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Afghanistan - Pakistan: Strategic Folly

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By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

Among a range of indicators of deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan came the announcement of the death, at least two years earlier, of Mullah Omar, the so-called Amir ul Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) and ‘supreme commander’ of the Taliban; a contested succession for leadership of the group; and the rising spectre of the Islamic State (IS, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, ISIS) in the Af-Pak region. These developments promise enduring troubles, even as they give signs of the unraveling of Pakistan’s strategy of orchestrated negotiations and proxy war against Afghanistan.

On August 8, 2015, terrorists carried out a suicide attack killing at least 21 people and injuring another 10 in the Khanabad District of Kunduz Province in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

On August 7, 2015, terrorists carried out a series of attacks across the national capital Kabul, killing at least 51 people. In the first attack, a suicide bomber dressed in Police uniform detonated his explosive vest in a crowd of trainees outside the Kabul Police Academy, killing at least 27 and injuring over 25. Later, militants detonated an explosives laden truck near an Army complex, killing 15 and injuring over 240. In the last of these series of attacks, terrorists attacked Camp Integrity, which houses US and coalition troops that help train Afghan forces, killing nine and injuring 20. The victims included eight civilian military contractors and a US serviceman. The Taliban claimed responsibility for two of the three attacks – on the Kabul Police Academy and Camp Integrity. Though the attack near the Army complex remained unclaimed, the Taliban is suspected to have been responsible. 

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in a televised address stated, “We hoped for peace, but war is declared against us from Pakistani territory. I ask the government and people of Pakistan to imagine that a terrorist attack just like the one in Kabul ... took place in Islamabad and the groups behind it had sanctuaries in Afghanistan and ran offices and training centres in our big cities. What would have been your reaction?” He warned that these attacks would spell the end of his rapprochement if Islamabad did not respond strongly.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded at least 355 civilian casualties – 42 deaths and 313 injured – in the August 7 Kabul attacks. Though the number of deaths reported by UNAMA is significantly lower than the deaths reported in the media, UNAMA stressed the fact that the number of civilian casualties, at 355, was the highest in a single day since it began systematically recording such casualties in Afghanistan in 2009.

The security environment across Afghanistan remains alarming. UNAMA’s 2015 ‘Midyear Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’ released on August 5, 2015, documented 4,921 civilian casualties (1,592 dead and 3,329 injured) in the first half of 2015, as compared to 4,894 (1,686 dead and 3,208 injured) during the corresponding period of 2014. In 2013, the number of civilian casualties during the same period had stood at 3,921 (1,344 deaths and 2,577 injured). Over the same period of 2009, these casualties stood at 2,491 (1,052 deaths and 1,439 injured).

The UNAMA report further noted that civilian casualties from suicide and complex attacks executed by Anti-Government Elements (AGEs) caused 1,022 civilian casualties (183 deaths and 839 injured) during the first six months of 2015, a 78 per cent increase compared to the first six months of 2014. Similarly, 699 civilian casualties (440 deaths and 259 injured) were reported in incidents of targeted killing in first six months of 2015, an increase of 57 per cent compared to the corresponding period of the previous year. The number of civilian casualties caused by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), stood at 1,108 (385 deaths and 723 injured), a 21 per cent decrease. During the same period, ground engagements led to 1,577 civilian casualties (379 deaths and 1,198 injured), a 19 per cent decrease compared to the corresponding period of 2014. The remaining 515 civilian casualties in 2015 were the result of “explosive remnants of war” (four per cent), aerial operations (two percent), and “other” (five per cent).

More worryingly, in the first six months of 2015, UNAMA documented a 23 per cent increase in women casualties and a 13 per cent increase in child casualties. Emphasizing the adverse impact of this development, Danielle Bell, UNAMA Director of Human Rights, noted,

The rise in the numbers of women and children killed and maimed from conflict-related violence is particularly disturbing. This year, UNAMA recorded the highest number of children and women casualties compared to the same period in previous years. All parties to the conflict must undertake stronger measures to protect civilians from harm. When the conflict kills or maims a mother, child, sister or brother, the repercussions for families and communities are devastating and long-lasting.

