s perpetual-motion war machine?

Ashraf Ghani wants to keep doing what Afghanistan has been doing this past decade—just with a little more bang in its arsenal.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: September 15, 2016 8:11 am
Narendra Modi, Modi, Pm Modi, Ashraf Ghani, Ghani, Afghanistan president, Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani, Eid-ul-Azha, India, Afghanistan, Narendra Modi, Ashraf Ghani, India Afghanistan relations, Ghani's visit to India, Ghani in India, Afghanistan president in India, Modi and Ghani, india-Afghanistan bilateral relations, India-Afghanistan ties, 9/11, 9/11 attack, Hibatullah Akhundzada, India news, Indian Express Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (L) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for the media outside Hyderabad House in Delhi, on Wednesday. (Source: Reuters)

This Eid-ul-Azha, Taliban commander Hibatullah Akhundzada spoke to his men as a victorious general, not a hunted fugitive. “Now”, he said, “as we have control over many areas of the country, it is the time that we should reap the fruits of the 15-year-long jihad and implement objectives of jihad which are: implementation of the divine sharia on the land of Allah; to establish justice; maintain stability and security; to protect frontiers and defend the life, property, honour and all other God-given rights of the countrymen”.

Fifteen years ago today, in the days after 9/11, Akhundzada, then the chief justice of the Taliban Emirate’s savage religious courts, had been preparing to flee across the border into Pakistan, along with many of the students of the jihadist madrassa in Kandahar that he administered. For him, as for others in the Taliban, vengeance has been slow in coming—but perhaps sweeter, as a consequence.

Today, when Afghanistan’s President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani lunched with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two leaders’ discussions centred on devising a strategy to roll back the Taliban’s perpetual-motion war machine, paid for by narcotics, driven by a toxic ideology, and powered by Pakistan’s military.

It isn’t clear, though, how much India can do. There’s an even more fundamental problem: it isn’t clear what exactly needs to be done.

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This much is clear: the new news from Afghanistan is not good. Three of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals—Tarin Kot in Uruzgan, Lashkar Gah in Helmand, and Kunduz—are under direct Taliban siege. The Government admits nine districts of the country’s 398—Now Zad, Musa Qala, Bagran, and Dishu in Helmand; Warduj and Yamgan in Badakhshan; Kohistanat district in Sar-i Pul; Nawa in Ghazni; and Khak Afghan in Zabul. Forty more, it says, are “heavily contested”.

Independent estimates paint an even more bleak picture, suggesting 39 districts have fallen, and another 43 are being fought over.

New Delhi’s generous civilian assistance programme—scholarships, medical assistance, rural empowerment programmes—have won it friends throughout Afghanistan. The gains that are made by day, though, are, as it were, by night undone.

In large swathes of the country, this means government has all but vanished. In a thoughtful analysis written this month, Afghan Analysts Network researcher Lola Cecchinel wrote that the government’s influence in the Kunduz districts of Dasht-e Archi and Chahrdara had all but vanished, with civil servants abandoning their positions and retreating to areas with substantial police concentrations. In their place, Taliban had set up full fledged parallel administrations.

The Taliban, like elsewhere in Afghanistan, had proved adroit in using local communal grievances to bolster its position—for example, ethnic Pashtun resentments against the mainly-Uzbek élite in Dasht-e Archi.

Ghani believes Indian military assistance can play a role in tipping the balance—and the government in New Delhi’s shown willingness to respond, training large numbers of officers and providing second-hand helicopter gunships and light transport helicopters. New Delhi is also considering handing over decommissioned 105mm mountain artillery, bridge-laying equipment and trucks.

Put another way, Ghani wants to keep doing what Afghanistan has been doing this past decade—just with a little more bang in its arsenal.

Even a doubling or tripling of Indian aid, however, won’t fix the Afghan army’s problems. Its 350,000 soldiers—who include some 150,000 ill-trained police—just aren’t enough to secure a decisive victory over the Taliban. India, for example, needed 325,000 troops—not counting paramilitary forces and central police—to subdue terrorism in 100,000 square km of Jammu and Kashmir. Afghanistan has fewer numbers for its 662,225 square km, much of which isn’t connected by road.

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Put simply, there’s just no way a defensive war against Taliban insurgents can succeed: that end needs more troops than can conceivably become available, and more resources than anyone is willing to commit.

President Ghani and Prime Minister Modi know the big problem here is Pakistan. For years now, Afghan leaders have been demanding Pakistan crack down on the Taliban, who operate with impunity from its cities. The much-vaunted Afghanistan-India-United States diplomatic axis is among a number of efforts meant to push Pakistan in that direction.

There’s good reason to suspect, though, that this high-diplomatic manoeuvring will amount to nothing. Islamabad has refused to act against the Taliban because it is in its best interests not to do so. Pakistan’s military sees the Taliban as allies who protect the country from its affiliates and partners, notably al-Qaeda, and some factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban.

United States of America diplomats have become increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s conduct—but there’s no stomach in Washington for actions that would punish the Pakistani state for its complicity with terror. No one wants to risk weakening a state with nuclear weapons: hideous as the status-quo is, western leaders see it as preferable to all the other options.

Lawrence Freedman, the great scholar of war, defined strategy as “being about maintaining a balance between ends, ways and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives”.

President Ghani and Prime Minister Modi know the end they seek: a Pakistan that cannot continue to sponsor transnational terrorism. They both, however, lack ways and means; the West’s unwillingness to coerce Pakistan is matched by India’s own concerns about seeking to do so, for fear of sparking off a war that might end up costing more than it would secure. Afghanistan, for its part, simply has no weapons in its arsenal to decisively influence Pakistani behaviour.

The long war that began on 9/11, it appears likely, is certain to remain mired in stalemate for many years to come—only this stalemate is not still, its relentless march fuelled each day by human blood.