Seeds of Uncertainty, and Pride
By South Asia Intelligence Review: Just as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders in Afghanistan began to sense some 'gains' in Afghanistan, observing that fatalities and 'enemy initiated attacks' had declined, for the first time in the war, through 2011, and that the trend appeared to be continuing into the early months of 2012, the Taliban declared their Spring Offensive 2012, codenamed Al Farouq, kicking up their operations dramatically.
The escalation came in the wake of increasing political uncertainty, with the hardening of US President Barack Obama's stance on the withdrawal of US Combat Forces from Afghanistan "by 2014", and the commencement of the first phase of withdrawal.
ISAF data had indicated a drop of 9 per cent in 'enemy initiated operations' in 2011 over 2010, and a further drop of as much as 21 per cent in the first three months of 2012, as against these same period in 2011. Total fatalities dropped from 10,826 in 2010 to 8,942 in 2011, with only civilian fatalities registering an increase, from 2,777 to 3,021, over this period.
With the announcement of the Taliban's Al Farouq Spring Offensive, commencing May 3, 2012, however, these positive trends have registered a sharp reversal. Al Farouq, the Taliban announcement of May 2, 2012, declared, would aggressively target "foreign invaders, their advisors, their contractors, all those who help them militarily and in intelligence." The Spring Offensive was named after Islam's second Caliph, Omar Al-Farouq, known for his military advances in Asia and the Arab world during the 7th century. Significantly, the Taliban announcement came hours after Taliban insurgents, armed with guns, suicide vests and a bomb-laden car, attacked a heavily fortified compound used by Westerners in Kabul, killing seven people and wounding more than a dozen others on May 2, 2012.
Since then, the country has witnessed resurgence of violence to an unprecedented level. Month to month comparisons indicated that April 2012 registered a three per cent increase in "enemy initiated attacks", rising dramatically to 20 per cent in May 2012, over May 2011. There were an estimated 3,000 'enemy initiated attacks' in May 2012, as against some 2,500 attacks in May 2011. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted, further, on June 26, 2012, that 214 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in just the preceding week, in 48 separate incidents. On June 12, 2012, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Parliament, "I have noticed that these days, in the past one, two or three months, attacks on our soldiers, police and intelligence officers have increased. Every day, 20 to 25 of our youths sacrifice their lives for this homeland and are martyred." The Institute for Conflict Management database recorded at least 20 high fatality incidents (10 or more killings) between May 1, 2012, and June 30, 2012, in addition to another 16 such incidents in the first four months of the year.
In one of the most prominent attacks since the announcement of Al Farouq, at least 23 people, including 14 civilians, three hotel guards, five Taliban militants and one Afghan Policeman, were killed in a gunfight, between militants and Security Forces (SFs), which occurred following the seizure by terrorists of the Spozhmai Hotel, outside Kabul, in the night of June 21, 2012. Armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, the terrorists had stormed the hotel, shooting dead the hotel guards, and taking more than 40 people hostage. A 12-hour long siege was brought to an end in the morning of June 22, 2012, when five terrorists were shot dead by Afghan SFs, supported by helicopter gunships from the US-led ISAF. There were more than 300 people in the hotel at the time of the attack.
Widely divergent assessments are currently emanating from the US regarding the trajectory of violence in Afghanistan. Republican Kathleen C. Hochul claimed, on May 24, 2012, "A year ago, 50 percent of the country [Afghanistan] was still under Taliban control; now it's down to about 25 percent." On the other hand, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Fienstein and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers asserted, on May 6, 2012, that the Taliban was stronger than it was before Obama's 'surge'. President Obama has conceded that the trends in Afghanistan are far from reassuring, even as he insists that the withdrawal plans are "irreversible", declaring, "The Taliban is still a robust enemy, and the gains are still fragile." The Afghan Taliban (or Quetta Shura) headed by Mullah Omar, Hizb-e-Islami, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and al Qaeda, retain the wherewithal to fight the SFs in Afghanistan, and are increasingly reinforced by a number of Pakistani terrorist formations. In another disturbing signpost, the Failed State Index saw Afghanistan rising from the 11th position among States at extreme risk in 2005, to the 6th position in 2012.
