After the Taliban Victories

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It is unlikely that even the man who spoke the words realized how soon they would come true. In New York at the September 15 closed door meeting of the Six-Plus-Two Group on Afghanistan United Nations’ special envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell had alerted the Group members of the possibility of a Talibaan take-over of the Badakhshan by onset of this winter. What was the world community prepared to do? Step in to prevent the advance of the Talibaan or remain a spectator as Ahmad Shah Massoud, the formidable Afghan commander with significant support in the region and in the West, is ousted from Badakshan as well? The military and political fall-out of a Talibaan victory on the region was also raised. There was little that the UNSC or the 6-Plus-2 Group could devise for arresting Talibaan military advance.

Wisely in New York the sanctions route was not pursued. Defying the UN sanctions imposed last October under resolution 1267, the Talibaan have still continued to take whatever military and political steps they have considered important for retaining and expanding political and military power. However, a more plausible engagement route with the Talibaan needs to be devised by the international community; factoring in Afghanistan’s ground realities and the failed US and UN policies on Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq.

Since Vendrell spoke Ahmad Shah Masood, has been pushed to the Panjsheer Valley surrounded on three sides by Talibaan forces. The Talibaan forces are now heading towards the Farkhar Valley in the northeastern Takhar province. However, demolished roads and blown up bridges and fear of surprise interdiction’s by Massoud’s forces, make it difficult for the Talibaan forces to advance rapidly. On September 30 the Farkhaar gorge, is strategically important since it lies on the highway which connects Taloqaan with Badakhshan, the opposition’s main strong-hold. Capture of the gorge was possible after a few of Masoud’s commanders joined the Talibaan – a fact acknowledged by opposition spokesman to a BBC correspondent on September 30.

Compared to their earlier offensives the Talibaan seem to be moving ahead at a measured pace. Earlier they had twice captured Taloqaan and Jab-ul Siraj but every time taken back by Massoud’s forces. In this round the Talibaan are proceeding at a measured pace, have been instructed through Mulla Umar’s edict to not enter peoples’ houses and antagonize local populations. Over the last six weeks three important districts in the Kunduz province have been captured including Khawajagarh; serving as a main supply route between Kulyab and Taloqaan and Massoud’s fortified and well-stocked military base for the last twenty years.

Massoud’s main supply points with Tajikistan including Dasht-e-Arshi, Imam sahib and Sher Khan Bandar, a river port, have also been choked. Key strategic loses have included Taloqaan, Burka, Nehreen, Ishkmash, Hazarbagh, Khawajagarh and three districts north of Kunduz. In addition to supply routes, the landing strips of Khawajagarh and Taloqaan used for military supplies, are now with the Talibaan. Massoud continues his hold on Farkhaar, his military stronghold. His forces currently control parts of Takhaar and the entire Badakshaan province.

Talibaan forces have held on to Taloqaan after capturing Khawajagarh towards the north. In the south is the Farkhaar Valley. However, the route is difficult to negotiate since the road and the bridges have been blown up and the area is heavily mined. The Farkhaar Valley, south of Taloqaan, is the last obstacle between Badakhshan and the south. However, an imminent Talibaan attack on Badakhshan is unlikely. At present the Talibaan are focusing on consolidating their latest gains. In the case of Badakhshan the Talibaan hope that local uprisings and commander defections will enable them to capture Badakhshan, without a major battle. Some areas including Kishan and parts of Zeybak, are controlled by commanders supporting former Mujahideen commanders including Gulbadeen Hikmatyaar and Maulvi Sayyaf. In the past these commanders have neither supported Massoud nor the Talibaan. However, a militarily ascendant Talibaan force may appear attractive allies for these commanders. A successful offensive in Badakhshan will enable the Talibaan forces to control the 600 kilometer Afghanistan-Tajikistan border area extending from Darwaz to Wahkhan.

Meanwhile, in preparation for a future Badakshan offensive, there are reports that some Talibaan had crossed into the Badakhshan via Chitral. Talibaan have, however, denied using the Chitral route. Talibaan are unlikely to face force shortages in any future offensive. For them men are in no short supply. A Talibaan supporter clams that “All it takes is for Mulla Umar to order Talibs to the front from each of the 27 provinces and an over 20,000 strong reinforcement would arrive.” Unconfirmed reports also indicate that a potentially powerful commander Mulla Afzal Nooristani, from the Nooristan area may declare support for the Talibaan. Mulla Nooristani, six years ago had declared an independent Nooristan covering parts of Laghman and adjoining areas. He can now control the route to the north from where Massoud gets his supplies through Chitral.

