Some assumptions of the NATO Defense College’s assessment on Afghanistan could do with a re-visit
An academic research paper titled ‘Regional Powers and Post-NATO Afghanistan’ that the NATO Defense College (NDC) released recently made for interesting reading. Exactly what purpose NATO felt its analysis and postulation on the direction that Afghanistan is likely to take in coming times would achieve is not very clear. This is especially so as the paper comes at a juncture when NATO, after two decades of promising light at the end of the tunnel, has chosen to abandon the people of Afghanistan to a fate at the hands of the extremist and ruthless Taliban. Some of the assumptions on which the research paper is based, especially those that relate to Pakistan, meanwhile, reek of the same naïveté that characterized some of the critical assessments of the United States (US)-led NATO deployment in Afghanistan since 2001.
The executive summary of the paper foresees that “After a US/NATO withdrawal, there is a risk that the Afghan conflict could enter a new, more deadly phase as a regionalized proxy conflict. Regional states are already seeking influence in a post-NATO, post-US Afghanistan by supporting local powerbrokers and militant factions”. Why this sorry state of affairs has been allowed to come about has, not surprisingly, been ignored. While regional powers will, quite obviously, look to fill the many voids left behind by the NATO withdrawal, none will likely do so with the same ruthlessness that Pakistan will.
The assumption in the paper that Pakistan is no longer interested in a full takeover by the Taliban could not be further from the truth. The paper argues, “Pakistan’s main aim in Afghanistan is to install an interim government which includes the Taliban. However, Islamabad is against Taliban rule. Pakistan considers a Taliban dominated or militarily-enforced Taliban regime as not conductive to its national interests for several reasons”. In opting to believe so, NATO is only repeating the mistake of taking Pakistan at its word, something it did through most of the two decades that it spent in Afghanistan. The pitfalls of harbouring such erroneous beliefs had soon come back to bite, though, as NATO soldiers began falling to bullets fired by Taliban terrorists who crossed over the Durand line and after unloading their magazines on Western troops slipped back into the secure comfort of accommodations provided by the Pakistani security apparatus. Leader after leader of terrorist outfits ranging from the Taliban to the Al Qaeda were unearthed living in great comfort and freedom in Pakistan, from where they were directing all sorts of violent attacks against the West.
Yet all NATO did was plead hopelessly with Pakistan to rein in these terrorist proxies. Had NATO been really serious about freeing Afghanistan of terrorism, it would have done much more than launch just drone strikes against individual terrorist targets in Pakistan. It would have physically expanded the anti-terror operations to Pakistan, with boots on the ground, and endeavored to take out the Taliban and its ilk once and for all. NATO, after all, had the most powerful military force on planet earth, and it had embarked on a self-stated all-out anti-terror mission. That Pakistan, the country that has been the most lethal terror sponsor, promoter and disseminator in the world in recent times was just next door, directing anti-NATO attacks from its soil, and yet NATO chose not to act in the manner that it ought to, reflected a baffling thought process at work. In the end, all such a policy succeeded in doing, and which for all intents and purposes will remain the enduring result and consequence of NATO’s Afghan mission, was to transform what it viewed as a hardcore terrorist entity at the beginning of its campaign to a legitimate political entity by the time NATO conceded defeat.
The fact of the matter is that the Taliban would not be what it is today without Pakistan’s unerring backing and support. Pakistan has, over the last few decades, invested so much in the Taliban that it would be naïve to think that now that payback time has come it would fritter away its advantages by supporting a potpourri government in Kabul. Had Pakistan been open to a unity government with meaningful participation of the elected Afghan dispensation of President Ashraf Ghani, one would not regularly come across reports in recent weeks of Pakistani Army regulars fighting alongside the Taliban. Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh would also not have had the occasion to reveal as he did on 15 July that the Pakistani Air Force had warned its Afghan counterpart against attempting to evict the Taliban from the Spin Boldak area, and had threatened to intercept and repel Afghan aircraft. Such direct Pakistani involvement in promoting the Taliban’s cause belies the NDC paper’s suggestion that Pakistan is no longer in full control over the Taliban. The paper does acknowledge, however, that “it is unlikely that the Pakistani military and its intelligence wing – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – will get too far out of step with the tactics of the Taliban leadership. Pakistan and the Taliban need each other and their strategic goals still overlap significantly”.
