With three devastating terrorist incidents in four days, Kabul is in lockdown and Afghanistan paralyzed. While there have been half a dozen major attacks in Kabul this year, including at the Afghan parliament, the Supreme Court and a military-run hospital, the May 31st one was one of the largest the country has had since 2001. What is different now is that the Afghan public is outraged against international forces and particularly against its own government and leadership for not doing enough to prevent such hideous attacks. Such mass protests in Afghanistan following attacks are unusual and strongly indicate the level of public anger the Afghans are feeling towards Ghani, some even demanding his resignation.
Afghanistan’s strategic landscape is rapidly transforming as the country moves to become a hotbed of terrorism. There is an increasing sense that Afghanistan’s fate is up for grabs. With waning American politico-military influence in Kabul, fresh players like Russia are reinvigorating ties with the Taliban to encourage some reconciliation and contain the terrorism from spilling over across their borders. And existing cloaked ones such as India and Iran grow bolder to expand their grim intentions to manhandle Afghanistan’s security apparatus. Additionally, the Ghani government’s failure to realize where the dagger is actually being swung from and the political infighting in Kabul echoes concerns about Ghani’s government being ineffective to manage terrorism and geopolitical calculations.
Three major factors have contributed to the shifting of power plays in Afghanistan:
- The emergence of so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan
- The Ghani government’s changing approach towards Afghanistan’s neighbors
- Tensions between the US and regional players such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan
As such, every country fearful of IS looks set to descend upon Afghanistan. Russia is a prime example of this: Moscow detested the Taliban and yet, now the Russians have been softening their approach against the Taliban in the face of IS threats. Russia’s current assertiveness is also a direct tactic to pressurize the US and to enhance Moscow’s regional influence.
Ghani’s political calculations, despite appearing bright early on with rapprochement towards Pakistan, look awry at best and ignore the more obvious matter of who is playing the devil’s hand in Afghanistan. What’s worse is that Ghani’s dysfunctional choice of allies in the neighborhood weakens his own government, instead unwittingly expanding the Taliban’s regional portfolio and diplomatic push which inadvertently unfortunately legitimizes the Taliban’s struggle. Coupled with battlefield successes, this diminishes the incentive for the Taliban to pursue reconciliation. More than a third of Afghanistan presently lies outside government control: 151 of Afghanistan’s 375 districts were under ‘high threat’ from the Taliban insurgency by December 2016, 65 under ‘medium threat’ while eleven had ‘collapsed’, according to an April 2017 ICG report.
It is hard to overstate the ominous gravity and significance of May 31st attack and consequent protests and lockdown of Kabul. May 31st visibly brought Afghanistan’s internal political divisions and national lethargy to the front. The Ghani government already has been accused of micromanaging the country, monopolizing power and centralizing decisions in Kabul, leaving a fragile National Unity Government (NUG) political system beset with internal discord and rampant corruption go unchecked. Senior civil and military posts have been stacked with Pashtuns and Tajiks while Hazaras and Uzbeks have been sidelined, exacerbating ethnic tensions. Political partisanship continues to undermine the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). Around 70% of the Afghan National Army’s offensive operations are carried out by a mere 17,000 elite force, critically overburdening it. The Afghan National Police is ridden with nepotism and poor planning. The February 2016 Democracy International survey of 215 members of parliament (MPs) found that 59% and 70% were ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘somewhat dissatisfied’ with Ghani and Abdullah respectively, reflecting deepening dents in the Afghan executive versus legislature balance. Former President Karzai continues to challenge Ghani’s leadership: Karzai allies persistently demand a Loya Jirga or an early election. Ghani faces further opposition within his own camp from First Vice President Dostum. Finally, significant political fracture arises from Ghani and Abdullah unable to bridge fundamental differences, particularly regarding their respective roles and powers mean the NUG is at a defining moment.
With multiple powers seeking relevance in Afghanistan, the emerging and deadly rivalry between the Taliban and IS, and the perilous but glaring Indian intrusion, it is critical the local and foreign players in Afghanistan do not work in silos. And it is equally important for Islamabad to lead the drive for regional peace by combining smart (hard and soft) power vis-a-vis Kabul.
The Afghan crisis is an incremental one: Pakistan should prepare for long-term hostilities but never close the door for peace, for Islamabad has and will always stand for cordial relations with Kabul. Afghanistan is a landlocked garrison, with Durand Line the only tenable entry for international powers seeking to join the fray. This increases Pakistan’s strategic clout and places it ideally to lead a regional counter-terrorism operation. Yet, Islamabad must be wary of potential potholes including the Pashtun ethnicity card being played against Pakistan as well as the tired accusation of Pakistan viewing regional stability with an India-centric lens.
For the US, as distasteful as it may appear, negotiating with the Taliban to achieve reconciliation is growing to be the only major sustainable path to peace. Washington now needs to protect its 16 year investment in the region. And given the Taliban’s unfortunate rise, US military pressure looks set to increase against the Taliban to energize the reconciliation process before Russia or China grab that opportunity.
The US too must re-recognize Islamabad’s capabilities to push forward this reconciliation. The fact that Pakistanis consider jihadis as an existential threat to their values and that Islamabad, once afflicted itself with terrorist proxies, has effectively marshalled counter-terrorism to root out such maleficent proxies, makes Pakistan a natural ally in counter-terrorism. But the US will need to consider Indian transgressions if Pakistan is to be courted earnestly. Furthermore, if Moscow’s hand extends in Afghanistan, Washington will look to pursue both Islamabad and Beijing to nullify Russian advances and prevent Washington from losing political relevance. With OBOR on its mind, Beijing will seriously consider an American invite in order to consolidate China’s own interests.
Ultimately, any player engaged (or going to engage) in Afghanistan must accept that merely talking to friends and like-minded Afghans won’t make for lasting peace. And despite the ebbs and flows in Washington’s interests in the region, the US will remain an irreplaceable player in Afghanistan but must accept the hard realities in the neighborhood.