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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 41, October 4, 2014

The Game in Afghanistan

Monday 6 October 2014, by Apratim Mukarji

At the penultimate hour of leaving Afgha-nistan, the Western powers are now engaged in the dirtiest game imaginable. Doggedly pursuing the goal of facilitating a legitimised re-entry of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network into Afghanistan in the post-2014 scenario, the Obama Administration has put the Afghanistan Government under utmost pressure to succumb to its diktat.

Despite repeated requests by Kabul, Washington D.C. has steadfastly refused to supply heavy artillery, tanks and other heavy-power weaponry to the Afghan National Army (ANA), knowing full well that the ANA would always find it difficult to fight with its limited firepower the combined strength of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network blessed with the wholehearted support and assistance of the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate.

By harping constantly on the perceived insecurity that faces Afghanistan in the post-December 2014 scenario when only a skeletal US force will be left behind provided a security pact is signed with the USA in time, the Americans and their European allies are now maintaining their not-so-diplomatic pressure on the Afghan Government to sign the pact. The pact would have been signed earlier but for President Hamid Karza’s determined opposition to it; and the matter has been left to be decided by the next President. Since the presidential election has led to a prolonged dispute over the alleged fraud perpetrated in the counting of votes and the announcement of the result remains on hold, the question of Kabul finally taking a stand on the security pact also hangs in the balance.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is not hiding its mala fide intentions behind any show of diplomatic sophistry. In a secret deal keeping the Afghan President and his government completely in the dark, the Administration released five hard-core Taliban prisoners held in the Guantanamo Bay prison in exchange of an American soldier long held in captivity by the Islamists. Following the eventual revelation, Washington D.C. advanced two justifications for the deal which drew immediate and trenchant criticism not only from President Karzai but also from US law-makers. These were that the soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, was in rapidly declining health and in some danger, and that the prisoner swap might pave the way for restarting the stalled peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Not surprisingly, President Karzai, who had long grown disillusioned with American sincerity, was said to have confided in his immediate circle that the US Government could well be engaged in several such secret deals with the Taliban and their sponsors before clearing out of Afghanistan.

His undisguised scepticism about the US Government’s actual intentions had been rein-forced by President Barack Obama’s enunciation of the foreign, defence and anti-terrorism policies that his Administration was going to pursue for the remainder of his tenure. Addressing the graduates of the West Point Military Academy in New York on May 28, he had announced that “at the beginning of 2015 we will have approxi-mately 9800 US service members in different parts of (Afghanistan), together with our NATO allies and other partners”, and that this number would be halved by the end of that year.

By that time, Obama pointed out, American troops would be consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram Airfield (the latter is the most fortified place in the country), coinciding with the shifting of the Americans to an advisory role. In this purely unilateral decision, he added that “Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country...We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”

That the American President is in a tearing hurry to erase the black marks his Adminis-tration has notched up in its two terms has been widely noted, especially in his own country. In fact, he began his speech at West Point by triumphantly pointing out: “Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. The Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more. Through it all, we have refocussed our investments in a key source of American strength: a growing economy that can provide opportunity here at home.”

It is no accident that the Taliban do not appear to figure any more in Obama’s calculations. His message seems to be that while he is well aware of the resurgence of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is no longer bothered about them and would prefer to let others handle them.

The Taliban at this moment are much more than a group of Islamists fighting the Afghan Government. As the latest annual report of the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team points out, they are engaged not only in running the narcotics hub in the Helmand province but also in illegal mining of marble-onyx, extortion, abduction of wealthy business-men for ransom, voluntary or forced donations from Afghan businessmen outside Afghanistan, and voluntary donations from religious individuals and organisations.

Describing the Taliban as “flush with funds”, the report says that, according to calculations based on findings in the Helmand province alone, the group expects to get $ 50 million from this year’s poppy harvest. As many as 100,000 hectares of land were cultivated with poppy in 2013. The group is said to be running at least thirty illegal mining operations in southern Helmand.

Parts of the Taliban, the report says, are experiencing a “resource curse”, for as Taliban finances have grown, the Taliban have become more of an economic actor with incentives to preserve this income and less potential incentive to negotiate with the government. Eighty per cent of these earnings are transferred to the group’s central leadership based in Pakistan for further redistribution by the Central Financial Commission to its institutions in Pakistan and field units in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the growing wealth is pushing the Taliban into foreseeable consequences. Several leaders have been assassinated; there are regular disputes over controlling poppy cultivation and funding, and new jihadist groups are springing up demanding funding by the cash-rich Taliban.

Thus, while the Taliban are relatively secure financially and not at all weak militarily, the insistence of the United States that the Afghan Government—though saddled with a militarily insecure situation—should, nevertheless, be amenable to negotiate with the Islamist group, which is being fully backed by Pakistan, is definitely difficult to appreciate.

Meanwhile, the United States-led inter-national effort to reconstruct and develop the Afghanistan state appears to have faltered badly, judging by the pace of funds having been made available for the purposes. Between 2002 and 2013 Afghanistan should have obtained aids worth $ 62 billion but the actual total aid was $ 26.7 billion, a mere 43 per cent. The self-appointed leader of the international community, the US has characteristically defaulted in fulfilling its own pledge for $ 38 billion by coughing up only $ 10.9 billion.

And how philanthropic are the donor countries in giving aids to the struggling Afghanistan? The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief estimated that of the $ 15 billion in reconstruction assistance given to Afghanistan during 2001-08, “a staggering 40 per cent returned to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries” (as quoted in “Challenges in Afghanistan: The Post Bonn Era” by Mithila Bagai, World Affairs, summer, April-June 2014).

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.