Almost all of Afghanistan is now witness to some levels of violence. As one local commentator noted, "the Taliban are spreading like wild fire" in the north, which was once the most peaceful part of Afghanistan. Indeed, just three Provinces in the country - Dayakundi in Central Afghanistan, Sare-Pol in the North and Badakshan in the Northeast - remain free of ISAF fatalities (the most consistently maintained index of violence in the country). The Taliban are ranging out from their original strongholds in the South and Southeast, to spread across the Central, Eastern, Northern and North Western regions, and have brought key NATO supply lines between Tajikistan and the Kunduz and Baghlan Provinces under repeated attack. Major clashes have also been recorded in the remote North Western Faryab Province.
Of course, the overwhelming theatres of violence remain centred along the AfPak border. Thus, for instance, Helmand has recorded the largest number of cumulative fatalities, at 864, in the country; Kandahar follows with 460; Konar, 173; Kabul 165; and Paktika, 134. It has long been abundantly clear, and is now more clearly acknowledged by Washington, that the problem of Afghanistan is, principally, Pakistan. Kathleen Hochul thus argues, "The loose end will always be Pakistan. It is unconscionable to me that we are giving federal taxpayer dollars to support a country that puts our country in harm's way."
The situation is now further complicated by the increasing presence on Afghan soil of Pakistan's bÍte noire, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is increasingly making common cause with the Afghan Taliban, both to create room for manoeuvre when it comes under pressure in Pakistan, and to launch attacks against the 'infidels' and 'invaders' in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials claim that some six to seven hundred TTP militants have set up bases in Afghanistan, facing the Mohmand Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan; another four to five hundred were based across the border from the Bajaur Agency; and an estimated 300, across the border from the Upper and Lower Dir Districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The total strength of the TTP in Afghanistan Pakistani sources claim, is around 1,500, principally based in Kunar and Nuristan, where US-led coalition forces abandoned the more remote outposts after suffering heavy casualties in 2009, and where the Afghan Government has little physical presence. Reports indicate that the 'deputy chief' of the TTP, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, was currently operating from the Kunar Province, while Maulana Fazlullah, head of the Swat chapter of TTP, was believed to be based in the Nuristan Province. Significantly, on December 10, 2010, the head of the TTP in Upper and Lower Dir, Hafizullah, and two of his aides, Dr. Wazir and Muftahudin alias Shabbar, were killed in US drone strikes in Afghanistan's Kunar Province. US air strikes also killed at least 35 TTP militants in the Paktia Province, when a group of about 100 TTP militants fired missiles and rockets at a convoy of foreign troops on July 23, 2011. Pakistani authorities also claim that TTP cadres were crossing in from Afghanistan to execute attacks in Pakistan. In the latest of these attacks, on June 24, 2012, TTP terrorists located in the Kunar Province, crossed over into the Upper Dir area of KP and abducted 17 Pakistani soldiers. Six of them were beheaded on the same day, another seven on the next day, and, four bodies were recovered on June 27, 2012. In retaliation, Pakistan has resumed artillery barrages along and across the AfPak border and ground operations in the Upper Dir area. TTP spokesman Mullah Mansoor was among 34 militants killed in clashes with Pakistani SFs in the Upper Dir area since June 28. No TTP fatalities have been reported on Afghan territory.
Pakistan has opportunistically sought to cash in on these disturbances, launching an unrelenting succession of artillery and rocket barrages into Afghanistan since mid-2011. On June 26, 2011, for instance, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused Pakistan of firing over 470 rockets into the Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces, bordering Pakistan. Officials put the death toll at 36 civilians, including 12 children. Subsequently, on July 5, 2011, the Afghan Interior Ministry claimed that nearly 800 rockets had been fired from Pakistan into Afghan territory since early June, killing 42 civilians and injuring 55. Separately, Fazlulluh Wahidi, the Governor of the Kunar Province, stated that 645 rockets had been fired just into the Kunar Province, killing 22 people and wounding 40.
On June 27, 2011, Pakistan's chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas claimed that there had been five "major attacks" by the TTP, launched from Afghanistan, which had killed 55 Pakistani SF personnel in a month. Justifying the missile and artillery barrages into Afghanistan, he argued, "The fleeing militants were engaged by the SFs and a few accidental rounds going across cannot be ruled out."
Ironically, no report in the open source indicates that even a single TTP militant has been killed in the Pakistani shelling on Afghan territory, and President Karzai has repeatedly raised this question with Pakistani authorities, even as he has come under rising pressure in Parliament on demands that Afghanistan break all ties with Pakistan because the "non-stop shelling" has killed many civilians.