Meanwhile, partial data collated by Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) shows that violence in all categories has increased, and also that there has been a visible decline in the overall security situation. After declines in the total number of terrorism-related fatalities since 2011, the numbers began to surge again in 2014, and have already crossed the five figure mark (10,379) in the current year, with well over four and half months left and ground conditions becoming more ‘favorable’ for militants.

Terrorism-related Fatalities in Afghanistan: 2007-2015

Years

ANA*

ANP**

ISAF***

Civilians****

Militants*****

Total

2007

209

803

232

1523

4500

7267

2008

226

880

295

2118

5000

8519

2009

282

646

521

2412

4610

8471

2010

519

961

711

2777

5225

10193

2011

550

1400

566

3021

4275

9812

2012

1200

2200

402

2754

2716

9272

2013

560

1082

161

2959

2702

7464

2014

413

357

75

3699

6030

10574

2015

596

267

6

1747

7763

10379

Total

4555

8596

2969

23010

42821

81951

Source: SATP, *Data till August 16, 2015

*ANA: 2007-2013: Source Brookings; 2014-15: Source Institute for Conflict Management
** ANP: 2007-2012: Source Brookings; 2013-15: Source Institute for Conflict Management
***ISAF: 2007-2015: Source ISAF website
**** Civilians: 2007 - 2015 (June): Source UNAMA; 2015 (July) onwards: Source Institute for Conflict Management
****** Militants: 2007-2015: Source Institute for Conflict Management

Significantly, in July 2015 reports of death of Taliban’s 'supreme commander' Mullah Omar started resurfacing. There had been continuous speculation on the subject since 2013, and, indeed, even earlier, but on July 29, 2015, Abdul Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan spy agency, confirmed, “There’s no doubt. We confirm he is dead. He died in April 2013, two years back, in Karachi [Pakistan].” Later, on July 31, 2015, White House released a statement saying, "While the exact circumstances of his [Mullah Omar] death remain uncertain, it is clear that his demise, after decades of war and thousands of lives lost, represents a chance for yet more progress on the path to a stable, secure Afghanistan." On the same day, Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabiullah Mujahid referring to Omar as "the late leader of the faithful" confirmed his death. In the same statement he disclosed that Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour would be Taliban's new leader. Alhaj Moulavi Jalalludin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani Network, a hard-line wing of the Afghan Taliban, reconfirmed Omar’s death, “…we would like to state that the passing away of His Excellency the Amir-ul-Momineen is a huge loss for the Islamic Emirate, the whole Muslim world and particularly for the Islamic Jihadi movements”.  His son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the present 'chief' of Haqqani Network, was announced as the 'deputy chief' of the Afghan Taliban.  

In the immediate aftermath of these announcements, reports emerged of increasing differences within the Taliban, and the rejection of Mansour as its ‘undisputed leader’. Powerful Taliban leaders, including Tayib Agha ('chief' of the Taliban’s Political Office in Qatar), Mullah Zakir (Taliban’s' military commander') and Omar’s own son Yaqoob, reportedly resigned in protest, rejecting Mansour as a Pakistani proxy, and the succession as lacking the endorsement of the jirga. There are strong and enduring ties between Taliban’s new chief and Islamabad. Mansour was the head of the Quetta Shura, which has long operated out of Pakistan's Balochistan Province with full support of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Indeed, his association with Pakistan goes much further, and reports indicate that he studied at a madrasa (Islamic Seminary) at Jalozai village in the Nowshera District of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan.

Acknowledging the rift, in a 33-minute audio message sent to journalists on August 1, 2015, by Taliban 'spokesman' Zabiullah Mujahid, Mansoor asserted that the group's jihad would continue until its goal to implement an Islamic system in Afghanistan was accomplished. "We should keep our unity, we must be united. Our enemy will be happy in our separation. This is a big responsibility on us. This is not the work of one, two or three people. This all our responsibility (sic) to carry on jihad until we establish the Islamic state."

