Published On : Thu, Apr 5th, 2018

Is There Anyone to Save the Sinking Afghanistan Boat?

‘The Taliban attacked a check post and killed ten police officers’. ‘Daesh attacked a military training camp and killed fifty recruits’.‘Today, in an attack on the faithful in a mosque during Friday prayers, 70 people were killed’.’In an attack on a hospital….’, ‘In an attack on a school…’, ‘In an attack on a church….’, ‘In an attack on a hotel….’.Each of these headlines portrays the regular news we read about Afghanistan. The pity is that there is no one to hear the Afghans’ cries.

In 2017, it was reported that more than 10,000 people were killed or injured seriously in terror attacks in Afghanistan. The terrorists were mostly members of the Taliban, and those killed were mostly innocent civilians.
In 1994, Mullah Omar, a Pashtun Mujahedeen (‘freedom fighter’) who taught at a Pakistani madrassa, founded the Taliban. His followers were religious students, known as the Talib, and they sought strict adherence to Islamic law. By November 1994, the Taliban had captured all of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province. On 27 September 1996, the Taliban, with military support from Pakistan and financial support from Saudi Arabia, seized Kabul and founded the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They imposed their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in areas under their control, issuing edicts forbidding women to work outside the home, attend school or to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.

From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled roughly three quarters of Afghanistan and enforced there a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was established in 1996, and the Afghan capital was moved to Kandahar. It held control of most of the country until it was overthrown after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001.

The Taliban have been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women. During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving people and carried out a literal ‘scorched earth’ policy, burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes.

The Muslim world, which should have sympathy for its brethren, is home to most of the perpetuators of violence in this restive area. Syria, Somalia and Yemen are simmering with brutal conflicts, and larger countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are fuelling the vicious crisis in Yemen. For others, the Afghanistan plight appears to be ‘normal’.

Afghan government troops are engaging the Taliban as much as possible, but their attempts are ineffective. The US has done an exemplary job of trying to shepherd Afghanistan toward a more peaceful existence, but the fruits of their labour vanished somewhere along the way without serving any lasting, useful purpose.

The US launched military operations against Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The aim of that war was to dismantle al-Qaida and to remove the Taliban from power. Initially, the UK and Canada, and then a coalition of over 40 nations, including all NATO members, supported these efforts. The US ‘won’ the war in December 2001, and the Taliban fled to the mountains in the north and northeast of the country. In May 2003, the Taliban’s Supreme Court’s chief justice, Abdul Salam, proclaimed that the Taliban were back, regrouped, rearmed and ready for guerrilla war to expel US forces from Afghanistan.

In 2003, the Taliban launched an insurgency against the Afghan government and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It tried to reassert itself in rural areas, continuing guerrilla raids, ambushes and suicide attacks. From 2006, they showed significant gains in committing atrocities against civilians. Their violence escalated from 2007 to 2009, and fighting gradually spread to northwest Pakistan. The US and ISAF troop numbers increased sharply in 2011.

UN-backed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in May 2012 but failed to gain any traction. The talks did, however, pave the way for US and NATO forces’ exit strategies.

The US was ‘in a bit of a hurry’ to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, mainly because of domestic pressure. After 2013, and even in 2014, Afghanistan was left badly shaken by Taliban-backed suicide bombings. The US left a few troops for in-country training, assisting and advisory roles, but concerning the larger withdrawal, President Michelle Obama asserted, ‘We have achieved our central goal, or come very close to it, of incapacitating al-Qaida’. Accordingly, the US and NATO troops withdrew by the end of 2014, leaving only a skeleton force behind. These troops were complemented by personnel in the employ of private security companies hired by the US government and the UNO.

After 13 years Britain and the United States officially ended combat operations in Afghanistan on 26 October 2014. On that day, Britain handed over command its last base in Afghanistan, Camp Bastion, while the United States relinquished its last base, Camp Leatherneck, to Afghan forces.

In early 2015, as soon as the US had departed, the Taliban launched an offensive in Helmand Province, occupying many parts of it. By June, they had taken over control of Dishu and Baghran, killing 5,588 Afghan government security forces. By the end of 2015, the Taliban had overrun a number of towns, wreaking havoc. The spree continued in 2016, and in 2017, the Taliban targeted civilians even more in mindless attacks. In 2018, it began the terror attacks in the first week itself.

The US began bombing Taliban hideouts in 2015, and they continue even today. According to one UN report, US aircraft conducted roughly 30 air strikes in Helmand Province in January 2017. On 29 April 2017, early in the Trump Administration, Washington deployed an additional 5000 Marines to the southern Helmand Province. This signifies a change in the US stand on Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Defence sources said that more than 1,000 specially trained US advisors would go on offense with Afghan units at the battalion level in the spring of 2018 under an ambitious plan to reverse Taliban gains and drive the insurgents to the bargaining table within two years. Past experience, however, says something else.

The United States has started shifting its combat and intelligence-gathering air assets to Afghanistan as the battle against the Islamic State extremist group is winding down in Iraq and Syria. It has also deployed more drones, attack and search-and-rescue aircraft to Afghanistan in the last year. The Afghan Air Force is undertaking more missions than ever to destroy the Taliban.

Donald Trump announced a new Afghanistan strategy in August 2017. Under it, the rules of engagement are relaxed, allowing for more strikes and military actions aimed at producing enduring peace in the region. Since Trump took office, the number of US troops in Afghanistan has nearly doubled–from 8,500 in early 2017 to 14,000 today.
The US has not been successful in Afghanistan. Militants are openly active in 70 percent of the country, and one Pentagon watchdog noted in February 2018 that the US has not achieved much, despite committing a mammoth amount of military resources. The success rate should be more impressive.

The United Nations, which is answerable to the world community, has done little to mitigate Afghan destitution, according to many analysts. No doubt, the UNO has reiterated its verbal support for the beleaguered nation, but the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) suggests that much has yet to be done to provide solace to a country that has faced unending conflict for decades. The DPA says that peace negotiations between the Afghan government and rebel groups are the only solution to the present imbroglio. The international community should assist in creating conditions for this. A UNO delegation met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul recently to explore ways and means for moving the peace process forward. The delegation also met with the leadership of the UNO Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission.

With no way to go, the Afghan President has invited the Taliban for unconditional peace talks. He has promised that henceforth the Taliban would be treated as a political entity, giving it legitimacy. The Taliban has rejected this offer and said that they would engage in peace talks with the US only. Nothing has come about this and there is a stalemate. The Taliban spree in killing the innocent Afghans is continuing. The US and Afghan Air Force are also bombing the Taliban hideouts with vengeance.

—By Y Udaya Chandar

(The writer is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army. A passionate student of Sociology with a PhD in the subject. Author of many books.)