The paper’s contention of Pakistani fears that a full Taliban takeover would embolden other anti-Pakistan terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan comes across as being short on logic. If anything, the Taliban are more likely to rein in or nullify any terrorist group that targets Pakistan. While there is some truth in the assertion in the paper that the Taliban has expanded its sources of funding in the last few years when it has been hobnobbing with all and sundry, basking in its US-accorded legitimacy, its primary benefactor continues to remain Pakistan. Similar is the case with the suggestion that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), with which as brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 10-04-2020 and other publications Pakistani intelligence agencies are known to be closely associated, is a cause of security concern for Pakistan.
The NDC paper observed that Pakistan “has a long history of using militant proxies to challenge India’s military superiority in the region – particularly in Kashmir and Afghanistan. It maintained support for the Taliban and related factions such as the Haqqani network after 2001 to counter what it viewed as a pro-Indian stance from Afghanistan’s new leaders”. The paper also refuted Pakistani allegations that India was using Afghan territory to back anti-Pakistani militant groups by asserting that “India has not yet been drawn into direct proxy warfare with Pakistan in Afghanistan, instead continuing to promote close ties with the Afghan government”.
As pointed out in the NDC paper, it is true that all other regional countries do seek an inclusive government in Kabul as the route to stability. Not so Pakistan, despite its public claims that it does. Having honed its skills while the NATO was still entrenched in Afghanistan, Pakistan is now seeking to cash in on its mastery of deception. The lack of legitimacy of the last Taliban regime had limited the outfit as much as it had done Pakistan. Reporting from Afghanistan suggests that the Taliban, with the full backing of Pakistan, is making significant military gains and has emerged as the dominant force. Pakistan, maybe, would not be averse to a situation in which the Taliban’s dominance is legitimized through the cooption of some weakened and less consequential or opportunistic Afghan political figures who represent neither the core nor the bulk of Afghan politics. The Ghani regime, which Pakistan has undermined at each stage, is hardly likely to be accorded a significant enough place by the Taliban, or Pakistan, to encourage it to join. A falsely legitimized Taliban at the hands of a Pakistan freed of the direct NATO gaze could turn out to be a pungent concoction. NATO should not be caught unawares and rush its blessings should such an eventuality come to pass.
Regarding the other South Asian country, India, the paper rightly observes that “India remains an outlier among regional powers, unwilling to talk to the Taliban and viewing the idea of any Taliban-led government with alarm. India continues to be a strong supporter of the Ghani administration politically and with development aid… India remains the biggest regional donor and has a positive image with the Afghan public… It has maintained an inflexible approach to the Taliban – which it still sees as little more than an instrument of the ISI”. The depiction of the recent signs of India’s acceptance of the Taliban as being “reluctant” is also apt. There can be little objection from an organization like NATO to the position held by India that the Taliban was, and remains, a terrorist outfit. After terming the group terrorist and fighting against it as such for over fifteen long years, a unilateral acceptance by the US one fine day that the war against the Taliban was unwinnable and hence talks with it were needed did not make the Taliban any less of a terrorist organization, nor did it wipe the blood of NATO soldiers and thousands of other innocents from the Taliban’s hands. Hence, India being an outlier in this context simply means that it is the only nation that did not shift the goalpost, and it persisted with calling a terrorist a terrorist.
A terrorist-ruled Afghanistan is not really in the interest of any country, barring possibly Pakistan. For the Afghan people, who will bear the direct and unrelenting brunt of the excesses of a Pakistan – Taliban regime, it would mean sheer horror. Nobody, however, seems to care even as it is emerging from reports that the atrocities have already begun to take on ominous proportions.
As Michael Blake, professor of philosophy, public policy, and governance at the University of Washington, wrote on 21 July in an article titled ‘US can’t shirk moral responsibility in leaving Afghanistan’, the human rights violations that are likely to follow the NATO withdrawal “are rightly attributed to the United States”. Blake argued that the US must work to “ensure that it avoids entering such morally tragic situations in the future” and that the US, in future conflicts, takes account of what philosopher Brian Orend calls ‘justice after war’ and enters such conflicts only with some clarity about how and when to end them well. All that Blake said for the US is equally applicable to NATO.
The last time the Pakistan – Taliban combine held sway over Afghanistan it had not ended well for NATO, which is why it must take great care to accurately assess the unfolding ground situation there and to dispassionately gauge the implications.