Indeed, while the presence of the TTP in border areas of Afghanistan is a reality, Pakistan has seized upon this as an opportunity to push its dominance further into Afghanistan, as ISAF presence will erode. The objective appears to be to force more and more civilians out of these areas, in order to create wider and safer sanctuaries for the al-Qaeda-Taliban combine - even if the TTP benefits temporarily. Thus, Afghanistan's Eastern Border Police Commander Aminullah Amerkhail remarked, "Pakistan is looking to clear out these areas in order to deploy fighters who will pursue Pakistan's interest once the international community leaves Afghanistan." Moreover, rejecting the Pakistani claim of "a few accidental rounds going across", Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General Zahir Azimi noted, "The shelling is far too regular to be a mistake. The shelling does not appear to be targeting fleeing fighters, but villages."
Underlining the problem, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted, on June 22, 2012, "Our concern about militants using Pakistan as a safe haven from which to launch attacks against our forces is well known." The Afghan Government, which has for long maintained that Pakistan has been engaged in creating trouble in Afghanistan, on June 19, 2012, had accused Pakistan of involvement in the December 6, 2011, attack on the minority Shias marking the Ashura rite on a Kabul street, killing at least 55 people, including women and children.
It is under these unsettled circumstances that the 'transition' or, as the Afghans express it, the 'inteqal', is being implemented, with territories in the country being progressively handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Afghan civil administration. Phase I of the transition commenced on July17, 2011, and included the handover of three Provinces and four provincial Capitals. Phase II commenced on December 1,2011, and gave over another five Provinces, eight provincial capitals and 40 Districts to the Afghans, bringing roughly half the country under direct Afghan control. Phase III commenced on May 13, 2012, and will take an additional eleven Provinces, all provincial capital, and 122 Districts out of ISAF control, and would also, by the time of its completion in November 2012, bring 75 per cent of the country under direct Afghan security and civil administration.
The process of security transition is being conducted under the Inteqal (Transition) Framework, laid out at the London and Kabul conferences on Afghanistan in 2010, under which the international community's civilian and military representatives decided to shift their responsibilities to the Afghans to a supporting, mentoring, and eventually sustaining role in security, governance and development. The Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board (JANIB) established at the Kabul Conference in July 2010 recommended provinces and districts for transition to the Afghan Government based on an assessment of the prevailing levels of security and governance. The five phase transition aims to put the ANSFs fully in the lead for security across the country by the end of 2014. The current strength of the ANSF stands at 321,000, [including 195,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) and 126,000 Afghan National Police (ANP)], and is expected to rise to 352,000 by end 2012.
While the transition and withdrawal processes have enormously increased uncertainties in Afghanistan, fuelling both Pakistani and Taliban ambitions and raising the pitch of violence, the outcomes are far from satisfactory for either side. Though it is difficult to establish trends over the short period since the transition, especially across Provinces where partial control has been ceded to the ANSF, partial data suggests that there may have been a spike in violence in at least some of the areas where control has been 'transferred' to the Afghans.
On the other hand, the ANSF has demonstrated improved capabilities to counter the insurgents. Significantly, ISAF Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Adrian J. Bradshaw on April 25, 2012, had noted:
We saw considerable improvements in the quality and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces also over last year. They showed, in the late part of last year, and over the winter, their confidence at planning and coordinating and leading brigade-level operations, again, in the hardest insurgent areas, in the south and in the east, working alongside ISAF, with assistance from ISAF, but with Afghan forces in the lead. They managed to coordinate these operations very well with the police and with the local authorities, and in a number of areas they've shown competence and capability, which has not only surprised us, it surprised them.
Similarly, the NATO Secretary General's Annual Report, released in January 2012, observed that the transition was on track, and that security conditions had remained "good" in transitioned areas. According to NATO, since October 2011, 89 per cent of combat operations were 'partnered', and 42 per cent were led, by Afghan Forces.
Perhaps in the most remarkable operation in the ANSF's history, Afghan Forces killed 36 terrorists enormously containing the damage when squads of heavily armed Taliban fighters and suicide bombers launched multiple coordinated attacks across Afghanistan, targeting government offices, foreign embassies and military bases on April 15, 2012. With a powerful focus on Kabul, Taliban cadres even tried to enter the Afghan Parliament, firing rockets and small arms, but were engaged, principally by ANSFs and driven back. 18 hours of gunfire in Kabul ended on April 16, 2012, with just 11 ANSF personnel and four civilians killed, and one terrorist taken alive. The incident has emerged as a source of tremendous pride among the ANSFs and a wider population that has long remained ambivalent in its orientation to the ANA and ANP.
