The chaos in Iraq is in large measure attributed to the ill-conceived US invasion in Iraq in 2003, the dismantling of the Ba’athist state apparatus and the hasty withdrawal of American troops in 2011 – while Sunni-Shia relations were still manifestly fraught. The onslaught against Iraqi security forces by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), running through several cities and being within 50 km of Baghdad, is prompting concerns that Afghanistan too could see a similar turn of events after US forces withdraw in December.
The prospect of the Afghan Taliban and its al Qaeda peers mounting a similar offensive against the regime in Kabul is viewed with alarm in New Delhi – since India’s primary concern is to ensure that Afghanistan does not emerge as a radical space for anti-Indian jihadi groups to operate from. Mujahideen groups targeted and captured Kabul in the mid-1990s. Ground realities have changed since – a coordinated Taliban offensive on the capital may not materialise so long as US troops are around. The bulk of the American presence will leave this year, but 9,800 US troops will stay till the end of 2016, principally for training Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and undertaking counter-terrorist operations against “remnants” of al Qaeda. The US has said it will not take part in combat operations next year, leaving that entirely to the ANSF. It is, however, not clear how the US will respond if the Afghan troops come under sustained pressure from the Taliban in the future. Washington has been reluctant to commit troops in Iraq despite the deteriorating situation and it may similarly choose to avoid getting militarily embroiled in South Asia again.
Afghanistan’s immediate future depends then a good deal on the motivations and capacities of the ANSF and the Taliban. A new UN report offers useful analysis on these and wider Afghan dynamics. Contrary to expectations that the ANSF will collapse after the Americans leave, the report paints a slightly more “reassuring” picture. The Afghan forces have been able to force a stalemate with the Taliban, they maintain “an aggressive posture, and are confident... conducting the bulk of their military operations without direct combat support from foreign troops”. ANSF apparently can take the fight to the Taliban and its numbers are constant despite desertions with over 193,000 army, 145,000 police and 27,000 local police. ANSF does not have the capacity to hold outlying areas, but given continued funding, training and morale, it is capable of maintaining status quo.
India and its Afghan allies will hope those projections hold, but there are other findings that are troubling. The Taliban remains a formidable, if somewhat contained, insurgency for the moment. The Taliban does not control most of Afghanistan as sometimes presumed, but they are capable of mounting attacks in “every part” of the country. They cannot take control of district centres or towns and have not claimed new terrain, but have been conducting “high frequency attacks” since last winter. According to the Afghan government’s threat assessments, 41% of 373 districts (153) in the country are exposed to a “raised” or “high” threat level of attacks from the Taliban. The report ominously flags that Taliban fighters are using a sophisticated suicide vest which is camouflaged as a leather jacket that metal detectors fail to pick up. The suicide vest also has explosive material woven into the padding of the jacket in a way that makes it difficult to detect during a body search.
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Affiliates of the al Qaeda are said to be an enduring security threat. Groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) “regularly participate” in attacks on Afghan security forces. The report says the al Qaeda affiliates are unlikely to leave Afghanistan and their presence after withdrawal represents a “worrying long-term security threat” to the region. India will be particularly perturbed about references to the LeT’s activities in Afghanistan, which Hamid Karzai drew attention to, alleging that the Lashkar was responsible for last month’s attack on the Indian consulate in Herat.
The Taliban, meanwhile, is able to sustain itself through different forms of fundraising. The UN report does not speculate on the support it gets from Islamabad but says that the insurgency draws on revenues from narcotics trade, extortion and illegal mining. The Helmand province, which has the highest acreage for poppy cultivation, is a key source of revenue – where the Taliban is capable of imposing a 10% tax across most of the 100,000 hectares of cultivated land. The group also targets construction projects for extortion, abducts businessmen and illegally mines valuable onyx marble. Large quantities of narcotics are smuggled and sold in Pakistan and the funds are directed to the Quetta Shura leadership.
The UN says that access to funds is criminalising the movement and reducing the incentive to negotiate with Kabul. The Taliban recently swapped US sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five high-ranking figures incarcerated in Guantanamo. The group, however, is internally divided on negotiations. Some of its leaders are not persuaded by the merits of reaching a political settlement with Kabul and assume that the ANSF will collapse without a fight after the US drawdown. Abdul Wasay Mu’tasim Agha, once Taliban’s finance minister, calls for negotiations but is facing resistance within the movement. At least one Taliban leader is believed to be have been assassinated by the leadership this year for favouring talks.
Afghanistan’s future clearly hangs in the balance. The US troop presence and the stalemate between the ANSF and the Taliban prevent the slide into an Iraq-like situation for now, but the ingredients for long-term instability remain firmly in place.
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