Another ‘Islamic State’, IS, is however, looming on the horizon, threatening to capture spaces that have long been under Taliban’s influence, consolidating significant territorial gains by defeating Taliban units in Nangarhar Province. It is widely believed, moreover, that the growing differences within Taliban will help IS, and that the turf war between these two outfits will make Afghanistan more insecure in the near future. As splinters fall away from Taliban and various Pakistani formations, including the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the dreaded IS appears to be emerging as the more potent threat. Significantly, according to the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, out of the five perpetrator groups with the most attacks worldwide in 2014, IS tops the list with 1,083 attacks leading to 6,286 fatalities in five countries; as compared to Taliban’s involvement in 894 attacks resulting in 3,492 deaths in two countries. The ‘rising graph’ of IS – if it can be sustained – is likely to attract more recruits. Omar Samad, senior adviser to Afghan Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah, notes, "Some dissatisfied elements (of the Taliban) have already pledged allegiance to (ISIS). With Omar out of the equation, more are likely to join."

These worrying developments have already resulted in the suspension of what Sushant Sareen has described as the “Pakistan led, Pakistan owned” ‘peace talks’ between the Taliban and Kabul, of which the first round was held in the resort town of Murree, adjacent to Islamabad, on July 7, 2015. The Afghan Government was represented by Hekmat Khalil Karzai, the Deputy Foreign Minister, and the Taliban delegation was led by Mullah Abbas Durrani. Karzai was accompanied by a delegation including representatives from all the major players in the government, including at least two officials representing the CEO, Abdullah Abdullah, and his deputies. The US and Chinese representatives were also present as a delegation of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC). Though nothing significant emerged from this meeting, a second round of peace talks was scheduled to take place on July 31. The disarray around the Pakistan backed Taliban factions over Mansour’s appointment as Omar’s successor, however, quickly scuttled the ‘process’, and Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an statement on July 30, 2015, announced, "In view of the reports regarding the death of (Mullah) Omar and the resulting uncertainty, and at the request of the Afghan Taliban leadership, the second round of the Afghan peace talks, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan on 31 July 2015, is being postponed."

The ‘peace process’ was, indeed, astonishing in its very fundamentals, with Pakistan running the show as ‘facilitator’ even as it continued to facilitate the mounting of attacks by its Taliban proxies across Afghanistan. Pakistan’s motivation and enduring role in supporting terrorism in Afghanistan, including continuous attacks against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops led by USA for nearly a decade and a half, were widely known, and yet, the international community has continued to encourage Pakistan as a critical ‘stakeholder’ in Afghanistan. This is despite overwhelming cumulative evidence of Pakistani mischief, including the fact that that Osama bin Laden, the amir and ideological fountainhead of al Qaeda, its founder, and the architect of the 9/11 attacks in the US, was killed in May 2011, in a US operation in the garrison town of Abbottabad, less than 62 kilometres from Islamabad, and a stone’s throw from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul, the country’s top training established for officers, and the local Army Brigade Headquarters. Mullah Omar is now reported to have died in Karachi, and it is widely accepted that he was in the protection of ISI.

This has placed Kabul under tremendous pressure and forced Afghanistan to adopt an immensely damaging policy of seeking Islamabad’s ‘cooperation’ to deal with Pakistan’s own proxies. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has invested tremendous political capital in this misconceived approach, despite the active and vocal opposition of many in his own Government, including the country’s CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Indeed, the Afghans are demonstrating increasing impatience over the Pakistan policy adopted by President Ghani. In May 2015, when Ghani’s decision led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation between ISI and the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS there were angry reactions across the political spectrum in Kabul. The MoU which includes “(intelligence) sharing, complimentary and coordinated (intelligence operations) on respective sides” was criticized by several Afghan Members of Parliament (MP). MP Rahman Rahmani declared in the House: "… you [Ghani] sign a shameful intelligence sharing agreement. By signing this agreement you have made yourself blind and dumb." The Deputy Head of Parliament's Internal Security Commission, Mohammad Faisal Sami, added: "The government should have endorsed its defeat to Pakistan before signing this agreement and announce it publicly."

Despite the substantial costs domestic terrorism is inflicting in Pakistan, there is little to indicate that Islamabad is willing to abandon its terrorist proxies, or to renounce terrorism as an instrument of state policy and strategic extension. President Ghani has sought to talk his way out of an intractable situation, under tremendous international pressure and despite tremendous domestic opposition, and the result has been a mounting wave of Taliban violence and growing evidence of Pakistani deceit. Continuing down the same policy path can only be disastrous for Afghanistan. It remains to be seen, however, whether the international community and the Afghan President will finally pull their heads out of the sand and adopt a strategy with a more rigorous basis in reality.

[Source: SATP]

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