Like Syria, will Afghanistan become a battlefield for big powers, regional states, extremist groups and organizations? Apparently, the United States, Pakistan, Iran, India, and China are trying to increase their influence. The Taliban have recently issued a letter (dated 14 February 2018) to the American people demanding the withdrawal of the US and Western forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for peace because it considers itself — not the present government ruling from Kabul — as the legitimate representative of the Afghan people.
Trump’s peeve with Pakistan
On Saturday, Iran and India agreed to work together to combat extremism, terrorism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan. India promised to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman to secure access to Afghanistan by bypassing Pakistan, which refused to allow India to use it as a land route. It is clear that Pakistan remains the most important player on the map.
Last week, US President Donald Trump announced that his administration would reject dialogue with the Afghan Taliban, which implies that the US will move militarily to ensure this plan. His comments came amid a wave of Taliban attacks on foreigners and civilians in Kabul. Washington has accused the Pakistan-backed Haqqani network, which has links to the Taliban and is known for its criminality, for being behind these operations.
By offering limited support to the Taliban, Iran is hitting two birds with one stone: creating a barrier against ISIS and preventing America from using Afghanistan as a base against IranHuda al-Husseini
For a long time, Washington and Kabul have accused Islamabad of providing the Taliban and its followers safe havens to plan such attacks. US-Pakistani relations deteriorated under the Trump administration, when the US president cut off all military aid, and Pakistan in turn accused Washington and Kabul of not doing enough to destroy the safe havens of the Pakistani Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
Since the withdrawal of most international forces by the end of 2014, the Kabul government and the Afghan security forces have been unable to prevent Taliban operations, or stall their expanding presence in the country. Meanwhile, a large number of other armed groups have disrupted government services and worsened the suffering of civilians. According to a recent study, the Taliban currently exercises control over four per cent of Afghan territory and has an active presence in all provinces of the country.
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Its campaign seeks to discredit the government and wean new followers. The latest UN figures show that more than 8,500 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded during the first three quarters of 2017. In response to President Trump’s orders to increase US forces, air strikes and other assistance to Afghan forces last year, the Taliban carried out a series of terrorist attacks, against the “policy of American aggression”, but Washington confirms that its policy will remain in place until the Taliban or important elements realize there is no military solution to the civil war in Afghanistan.
The head of Afghan intelligence services has visited Pakistan to share information about what Kabul claims to be documentary evidence and telephone records linking individuals and groups in Pakistan to recent attacks on the Afghan capital. It is unlikely that these new developments will change what is going on in the mindset of the Pakistani establishment, but it will help build an international Afghan situation and enforce the idea that Pakistan supports terrorist groups. As the diplomatic situation deteriorates, US air strikes on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border cannot be ruled out.
One of the first Trump tweets of this year reads as follows “America has enthusiastically provided Pakistan with more than $33 billion in aid over the past 15 years. In return, the latter has given us nothing but lies and deception”. Washington had previously complained about Islamabad, but Trump was the first to fully freeze US aid; a move that surprised Pakistan, who in turn protested and cited the sacrifices it had made as a front in the fight against terrorism.
Putting a freeze on US aid will have a big impact on Pakistan. The Pakistani military requires US training, equipment and partnership, and the civilian political leadership requires Washington to ensure that it remains in power against a strong army. There is speculation that Pakistan will look for ways to restore normalcy with Washington as soon as possible. Despite the heated statements of political leaders in the two countries, the growing hostility between Washington and Islamabad has not reflected on their relations yet. The US and Pakistan officials continue to meet and cooperate at all levels of government, despite President Trump’s suspension of $ 1.1 billion in aid last January.
Several South Asian political analysts agree that Pakistan’s policy of secretly supporting armed groups such as the Haqqani network or the Afghan Taliban will not change because of a halt in aid. Strong elements of the military still control Pakistan’s foreign policy and they believe in maintaining close ties with the Afghan Taliban and its armed allies especially as these groups are hostile to India.
On the other hand, according to a former senior official of the ISI, Pakistan had no control over the Haqqani network from the beginning. It had created a perception that it was the one controlling the security situation in Afghanistan, which scared American officials, while the truth is that the ISI is weak and suffers from a lack of resources like any other Pakistani government administration. A former security official was quoted as saying that his country has become a victim of a network of lies that it can neither recognize nor deny: “We are cursed if we act and cursed if we don’t act,” adding that “Pakistan’s political and military elite see relations with Washington as the best possible choice; therefore, despite the tension, things have to stabilize, as always”.
Iran and the Taliban
On September 8 of last year, Afghanistan’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Mohammad Yafatali said that Iran was providing military equipment and other forms of support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. His superiors in the defense ministry quickly said that his statements were changed and he had been misrepresented. Nevertheless, the US and Afghan officials believe that Iran is quietly working to intensify its covert efforts in Afghanistan to destabilize and keep America mired in its longest wars.
Iran shares a long land border with Afghanistan and enjoys trade ties with many of its western provinces, which are quite far from Kabul. By offering limited support to the Taliban, Iran is hitting two birds with one stone: creating a barrier against ISIS and preventing America from using Afghanistan as a base against Iran.
A Taliban fighter told the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that “Iran is providing us with everything we need”. In the end, the Taliban will continue its operations targeting Kabul and other urban areas this year. A British politician told me that since the end of World War II, most of the world’s civil wars have ended in seven to 12 years, but foreign intervention tends to prolong the fighting.
Afghanistan has been the subject of American, Soviet, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese intervention since the fighting broke out in 1978. But only the military component or the negotiated peace element can end the violence there. The problem is that both sides believe that military victory is possible, especially after President Trump changed his mind about Afghanistan. In its message to the American people, the Taliban expressed that it is the legitimate government of Afghanistan; therefore, it is inevitable that conflict and terrorist operations will increase during the Trump presidency. The Taliban hopes that the next US president will have to withdraw US combat troops, so that it can repeat its deadly 1996 march to Kabul.
But, what if President Trump wins a second term?
This article is also available in Arabic
Huda al-Husseini is a writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.