Home > 2016 > Afghanistan: Caught in a Vicious Grip

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 44 New Delhi October 22, 2016

Afghanistan: Caught in a Vicious Grip

Sunday 23 October 2016, by Apratim Mukarji

In early October, an international donors’ conference hosted by the European Union (EU) in Brussels declared a US $ 15. 2 billion aid package for Afghanistan to run till 2020, almost at par with the quantum of such funding provided so far. “A remarkabl(y) impressive amount,” said the EU in a self-congratulatory statement.

But the munificence of the EU went far beyond the adorable global will to continue to help Afghanistan stand on its feet. For, this truly impressive package is actually a barter deal which is tilted absurdly in favour of the EU’s member-nations, exposing thereby the utter helplessness of the South-Central Asian country. Apart from the usual commitment to curb the rampant corruption that has been running through right from 2002, the Ashraf Ghani Government has also undertaken to take back the thousands of “failed” Afghan refugees now detained in camps across EU member-nations. The total number of such refugees in each of the member-states was not immediately available as the individual nations would have to account for the Afghans detailed within their territories.

This is where the Catch-22 situation for Afghanistan prevails. Afghan refugees constitute the second largest segment of illegal immigrants in Europe after Syrian refugees. And they fled (and are constantly fleeing thanks to the well-entrenched traffickers) the country in the first instance because they perceive an uncertain future in the wake of a resurgent Taliban, which is presently effectively controlling larger territory than ever before. The Taliban are also popularly perceived to be capable of striking at the government and people at will anywhere in the country.

This was not the case even when the Taliban were ruling Kabul; the northern parts always remained free of the their depredations thanks to the unrivalled fighting capabilities of the Northern Alliance led by the legendary Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. This formidable obstacle was eventually removed not by fighting him militarily but by stealth. Massoud was assassinated by fake Arab TV journalists on September 9, 2001, two days before the 9/11 suicide air-borne attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City.

As Peter Tomsen recounts in his monumental work, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers (2011), “Massoud’s assassination was clearly timed to precede the attack on the Twin Towers. (Osama) bin Laden—and surely others in the inner circles of the unholy alliance—must have foreseen the possibility of an American military reaction against the Al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan... Killing Massoud before the 9/11 strike would impair and might altogether deny Washington the ability to secure a base inside Afghanistan from which to launch ground attacks against Al-Qaeda and Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.” (pp. 579-80)

It says something about the Taliban’s ability to resurge—thanks largely to Pakistan’s never-slackening hospitality—that less than a year after their rout in November 2001, they reappeared within the Afghanistan territory. Since then, even though almost half of the total US financial aid of $ 115 billion was spent on security since 2002, the Taliban have steadily advanced and even though they do not permanently control any part, their effective superiority is evident in large parts. While in the initial years of their return to fight, they concentrated on the south—the Taliban’s traditional stronghold—they have been a fear-some presence all over the country in the last few years.

Kunduz, the strategically situated third largest city in the north (control over which affords access to different directions in the north, west and east and to Central Asia), has just witnessed a repeat performance by the Taliban. Large parts of the Kunduz province have been witness to effective Taliban presence for nearly two years by now, and last year the capital city fell to them, the first time since 2002 that a provincial capital was captured by the rebels. Fierce fighting raged for over two weeks, residents fled, many were killed and wounded, properties were destroyed, and in a tragic episode the hospital run by the Medicines Sans Frontiers was destroyed with a substantial number of the medical staff and patients either killed and injured. The hospital, which was the most important medical centre in the area, had to be abandoned; US President Barack Obama had to publicly apologise as the destruction was caused by US war planes bombing in order to enable the Afghan National Army men to force the rebels out.

The Taliban were eventually forced out of the city but they have never left the surrounding areas and continue to harass, attack and kill government forces and civilians alike. On October 3 this year, even as President Ashraf Ghani was speaking to EU leaders in Brussels, the rebels suddenly attacked the city and quickly took over the city centre and several parts of Kunduz. They were once again pushed out of the city after a few days of fierce fighting and casualties.

The important thing to note, however, is the fact that on both occasions it was civilian residents who suffered and businesses were affected. The CNN, reporting this year’s assault, quoted residents informing that after entering the city rebels visited their houses demanding shelter and food. There was no way denying them whatever they wanted, and within a few hours the city ran short of food.

It is these experiences and the government’s inability to prevent recurrences of the Taliban attacks that are motivating Afghans to flee their country in tens of thousands. The United Nations estimated in April 2016 that nearly 2000 civilians were killed or wounded and more than 80,000 were displaced from their homes in the first three months of the current year. Last year the toll peaked so much that 2015 was designated as the worst year for civilian deaths since the UN started tracking the terror-related casualties with 3545 killed and 7457 injured.

However, the statistics do not “reflect the real horror of the phenomenon we are talking about,” said Nicholas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. “The real cost we are talking about in these figures is measured in the maimed bodies of children, the communities who have to live with the losss, the grief of colleagues and relatives, the families who make do without a breadwinner, the parents who grieve for lost children, the children who grieve for lost parents.”

The enormity of the commitment President Ashraf Ghani was virtually forced by circum-stances to make in Brussels to bring back thousands of Afghans—who were equally helplessly forced by their own circumstances to flee the increasingly dangerous country—should now be quite clear. Whether he succeeds in ensuring their security once they are deported from Europe can only be answered in future. Only one thing is clear: both the President and his people are now left largely to fend for themselves.

This is the crux of what ails the international efforts to help rehabilitation, reconstruction and development of this land-locked semi-feudal war-torn country. The total aid package since 2002 for the above-mentioned objectives so far is US $ 130 billion of which the American aid alone accounts for as much as $ 115 billion. As we hve already seen, half of the American component has been gobbled by the unending and worsening security situation. In contrast to 2002 when the Taliban, the old enemy, was the only bother, today—as President Ghani counts—the enemies are manifold. “There are four drivers of this instability,” he said last year. “The first are international groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda; the second are criminal groups, politico-military movements and irresponsible armed groups. During the height of the international force’s presence, its focus was on the Taliban because the other terror groups were in Pakistan... Everyone was banking on our collapse after (the international forces) withdrew, We are not collapsing. We do have a difficult security environment. But the drivers have changed.”

President Ghani’s sustained efforts to persuade the Taliban to participate in peace negotiations through the good offices of the Pakistan Government, Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence having failed badly, he is now hoping to bring them round indirectly first by successfully concluding a dal with the notorious war-lord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whose popular tag is “the butcher of Kabul”. Under the deal, Hekmatyar will be free to participate in the democratic political process; in return, he has appealed to all parties opposed to the government to join the peace process and “pursue their goals through peaceful means”.

For obvious reasons, the deal, drew immediate adverse reactions. Attempting to explain it, The Hindu wrote: “One plausible explanation is that the Afghan government is desperate to find a breakthrough in the 15-year-old civil war... By reaching a peace deal with Hekmatyar, Mr. Ghani is sending the message to the Taliban that peace between warlords and the govern-ment is not impossible, provided the former are ready to shun violence and work within the Afghan Constitution... But it is a gambit. ” (October 1, 2016)

While the future of the peace process remains uncertain, the hard fact that the government must tackle now is to not just take back the “failed” refugees but also ensure that they are not devoured by the same demon they had fled from in the first instance.

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