Irrespective of the optics of the 18-month-long talks resulting in the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” between the US and Taliban signed on February 29 in Doha, it is just another piece in the overall strategy of the US for Afghanistan.
While rolling out the Afghan policy in August 2017, it was emphasised by the current US dispensation that it was making amends to the Afghan strategy of the previous dispensation. However, in reality, it has been a continuation of the same hard-nosed line.
The US and allies had got a rude shock when it dawned on them that between 2001 and 2008, the Taliban had used training and recuperation centres in Pakistan to regain domination over most parts of Afghanistan. Pakistan had actively aided the Taliban and al Qaeda (AQ), while continuing to benefit from handsome Coalition Support Funds and a seat at the “high table”. All failures were blamed on inadequate numbers of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which were ill-equipped to challenge the Taliban, backed by a professional Pakistan Army. The Obama administration diagnosed that lack of governance, corruption and fragmented polity were other key factors.
A comprehensive Afghanistan strategy review led to replicating its “troop surge” strategy, which was believed to have succeeded in Iraq, leading to total withdrawal of US troops (December 2011). At the heart of the troop surge was the Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine of the US Field Manual.
The military strategy in Afghanistan was split into COIN plus CT (Counter Terrorism) objectives. The Taliban movement was treated as an insurgency. The COIN efforts entailed protecting population centres and highways, building numbers and capability of the ANSF to take on insurgents, with emphasis on good governance and support for reconstruction. It also included reconciliation and reintegration of lower to mid-level willing Taliban. The UN designations of Taliban and AQ were separated to pave the way for “peace talks” with Taliban commanders who were tired of fighting.
Explained | Reading US-Taliban peace deal
The US-led ISAF troop surge helped create time and space to build and strengthen the ANSF over three times and succeeded in pushing the Taliban back to outlying areas. Even today these territorial gains have not been reversed, except in some areas. As the ANSF gained strength and depth, the US led-ISAF mission became a NATO led-Resolute Support mission.
The CT effort yielded rich dividends for the US and allies, in the Af-Pak region and even beyond. However, from the build-up of ISIS in 2014, to the loss of its Caliphate in 2019 and recently to the killing of General Solemani, the CT challenges of the US and allies in the Af-Pak region and periphery have become graver than ever. Good progress was made in building up the ANSF, with strong focus on three key elements — Special Forces, Air Force, and Afghan Intelligence (NDS).
These elements had a bearing on the Afghan strategy rolled out in August 2017. Emphasising that “consequences of a rapid exit were predictable and unacceptable”, it outlined two key objectives — (a) preventing resurgence of safe havens that threatened the security of Afghanistan and the US interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (b) preventing terrorists from getting nukes or nuclear material which could be used against the US or elsewhere. The “recalibrated” strategy envisaged “time-bound but condition-based withdrawal” support for the Ghani government, ANSF to take on the Taliban, talks with Taliban and for Pakistan to demonstrate commitment on dismantling safe havens that threatened US objectives. Overall, the strategy remained the same, except the withdrawal of the US from a role in nation-building.
Since then, there has been greater emphasis on the strengthening of ANSF. The regular assessments by the US show an increasing role and success of the Afghan Special Forces, the Air Force and the NDS in playing the lead in keeping the Taliban from running over capitals. By and large, the ANSF have been successful in maintaining the balance and the Taliban-control has not slipped to 2009 levels. In the meantime, US forces have dropped to 10 per cent of the peak (in 2011). With the re-election of President Ghani, it is assured that the US line of thinking will prevail over the Afghan government.
On its part, Pakistan has demonstrated its intent by delivering top-rung Taliban, including Mullah Baradar in its custody since 2010, and Anas Haqqani released as part of the process, for the talks. Even if there is no comprehensive ceasefire or full withdrawal ever, Pakistan is unlikely to be blamed.
Moreover, Pakistan has been rewarded in more ways than one. It managed to return lakhs of Afghans, build a fence along the eastern parts of Afghanistan to prevent cross-border attacks, got the US and Afghan forces to target key TTP leaders, starting with TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah in June 2018. Since January this year, three top TTP leaders have been killed in Kabul and Kunar. This has also helped build the Pakistan narrative that Afghan soil is being used to target Pakistan.
Even though it is facing “calibrated” heat on FATF sanctions, Pakistan has managed to change the international narrative in its favour. The 24th report (July 2019) of the UNSC monitoring committee has stated, “Al Qaeda continues to cooperate closely with LeT and the Haqqani Network”, but there is no reference to LeT or Haqqani in the 25th report (January 2020). This report has also asserted, “ISIL-K has established informal contact with other terrorist groups, including Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, TTP and Lashkar e-Islam. Meanwhile, these groups regularly attack Pakistani posts along the Afghan border”. All key anti-Pakistan groups are now being categorised as ISIL-K supporters, even though Pakistan has run the so-called Daesh networks in eastern Afghanistan for years. The UNSC reports also highlight the positive role of Taliban in targeting ISIL-K.
In an election year, the US needs to show that it is not fighting someone else’s battles and is making “sincere efforts” at peace-making. The “Agreement” demonstrates sincerity. At the same time, the US has to continue steering the Afghan strategy to keep terror networks in check. The peace process has already created a comfort-loving, globe-trotting leadership in the top echelons of the Taliban, who would continue to talk, even if the current Agreement falters.
Pakistan is again sitting on the high table. As the LeT and Haqqani networks go missing from UN reports and JeM chief Masood Azhar and pro-Pak TTP leader Ehasanullah Ehsan go conveniently “missing” from Pakistan soil, the pressure on Pakistan has eased. The new non-state entities backed by Pakistan, such as the AQIS and ISKP/IS-Kashmir/IS-Hind will become more visible. The rank and file of LeT, JeM, HUJI etc can easily be transferred to these new entities, while many more can be recruited under new banners. Online propaganda of these entities, including in Indian languages, is already visible and likely to escalate.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 3, 2020 under the title ‘Pieces of peace’. The writer is an IPS officer. Views are personal.
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