The ANSF is, of course, still wracked by teething troubles, and this includes rogue soldiers, who were blamed for at least 25 attempted suicide attacks in just two months preceding a May 29, 2011, report. Indeed, the Taliban recently announced the formation of "a committee. assigned to invite members of the Afghan security forces to join their insurgency". Worse, the incidence of "green on blue" fratricidal attacks by ANSF against ISAF personnel appears to be increasing, aggravated by a spate of unfortunate incidents, including the horrific mass murder of 17 Afghan civilians by an American soldier, the burning of Korans, and the video of Marines urinating on the Taliban dead.
The US elections and an acute crisis of the American economy are exerting extraordinary pressure for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, with widespread fears of the 'transition' being undermined by undue haste, delivering the war ravaged country into the predatory embrace of an expansionist and lawless Pakistan and its Taliban proxies. The direct costs of the Afghan war for the US have variously been estimated at between USD 530 billion and USD 1.7 trillion, but with vast hidden and secondary costs, including trillion dollar interest payments on the costs of veteran benefits and care, as well as on the servicing of war debt. The US economy is, today, burdened by trillion dollar deficits, and Federal Debt stands equal to the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The mood in Washington is getting both desperate and ugly - with demands for drastic reductions in war expenditures, on the one hand, and for punitive action against Pakistani mischief, on the other, becoming daily more strident.
Nevertheless, there are strong indications that there will be no abrupt 'flight' from Afghanistan. Indeed, on March 20, 2012, James Miller, US Defense Undersecretary of Policy, in his Statement to the House Armed Services Committee on "Developments in Afghanistan" stated explicitly, "The United States' objectives in Afghanistan remain to deny safe havens to al Qaeda, and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan Government." While estimates vary, it is clear that a very substantial US presence will be maintained indefinitely in Afghanistan. In August 2011, for instance, it was reported that the Pentagon was trying to strike a deal with the Afghan Government to leave 25,000 US troops in Afghanistan until at least 2024. It is useful to recall that the total strength of US troops in Afghanistan in 2009, when President Obama took charge, was just 34,000.
Crucially, any substantial presence of Western Forces - certainly including a substantial complement of drones, high technology assets, and Special Forces - in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 'withdrawal' and 'end of combat operations', will prevent Pakistan from intervening too openly in favour of the Taliban, and will clearly make a quick and decisive 'victory' over Kabul impossible. This assessment is reinforced by the improving capabilities and strength of the ANSFs. Pakistan has, moreover, failed to understand its near-complete isolation in the international community today, and to appreciate the dangers of what one commentator has described as "playing chicken with a superpower." In any event, with a rising crisis at home, Pakistan's continued intervention in Afghanistan can only prove suicidal. Between 2003 and July 1, 2012, Pakistan experienced no less than 42,264 terrorism related fatalities, with terrorist violence afflicting every Province in the country, including its 'heartland' in Punjab. The country's economy is in a shambles, and can only worsen, as populations rise by an estimated 30 million by 2020. Fanaticism and the ideology of violent jihad are rapidly growing more entrenched across the country, even as the overwhelming proportion of the population lacks employable skills, and is progressively harnessed by the extremists. Every voice of criticism or dissent is quickly stifled, both by the terrorist constituency and its radicalized supporters, as well as by an opportunistically Islamist political and military establishment. Pakistan, today, has hostile relations with all her neighbours, even as the Army's domestic hegemony comes under increasing challenge from renegade Islamist radicals. Indeed, the internal dynamic of extremism, state decline and fragmentation has become self-propelling in Pakistan, and centrifugal forces can only worsen rapidly if the war in Afghanistan continues for an extended period of time.
18 months still remain for the completion of the transition in Afghanistan, and there is no reason to believe that the US and the wider West will repeat the folly of 1989, and abandon this region to Islamist terrorist depredations once again. While elements of uncertainty remain, and the road to peace in Afghanistan can be expected to be long, there is reason to believe that the more pessimistic of past prognostications will not come to pass. For once, despite the enduring pain, Afghanistan looks to the possibility of a more positive future - even as its unrelenting enemy, Pakistan, can hope for no more than a deepening darkness beyond.
(The writers are Ajai Sahni -Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, and Ajit Kumar Singh-Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the authors and not India Blooms News Service)