Within the immediate context a major military turn around in favour of Massoud appears unlikely. Neither through a positional battle nor through close quarter combat. A brilliant guerilla commander, described by a US official; as “one of the greatest guerilla warriors since Ho Chi Minh”, Massoud knows that a guerilla fight waged from the Panjsheer Valley against a people on heights could be indeed a losing one. Mass scale destruction of men and Valley would follow. The population in the Valley is estimated to be about 150,000. Massoud has a fighting force of around 7,000 which he would not like to involve in a close quarter battle. The Talibaan by contrast engage in close encounters attacking the opposition like human torpedoes.

A positional battle too, given Massoud’s guerilla orientation, low troop morale, shortage of supplies, disbursed forces, heavily mined routes and destroyed road networks can be ruled out. The shrewd commander will likely opt for only interdiction of adversary men and material, instead of any major offensive. Given the current military scenario the possibility of Massoud’s temporary withdrawal to Kulyab, therefore, cannot be ruled out. According to unconfirmed reports, around late nineties Massoud financed the construction of a residential colony to accommodate 5,000 people.

Multiple factors militate against immediate and large scale reprisals by Massoud. His current military strength, the morale of Massoud’s men, the relative decrease in peoples’ support, the difficult logistics situation, the heavily disrupted communications network, the defection factor and finally the unlikelihood of Massoud’s friends in the neighbourhood to come to his military rescue openly. Not because the Talibaan’s recent military successes in the North have effected a change in their openly anti-Talibaan policies. Instead prompted by these military successes political expediency must dictate at least initially a pseudo-softening of their anti-talibaan stance. Already reports from the Turkmenistan capital Ashkabad indicate that the Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, a dogged critic of the Talibaan is now more accepting of the Talibaan reality. He is beginning to blame “certain quarters” for exaggerating the Talibaan threat. During recent meetings with the Afghan ambassador and Pakistani officials in Islamabad Uzbek diplomats have expressed the need to improve Afghan-Uzbek relations.

The Talibaan, meanwhile, maybe confronted by an increasing sabotage operations to create panic within the people and the government. Sabotage is a tool that the opposition can use to counter Talibaan’s military gains. For example recently in Herat around ten men carrying automatic guns under their jackets were picked up by Afghan intelligence men. According to some estimates around 1,500 such ‘free-lance’ saboteurs are currently inside Afghanistan planning sabotage and murders. However, the small pockets of anti-Talibaan uprisings in Kunar , Samangaan and Sar-i-Pul, which have existed for at least five years are unlikely to pose any major military of political threat. These pockets could only snowball into trouble zones if the Talibaan face a major military defeat at the hands of its principle opponents.

Vendrell’s concerns were in-keeping with his concerns and, as the Talibaan maintained, the ‘false allegations he had voiced. His comments during his August 14 Kabul press conference. The Talibaan Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, has said the United Nations’ special envoy to Afghanistan has undermined his own role as a mediator.

Mr Mutawakkil criticised the envoy, Francesc Vendrell, for blaming the Talibaan for starting the current round of fighting.

He said the Talibaan would be justified in withdrawing co-operation from the UN peace process.

In the last two weeks of fighting the Talibaan have made significant gains in the north of Afghanistan, capturing several towns and cutting off a critical Northern Alliance supply route.

But the Talibaan foreign minister said again that the gains were made in defensive actions.

This was not the conclusion reached by Mr. Vendrell.

He said the Talibaan were responsible for starting the fighting and were being supported by Pakistan.

Threat

Mutawakkil said the UN envoy was wrong and it was not proper for him to make such a judgment.

He said it would harm Mr. Vendrell’s role as a mediator in the Afghan crisis.

This is an important issue, earlier in the year the Security Council threatened sanctions against the Talibaan if it launched any new offensive.

Like in many other conflict zones in the world, there is no tradition of ceasefires among the Afghan men fighting for power. Once the excitement and ‘fruits’ of the gun-powder language are imbibed, ceasefires become irrelevant. Ceasefires are attractive for the losing group. Ever-since the 1979 Soviet invasion, the period of the Afghan resistance and subsequently of the civil war has been marked by no accommodation gestures or ceasefires.

Even the so-called 1992 withdrawal of the Soviet army was in fact a Soviet roll-back forced by the Afghan resistance.

