Despite reports in major US newspapers regarding a successful phase of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the country’s future continues to hang in uncertainty as do the prospects of a negotiated end to the war.
More than anything else, the war continues due to confused US strategy, ever-changing plans with regard to “stay in” or “exit” from Afghanistan, and most importantly due to continuously changing the ways it views the Taliban.
The Taliban, as the official discourse shows unambiguously, have travelled from being “terrorists” to “insurgents” and now from “insurgents” to “foreign enemies.” Notwithstanding the fact that more and more people in Afghanistan are indeed turning against Taliban rule, treating them as “foreign enemies” is only turning a blind eye to the history of Afghan resistance and the way unemployed and disgruntled Afghan youth have joined the Taliban movement.
Projection of the Taliban as foreign enemies, although it does signify the support they are receiving from regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran, also signifies that a negotiated end of the war cannot be reached in Afghanistan. Why engage in a dialogue with “foreign enemies” and why not just kill them all?
The change of discourse is being backed by systematic propaganda in Afghanistan regarding “phenomenal” success of the Afghan and US forces. The Washington Post claimed in one of its reports that “over the past four months, Afghan special forces have also killed more than three dozen senior and mid-level Taliban commanders in targeted airstrikes or raids.”
The report also quotes an Afghan official implying that the tables have been turned and the war is going better than expected.
To an extent, it is true that some senior Taliban commanders, including the supreme commander, were recently eliminated. However, the “unexpected success” is not due to some magical war strategy (read: 5,500 Afghan security forces dead in just 2015, say US officials, far more than NATO lost in a decade of war; 3,500 Afghan civilians in the same period, mostly at the hands of the Taliban, says the United Nations) that the US and Afghan forces have suddenly invented and immediately implemented. Whatever the success they have achieved is due to the internal disunity of the Taliban as a movement that they have, ever since the death of Mullah Omar, been unable to overcome.
This disunity has led to infighting among the Taliban for leadership and resultantly fewer attacks on the Afghan and US forces. However, this disunity has not, so far, translated into any loss of the gains they have made over the years. As a matter of fact, as the latest (2016) report of the new US commander in Afghanistan says, the Taliban continue to control more territory in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001.
While the content of the report is secret, the decisions taken in the light of it speak volumes about the actual ground situation in Afghanistan. Not only has the US president sanctioned more drone strikes but also given the US military wider latitude to support Afghan forces, both in the air and on the ground.
As such, contrary to what the Washington Post claims with regard to the renewed US strikes as evidence of success, the strikes have been intensified due to the losses that Afghan forces have sustained. That the US has been forced into re-engaging its own forces also signifies that the dynamics of war have not actually changed. The only change that has occurred is that it has gone to worse from bad.
On the other hand, Afghan President’s idea of an “extended war” against the Taliban, although is in harmony with the idea of treating the Taliban as a foreign funded force, is a strong indication of the Afghan and the US forces’ consistent failure in recovering the ground they have lost to the Taliban in the past two years or so.
For many in Afghanistan, Ghani needs to extend the war to ensure his own stay in power. Were the US forces to leave Afghanistan, the aid it is currently receiving would dry out and the Taliban would be left completely unchecked in their bid to occupy the country.
However, this idea of an “extended war” is only going to add more fuel to the fire. Since Omar’s death, the Taliban have consistently refused to engage in dialogue—not unless foreign forces are withdrawn.
The idea of “extended war” not only contradicts the policy of reaching a negotiated end of the war but also is based upon an extended stay of foreign forces in Afghanistan—a situation that the Taliban would continue to resist and fight against, said an Afghan veteran political worker from Kabul. Such a situation also suits the US interests.
According to retired US Army Colonel, Lawrence Wilkerson, the US has to stay in Afghanistan for another 50 years, not because of the “war on terror” is expanding or that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are yet to be defeated. To quote him, “the war in Afghanistan has morphed; it’s not about al-Qaeda anymore, and it’s not about the Taliban anymore. It’s about China; Russia – the soft underbelly which is mostly Muslim of Russia; about Pakistan; about Iran; about Syria; about Iraq; about whether a Kurdistan is stood up or not; and ultimately about oil, water and energy in general. And the US presence in Afghanistan, I’ll predict right now, will not go away for another half-century… And it will grow, it will not decrease.”
According to a Pakistan security agency source, “Reading the US activities in Afghanistan, it appears more likely that US is bent upon dictating its own designed peace settlement to ensure retention of its politico-military hold on the country, even if at the cost of continuing disability in the country and in the region.”
It is instability that defines Afghanistan’s current ground situation and the strike that killed Mullah Mansour only added to it.
According to well-informed sources, the Taliban rank and file and whoever is chosen as their new leader would not hold talks with the Afghan government, which is heavily dependent on the US military and economic assistance for its survival. The new Taliban ameer would have to follow the policies of the late Taliban supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar and his successor, Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, both of whom were against recognizing the pro-US Afghan government and holding peace talks with it. The new leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is not only a hardliner but also known for his fatwas (religious pronouncements) to justify the Taliban insurgency.
Therefore, the advertised success not an actual success, nor is the Taliban’s disunity perpetual. There are already signs that they will eventually be able to form a united front.
The Mulla Rasool faction—which had previously refused to acknowledge Mansour’s leadership – has already hinted that it could re-join the mainstream Taliban in case Mullah Yaqoob, Mullah Omar’s son, is chosen as the new leader. If this happens, the Taliban would re-emerge as a more united and stronger militant group that would be difficult to tackle for the other stakeholders in Afghanistan, and that would seriously debunk the ‘myth of peace and success’ in Afghanistan.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic who recently travelled to Afghanistan to survey the situation on the ground and found it discouraging.