(ME Against My Brother)

Earlier in its August 24 closed door meeting the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) all members, led by Russia, blamed the Afghan government for problems within and around Afghanistan. However, Moscow was unable to gather sufficient support with the UNSC for imposing new sanctions on the Afghan government. Instead the members, including the US, advocated strengthening and implementation, of existing sanctions before proceeding with new measures. The sanctions issue is unlikely to come up before early next year. The release of a moderately critical UNOCHA-authored report on the effect of UN-imposed sanctions on Afghanistan may also have influenced the UNSC’s decision to parry the sanctions issue. During their meetings though, the 6-Plus 2 Group on Afghanistan and the UN Security Council appears have ignored the report during their September discussions in New York.

The UNOCHA report which builds a strong case against sanctions, is critical of sanctions on two counts. One that they are augmenting the suffering of the Afghan people. Two that they are not working; in fact may also indirectly be strengthening the present Afghan government. A decision on what the next steps that the UNSC and the 6-Plus-2 Group should take on Afghanistan, will be taken after they receive the UN Secretary General’s special envoy Francesc Vendrell’s report and recommendations based on the latest developments in Afghanistan. Vendrell currently in the region will present his report in New York on November 1.

While the military situation may keep changing there is an abiding reality linked to the current situation in Afghanistan. The attempt at ‘engineered termination’ of the Talibaan government. Myths pass for truth when the ‘powerful’ do the myth-making. Often the powerful players in international politics behave like rich spoilt kids. Because they dislike an ‘element’ a ‘player’ factor that emerges on the international scene they wish its termination. First through propaganda and name-calling in popular media, then through political economic pressures and finally through use of force. ‘Engineered termination’ by the economically and militarily powerful players does not always succeed.

However, often they also do succeed. Like the CIA did in the ouster of the Iranian President Mossedegh in the fifties, of the Chilean leader Salvador Allende and of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the nineties. There are times when they do not as in the case of the Fidel Castro in Cuba. Deadly and often crazy plans by the CIA including an attempt to bring about his death through a poisoned cigar have failed to achieve Castro’s removal from what the Americans have referred to as their “backyard.” Similarly the American bombing of Libyan President’s tent in the eighties and the British MI-5’s assassination attempt to get Moammar Qaddafi assassinated have not worked. The heavily sanctioned and regularly-bombarded Iraq’s President Saddam Hussain too remains intact despite being high on the American hit-list. The more recent attempt by the Americans and its NATO allies to engineer the removal of Slobadan Milosevic has not worked. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, consistently opposed to NATO’s Kosovo and Belgrade bombing has chosen to defy the more powerful international players led by the Americans.

Russia remains committed to the concept of zone of influence, if not satellite states of the Soviet days. Hence somewhat similar to its declaration that its security parameters on its west extend to the Oxus river, it would like to retain some influence in countries to its east. Putin has committed economic aid to Milosevic and has established normal relations with Milosevic’s regime. Milosevic has been declared a war criminal by the War Crimes tribunal set up after the Kosovo war. Yet Washington leading the anti-Milosevic drive has opted to not use the IMF lever to dissuade Putin from aligning with Milosevic. Putin’s Russia is a recipient of a multi-year multi-billion dollar package.

Hence in the game of ‘engineered termination’ there are limits what economic pressures and covert and overt use of force can achieve. Few examples demonstrate this limit as powerfully as does the Afghanistan example. Many key players in the international community are keen on the current Afghan government’s political demise. Means applied for their ‘termination’ have been diverse; ranging from bombing of so-called terrorist camps on August 20 1998 by the American government to transfer of 700 metric tons of weapons to the Talibaan adversaries by Iran, from major military support by Russia and Uzbekistan to anti-Talibaan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and from sending in of saboteurs to subvert the Talibaan rule to imposing sanctions on a war-ravaged society. Perhaps the most telling illustration of how desperate many in the international community have been to ensure the exit of the Talibaan is the fact that the man who barely feels secure in Afghanistan, who lives mostly in Tajikistan and whose commander controls less than 10% of the Afghan territory will address the UN millennium summit as the President of Afghanistan!

Many myths about the Talibaan have been manufactured. That they are exporting ‘Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia, that they have ignited and are now perpetuating Russia’s Chechen problem, that Pakistan is responsible for their survival, that Afghans are not returning to Afghanistan because of the continuation of the civil war etc. Because these myths have systematically and successfully been injected into the mainstream media with a global reach, these myths are integral to the mainstream discourse on Afghanistan.

That the Talibaan as a political force in their current form hold virtually no promise for Afghanistan, that they have opted for an un-Islamic approach towards women, that their social policies are a deterrent to the return of most educated Afghans, that the competence level required to run a country is almost non-existent, can hardly be denied. However, how societies react to such situations is also context-specific. The Afghans living inside Afghanistan, hit by a 21-year-long period of war and low level civil strife, are unlikely to respond with the anger and outrage to the Talibaan worldview that we outsiders plus the Afghans who have lived outside Afghanistan for the last 20 years would. For the Afghans inside Afghanistan, they view the Talibaan in relative terms. More importantly what other Afghan political forces are better, indigenous and ones they can relate ? Maybe the world’s cruel sanctions on these war-ravaged people make them more angry, even more defiant. Like media reports suggested that the bombing of Belgrade made the Serbs more defiant.

There are issues of power dynamics, of politics and of sociology which are more compelling definers of a situation. One dimensional analysis and subsequent prescriptions are never valid as policy options. Washington and Moscow need to understand this. Washington, given its distance from Afghanistan perhaps can be more reasonable on Afghanistan but for its one-dimension Afghan policy centering around the Osama question. Having created a national consensus that Osama is the real monster behind all the terrorism that targets the Americans, any Washington administration will find it difficult to become flexible on the Osama issue. Washington expects flexibility from the Afghan government which has continuously reiterated its own position. On October 4, 1999 while talking to the then DG ISI General Ziaud Din and to the Additional Secretary of the Foreign Office Mulla Umar conveyed his own difficulty on Osama. “He is like a chicken bone, I can’t swallow it and I can’t throw him out, “Mulla Umar explained.

The Afghans appear determined to not succumb to any external pressure. It is almost as if they have got used to the suffering; they resent it and those who they believe are responsible for it. But they are not willing to concede to any pressure. The impact or rather the absence of the kind of impact the Americans had wished the UN sanctions would have, is a case in point.

UN Sanctions

On August 22 the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Islamabad released a well-researched report on the impact of UN sanctions on Afghanistan. The report entitled “Vulnerability and humanitarian impact of UN Security Council sanctions in Afghanistan” identifies Afghan refugees as HCR’s “biggest caseload” with Iran and Pakistan jointly hosting 2.6 million of them. It underscores the problems that the sanctions have caused and by extension how they prevent the return of Afghan refugees into Afghanistan.

While the report acknowledges that “continuing conflict” and policies of the authorities discourage Afghan refugees from returning to Afghanistan it also states that “Afghans do not return in large numbers” also because of “the difficult economic situation, the on-going drought and limited social services.” In fact on interviewing heads of 3,270 returnee households according to the Report it was found that “27% of the returnees did not hold regular jobs, 21% found their houses completely destroyed,14% faced problems with land mines or unexploded ordinance, as many 46% did not have access to any kind of health services, and 79% of the families with school-age children did not have any kids at school.”

The report documents the problem of food shortages, the heavy reliance on food-aid, the absence of male bread-winners, the limited possibilities available for women’s employment, child labour, women begging for survival. According to the report for Afghans returning to Afghanistan there are very few job opportunities outside the subsistence economy on the one hand and the criminalized economy on the other.”

In an anti-Talibaan international environment led by Washington and Moscow, the report, is indeed a brave attempt made by UNOCHA to candidly document the “direct impact” of the UN Security Council sanctions imposed in November 1999. The report identifies five specific impacts of the sanctions.

One, the drastic curtailment in the movement of goods and people have stopped air-travel linked trade given that the official airline Ariana can no longer fly outside of Afghanistan. This has resulted in a loss of income and inability to procure quality medicines at low prices. Two, the lowering of safety standards of Ariana since loss of revenue has forced the management to stop paying overtime to its maintenance staff. Three, communications of Afghans with relatives abroad has been greatly disrupted. Where previously 10,000 letters were being sent daily , today the postal system stands disrupted. Four, the lack of air-links with the outside world has restricted the work of the relief agencies specially in the health sector. Five, according to the report is “the extent to which ordinary Afghans feel isolated and victimized.” Elaborating on this point the report indicates that “There is a widespread perception that the UN has set out to harm rather than help Afghans. There is a strong sense of bitterness and bewilderment in that Security Council action is perceived as targeting an innocent population. Most people take it as self-evident that SC sanctions have disrupted trade, pushed up prices ands caused suffering.”

The report concludes that there is “no public opinion as such in Afghanistan, in that there are no representative institutions and no civil society mechanisms through which international coercion might be translated into public debate and domestic pressure for policy change.”

Clearly the international community’s attempt to engineer the termination of the Talibaan government is unlikely to succeed in the near future. No amount of pressure on the Pakistan government to apply unreasonable economic and political pressure on the Afghan, will convince Pakistan to opt for what would essentially be a counter-productive policy. Constructive engagement with the Afghan government is the best policy option available to countries genuinely concerned about peace and stability in the region and beyond.

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